Seeing the Goddess through younger eyes

Rob Malpas     Secretary – Ballachulish Community Association SCIO

December 19th 2017

In early August 2017, a team of experimental Archaeologists arrived in Ballachulish to recreate the Ballachulish Goddess. This wooden figurine, carved from alder approximately 2600 years ago, was first discovered in 1880, preserved in the peat at Ballachulish Moss just across the loch. Remarkably little is known about her, 137 years later, and one of the aims of the project was to see how she would have really looked before she dried out and shrunk on her way to the museum in Edinburgh.

Over three days the team’s woodworker, Mark Griffiths, worked tirelessly at the substitute Birch log cut down from a local garden to create a very close replica, based on measurements and a single photo dating back to 1880. I had been the local contact between the community and the team from Ireland.

Two weeks later, as the schools went back, the goddess went on a wee tour before she was buried in peat to preserve her. First stop was Glencoe Primary, where Morag Watt, a trustee at Glencoe Museum, and I introduced the goddess to the pupils. The children listened intently as we presented a slide show giving some background both to the work of the experimental archaeologists and the goddess, asking some pertinent questions when given the opportunity.

After about 10 minutes, the goddess was revealed to stifled gasps, and even a little scream from one of the younger children! Although initially slightly awestruck by the figure, when prompted, they all came forward to touch her and even cuddle her. Photos were taken, and there were many more questions, some of which were easy to answer, others a little more difficult – as so many questions from young children can be when you are unprepared!

With a tight schedule to get round all of the schools, after just 25 minutes we had to say goodbye, and head across the loch to St Brides School. The school here has a closer connection than most to the goddess, as it is sited less than quarter of a mile from the original find site. The staff, therefore, had already briefed their pupils more thoroughly on the goddess, and so combined with experience gained at Glencoe, there were fewer questions from the children, although the staff had a few of their own! We also took the goddess through to the school hall to get a photo of all of the pupils with their new colleague!

A quick dash down the road to Duror school, the smallest of those visited, and perhaps with the youngest average age. Again, the younger children were somewhat startled as the goddess was uncovered, but soon made friends with her, and once they had their arms round her it was difficult to get a couple of them to let go!

After lunch, we moved on to Ballachulish school, the largest of all, and it was a tight fit to get everyone in and comfortable. Several of the children had either visited the goddess while she was being carved, or knew someone who had, and so they knew a little more than their pals, and were keen to show off!

Between the four schools, there were lots of interesting comments and ideas that the children came out with, including:

    • The notch in the base could have been used to weigh or peg her down.
    • The base plinth may have had an inscription or plaque on it (giving her name).
    • The item in her hands might be a baby.
    • One child asked why she was wearing pants – we side stepped that!
    • She was dressed up in furs (the child’s interpretation of contemporary clothing) when ‘in use’
    • She was made in Egypt, like the mummy cases, and brought here by boat
    • She was a statue of a real person
    • She was a real person turned to stone (!) by a witch



Carving the Ballachulish Figurine

Mark Griffiths

3rd August 2017

Of all the carving projects linked to The Pallasboy Project it has been the Ballachulish goddess that has given me the most sleepless nights. The 2500-year-old figurine, held in a glass case at the National Museum of Scotland, bears very little resemblance to the only surviving photograph taken around the time of her discovery in 1880. This blurred, grainy image hides much of the figure’s carved detail, however it cannot hide the goddess’s haunting stare. And it was the challenge of capturing her unique personality that woke me in the early hours.

On landing at Glasgow, I quickly collected our hire car and made my way to Dumbarton, where Orla, Ben and Brian were waiting. We planned the next few days work as we drove through the stunning landscape of the Scottish Highlands. Our small hotel, nestled like the rest of Ballachulish, on the shoreline of Loch Leven was soon found. As soon as we had deposited our heavy bags of tools and technical equipment we made our way to the local village hall to meet with Rob. It was Rob who had organised our project venue, the event publicity and even the timber for the carving, and that was our next destination, to meet up with a local woodsman who would fell a suitable tree for us. Finding timber to match our projects is often a challenge. Our woodlands and access to them is very different from what it was two thousand years ago. Therefore, unlike the original figurine which was carved from a single trunk of Alder, our goddess would be crafted in Birch. The Birch tree was locally sourced, grown on the hills overlooking Ballachulish, donated and felled especially for our project, this was good enough for me.

In the evening the group held an open event at the village hall for anyone interested in the project. We introduced our work and explained how it brought us to Ballachulish. As the evening progressed, the importance to the community of this figure created two thousand five hundred years ago was made very clear and a lively debate was had on the recorded find site and her origins.

Early the next morning I started carving. The first task was to strip the Birch log of its thin layer of bark and the slimy sap residue that covered the bone-white timber. The clean surface could then be marked with the figure’s outline. As well as a number of enlargements of the original photograph I had one printed to scale, on to this I could plot the goddess’s exact proportions and then transfer them onto our log.

