Alder, why the tree of death?

Caitríona Moore

One of the most common questions we were asked during the crafting of the Pallasboy vessel was about the type of wood being worked. Alder while fairly well known among archaeologists, is not it seems, overly familiar to most people, and everyone who visited us was curious about it.

Alder (black alder; Alnus glutinosa) is a small scrubby tree that thrives in wet, damp conditions and is often found around the edges of bogs and alongside rivers and lakes (Stuijts 2005, 139). We also know from pollen records from Irish peatlands (another critical aspect of the value of these environments – preserving records of environmental change as well as archaeological artefacts, such as the original Pallasboy), that alder spread north into Ireland from southern Europe after the last Ice Age around about seven thousand years before the present. Alder is known as fearnóg in Irish and its presence in the past landscape is attested to by place names such as Ferns, Co. Wexford or Glenfarne, Co. Leitrim which translate respectively as ‘Place of alders’ and ‘Valley of alders’ (Flanagan & Flanagan 2002, 87).

Although it often reaches 80-100 years of age it generally does not grow to very great height or size (maximum diameter of 1 m). Young alder trees have a smooth, greenish bark which after the age of about 20 turns dark brown and fractures into scales. The leaves are bright green in colour and almost circular in shape. One of the most distinctive characteristics of the alder tree is its catkins which appear in the spring and are either yellow elongated pendants (male) or oval green cones (female). Alder bark was traditionally used for tanning leather, and both the bark and catkins produce an inferior black dye which was known in medieval times as ‘poor man’s dye’ (Stuijts 2005, 139).

The original Pallasboy Vessel was made from a tree of at least 54 years old with a relatively large diameter of c. 60 cm. Sourcing a tree of similar size in modern woodland proved impossible [see Blog Phase 1 Sourcing Timber] with the result that our replica had to be made at a slightly reduced scale. In early Irish law alder was designated as ‘Aithig Fedo’ or ‘commoner of the wood’ meaning that it was of lesser economic value than certain other species such as oak or ash (Kelly 1997, 380). Irish folklore beliefs associated with alder are generally negative and include the conviction that passing an alder tree during a journey was bad luck. These negative connotations may be due to the fact that when cut, the timber changes from white to vivid red reminiscent of blood (Nelson & Walsh 1993, 49). This was something we and many of our visitors noticed and remarked on during the crafting of Pallasboy, when the ends of the vessel in particular appeared to bleed, with red droplets emanating from the centre of the tree across the otherwise white flesh. It is not therefore surprising that alder is associated with war and death, featuring in folktales across Europe often closely linked with shields or fire (Mac Coitir 2003, 34-9). A curious early Irish belief stated that the first man sprang from an alder tree (Wood-Martin 1902, 156), which combined with its red colour may account for the folk name of ‘the red man’ (Stanley 2006).

It is of course difficult (some might say impossible…) to determine to what extent prehistoric people might have shared such beliefs, but a careful reading of the available archaeological evidence can provide us with some clues. A highly stylised anthropomorphic alder figure, dated to the Early Bronze Age and like Pallasboy recovered from an Irish bog, was likely a votive deposit perhaps representing a sacrificial human effigy (ibid.). Conor Newman and colleagues at NUIG (Newman et al. 2007) have argued that the burning of alder twigs in a ‘ritual’ context at the late Iron Age site of Raffin Fort, Co. Meath might reflect a particular relevance or symbolic significance attached to this wood. They draw attention to the apparent association of alder with death and also highlight that wood lore permeated many aspects of Irish life during the later prehistoric and early Medieval period. The Ogham alphabet (Irish: In Beithe-luis-nin, ‘the birch-rowan-ash’) provides further evidence of this, with the letters of the alphabet arranged into four groups of five characters, many of which are named after trees. In other words, trees and woodland were probably ‘alive’ with meaning, with different plants carrying different associations and relevance to our ancestors

Following such lines of thought, we might speculate that the choice of alder for Pallasboy was very deliberate and may have communicated a particular message or carried a certain resonance to the contemporary woodworker and his community. We may also highlight here the observation from Dr Ingelise Stuijts that the relatively wide rings of the original Pallasboy tree indicated one which had been growing in relatively open conditions. Alder woodland tends to form quite a dense, crowded canopy in which individual trees must compete for space and light: was the original tree therefore specially tended and selected?

Despite its negative connotations alder was very frequently used in the past such as in the foundations of crannógs, and to make all manner of items ranging from shields to wheels and very commonly wooden vessels. Waterlogged archaeological sites often produce domestic alder-wood vessels such as bowls, tubs and troughs. This was probably quite a deliberate practical choice, especially for vessels made to contain liquid, as alder being a damp species holds liquids well but does not impart any flavour to foodstuffs (Taylor 1981, 45). Maybe the choice of alder for original Pallasboy therefore reflected nothing more than the selection of wood appropriate for a vessel designed to hold liquid?

The frequent choice of alder to manufacture vessels may also have been due to the fact that it turns well and is easy to carve but more on this anon from our master wood worker!

Bibliography

Flanagan, D. & Flanagan, L. Irish place names. Gill and Macmillan, Dublin.

Kelly, F. 1997. Early Irish Farming: a study based mainly on the law-texts of the 7th and 8th centuries AD. Dublin Institute for Advanced Srudies, Dublin.

Mac Coitir, N. 2003. Irish trees. Myths, legends & folklore. The Collins Press, Cork.

Nelson, E.C & Walsh, W.F. 1993. Trees of Ireland native and naturalised. The Lilliput Press, Dublin.

Newman, C., O’Connell, M., Dillon, M. and Molloy, K. 2007. Interpretation of charcoal and pollen data relating to a late Iron Age ritual site in eastern Ireland: a holistic approach. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany, 16: 349-365.

Stanley, M. 2006. The ‘red man’ of Kilbeg: an Early Bronze Age idol from County Offaly. PAST: The newsletter of the Prehistoric Society No. 52.  [Online] Available from: http://www.le.ac.uk/has/ps/past/past52/past52.html#kilbeg

Stuijts, I. 2005. ‘Wood and Charcoal Identification’. In: Gowen, M., Ó Néill, J. & Phillips, M. (eds). The Lisheen Mine Archaeological Project 1996–8. Wordwell, Bray.

Taylor, M. 1992. ‘Flag Fen: The Wood’. Antiquity, 66:476–98.

Wood-Martin, W. G. 1902. Traces of the Elder Faiths of Ireland: A folklore sketch. London.

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