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
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?
Archaeological illustration of the ‘Red Man’ of Kilbeg (Image: Simon Dick, courtesy of the Irish Archaeological Wetland Unit)
The ‘Red Man’ of Kilbeg at the NMI storage facility in Swords (Image: Brian Mac Domhnaill)
The intact notched side of the ‘Red Man’ of Kilbeg in 2003 when it was being removed from site (Image: Irish Archaeological Wetland Unit)
The damaged side of the ‘Red Man’ of Kilbeg, during excavation in 2003 in Kilbeg townland, Ballykean Bog, Co. Offaly (Image: Irish Archaeological Wetland Unit)
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.
Dr Suzi Richer, Postdoctoral Research Associate, Department of Archaeology, University of York
“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).
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’.
But broadening the gaze also brings in more information about these enigmatic figures. Thankfully Senna captured the setting of the wakas in Konso:
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.
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.
A confession: I’ve never seen the Pallasboy vessel except in photographs. I haven’t touched its surface. I’ve only heard the sound of it being struck through the speakers on my laptop. I don’t know what it smells like. I can only imagine the exertion required to move it.
A digression: In mid-September, following an unexpected Twitter DM and a flurry of subsequent messages, I found myself sitting opposite Ben Gearey in a small Edinburgh restaurant. We talked about life, love and lost contacts (in fairness, mainly mine), the usual things that two old friends who haven’t seen each other for six years might discuss. Somewhat inevitably (given we are both academics) the conversation eventually turned to work, our respective frustrations and successes, the passions driving us forward and the serendipitous crossing over of our research interests. I was already aware of the Pallasboy vessel from Ben’s Twitter feed but as he talked it was clear that he was a man enchanted; at once transfixed and disrupted by the vessel’s delightful but uncanny and puzzling existence (Woodyer and Geoghegan 2013).
A brief reflection: Invited by Ben to reflect on the project’s activities to date I found myself intrigued by what seemed to be an emphasis on the finished object and its intended use(s). As a mother of two my initial thought was that the vessel was originally designed as a child’s crib … but what about the process of making? What if it was the process of carving that was more important to the people(s) who made the Pallasboy vessel than the object itself? In his guest blog post Aidan O’Sullivan wrote that “we should remember that some societies don’t make the distinction between human subject and passive object like we do”. Whilst I would question the dichotomy he implies between ‘thing’ and ‘person’ (and I understand that this isn’t necessarily the approach taken by the team – see Ben’s blog post on Lefebvre’s notion of ‘meshwork’), I think that an exploration of the relationship between subject and object – particularly the conjoining of body (carver) and technology (tools) to create a reconstructed vessel – might help the team think in different ways not just about the original vessel but also the person (or people) who did the carving.
Given the dominance of the visual sense in Western culture we have a tendency to deem the process of creation as largely irrelevant to our appreciation and understanding of artworks and other crafted objects; it is the end product that matters (Howes and Classen 2014). Art museums keep their precious finds in a state of suspended animation, allowed neither to die nor decay, creating a sense of atemporality and disconnectedness which denies the processual and relational nature of their being (ibid.). I was heartened to see that the Pallasboy Project team are taking time to carefully audio-visually document the making of the reconstructed vessel (and other ‘making’ in later phases) because I feel it shows an openness to acknowledging the process of creation as a vital part of the original vessel’s beauty and power (ibid.). Likewise, the team’s joint participation in the carving seems to have facilitated a more nuanced understanding of the vessel than might have been derived from a more traditional disembodied and contemplative approach (i.e. simply measuring and cataloguing the features of the original vessel). Following Spinney (2006), one could say that the team have experienced the vessel in its ‘moment of creation’ allowing them to access (at least to some extent) the ‘nonreflexive and prerepresentational sensations and experiences’ involved in carving such an object.
When we met, Ben spoke ruefully of the cuts and grazes he’d acquired while taking his turn at carving, the way his muscles had ached and become fatigued in ways that he was unaccustomed to. Watching him carve Ben the novice seems to rely on brute force and energetic enthusiasm than any form of skill, bending his joints in unsustainable ways; in comparison, Mark’s expert movements are more fluid, perceptive, visceral and precise. This would suggest that the carving anatomy doesn’t come ready made; rather the ‘object and subject [develop] in conjunction with one another through practical use’ (Spinney 2006: 717). The ability to carve is the result of a long process of negotiation (Winance 2006) between a person and their bodily capabilities, the tools they use, and the type wood they are carving. It involves somatic (e.g. the use of hand-eye coordination and proprioception to direct one’s tool to the right spot with the required amount of force) and analytic (e.g. the use of intuition derived from past experience to decide which tree to fell, what the wood’s moisture content might be, which part of the wood to strike and how hard) attunement (Ash and Gallagher 2014; Ash 2013). Effortless carving like effortless cycling requires endless practice, but when it is achieved the carver appears to inhabit what Spinney (2006) calls ‘a rhythm’; there is, as Le Breton (2000 cited in Spinney 2006: 718) perceptively states, ‘a melting of self into action’.