The soft, creamy wood of the Birch carved well. Just a day after felling, the cuts made were crisp and sharp, even when using the crude Iron Age tools. This said, it was still going to prove a challenge to craft a credible likeness in the short time we had. By late afternoon I had her form roughed out and by end of day her rather stumpy legs were taking shape. As I worked, a steady stream of tourists and locals wandered in to chat and watch the figurine emerge. Ben asked visitors to collect examples of the distinctive quartz stone found on the shoreline. Set into the eyes of the original goddess its washed grey colour mirrored the deep loch and looked as if it had been chipped from the water.

The work on the first day had gone well. Before our evening meal we wandered to the contested find site in the bog fields of Ballachulish then on down through a stand of Alder and Oak to the Loch Leven shoreline where we walked silently, heads bent, looking for small quartz stones.

Waking early the next morning, I read that the West of Scotland had experienced its largest earthquake in thirty years on the same day as we had started work on our goddess of wind, thunder and mischief. Maybe it was fear of unleashing further wrath that found me unlocking the village door at five thirty in the morning ready for work. As the weather had improved from the day before (a happy goddess?) we decided to move the carving outside to attract more interest. It felt good to work in the open in the shadow of the same mist-shrouded mountains which, thousands of years past, had inspired a carver to create this iconic woman.

By midday the head and body were finished as were the only carved details found on the torso that we felt were clear enough to faithfully reproduce. All that was left was that face. For me, the power of the Ballacuhlish figure is found in her expression. Though formed in the distant past, her look of indignant rage has lost none of its potency. Pensively, I shaped her long nose, furrowed brows and twisted mouth. Two of our visitors, Bilil and Edouard, who had recently moved to Ballachuhlish, had both taken a keen interest in the project, even offering to bury the finished figurine in the garden of the beautiful house they were restoring. Looking at one of the printed images of the original, Bilil noticed the mouth had been finished with an exaggerated ‘Joker’ grin – a wonderful detail missed by me, but soon incorporated. After much apprehension the figure had her face and I was happy with it.

Late in the afternoon, putting the final touches to the carving I became aware of the large crowd of people gathered around – some had wandered curiously over, some had been following us for the past two days. It felt like the perfect time to give the goddess her eyes. The final act. Taking the two small quartz stones, selected by Brian as the best match, I cut two sockets under her brows then gently tapped the stones snugly home. As I raised the finished figurine to her feet I became aware how the conversations of the people around me silenced. This was the moment that a crudely carved log had taken on a deep significance to this place and people.

We drove the finished figurine to the location the original was supposedly unearthed. Here, in the soft rain, Brian captured some beautifully evocative images of the goddess framed against her mountains. As the sky darkened with the threat of a heavier downpour we headed back to the village for shelter and food.

Early the next morning, we made a last visit to the hall to assist Orla as she made a scan of the figurine, capturing our creation in digital form. Bags of equipment were then squeezed into the hire car, goodbyes were said and soon we were following the Glencoe road back to Glasgow. My focus on this trip had always been to capture something of the power evident in the stare of that figure carved over two thousand years past and rudely unearthed a mere two hundred years ago. However, over three days I learnt that the true power of the Ballachulish figure was her bond to this part of Scotland and its community. Her legend and myth, inspired by the landscape’s fierce beauty, were still told and passed on. When unearthed in 1880 the local workmen refused to touch her, such was the respect still for all that she represented. That the people of Ballachulish welcomed us, worked with us and made this new figurine part of their story was in the end the true success of the project.

A NEW GODDESS FOR BALLACHULISH from Brian Mac Domhnaill on Vimeo.


The Discovery of the Ballachulish Goddess, “This strange relic of paganism…”

By this time, everyone must have heard of the ‘graven image’, recently discovered in old Ballachulish Moss; a find the most intriguing and curious and puzzling that has ever yet engaged the attention of Scottish archaeologists.”

The two contemporary accounts of the discovery of the Ballachulish goddess are tantalisingly vague as regards certain key details that might help us better contextualise and hence interpret the artefact: a piece in the Inverness Courier (9th December, 1880) and a paper in the Proceedings of the Royal Society. The former is a remarkable piece of writing, written in a languid prose with florid touches, replete with the inevitable late 19th century classical allusions. Much of the information in this piece seems to have come from a ‘luncheon’ hosted by the Rev Chinnery Haldane (owner of the land where the goddess was discovered and subsequently Dean of Argyll). The authors should also be thanked for apparently providing our best visual record of the Goddess, the black and white photograph (Plates 1-4) of the artefact before it started to deteriorate. The relevant passage is worth quoting in full:

“We have suggested to the Rev Haldane that it should be photographed, for the edification of the intelligently curious in such matters, who may not have had an opportunity of making acquaintance of Our Lady of the Ferry in propria persona. The balance proceeds of such photograph sales would be an acceptable boon to the deserving poor of the district in this inclement season.”

