Reflecting on Heritage Day: From Woodwork to Meshworks?

Dr. Benjamin Gearey

The Pallasboy outdoor hot tub by Irene Martin, Age 6.

The Heritage Week open day was enormously enjoyable and rewarding. In particular, the response of the children and their fantastic drawings and imaginings of the Pallasboy vessel, affirmed for me why archaeology is such a vital and worthwhile pursuit. It also underlines the value of working and thinking across disciplinary boundaries; the interface and interaction between archaeologists, woodworkers, artists and the public has been remarkably fruitful and rewarding. Related to this, the one thing that has struck me time and again during the project has been the response and attitude of almost everyone who has come into contact with our Pallasboy replica: positive, enthusiastic, interested, intrigued; slightly mystified perhaps on occasion, but never dismissive (at least, not to our faces!). This has been the case all the way from our initial approach to Meitheal Mara for a working venue, to the extended odyssey of sourcing the appropriately sized alder timber and its delivery, through the many visitors (both invited and uninvited…) during the various stages of crafting; most people just seem to engage without much explanation as to why we were bothering re-crafting a 2000 year old wooden vessel of uncertain function.

Mark and Seamus discussing tools at Meitheal Mara on the first day of crafting back in July 2015.
Mark and Seamus discussing tools at Meitheal Mara on the first day of crafting back in July 2015.

In other words, people mostly seemed to get it, in one way or another, although this varied, sometimes subtly, from person to person. For those of an archaeological background, this could involve some sort of disciplinary engagement, the aspects of the work that we might describe as ‘experimental archaeology’, the technical outputs, for example: what aspect of the crafting was the most difficult, how long had it taken? Other people with perhaps little or no such background brought and (I hope) took something slightly different away: the wood workers and boat builders at Meitheal Mara were fascinated by the practical aspect of the process, the performance of the replica prehistoric tools. I was struck by the conversations that Mark would have with those people in the yard, exchanges concerning elements of practical woodcraft. Other people just seemed to revel in what appeared to me as the simple observation of the act of woodworking, a practical mastery that seems unambiguously joyous to watch. One of my favourite photos from Phase 1 of the project shows three bikers who had, as I recall, dropped into the yard by way of chance. Their faces show their interest and absorption, whilst I found my own prejudices pricked, as to why their response had surprised me in the first place. The discussions and interactions around Pallasboy have been many and varied: experimental and wetland archaeology, woodworking, folklore, trees and timber, metalwork and tools, acoustics, art and creativity, museums and heritage, peatlands…the list could go on.

‘The biker visit’ on day 8 of crafting in September 2015 (Image: Muireann Ní Cheallacháin).

Our Pallasboy vessel acted as a starting point for all these different interactions, events and ideas; most of them unanticipated, unplanned and ultimately uncontrollable. The children from the open day for example, drew pictures which might have begun with seeing and touching the vessel but took them wherever their imagination allowed. Everyone interacted in different ways, bringing their own perspectives and experiences, and I think taking away different thoughts and reflections on what they had seen, touched or heard. So ‘starting point’ doesn’t seem the right word to describe how all these people, ideas and things (the vessel and many other…things) have been involved in this interplay. I’m rather drawn to the description of these manifold relationships as a ‘meshwork’. This expression comes from the philosopher Henri Lefebvre (1991), and (very generally speaking) reflects the concept that humans and the material world aren’t bounded or separate, but ‘flow into each other’, hence “…meaning and symbolism are not merely attributed or imposed on objects and the material world, but rather these emerge through assemblages or meshworks of people and things.” (Chadwick, 2016: 3). My involvement with the project and observation of other people’s interactions with the vessel, has given me an appreciation of how things are always much more than the totality of their physical presence. It’s made me think differently about Pallasboy (the artefact); to ask the question ‘what was this object for?’ may be to reflect on practical function (a boat, a cooking pot, a cradle…?) but also requires us to consider the entanglement of materials, people and thoughts that gave the vessel meaning and purpose during the Iron Age.

Chadwick, A. 2016. ‘The stubborn light of things’. Landscape, Relational Agency and Linear Earthworks in Later Prehistory. European Journal of Archaeology.

Lefebvre, H. 1991. The Production of Space. Oxford, Blackwell.

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