Recent post-humanist work has suggested that rather than being a determined biological entity the body is more of an ‘open and plastic boundary’ the basic condition of which is ‘change, porosity and augmentation’ (Ash and Gallagher 2014). Employing a ‘relational’ understanding of the body (Winance 2006), for example, Papadimitriou (2008) has demonstrated how a disabled person’s wheelchair is gradually incorporated into their corporeal schema through routine activity and training and observation of other novice and expert users.* Rather than the wheelchair simply being an inert object in this process, as the person’s bodily awareness extends to include it, it becomes an extension of the ‘lived body’, the surface through which the person physically perceives, senses their way through, and experiences the world (ibid.). As such, both parties must labour, their relationship must be made and unmade numerous times until both are ultimately transformed (Winance 2006); in the case of the Pallasboy vessel, tools had to be tested and trialled in different ways (and occasionally broken!), a body used to working with electric carvers had to develop a new type of muscle memory, a ‘master’ craftsman had to once again deal with the mixed emotions of learning an essentially familiar skill almost from scratch – nervousness, elation, melancholy. The dynamism of this relationship means that skill acquisition (e.g. the ability to use a wheelchair or, if I can extrapolate, to use an Iron Age tool) is not merely mechanical, technical or practical (which seems to be the focus of much experimental archaeology) but also ‘existential and embodied’ (Papadimitriou 2008).
If we understand the body as emergent through its ‘interweavings’ in the world (Macpherson 2010) we can perhaps begin to think about the meaningfulness of carving the Pallasboy vessel as a ‘transformational’ act. Whether this had more relevance for the individual(s) doing the carving than the collective is up for debate – it was interesting to note Brian’s comment regarding the embodied impact of simply being present during process of creation. As the workshops have shown, individuals will have undoubtedly experienced the carving in different ways because ‘we are all composed of organs which have different material thresholds’ that in turn shape how affects such as the vibration of tool hitting wood are experienced (Ash 2015). Likewise, because the affordances offered by the tools (wear and tear) and the wood (e.g. moisture) would never have been fixed, and because bodily capacities wax and wane according to time and circumstance (e.g. strength, visual acuity, dexterity) (Ash and Gallagher 2014) it is likely that the relationality between subject-object(s) would have changed even during the process of crafting.
*I am grateful to my student, Phoebe Fielding, for bringing the work of Winance and Papadimitriou to my attention.
Ash, J. (2013) Technologies of captivation: videogames and the attunement of affect, Body and Society 19(1): 27–51.
Ash. J. (2015) Technology and affect: Towards a theory of inorganically organised objects, Emotion, Space and Society 14: 84-90.
Ash, J. and Gallagher, L.A. (2014) Becoming attuned: objects, affects and embodied methodology, in Perry, M. and Medina, C. (eds.) (2014) Methodologies of Embodiment: Inscribing Bodies in Qualitative Research. London: Routledge, pp., 69-85.
Howes, D. and C. Classen. 2014. Ways of Sensing: Understanding the Senses in Society. London: Routledge.
Macpherson, H. (2010) Non-representational approaches to body-landscape relations, Geography Compass 4(1): 1-13.
Papadimitriou, C. (2008) Becoming en‐wheeled: the situated accomplishment of re‐embodiment as a wheelchair user after spinal cord injury, Disability and Society 23(7): 691-704.
Spinney, J. (2006) A place of sense: a kinaesthetic ethnography of cyclists on Mont Ventoux, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 24: 709-732.
Winance, M. (2006) Trying out the wheelchair: the mutual shaping of people and devices through adjustment, Science, Technology, and Human Values 31(1): 52-72.
Woodyer, T. and Geoghegan, H. (2012) (Re)enchanting geography? The nature of being critical and the character of critique in human geography, Progress in Human Geography 37(2) 195–214.
‘The way of the craftsman… is to allow knowledge to grow from the crucible of our practical and observational engagements… [it is] an art of inquiry.’ (Ingold 2013: 6).
Upon invitation to an anthropomorphic figurine carving workshop I could not describe my excitement. As a green woodworker besotted with archaeology this would surely be thedream for me! In recent months I have been studying Bronze Age socketed gouges and axe heads in the collections of the British Museum and have had to conceptually figure out how those tools would have been used. I could always cross reference with my own carving techniques, using modern steel tools of sometimes similar design, but I would never gain a true understanding of them through use, knowing with them.