Whether the ‘deserving poor’ ever benefitted in such a manner isn’t recorded; but the resulting photograph is our only image of the goddess shortly after her discovery.

Plate 1

The subsequent scholarly paper by Sir Robert Christison (1881), is a lengthier, somewhat more focussed account carried out at the behest of the Antiquarian Society, but is lacking in terms of specific information including archaeological details that are reported in the Courier: Christison states that he drew on discussion with the Rev Haldane and the Rev Alexander Steuart, local cleric and also noted archaeologist, who apparently declined from reporting to the Society due to “…distance from the necessary opportunities of literary research…” (i.e. presumably he couldn’t make it to the library in Glasgow…or at least that was his excuse?). Slightly oddly, Christison reports that he felt himself unqualified to carry out the necessary “…literary antiquarian research…” and proposed other members of the Society, who declined but provided the necessary documents. There is almost a sense that no one much wanted to go near the subject, nor indeed the goddess herself. This might be echoed in an account from one of the villagers in Ballachulish who told the story that the railway workers charged with moving the goddess to Edinburgh in 1880 were apparently reluctant to handle the ‘pagan idol’.

Christison expands at some length on questions concerning the rates of peat accumulation as a means to date the artefact, and devotes rather less space in his paper to the actual find or the other archaeological material at the find spot. Whilst some of his discussion concerning the accumulation of peat is perceptive for its time, it provides little substantive detail on the find spot as such. It appears to draw directly or indirectly on the Courier account for much of the archaeological detail, apparently missing out or abbreviating certain facts. This much is clear: the figurine was discovered in November 1880, during “ditch making and…trenching the strip of mossland” close to the Rev Chinery Haldane’s property, Ardsheallach House, North Ballaculish. The find spot was ‘130 yards’ north from the shore of Loch Leven around 50 feet above sea level, and close to the ferry crossing (now bridge) across the opening of the former into Loch Linne..

Plate 2

The peatland is described as previously of much greater extent, covering much of the current area of North Ballachulish but reduced by peat cutting and drainage by the late 19th century. The description of the peat itself implies the presence of a ‘raised bog’ probably dominated by Sphagnum (bog moss) with the presence of many ‘sub fossil’ tree trunks beneath the peat suggesting a previous, pre-peat phase of woodland cover which was drowned as peat inception progressed. This mire survives as Ballachulish Moss, now boxed in by housing development and roads. The goddess was found just over four feet down (although previously the surface of the peat is described as at least 6 feet above this) and close to the interface between the peat and the basal gravels. The figurine was facedown and overlain by “…many twigs and branches, woven and interlaced in such a way…” that the workers present, named as Donald Mcinnes, Munro “…and others, the most intelligent and interested amongst the workers…” reached the conclusion that these remains were a “wicker work crate or basket” with other longer pieces of wood suggested to be part of ‘a wattled hut’. This is a frustratingly vague if tantalising conclusion.

The Courier accounts goes on to describe the previous discovery beneath the peat “several years previously” of “…several barrow loads of flint chips…hundreds of them in every stage of completion, arrow heads, spear points, knives and scrapers” contained within a “circular wattled building, of which stumps of the tough heart of old oak remained in situ”. The apparently extensive organic archaeological record of the Moss during the 19th century also included: “wooden basins, platters and bowls of an antique shape”, bog butter in solid wooden containers and ox and deer horns. Other sites around the moss include cairns and cists, including one Christison describes as “110 yards off and at the same level” which contained a ‘white powder’ (cremated bone?). It is unclear from this description whether the cist was found sealed beneath the peat or not.

Where does this leave us in terms of reconstructing the findspot itself? The location of the goddess and probably the ‘circular building’ associated with the abundant lithics, imply that these were constructed during the very earliest phases of peat growth in this landscape. If the description of the lithic assemblage is anything to go by, the structure probably predated the Iron Age and hence the goddess. Nor is it clear, if the goddess was located within a structure, although there seems a fair chance from the description of the woven twigs and branches, that the artefact was contained within (or placed under?) some sort of hurdle or wickerwork. This is reminiscent of later prehistoric human remains (‘bogbodies’) deposited in wetlands (for example, male and female bodies from Windeby, Schelswig Holstein; Aldhouse Green 2004); a detail we will return to later.

