All posts by bmacdomhnaill

Sourcing a 7m long oak trunk in Wicklow

Brian Mac Domhnaill

For Phase 3 of The Pallasboy Project we would once again need a freshly felled tree. We chanced our arm and got back on the phone to our friend David Brabazon in County Wicklow.  This time we were looking for a straight 7m long oak tree c. 70cm in diameter. Finding such a specimen nowadays is a tall order (I’ll get my coat), but David, an enthusiastic supporter of our project, was willing to help. There were some trees due to be harvested on land in Laragh near Glendalough and his contractor Paddy Purser had identified a specimen that might suit our needs. So in November 2017 I set out to inspect the tree and give it my seal of approval (It was already sporting a bright orange spray paint tick of approval). It was felled the following day and made its way to Killruddery Estate where our woodwork would begin in December.


Whittled Words

Brian Mac Domhnaill

In 2016, having remarked upon the poetic nature of Mark’s blog posts I set about ‘whittling’ the text down into sections of spoken word. I also added content from blog posts by Cathy and Ben by means of introduction and context. I may also have added a few words of my own.

I did not follow any particular poetic rules but roughly chopped the content into stanzas based on each written passage or paragraph. I inserted an occasional pause in the form of an utterance of Pallasboy, the townland where the original vessel was laid to rest and later excavated. Also, the name Pallasboy inadvertently personifies the original artefact and our crafted object.

The first six ‘stanzas’, set in Prehistory, refer to the imagined story of the original vessel. The remainder is set in 2015 and describes the crafting of our replica.

I whittled the words down over a number of afternoons in my studio, also spent whittling splinters and sticks that had been removed from the vessel during crafting. The resulting whittled objects and pseudo artefacts may come to form part of sculptures or may just exist as themselves. To be confirmed.

I intended to record a few of us reading the full piece of spoken word and then edit  a mix using all our voices. I got Mark to record himself in UK and send it over. I was struck by how differently he interpreted it. If I was to use a recording by each of us and have it flow the way I intended I would have to record myself first to set the pace and tone. This is yet to come but in the meantime you can enjoy the script in print and read it out loud yourself:


Words whittled by Brian Mac Domhnaill from blog posts by Caitríona Moore, Benjamin Gearey and Mark Griffiths.

Black Alder; Alnus glutinosa
Bright green leaves
Dark brown bark
Fractured into scales
Bad luck to pass it on a journey

Hidden until now
A commoner of the wood’; ‘Aithig Fedo’
A crown of honeysuckle
Tall, straight and proud
In a clearing in the Bog Wood

Tended to, chosen
Sentenced to death
Red droplets on white flesh
The first man sprang from a tree such as this
‘the red man’

A person working
A growing carpet of woodchips, each one the strike of a tool
Important and telling waste
The story of daily life

Skill, interaction, instinct, judgment, symmetry

A tree reborn as a vessel
Admired, used, carried, submerged in a bog pool


Meitheal Mara
A bright morning
Familiar sounds, vibrancy, people flow
The perfect working space
Shared knowledge
A warm welcome

Knots and defects
Closeness to root
Grain follows its own random path

Scoring a deep groove along the guide line with an axe
Hardwood wedges driven in with a large mallet
From tree top to root
The split widens
The air is filled with the sound of cracking wood
Larger wedges replace smaller ones
The timber yields

The large unwanted riven away
Axe and adze
A level face hewn
A plan laid out
Fibre-tipped charcoal lines
Satisfying proportions
Inside roughed out
Soft, wet, easy to work


More than one maker
Working together
Inside and out
Master craftspeople
Master and journeyman
Master and his apprentice


Becoming familiar
The muscles and joints of Pre-History
Sore, cramped hands
Binding blistered fingers
Reinforced wrists

A striking colour change
A soft creamy white, A brick like orange
Bark removed
It bleeds a rich, thick, blood-like sap
Great spiritual significance

Wear and tear
Keeping a keen edge
Underside and curved ends
Fluid carving
Shifting on a wood chip blanket
Wedges to hold it in place
Working alone


Wind chills and blusters, the rain comes
A deep grey sky devoid of light
The cymbal crash of torrential downpour on a roof
A drum-like beat
The upturned vessel
Primal sounds

Chip away
The power behind the blow
The angle of the strike
The tool marks left behind
Overwhelmed with fatigue
A feeling of deep melancholy
The damp chill of the dark evening
Too tired to eat


Finishing  shaping
Forming handles
Carving bow shaped ends
Hourglass Oak Mallet
Seamus on a log, smoking, watching
A crisp edge carved at the outer rim

Unseasoned ‘green’ wood
Removing structural timber
Moisture released
Splits radiating from the heartwood
Submergence, Stabilisation
A damp hessian shroud


A journey
Now a shade of pale straw
Internal depth
A gentle carved slope
Dark skies
Biblical rain
A restless night


Small stone bridges span the Lee
Swollen with rain the river rages below
Water rolls over a weir at a ferocious pace
Foaming white eddies
Intrigued visitors
The form of the vessel
Curvaceous exterior
The precise thickness of its sides and base
Would it carry a cargo?

Different carving
Fibres dry and tight
Furred and splintered
Cuts crisp and positive
A stronger resemblance
Blending  sides into floor
The chill of now familiar back streets

Carving  detail
Leveling  rim
A crisp defined edge, as new
Boring holes in shaped handles
A small gouge and mallet

Chip carving
Intriguing detail
A deceptively simple linear pattern
Fish scales, fur, feathers
The tool marks formed on a worked metal surface

New cracks
Linseed oil, paint brushes, rags, gloves
A preservative finish
Drenching the parched timber
Dull straw turns to a rich honey
The grain magically displays its wild, complex pattern
The chip carving suddenly comes to life as the light plays across the vessel’s surface


A new home below a wall of glass
Looking out on to parkland, and beyond to the river
Visitors touch the vessel
Fingers explore the shapes and patterns formed by the tools
An object of significance
Reaction and response
Detachment, a sense of loss


The Pallasboy Project Phase 3: Prehistoric Water Craft

Dr. Benjamin Gearey

In the previous two phases of the Pallasboy Project our focus has been on relatively small prehistoric wooden artefacts. Moreover, we have been concerned with objects of precise form but unclear function or purpose. In the final phase we have rather bucked this trend: the creative undertaking sees Mark tasked with the re-creation of an object of greater size and (at first glance at least…) much less ambiguous function compared to the Pallasboy Vessel or the Red Man of Kilbeg!

The object is the Lees Island 5 Iron Age logboat, which lies on the bottom of Lough Corrib, Co. Galway. Lees Island 5 was built from a single oak timber and is some 7.5m long, 0.61m wide and 0.4m deep. The craft has some other interesting features that we will describe below.

The boat is just one of various sunken vessels that litter the watery depths of the Lough; a remarkable array of watergoing craft from the Bronze Age through to recent times (including the wreck of a Victorian pleasure cruiser!) which have been documented thanks to the work of Karl Brady and Ireland’s Underwater Archaeology Unit. There have of course been various re-creations of prehistoric boats carried out (e.g. ‘Morgawr’ and ‘Oak Leaf’, replicas of the Bronze Age ‘sewn plank’ vessel from Ferriby, east Yorkshire), so we are not claiming to be breaking new ground in experimental archaeology through this undertaking. However, we will be bringing our own approach and perspective to the process!


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


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.


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.