My adventure would take me to Meitheal Mara; a boat building yard (or much more) in Cork. Ireland still retains a sense of exoticism for me even though I have been there many times now. The objective of the workshop, held by the rather incredible collective that make up The Pallasboy Project, was to carve anthropomorphic figurines in alder wood using replica Bronze Age tools. I hasten to reiterate, this was a dream come true for me.
The workshop would ‘focus on the nature and possible meaning of these mysterious anthropomorphic figures, to hold some personal feeling, or thought, as they [we] worked, and in so doing create an object that reflected back this meaning.’ Our inspirational focus was to be the Red Man of Kilbeg (see previous posts). The material – green (fresh) alder wood – was perhaps of cultural significance to Bronze Age carvers, with its ability to ‘bleed’ when worked at a certain age and at the right time of year. The Red Man is one of forty or so examples from across Northern Europe generally spanning the Bronze and Iron Ages, with some figures dating to before the majority.
For once I could abandon my dusty workshop in Streatham, take off the sterile blue gloves of the British Museum and simply pick these Bronze Age tools up. To hold them, study, feel and smell them (I did), to see how the light dances off the newly smelted bronze (see Figs 1 and 2). Essentially I want to categorically destroy these tools; beating and twisting them into freshly hewn timber. We no longer need to categorise them by time, region, type etc. They are not artefacts more rather tools for the fluid processes of making and design. To engage the materials is not to deduce their properties but to create an understanding of their subjective implications on the maker. This line of thinking is that of design theorist David Pye (1968). For us the workshop practice will itself ‘have material effects’ (Conneller 2011: 5) that simultaneously create and record ideas about the materials in question – alder wood and Bronze Age technology. Recording information in this way means that engagement has social effects also.
One of the most fundamental benefits of making in an experimental and archaeological sense like this is the very sense of fluidity. Design and craft form an active part of my life as they offer a contrast to other, more oppressive rhythms of the city and the times we inhabit. Without resorting to cliché, there is this sense of feeling transfixed when engaging with materials and tools. You cannot study fluidity, you just have to do it. One can merge ‘the cognitive and anatomical processes involved in learning and doing’ (Marchand 2010: 10).
It should be noted that I cannot provide photographs of the processes involved with the design at the workshop (bar one). Practice and observation arise concurrently. There was no time, it would appear, for documentation at the creative stages. This is highly personal work, as evident in the description below.
The other benefit to this kind of work is that it is liberated from the traditional methodologies of the very two schools to which it is perhaps most beneficial; archaeology and anthropology. With regards to archaeology the initiative is obvious – this is a rare opportunity to explore objects that have spent a disproportionate amount of time in drawers and cabinets rather than as tools in working hands. With anthropology we are offered an even rarer snapshot into a history of design, materiality and engagement in a controlled social situation. There is no right or wrong answer with this kind of investigation – the gloves were off, cognitively speaking.
Although these tools are Bronze Age in design they are not in theory or practice; we will inevitably think differently about these tools to Bronze Age people. And Bronze Age people cannot make themselves available for ethnography as such. This project is liberated from context in two ways thenceforth. This should be viewed more like performance archaeology through artistic media, or at least serve as a good example of social practice art. It goes beyond mere ethnography or ‘research’ and provides a field for anthropology and archaeology to play with issues from new perspectives (Sansi 2015).
The benefits of this kind of work are also coupled with flaws. As mentioned above, this is a very personal way to study and to allow oneself to become enmeshed in a creative process like this makes one oblivious to a lot of what else is going on! I cannot provide any real observation of anyone else’s process or experience. Whilst making I did not really talk to anyone about what they were doing or thinking (except during little breaks). This is entirely the opposite of ethnography. I did not register any interesting points about the social effects of making on anyone else’s behalf as I was too entangled by what I was experiencing. It is only with the power of hindsight that I can craft a concise monograph, for at the time the project was too unpredictably liberating for me to focus (see below).
Instead of conducting research and ‘being tied down by a retrospective commitment to descriptive fidelity’, we were in and of that commitment (Ingold 2013: 6). We must, however, be wary not to use one project alone to create ‘a meta-theory for everything else’ (Ingold 2013: 29). Making, in this exploratory way, is case specific. The project will throw light on Bronze Age archaeology, not necessarily floodlighting it but perhaps giving it the glow of a nice scented candle that burns quietly in people’s thoughts. There will always be so much we will not know.
The Way to Meitheal Mara
Alas, after a sodden afternoon trying to find the boat yard I finally arrived, to the sound of wood chipping and sawing. Truth be told I had not minded getting lost as it gave me an excuse to talk to people. This set up was as far removed from my own back home as it could have been. Open to the wind but sheltered from the rain, boats and curraghs of various sizes were lying around in every available space. I met Mark Griffiths, an excellent woodworker and an extremely interesting bloke – the kind everyone likes to go for a pint with. He was working on the replica of The Red Man of Kilbeg – a wooden sculpture unearthed in Co. Offaly.