Plate 3

In terms of the relationship of the goddess to the peat that preserved her, it is tempting to suggest that peat growth had begun earlier to the west (the current location of the surviving Ballachulish Moss). In other words, the goddess, might have been deposited at the edge of a peatbog that by later prehistory, was expanding across the landscape. Certainly the position of the archaeological remains at the base of the peat, indicate waterlogged conditions but not such that access on foot was entirely impeded. It would likewise be tempting to suggest that the location thus associated with a still accessible, if rather wet, location or route between the east edge of the peatland and the western edge of the Loch: potentially dangerous, watery places on two sides of the traveller. The deposition of bogbutter (albeit undated) and other items implies the votive deposition of material into the moss, is in keeping with prehistoric traditions elsewhere.   If this was the case, then the context of the goddess might be somewhat similar to other later prehistoric anthropogenic figurines (e.g. The Wittemoor Figurines, Lower Saxony, Germany,, at the edge of a routeway across a wetland. This is a tempting hypothesis but one for which we currently lack supporting data, not least radiocarbon dates from the base of peat and other associated palaeoenvironmental data to allow us to map the spread and extent of peat across this period. The surviving core of Ballachulish moss offers potential opportunity to collect such information and might be a target for future study although recent geophysical survey ( indicates that little peat survives intact. However, the presence of even relatively thin in situ deposits raises the intriguing prospect that further archaeological sites and finds survive below the peat in this (scheduled) area.

Plate 4

Another aspect of the artefact, not least the good condition of the goddess when she was initially found, indicates that she could not have been exposed above ground for too long. Unseasoned alder wood will dry out and crack quite quickly (within weeks) although this process might be slowed in a wet place. So, the figurine fell, if she was ever upright at all, or was deliberately sunk, into the peat within perhaps a short time of her creation. This is almost as much as we can state or infer concerning the context of the burial of the Ballachulish goddess. She may have been within a hut or some form of enclosure, and might have been contained within or under a hurdle. We will return to reflect and analyse some of these details and associated archaeological information in subsequent blog posts.

Aldhouse-Green, M. 2004. An Archaeology of Images: Iconology and Cosmology in Iron Age and Roman Europe. London: Routledge.

Christison, R. 1881. An ancient wooden image, found in November last at Ballachulish peat-moss Proceedings of the Society March 14th


In the nick of time: reflections on a recreation of the ‘Red Man’ of Kilbeg

Michael Stanley

As our six, earthfast figurines stood sentinel by the gates of the UCD Centre for Experimental Archaeology and Material Culture, there was collective relief as we finished our work just as the waning December light finally faded. The last time I had held an axe I nearly lost a toe, so my relief was twofold: I had finished what I’d started and all of my digits were intact. Not even a nick.

I ended the figurine-carving workshop with stiff muscles and blisters, accompanied by elation, having completed a miniature replica of the ‘Red Man’ of Kilbeg—a Bronze Age alderwood figure dated to 1740–1531 BC that was unearthed in 2003 in Kilbeg townland, Ballykean Bog, Co. Offaly. During the preceding hours, not having had any previous training in woodworking, I was genuinely anxious about the day ahead. What could be usefully achieved during one short day? Would my lack of experience working with edged tools result in an injury to myself or to those around me? Would the wood yield under the force of my pen-pushing arms? Would I be able to cut and sculpt the wood into a recognisably human form? Was that my aim?

Following introductions and a tour of the impressive Centre, the alderwood was unloaded and woodworker Mark Griffiths presented the group with the expertly made Bronze Age toolkit that we would be using to create our figures. This included various axes, an adze, a gouge and a chisel. A wooden mallet completed the set. Mark spent an alarmingly (for me) short time showing us how to wield the tools so as to work the wood efficiently and safely. We were then invited to choose a piece of wood and an axe. Each of us casually found a patch of ground to work on and we got to it.

When choosing some alder to carve, I blithely opted for what I took to be a fairly straight branch, about one metre in length. (The original Kilbeg figure was more than twice as long.) I reclined it on the damp, grass-covered slope and set about removing the bark. The first tentative axe blows produced the desired effect and I jubilantly fell to, repositioning myself as required and finding the rhythm to the work. And it was work. Even in the low sun of mid-December, I was soon down to my T-shirt and remained so for the rest of the day as the heavy blows gave way to the more delicate chisel-and-mallet work of sculpting the finer features and general finishing. This was detailed work and while I didn’t want to make a fatal error, alacrity was called for. Time was short and I didn’t want to leave anything unfinished. But what was it that I was creating?

As those around me produced an array of figurines, I felt compelled to follow a singular course. My figure must be a replica of the Kilbeg Man, or some approximation thereof. As one of the small team of archaeologists who had discovered the figure thirteen years previously, I had been researching this and other anthropomorphic artefacts from Offaly and elsewhere ever since. The workshop was a chance to learn more about such objects and how they might have been made.

One key insight for those of us unaccustomed to working alderwood was the speed with which the wood changed colour as we carved it—from a pale white to a distinct orangey red, redolent of blood. An almost instantaneous transformation akin to how the flesh of an apple browns as one eats it. This notable characteristic of alder has bestowed numerous negative folkloric associations. It is one thing to read about this phenomenon but it was revelatory to see it happen before one’s eyes.

The Kilbeg figure consists of a bulbous, featureless head, a slender neck, and a pointed end. It has 11 notches (ribs?) cut into the torso and a ‘navel’ below this, represented by another notch. The bark between the point and navel was left in place. I tried to replicate these features as best I could. The notches are particularly enigmatic. Did they have a specific cultural meaning forever lost to us? Is the number of notches significant? Is it a form of tally stick, the notches or nicks denoting measurements of time or some other quantum?

