Getting started on our Lough Corrib log boat, Bray 9.12.17 – 15.12.17

Mark Griffiths

Dublin’s wet cobbles sparkle with Christmas lights as I make my way to the National Museum of Ireland. The afternoon stopover in the city is a perfect opportunity to visit the Lurgan Canoe. Hewn from a single 14 meter long oak tree about 4000 years ago, this giant is a fine example of the basic craft built, throughout pre-history, to navigate rivers, lochs and the sea. Taking in the line of the boat with my eye and sketching out details in my notebook I’m both excited and daunted by the challenge of re-crafting one of these vessels.

Early the next morning I’m on the Dart train line that hugs the coast from Dublin to Bray in County Wicklow, the location of our freshly felled oak tree. The small town of Bray is closed for the winter. The silent seaside attractions looking garish set against the cold steel sky. I take a taxi to the hotel on the outskirts of town where Brian and I will be staying for the week.

The next morning, in the empty hotel restaurant, we catch up over breakfast and plan the days ahead. An hour later we are standing, tool and camera bags at our feet, waiting for David to pick us up on the main road into town. David’s family have owned the surrounding forest and farmland for centuries. He has kindly supplied our project with timber in the past, this time he had earmarked an oak tree that was being felled in Laragh near Glendalough.

The drive takes us along a winding farm track cut through thick woodland at Killruddery. We emerge into what looks like a post apocalyptic shanty town complete with battered military vehicles. David explains that in these days of farming diversity renting land to film crews can offer an alternative income stream. No stranger I think than allowing a group of archaeologists to recreate an Iron Age boat in your barn? The barn, it turns out, is precariously located between a battle torn future wasteland and a horde of Vikings camped out on a nearby hillside.

David pulls up his 4×4 next to a giant of an oak. Freshly felled, its girth is easily over 70cm. This tree that has made its way northeast from Laragh is what we must carve into a navigable vessel. Dropping my bag of axes next to the log I run my hand over the rough bark, the magnitude of what we have taken on is now clear. David leaves us, promising to return with a tree-grappling tractor. Sometime later the silence of the woodland is broken by the distinctive rattle of a powerful diesel engine. The tractors jaws clamp around the logs mid-section and the motor takes up the strain. We watch as the rear wheels leave the ground, the tractor pitches forward front wheels spinning in the mud, the fallen oak defiantly winning this test of strength. The resolve of the men and women crafting these boats in pre-history is not lost on us. A large split had developed at the base of the living tree prior to felling, but this only became apparent when viewed in section. There were also a couple of irregularities at the crown end. With help from our friends at Killruddery Farm and some modern power tools we reluctantly reduce our log from 7m to 5m in length.

The trimmed log is manoeuvred on to a trailer and driven across the estate to the Kiln Dried Hardwoods sawmill where it is loaded by Neil onto a vast industrial band mill. As we look on it is flipped and sliced on all four sides, days of work done in under ten minutes. Bearing the scars of the bandsaw blade the symmetrical square log is set down in a corner of the hanger-like shed. This is our workplace for the next week. The last powered intervention is in the form of a chainsaw. It traces out the line of the interior, then slices across leaving brick sized blocks, again, saving days of hard physical work. Without this early use of machinery our project would run out of both time and funds. We calculated, using test areas, just how long these processes would take with our copy Iron Age tools. Confident at the end of the project that we would have an accurate tally of working hours taken.

For the first time since being introduced to our oak tree I take a hand tool to its damp, coffee brown wood. The afternoon is spent using the combination of axe, adze and splitting wedges, the modern equivalent of prehistoric finds. As expected, the going is slow. The adze struggles with the oak’s fibrous, twisting grain patterns, the tools handle communicating the woods geometry to my hand. With each blow the raw hide bindings and basic wrapped hafting are challenged. The need to pull the tool head free after it has sunk into the timber puts stress on its fragile design. More successful is the combination of axe and wooden wedges. Splits are started in each block with the axe, then a wooden wedge is forced into this and driven home with sharp mallet blows. A loud crack echoes around the mill’s concrete walls as each oak block yields.