The crudely carved alder wood of the original has a harrowing quality. It would have appeared leaning over you, hunched and tired and pained. I have to admit I find it unnerving. Compared to other examples of vaguely similar dates from across Europe, The Red Man was uncomfortably ambiguous. The performative effects of the sculpture afford it an artistic title and it was indeed inspirational. The posture suggests something ghostly to me personally. Needless to say it takes great skill to convey those sentiments through greenwood and Mark was the right man for the job.
We, a motley crew of enthusiasts coming from various backgrounds, would carve our own anthropomorphic sculptures using those bespoke tools. I had played about with a few of the axes and managed to fall in love with one (see Fig. 2). The gouge and chisel looked especially exciting too, as they were a near perfect match for some in the museum dating to the Middle Bronze Age from East Yorkshire (Figs. 3 and 4). Without having to make the same kinds of designs that make up my day-to-day woodwork, this would be an opportunity to enact the fluidity that would prove so essential to performancearchaeology and offer an alternative to craftwork.
This opportunity to de- and re-classify tools from the stuff of museums, documentation and theory to active agents in craft and art is rare and should always be embraced where possible. Tools, especially hand tools and the objects they help to make, can readily shift between the social and material categories of artefact-craft-art. Each informs its own set of social parameters and even these are subject to review and change. A celebrated art piece, for example, inspires a different scale of socio-economic value to a mere mundane, everyday artefact.
These values and attitudes are reflected onto the maker and his/her techniques also. It was exactly these social effects of maker-material interactions that I would normally try to study anthropologically but here they are performed artistically. With time artefacts are treated as art, but today the beautifully crafted bronze tools would change all that. We would metaphorically unplan how to think about these tools and instead think with or through them. And off we went.
I stripped bark away to reveal the creamy greenwood below with my beloved axe. One of the magical things about alder is the way this creamy colour turns orange and red in a matter of minutes (see Fig. 5). Something similar happens with cherry wood, it is quite otherworldly. As the greenwood slowly dies in your hands it works up a pastier feel. This is not the ‘bleeding’ effect that we spoke about earlier as the wood was not of an appropriate age, although it did stain your hands and give them a musky smell.
Having exposed the log I hew away V-shaped cuts into both ends. After seeing ample Bronze Age wooden penises by now I decided I had grown sick of the objectification of men in prehistory. So instead I used the prized gouge to carve a vagina into my piece to kickstart the flow. I then gave her shoulders, a neck and aimed to give her an interesting nose. In order to carve her nose I had to lie her on her back and steady the shock along the grain by holding the log between my knees. I was giving birth to her character. The red of her body mirrored mine as I worked up a sweat…
And then it all just stopped.
Fluidity ended. So quickly.
The stern eyes of another figurine had emerged beside me; that of Fergal Gaynor and I could not compete with him. His figurine, the lovely Gertrude, was simply beautiful. The technical prowess on Gertrude’s jaw and brows, the precise execution of her shoulders. I could not carve to save my life! The problem was that with repeated practice of my craft in my dusty workshop I had become imprisoned by design. The fluidity had dried up because I needed a reference for what I was making. I had become slothful. I assumed that having gained experience in woodwork I would be able make something beautiful. But in the moment I was too in awe of something else. Suddenly I was back in Streatham and the museum. Looking at these materials as objects again, that sense of fluidity had been dammed.
That other carving had entranced me and now instead of embracing the liberating environment (physically and socially) and working with new materials, I had started to doubt myself. I had been emasculated. I became jealous and resentful and loathed my woman. I carved her neck so thin so as to leave her in a permanent state of peril. I hollowed out her stomach and carved her arms into a grieving posture. I chipped away her mouth and cheeks to mute her forever, to make her characterless. We had fallen out of love.
When people asked me who or what I was carving; what my inspiration was, I would tell them ‘my Mum’. It all seemed to have turned dark. The truth is my mother had nothing to do with any part of the process (which legitimises the continued presence of a vagina carved by my own hand). My mother has suffered. I decided to equate that with the ‘material effects’ on my log. The reality is that I simply rebranded my work at the last minute to make it look like there had been method all along. There had not. I was spooked somewhere along the line and now my mother’s experiences provided a substantial shield to guard my own damaged pride. I was unhappy with my work and pretentiously devised a cover story.
What had been a story of joy and love became a lie and I was ashamed. The tone of my practice (and description) is reflected materially in the design that emerged. You can see this in how much axe work was involved. I find this the most hypnotic and satisfying because you do not have to think too much. I just allowed my love of that axe to fill the void in my creativity. Mark’s work on The Red Man suggested that most of the lower half of the original would probably have been done with a felling axe.