The original Kilbeg figure has a distinct curvature that lends a sinuous dynamism to the object. Under the right conditions, one might get the impression that the figure is moving. Quite by accident, the shape of the branch I had chosen matches the direction of this curvature. As the day closed and the figures were set in the ground, nearby lamplight filtered through the trees and played on the alderwood surfaces. A vision of malign entities writhing as they emerged from the soil was the unnerving result. We can only ponder as to the benevolence or otherwise of similar prehistoric figures, but I left with the distinct impression that they were not necessarily friendly.  And perhaps we were leaving in the nick of time.


A day of shared learning at UCD

Mark Griffiths, 16/12/2016

The taxi ride to University College Dublin only took ten minutes, enough time for the driver to share a detailed history of the university and its future development plans, this was of course after getting me up to speed with the city’s latest political gossip. As we pulled into the main entrance I was glad of my driver’s extensive knowledge. UCD is a sprawling metropolis of learning. The rest of the team, traveling up early from Cork, had been beset by traffic delays. This, along with the fact that both Ben and Brian were only just recovering from a bad dose of winter flu meant the Dublin figurine carving workshop, we had all been so looking forward to, was off to a shaky start.

After a warm welcome, Aidan O’Sullivan led us out from the university building and up onto a large patch of rough ground surrounded by a high wire fence, this was the domain of UCD’s experimental archaeology department. At the top of the field, past various green timber structures, stood an impressive round house. Thin wisps of smoke seeped through a roof thatched in heather. In its dark interior we found archaeologist Brendan O’Neill tending to a log fire set in a rough stone circle. Standing with our backs to the woven roundhouse walls we listened as Aidan and Steven told fascinating, and fun, stories of the work they and their students were engaged in. I took a moment to look around at the faces of our team in the dancing glow of the firelight, I saw the stress of that mornings commute had been completely lost in this wonderfully primitive space.

We set up our working area on the thick damp grass next to a half completed Viking dwelling. Crammed into the boot of Ben’s car, along with our bronze tool kit, were eight lengths of freshly selected Alder. Brian had been very creative in his timber choices with each piece already displaying strong character traits, some resplendent with ready formed legs, while others had beautiful soft organic curves. Again, we asked our carvers to take the piece that spoke to them, a piece in which they could see their figurine waiting to be liberated.

All our UCD participants were experienced green woodworkers, so they needed little input or encouragement from me. Aidan, for example, had previously assisted on a major historical boat building project in the UK. Our collection of axes, beautifully crafted by Dr Billy Mag Fhloinn, received much admiration. The quality of his work in forging and hafting our bronze tools enabled the user to quickly, and accurately, form the shapes and details seen in their mind’s eye. Our Pallasboy collective decided to join forces and craft our own figure, with each member taking a turn to imbue our rather small, curved log with a distinct personality.

It was a great pity that Cathy was unable to join us for this workshop, having also succumbed to seasonal illness. However we were lucky to have Conor Mc Dermott and Michael Stanley on hand to add their expertise. At the beginning of Phase II, Michael had  met us at the National Museum storage facility at Swords to share his knowledge on the history of the Red Man of Kilbeg, a figurine that was obviously the muse for his distinctive workshop creation.

A damp chill and fading light told us that it was late in the afternoon. The group were adding finishing details to what were an impressive, and diverse, collection of anthropomorphic figures. Our own joint Frankenstein creation was also complete, with a sharp stake by Brian, a head and elegant neck by Ben, I fashioned a deep curved slash along the body to represent folded cloth and Orla gave our figure the face of a child on the verge of a tantrum, or an old man missing his bus, depending on how it was viewed. We were happy with the offspring of our combined effort.

The day had gone well. Aidan decided that the results of all our work needed to be set in the earth by the entrance gate. There they would either welcome, or warn, those crossing the threshold. One by one the totems were placed, their twisted forms silhouetted against the dusk of a December night. The eerie presence these crudely carved forms evoked could be in no doubt, if this was their role they performed it well. Before leaving the experimental archaeology group at UCD we were treated to the spectacle of Steven firing up his clay built furnace. The day ended as it had started, our faces lit by flames in this wonderful, unique place, surrounded by friends.

Death, bodily fluids and fertility: the Wakas of Konso

Dr Suzi Richer, Postdoctoral Research Associate, Department of Archaeology, University of York

Photo by Senna Thornton-Barnett. Wakas in Konso, Ethiopia
Photo by Senna Thornton-Barnett. Wakas in Konso, Ethiopia

“The wakas are a form a material culture in which elements of the process of ‘breastfeeding’ are represented” (Watson 2009)

A couple of days ago, if I had been asked the question “What do the wakas represent?”, my first answer would not have been breastfeeding. But my interest was piqued. What has become clear whilst I’ve been reading around about the wakas is that context is key. Before I explain any further, let me take you back further in the story.

