Wood working: it’s a lot harder than it looks!

Caitríona Moore

As someone who for many years has recorded, written and spoken about ancient wood working I consider myself fairly knowledgeable on the subject, at least I did before this project! When I joined the Pallasboy Vessel project on Day 3 of the first phase of crafting, the thing that immediately struck me was the carpet of woodchips which had formed around the area where Mark was working. Covering maybe 4 or 5 square meters and lying several centimetres thick, the wood chips numbered in the 1000’s, each one representing the strike of a tool. This got me to thinking about how, as a documenter of wooden objects, I record wood working and what I infer from the data I record. When recording a wooden artefact it is standard to record the number of toolmarks present on the wood, which depending on factors such as condition or the way the object was made, can range from very few to several 100, as in the case of the original Pallasboy Vessel. These marks however, only tell a very small part of the story, they are only the final tool strikes made by the wood worker and potentially belie a great deal of preceding work. As an experiment I counted the tool strikes made by Mark in a single minute, they numbered c. 120 which when multiplied up to an 8 hour working day, equates to over 40,000 tool strikes (it is no wonder poor Mark was so exhausted every evening!). While this is perhaps no news to anyone who is used to working wood, it was a surprise to me. I often describe wooden artefacts as ‘finely and carefully worked’ but I don’t think I really understood just how much work might be involved, and in the future I will think more about the objects I record, and the level of work that went into their manufacture.

Watching Mark work I was also struck by the level of skill needed to create the vessel, Mark was constantly judging its shape and size by eye, checking back and over again and again to ensure the shape was right and that it was symmetrical. This sort of instinctive working could only be done by a highly skilled craftsperson and there can be no doubt that the Pallasboy Vessel was made by a master. This I think we always knew, but watching it in action really drove the point home. Despite years of writing and talking about wood working being a highly skilled activity, I don’t think I truly appreciated just how much skill is involved. Ben mentioned that he felt like a fifth wheel at the start of the project and I can echo that sentiment. Unfortunate timing of another project meant I was unable to be present during the first days of crafting when I would have liked to help with the physical work. Arriving at a point when Mark was starting to undertake finer work made me nervous about damaging the vessel with my clumsy attempts and use of the tools. To be fair such feelings were probably unwarranted as the few attempts I did make, rapidly demonstrated the hardiness of the wood and just how much force is needed to work it….and so I find myself once more learning about how hard wood working can be and how physically demanding it is.

As a newcomer to experimental archaeology, this project has shown me how valuable it can be and how much we can learn from trying to replicate the activities and actions of our ancestors. I may know a lot about wooden artefacts but I still have plenty to learn, more anon.

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