It is always tempting, in our line of inquiry, to romanticise skilled workmanship and it’s associated processes and techniques. In the crafting of interesting material culture, the social effects have long provided a backdrop for sociological theory. Making has become a metaphor for learning; it encompasses a good morality and a capacity to ‘adjust one’s actions and interactions in relation to shifting conditions’ (Portisch 2010: 72). This kind of manual intelligence certainly accrues value in retrospect. It is only with the passage of time that one can document these experiences.
In the moments of creation under the canopy at Meitheal Mara I did not undertake some kind of spiritual journey. Rather, I drove along an inconsistently scenic West Country A Road, stopping intermittently at service stations.
I have since fallen back in love with my carving. It is only with hindsight that the environment in which the activities unfolded, the new friends I made and the excitement of picking up those tools have been embodied in the design I left behind. I approached the scenario with too much pride and failed to acknowledge that… ‘Skill is an outcome not a prerequisite’ (Venkatesan 2010: 161).
It is interesting how the liberating effects of place and materials could be so readily eradicated. I could be transported back to my own workshop so immediately. The dreamy and rugged set up at Meitheal Mara had been escapism for me, it is the antithesis of what it can be like in Streatham. The power of that incredible material composition in the boat yard could be made meaningless by the momentary glance from a wooden face.
Whilst I was meant to be ‘journeying’ and getting lost in a lovely, woolly utopian creative moment I was actually thinking back to the designs I had done time and time again in South London. I was constantly referencing previous experiences and engagements. This was meant to be an archaeological version of ‘life on the open road’ except mine had the familiarity of the English countryside and recognisable, repetitive built environments that sold sausage rolls and cigarettes.
These contrasting sensations can arise from the same landscape at different times and we should bare this in mind when thinking about how The Red Man could have fit into and influenced its own environs in the Bronze Age.
The sketch below attempts to depict how fluidity unfolds in differing conditions of work. In the creation of artefacts, repeated activities with predictable materialities produce a finished item that functions admirably. The project has a start and finish. Craft, however, goes off in meandering trajectories; cross-referencing embedded techniques for authentic and innovative design. This room for innovation with reference to heritage affords craftwork with artistic qualities whilst retaining functionality. Both artefacts and craft objects are accessible. Art is wildly more unpredictable and is propped up by a sense of inaccessibility.
By virtue of how archaeological artefacts are recorded and circulated, the practice of traditional archaeology is a craft that generates art. Here we were attempting to reverse the interpretive process; to create art that is archaeologically significant.
The social effects of artefacts, crafts and art continue after their completion in material form. The sketch attempts to abstractly depict processes of making, not an object in and of itself.
Where paths cross themselves, technically and socially, emotional reactions arise in the maker – associations with place, people, smells, sounds etc. When the path continues, fluidity is enacted and these phenomena metaphorically dissolve through the hands and into material to give form. It is at these intersections that references are made and this was where I got stuck. I was a craftsman trying too hard to make art.
As a result of my own style of woodwork I had become stuck in my ways, as it were. I could only refer to what had already been instead of flowing with whatever came. When I step into my workshop I usually have a plan of what I want to have crafted by the end of the session. If I do not have a plan as such then I have a bank of roughly eight to ten designs that I know I can make fluidly – a result of repetition, experimentation and practical mimesis. I had developed a ‘goal-directed sequence’ (Marchand 2010: 12); concise creative tasks with a beginning and end that still allowed for flare and innovative tweaks. The overemphasis on this notion of ‘goal’ is what had killed my fluidity.
In that moment, the experience metaphysically emerged out of Gertrude. Suddenly my ‘goal’ had become meaningless because it had not resulted in beauty such as hers. In essence, practice had let aesthetics provoke a reaction in me that inherently affected my behaviour, thoughts and feelings. These are also social effects but not those I had hoped to experience. Immersed in that world of fluidity we expose ourselves to the affordances of design and material. Different ways of making inspire differing reactions but all are efficacious nonetheless. With the confidence of an axe in hand came a vulnerability to intimidation and envy of Gertrude and then hatred of my own work.
This surely represents the success of the workshop. The initial aim had been to explore maker-material engagements; creative processes in the carving of wooden effigies – inspired by the theories surrounding The Red Man and other figurines. The only difference is that it was not my own carving that evoked such a reaction. I purely transferred the effects of a superior beast onto my troubled piece.