Much like Nina, I have been keeping-up with the developments of the Pallasboy Project from afar. Watching it unfold and seeing and hearing different people and their perspectives come into the project; it has given it a vibrancy and a feeling of ‘I wonder what they will do next…’ I was intrigued when Phase II: Anthropomorphic Wooden Figurines started as it was just before I was due to head to Konso in Ethiopia, where wooden anthropomorphic figurines, called wakas, are still part of life.

Konso is a UNESCO World Heritage site, famed for it’s extensive and terraced agricultural system. The project I work on, the Archaeology of Agricultural Resilience in Eastern Africa (AAREA), has undertaken excavation in the area working on understanding the history of these terrace systems. Unfortunately, due to political unrest in the area, I wasn’t able to visit Konso on this trip, but I was did visit the museums in Addis Ababa and manage to send some photos of these figurines to Ben before communication was locked-down in the city.

If I haven’t lost you by now, you might well be wondering what on earth do breastfeeding and agricultural systems have to do with the wakas? What follows is some key information that the archaeologist might be interested in (all based on Elizabeth Watson’s ethonography and history of Konso Living Terraces in Ethiopia: Konso Landscape, Culture and Development (2009)) and some reflections on them from an archaeological perspective.

What are wakas?

They are burial structures erected after the death of important men.

Where are they found?

In prominent places: public courtyards, at the entrance to a village, on well-worn paths.

What are they made from?

Several juniper trees.

Who makes them?

A specialist craftsman who ‘lives with the family for whom he is working. In addition to the payment for the work, he must be supplied with good food including meat, honey and alcohol during his stay’ (Watson 2009, 115).

(Mark – I think you need to make sure that this statement is upheld on the current project)

But what do the wakas depict?

The central figure is usually the main man, he is then surrounded by his wives, people killed by his extended family, or clan, and wild animals also killed by his extended family. This type of arrangement is displayed in the Ethnographic Museum of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies in Addis Abba (below).

Photo by Suzi Richer. A few characters from the waka on display in the Ethnographic Museum. Left to right: second wife of the ‘hero’, ‘hero’, first wife of the ‘hero’, the shield on spears of the ‘hero’ are depicted behind them. ‘Hero’ was the term used in the display depiction.
Photo by Suzi Richer. A few characters from the waka on display in the Ethnographic Museum. Left to right: second wife of the ‘hero’, ‘hero’, first wife of the ‘hero’, the shield on spears of the ‘hero’ are depicted behind them. ‘Hero’ was the term used in the display depiction.

There is something that draws your eye to the faces of these figures. Maybe it’s the eyes staring at you. And this is reflected in many of my photographs, the one by Senna (our archaeobotanist) at the top of the page and also if you do a Google image search for ‘Konso wakas’.

Photo by Suzi Richer. The head of one of the victims of the hero on display in the Ethnographic Museum.
Photo by Suzi Richer. The head of one of the victims of the hero on display in the Ethnographic Museum.

But broadening the gaze also brings in more information about these enigmatic figures. Thankfully Senna captured the setting of the wakas in Konso:

Photo: Senna Thornton-Barnett. Wakas in Konso, Ethiopia
Photo: Senna Thornton-Barnett. Wakas in Konso, Ethiopia

Bizarrely, it is actually the stones that are of interest here. They may not be in their original position, but they are part of the collection. And Watson (2009; 117) tells us that:

“Before the statues also lie stones which indicate…the number of fields that he acquired during his lifetime…The way in which each new field is represented alongside the number of wives…and the number of kills that he made, reflects not only the importance of having land, but the importance of acquiring land.”

And this is where ‘breastfeeding’ comes back in. There is much tied-in with the broader ideas of breastfeeding, the combining of bodily fluids, gender roles and the phallic head dresses of these figures – but that is another blog post. For now, let’s just explore the notion of ‘breastfeeding’. The men for whom these memorials are/were made are primarily poqalla, or leaders/chieftains. During their lives they are the ones to whom people turn in times of need (famine) and in celebrations (weddings). They give out grain if needed and people marry in the poqalla’s home, staying there and enjoying his hospitality for days afterwards. The poquallas do not demand repayment, so the metaphor of ‘breastfeeding’ is used within Konso to refer to this unconditional giving.

However, there is still the idea that nothing comes for free, and whilst support from the poqalla is given freely, it does result in the allegiance of people, which is shown through labour on land. In turn, more land can be cultivated, more food and surplus generated, and the produce converted into more land. The fields and how they are acquired are status symbols for the poqalla and his clan. Even after the poqualla’s death, more stones can be added to the waka as the clan’s holdings increase.

Our understanding of the historical Konso terracing system is changing as we excavate it, and that is partly due to the fact that we are also placing the detail within the wider landscape and social setting. The wakas provide another manifestation of the complex and interrelated agricultural system that typifies Konso.

