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.