This capacity for design to inspire thought and feeling would surely have been harnessed by the carvers of The Red Man. This forms part of a long artistic tradition by woodworkers to inspire a beholder; to cause a reaction. These moments of inspiration are exactly that – momentary. They need not represent a cultural whole. Hence, The Red Man should not inform a pan-European woodworking tradition that spanned millennia and huge swathes of land. He/she/it is of a time and place, the artistic exploration of which is evidently still a powerful and evocative experience with tools in hand.
The sexualised act of making could certainly have been experienced and used by Bronze Age carvers. This is evident time and time again in the archaeological record. Time becomes an Other also. The sensation of fluidity relative to time spent making need no further explanation here. It shall be clear from the way in which this retrospective is written that those moments are difficult to describe; to fix in words on a page. Perhaps it is possible to have too much freedom from context. Perhaps this degree of personal investment in the moment is counterproductive; it is evident that it was difficult to be anthropologically observational at the workshop. Hindsight has become the distance needed to untangle social effects and articulate thoughts.
Moments like this are inherently subjective and this works in opposition to the way archaeologists have been trying to study the world. Perhaps if tools, crafts and works of art can move as liberally between social spheres as tradesman, craftspeople and artists, then so too can the disciplines that pay them the most attention; art, archaeology and anthropology. The Pallasboy Project has given us the platform from which to think about all three.
Conneller, C. 2011. An Archaeology of Materials: Substantial Transformations in Early Prehistoric Europe. London: Routledge
Ingold, T. 2013. Making. Anthropology, Archaeology, Art and Architecture. London: Routledge
Marchand, T (ed). 2010. Making Knowledge: Explorations of the Indissoluble Relation between Mind, Body and Environment. London: Wiley-Blackwell
Portisch, A. O. 2010. ‘The Craft of Skilful Learning: Kazakh Women’s Everyday Craft Practices in Western Mongolia’ in T, Marchand (ed). 2010. Making Knowledge: Explorations of the Indissoluble Relation between Mind, Body and Environment. London: Wiley-Blackwell pp 59-75
Pye, D. 1968. The Nature and Art of Workmanship. Stowmarket: Unicorn Press
Sansi, R. 2015. Art, anthropology and the gift. London: Bloomsbury Academic
Venkatesan, S. 2010. ‘Learning to weave, weaving to learn… What?’ in T, Marchand (ed). 2010. Making Knowledge: Explorations of the Indissoluble Relation between Mind, Body and Environment. London: Wiley-Blackwell pp 150-166
I had been watching the Pallasboy project since its inception, and was extremely impressed not only by its achievements, but also at the attitude and outlook of its participants. Their willingness to embrace a creative approach to ancient objects is very compelling, and so I was both delighted and slightly daunted when approached to recreate replica artefacts for the second phase. I have about a decade’s worth of experience making replica bronzes using prehistoric methods and tools, but this was quite an involved task, and the resultant objects were not ornamental, but needed to function well under demanding conditions.
The interaction between art and archaeology is one that I have been interested in for many years. I studied archaeology in UCD, but only after flirting with an art career in Limerick School of Art and Design for a year. I left art college, but never really abandoned the idea that art had some way of informing archaeology. This manifested in many ways throughout my college years, and I spent very little time in trenches, but a lot of time making replicas of things from the past, learning not only how they were manufactured, but also how they worked after they were made.
I discovered Umha Aois in 2004, a collaborative and ongoing experimental project formed of artists & archaeologists, who research and practice prehistoric metalworking techniques. They hold a major annual symposium, as well as other minor events during the year, which sees them working together to recreate replica objects and new art pieces in simple charcoal-fuelled pit furnaces. What is immediately obvious when attending their symposia is the depth of knowledge and ability brought to bear by the members, who include sculptors, jewellers, stone carvers, ceramic artists, archaeologists and engineers. It is a fertile learning environment, and practical skill combines with creative zeal to great effect.
It was in this context that I learned how to make objects from bronze using stone moulds, clay press moulds and lost wax modelling. At first I had a lot of direct tutelage, but soon was allowed the freedom to do my own experiments and make my own art. The process can be rich and varied, but what quickly became apparent is how much more there is to casting than the straightforward craft elements. The physicality of the workspace is striking, and it is not difficult to imagine that symbolism must have been inherent in furnaces, moulds and crucibles. Casting is a very visually arresting process, and is one of the closest things to alchemy one can experience.
(Casting photos courtesy of Billy Mag Fhloinn)
The creativity of bronze workers also manifests in lots of other ways, and the embodied skill of artists and artisans can be seen in how the furnace pits are made and laid out, how the necessary equipment is made, and how the many small problems encountered are solved in ingenious manner. Another, far less tangible element to the process is the social dynamic. Casting often takes place after dark, and the furnace acts as a natural hearth around which conversation, joking and song takes place. The work is interwoven with play, and the way people in the past might have done the same is a popular topic of discussion. Other aspects include little rituals, customs and even superstitions that are constantly creeping into and around the periphery of the activity. The process becomes imbued with a significance that, while sometimes fanciful, offers intriguing possibilities as to what people in the past might have thought about casting, and indeed, the cast objects themselves.