So what does this ethnographic example from Ethiopia mean for archaeological examples of figurines from prehistoric Europe? Two things spring to mind: the wakas are not static, there are elements of them that continue to grow, change and evolve – they are about more than the life of the individual who they memorialise. In this example it wasn’t the actual figure that was added to, but the stones around it. Are there signs of reworking on the archaeological figurines? And if there are, where do they occur? Are the prehistoric examples likely to be fixed ‘memorials’ or something that could be altered and and reflected upon by the living?

And secondly, while we may be fixated on the object and the detail – like me with the eyes – what else is found around these objects? Where are they situated? Are they in situ or have they been moved? What else is known about the people who might have made them? Whilst we can’t talk to the people who made the prehistoric figurines, like we can in Konso, the questions that the ethnographic examples throw up might also be relevant to the archaeological examples.

Even though the wakas are still part Konso society, the wider clan/status/societal side of them is being steadily lost, especially once they have taken out of their original context. This is typified by the wakas in the Ethnographic Museum, which are isolated, have little contextual information and are akin to archaeological artefacts, which I suppose they are. Interestingly their current positioning in the museum makes them very hard to view (and photograph) as a whole unit, which is ironically how they were designed to be viewed when in situ. They are also only missing the stones.

Pallasboy Phase II has the potential to make some of these static figures move again. On many levels, there is much to learn from the movement and vibrancy of the project (as I alluded to at the start of this post); and on a practical level by recreating the figures, and making them ‘active’ again, we might be able to gain a glimpse into some the wider processes behind their initial construction.


Watson, Elizabeth E. 2009. Living Terraces in Ethiopia Konso Landscape, Culture and Development. Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer.


Process, embodiment and object agency

Dr. Nina J. Morris – University of Edinburgh

A confession: I’ve never seen the Pallasboy vessel except in photographs. I haven’t touched its surface. I’ve only heard the sound of it being struck through the speakers on my laptop. I don’t know what it smells like. I can only imagine the exertion required to move it.

A digression: In mid-September, following an unexpected Twitter DM and a flurry of subsequent messages, I found myself sitting opposite Ben Gearey in a small Edinburgh restaurant. We talked about life, love and lost contacts (in fairness, mainly mine), the usual things that two old friends who haven’t seen each other for six years might discuss. Somewhat inevitably (given we are both academics) the conversation eventually turned to work, our respective frustrations and successes, the passions driving us forward and the serendipitous crossing over of our research interests. I was already aware of the Pallasboy vessel from Ben’s Twitter feed but as he talked it was clear that he was a man enchanted; at once transfixed and disrupted by the vessel’s delightful but uncanny and puzzling existence (Woodyer and Geoghegan 2013).


A brief reflection: Invited by Ben to reflect on the project’s activities to date I found myself intrigued by what seemed to be an emphasis on the finished object and its intended use(s). As a mother of two my initial thought was that the vessel was originally designed as a child’s crib … but what about the process of making? What if it was the process of carving that was more important to the people(s) who made the Pallasboy vessel than the object itself? In his guest blog post Aidan O’Sullivan wrote that “we should remember that some societies don’t make the distinction between human subject and passive object like we do”. Whilst I would question the dichotomy he implies between ‘thing’ and ‘person’ (and I understand that this isn’t necessarily the approach taken by the team – see Ben’s blog post on Lefebvre’s notion of ‘meshwork’), I think that an exploration of the relationship between subject and object – particularly the conjoining of body (carver) and technology (tools) to create a reconstructed vessel – might help the team think in different ways not just about the original vessel but also the person (or people) who did the carving.

Given the dominance of the visual sense in Western culture we have a tendency to deem the process of creation as largely irrelevant to our appreciation and understanding of artworks and other crafted objects; it is the end product that matters (Howes and Classen 2014). Art museums keep their precious finds in a state of suspended animation, allowed neither to die nor decay, creating a sense of atemporality and disconnectedness which denies the processual and relational nature of their being (ibid.). I was heartened to see that the Pallasboy Project team are taking time to carefully audio-visually document the making of the reconstructed vessel (and other ‘making’ in later phases) because I feel it shows an openness to acknowledging the process of creation as a vital part of the original vessel’s beauty and power (ibid.). Likewise, the team’s joint participation in the carving seems to have facilitated a more nuanced understanding of the vessel than might have been derived from a more traditional disembodied and contemplative approach (i.e. simply measuring and cataloguing the features of the original vessel). Following Spinney (2006), one could say that the team have experienced the vessel in its ‘moment of creation’ allowing them to access (at least to some extent) the ‘nonreflexive and prerepresentational sensations and experiences’ involved in carving such an object.