I had plenty of opportunity to make the tools for the Pallasboy Project, as I spent two periods over the summer of 2016 making replica artefacts. The first was part of the Irish Field School of Prehistoric Archaeology’s summer programme, where Ros Ó Maoldúin and I took ten students to Craggaunowen in Co. Clare for a week of replica artefact making. Many of these students had spent the previous month excavating wedge tombs in the Burren, and the course offered them an opportunity to engage with artefacts and processes in a way that opened them to new insights into metallurgy, and its significance in Chalcolithic society. It also gave me a chance to make axes, and I used the opportunity to cast some palstaves using clay press moulds, and one flat axe in an open stone mould. One attempt at a late bronze age socketed axe was disastrously unsuccessful, and served to remind me how much I still have to learn about prehistoric techniques.
Later on in the summer I attended the Umha Aois 2016 annual symposium, which took place this year as part of the Skibbereeen Arts Festival. This is something of an annual pilgrimage for me, for many of the reasons outlined above, and I was given valuable assistance in making many of the tools. Special mention must be made of Holger Lonze, who lent me two rubber moulds taken from original Bronze Age artefacts. I made wax copies from these, and used the lost wax technique to replicate two identical flat axes and one socketed axe. One of the two flat axes was eventually mounted as an adze, while the other was hafted as an axe, to demonstrate the possible diversity of use of these tools.
Having spent these two extremely enjoyable stints by the fire, and far away from the real world, I came home with a nice hoard of bronzes, waiting to be cleaned and hafted. It is at this stage that one really appreciates the skill of the original smiths. Cleaning and polishing bronze using modern tools is an arduous process, but must have been much more so in the past. I also imagine that they must have been very exacting in trying to achieve as fine a finish as possible during the casting process, as a rough surface, or one with pits, excess sprues or other flaws would have required a lot of finishing in order to produce a presentable object. A good mould, well poured, saves a lot of time on the other side.
Another part of the process involves putting a good cutting edge on the tools. Bronze straight from the mould is quite soft, due to its being annealed by the casting process. Work hardening was required in order to make the cutting edge tougher, and this is achieved by hammering the bronze while it is at room temperature. Heating and quickly quenching steel makes it tough, but has the exact opposite effect on copper and its alloys. By hammering the metal, the crystalline lattice of its structure is deformed, and it becomes a lot tougher. It is important not to be too vigorous, however, as excessive work hardening will crack the metal. A balance must be struck, therefore, between sufficiently hardening the metal, and not damaging the cutting edge. Once the hammering was completed on all the tools, they had to be honed to a final sharpness. This is a skill required of anyone using bronze tools, as they need more regular sharpening than steel. It is not surprising, therefore, that whetstones are a relatively common find on archaeological sites.
Once the objects had been cleaned up, the excess bronze removed and retained for recycling, and the edges sharpened, the final stage was to make suitable handles. After I had consulted archaeological reports as to the most appropriate wood to use, Brian Mac Domhnaill from the Pallasboy Project delivered a selection of L-shaped ash handles to my workshop in west Kerry. We spent the bones of two days laying out the axeheads on their prospective mounts, carving them into shape, and cutting the correct notches in which the bronzes would be fixed. I then mixed a batch of adhesive, consisting of tree resin, beeswax and charcoal dust. The resultant glue was heated and dripped carefully into the wood, and the axeheads fitted before it set. Then we cut long strips of wet rawhide to bind the axes in place, and after it had dried and shrunk, it held a very firm grip on the assemblage. The final selection of tools included a flat axe and an adze, three palstaves of various sizes, two socketed axes, one socketed gouge and a trunnion chisel.
I was delighted to hear of the success of the subsequent workshop, whereby artists and craftspeople were invited to use the tools to directly engage with woodcarving, in a practical attempt to explore the anthropomorphic figures of late North European prehistory. They seem to have held up well, and in some instances even added something to the insight gained by the participants. Once again, art, craft and archaeology combine to give a deeper understanding of the past, and bring inspiration to the present. It was an honour to have played a part in this process.
O’Sullivan’s recent blog on the Pallasboy Vessel (O’Sullivan, 2015) is both an enlightening and compelling account of the potential function of this unique Irish discovery. Following my visit to the Meitheal Mara boatyard in Cork, where everyone was busy in mid-construction of the replica and my espousing alternative theories on construction and use of the original vessel, I was delighted to be invited to write this short piece. I will not attempt to detail the excavation or description of the original vessel as to do so would fall short of O’Sullivan’s (2015) finely crafted account and Murray’s (2000) publication based on her excavation.