When we met, Ben spoke ruefully of the cuts and grazes he’d acquired while taking his turn at carving, the way his muscles had ached and become fatigued in ways that he was unaccustomed to. Watching him carve Ben the novice seems to rely on brute force and energetic enthusiasm than any form of skill, bending his joints in unsustainable ways; in comparison, Mark’s expert movements are more fluid, perceptive, visceral and precise. This would suggest that the carving anatomy doesn’t come ready made; rather the ‘object and subject [develop] in conjunction with one another through practical use’ (Spinney 2006: 717). The ability to carve is the result of a long process of negotiation (Winance 2006) between a person and their bodily capabilities, the tools they use, and the type wood they are carving. It involves somatic (e.g. the use of hand-eye coordination and proprioception to direct one’s tool to the right spot with the required amount of force) and analytic (e.g. the use of intuition derived from past experience to decide which tree to fell, what the wood’s moisture content might be, which part of the wood to strike and how hard) attunement (Ash and Gallagher 2014; Ash 2013). Effortless carving like effortless cycling requires endless practice, but when it is achieved the carver appears to inhabit what Spinney (2006) calls ‘a rhythm’; there is, as Le Breton (2000 cited in Spinney 2006: 718) perceptively states, ‘a melting of self into action’.

Recent post-humanist work has suggested that rather than being a determined biological entity the body is more of an ‘open and plastic boundary’ the basic condition of which is ‘change, porosity and augmentation’ (Ash and Gallagher 2014). Employing a ‘relational’ understanding of the body (Winance 2006), for example, Papadimitriou (2008) has demonstrated how a disabled person’s wheelchair is gradually incorporated into their corporeal schema through routine activity and training and observation of other novice and expert users.* Rather than the wheelchair simply being an inert object in this process, as the person’s bodily awareness extends to include it, it becomes an extension of the ‘lived body’, the surface through which the person physically perceives, senses their way through, and experiences the world (ibid.). As such, both parties must labour, their relationship must be made and unmade numerous times until both are ultimately transformed (Winance 2006); in the case of the Pallasboy vessel, tools had to be tested and trialled in different ways (and occasionally broken!), a body used to working with electric carvers had to develop a new type of muscle memory, a ‘master’ craftsman had to once again deal with the mixed emotions of learning an essentially familiar skill almost from scratch – nervousness, elation, melancholy. The dynamism of this relationship means that skill acquisition (e.g. the ability to use a wheelchair or, if I can extrapolate, to use an Iron Age tool) is not merely mechanical, technical or practical (which seems to be the focus of much experimental archaeology) but also ‘existential and embodied’ (Papadimitriou 2008).


If we understand the body as emergent through its ‘interweavings’ in the world (Macpherson 2010) we can perhaps begin to think about the meaningfulness of carving the Pallasboy vessel as a ‘transformational’ act. Whether this had more relevance for the individual(s) doing the carving than the collective is up for debate – it was interesting to note Brian’s comment regarding the embodied impact of simply being present during process of creation. As the workshops have shown, individuals will have undoubtedly experienced the carving in different ways because ‘we are all composed of organs which have different material thresholds’ that in turn shape how affects such as the vibration of tool hitting wood are experienced (Ash 2015). Likewise, because the affordances offered by the tools (wear and tear) and the wood (e.g. moisture) would never have been fixed, and because bodily capacities wax and wane according to time and circumstance (e.g. strength, visual acuity, dexterity) (Ash and Gallagher 2014) it is likely that the relationality between subject-object(s) would have changed even during the process of crafting.

*I am grateful to my student, Phoebe Fielding, for bringing the work of Winance and Papadimitriou to my attention.


Ash, J. (2013) Technologies of captivation: videogames and the attunement of affect, Body and Society 19(1): 27–51.

Ash. J. (2015) Technology and affect: Towards a theory of inorganically organised objects, Emotion, Space and Society 14: 84-90.

Ash, J. and Gallagher, L.A. (2014) Becoming attuned: objects, affects and embodied methodology, in Perry, M. and Medina, C. (eds.) (2014) Methodologies of Embodiment: Inscribing Bodies in Qualitative Research. London: Routledge, pp., 69-85.

Howes, D. and C. Classen. 2014. Ways of Sensing: Understanding the Senses in Society. London: Routledge.

Macpherson, H. (2010) Non-representational approaches to body-landscape relations, Geography Compass 4(1): 1-13.

Papadimitriou, C. (2008) Becoming en‐wheeled: the situated accomplishment of re‐embodiment as a wheelchair user after spinal cord injury, Disability and Society 23(7): 691-704.

Spinney, J. (2006) A place of sense: a kinaesthetic ethnography of cyclists on Mont Ventoux, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 24: 709-732.

Winance, M. (2006) Trying out the wheelchair: the mutual shaping of people and devices through adjustment, Science, Technology, and Human Values 31(1): 52-72.

Woodyer, T. and Geoghegan, H. (2012) (Re)enchanting geography? The nature of being critical and the character of critique in human geography, Progress in Human Geography 37(2) 195–214.