O’Sullivan plausibly cites ritual bathing as a likely function of the original vessel, which can be further supported by various instances in the archaeological and historical record. His account notes secondary and tertiary functions during the life-cycle of this vessel. As the structural condition of the vessel changed through its life, so too did its function and thus its meaning and relevance to its patrons.
An alternative theory is presented here on its initial function, which differs from that of O’Sullivan. This is not a detraction on the plausibility of O’Sullivan’s narrative, but rather an alternative interpretation that is worthy of consideration. When I first saw the photographs of the original vessel, my background in maritime archaeology, naturally and perhaps unsurprisingly led me in the direction of considering flotation as functionality of the artefact. The manner of construction accords perfectly with that of the dugout boat or logboat tradition in Ireland. Yet at 1.3m, its length immediately discounts its function as that of plying Ireland’s rivers and lakes – unless as a child’s toy, for which given the effort in its construction is implausible. Until this discovery, evidence available to this writer has shown no similar artefacts in Ireland. However, McGrail’s (1978) work on the English and Welsh boats cites similar examples from our nearest neighbour. He has interpreted these vessels a possibly towed behind its larger crewed and paddled counterpart – not unlike a car with a trailer. However given the effort of construction and their general size, I consider construction of a larger dugout boat of more practical value, than that of a smaller trailer. Alder has rarely been used in the construction of dugout boats in Ireland, with oak being the predominant species used. Perhaps it is the propensity of alder to twist or distort when it is being hollowed that creates its rarity in such a vessel. This may be the occurrence cited by O’Sullivan that led to the construction crack in the Pallasboy vessel.
From a waterborne perspective, the Pallasboy vessel and other such discoveries could have been used for transporting materials. From prehistory, rivers and lakes formed a readily available conduit of travel, communication and migration, well into the medieval period and beyond. A means of conveyance on or alongside these water bodies were crucial. Much of this focus has been on boats. However, it is probable that some of this travel was by wading in the shallows or along the bank. It is possible that the small dugout floats or rafts could have been used to carry heavier or bulkier loads and materials, thus freeing the burden from the shoulders of the traveller and enabling them to tow the contents with the water supporting the load.
But what of the Pallasboy vessel used as such a form of conveyance? Based upon my observations of the replica, it retains sufficient net volume to carry materials and appropriate values of displacement to ensure the water would support the weight of the vessel and load it carries. The lower density of alder, compared to other timber, such as oak, would have assisted its buoyancy. Its rounded ends on all three planes would have reduced the values of friction generated by either towing the vessel through water or from the flow of a river dragging on the hull. More detailed observations such as measurements of base thickness relative to that of the vessel’s sides would be required to determine its values of lateral stability, namely whether it would have prone to capsizing. Or should the builders of the replica feel so inclined, they could experiment with the vessel in water…
Does the provenance of the Pallasboy vessel lend itself to this consideration of use on water? It was recovered from peatland in Westmeath, close to the border with Offaly. The water catchment of the Clodiagh River flows from Pallasboy townland to the south, while the River Brosna serves similarly to north. The Clodiagh River merges with the River Brosna some 16km to the west, with the River Brosna then discharging into the River Shannon at Shannon Harbour a further 30km to west. A dugout boat was discovered (with mooring posts and a paddle) in the Little Brosna River in 1929 (Gregory, 1997: 321), at Clonlisk townland, Co. Offaly. However, with the exception of the rivers namesakes, comparisons start to disperse. This 3m long dugout boat’s provenance is approximately 75km to southwest and in a different river. One comparison can be drawn from both rivers being of similar size at the respective find locations. Unless site-specific environmental analysis is undertaken, original profiles of rivers are notoriously difficult to compare with that of prehistory, as alterations occur over time through natural changes in the landscape or through human interventions. It is plausible that the River Brosna, at Pallasboy was originally larger and could support navigable craft. O’Sullivan cites secondary and tertiary use of the vessel. This equally applies to this interpretation as it does not discount the possibility of a waterborne vessel being its original function. Certainly its location of discovery was not that of its original use.
Application of naval architectural analysis or engaging with experimentation on water of the Pallasboy replica may dismiss or add support to this theory. Hopefully time will tell whether this interpretation holds water…
Some further reading
Gregory, N. 1997 ‘A comparative study of Irish and Scottish Logboats’. D.Phil Thesis. University of Edinburgh.
McGrail, S. 1978a ‘Logboats of England and Wales’ British Archaeological Reports, 51. Oxford.
Murray, C. 2000 ‘A wooden vessel from Co. Westmeath, Ireland’,NewsWARP 28, 7–8.