Over the next couple of days, the work falls into the same pattern. Starting from the root end, I split out the blocks using a combination of axe, adze and wedges. Each pass along the log takes roughly an hour and a half. Reaching the tree top I return to back to the root end, brushing away the loose spoil as I go. Then the climb starts again. Dilli and Roy, who work on the estate, take pity on my plight. Seeing someone battling in this way while surrounded by some of the most efficient, heavy duty timber conversion machinery is too much for them to bear. Lost in the rhythm of repetitive work, my thoughts will suddenly be jolted awake by the roar of a chainsaw, and there will be either Roy or Dilli cutting more, much appreciated, grooves.

The day’s work is broken at midday by a welcome trip to the village of Greystones, and lunch at the Happy Pear cafe. David has kindly lent Brian and I an old white Triumph 2500. Sat shrouded in a dark corner of the tractor shed, the cars racing insignia and stripped interior were clues to its past as a contender on the 1970’s rally circuit. With no power-steering, a contrary gear box and the heady fumes of hot oil cut with burning petrol, a simple trip to the next village was to live out a boyhood fantasy.

Slow but steady progress is made through the week and by Thursday the bulk of the interior has been removed. I spend the day using the adze to roughly level the internal floor and sides of the boat. We also bag up the spoil we have created. Numerous oak blocks lay scattered on a bed of brittle wood chips and powdery dust. The sheer quantity of wood waste created by each of our projects is always a source of wonder. This time the waste is destined for Brian’s stove.

Now timber has been removed from the tree the problem of a dead branch, centred on the boats side, is revealed. Running deep into the heartwood, this ugly, black 20cm gash crumbles in the fingers when picked at. There is no doubt that water will seep in at this point. However, in the vain hope to prove that it may not be as bad as feared we put a hose inside the boat and fill it with water. First, a faint trickle colours the dark split gloss black, then the straw white wood below glistens. Now, finding a path of escape, the flow of water increases at an alarming rate creating an ever-expanding puddle in the dust of the mill floor. This will obviously need some attention at a future date.

In line with archaeological evidence, we have decided to submerge our boat, at this early stage in it’s carving, in a small lake on the farm. Many vessels, some completed some half made, have been discovered close to the edge of either a lake, loch or river. Whether this was an act of concealment, or the method used to prevent the hull drying and splitting is open to discussion. Keeping the moisture content balanced in a wooden vessel’s timbers is a necessary science known to mariners throughout history. Evidence suggests trees for boat building were felled in late autumn when sap was low, and foliage lost. Bark was stripped and most of the timber removed before the roughed-out boat was intentionally sunk and secured in a water source. As the worst of the winter past, and spring returned, the water-swollen boat would be retrieved and carving would continue on the damp, soft timber. This way of working with the seasons was something we wished we could explore with our project.

We helped David hitch the roughly shaped vessel to the loader arms of his tractor, then watched on as it was moved from the mill to a small tree lined lake just outside. Here the boat was gently lowered into the cold, still water. A tender push from the tractor forks sent water cascading into the freshly hewn hollow and our craft slipped below the surface. While we had been working, almost unnoticed, the winter sun had slipped below the tree line, and now the lake surface was a burning bronze.

In fading light Brian and I thanked David and our friends at Killruddery for their help and hospitality. With a last glance over the spectral form, barely visible now in the dark water we left. In springtime we would return, raise the boat and move it to a new home at Cork’s community boat yard Meitheal Mara, where the crafting will continue.

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:

Pallasboy

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
Spoil
Important and telling waste
The story of daily life

Skill, interaction, instinct, judgment, symmetry

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

Pallasboy

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

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

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

Pallasboy

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

Pallasboy

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

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

Pallasboy

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
Sleep

Pallasboy

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
Cracking
Splits radiating from the heartwood
Submergence, Stabilisation
A damp hessian shroud

Pallasboy

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

Pallasboy

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
Joy

New cracks
Alarm
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

Pallasboy

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

Pallasboy

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!

Images: AnglingCharts.com

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

 

Carving the Ballachulish Figurine

Mark Griffiths

3rd August 2017

Of all the carving projects linked to The Pallasboy Project it has been the Ballachulish goddess that has given me the most sleepless nights. The 2500-year-old figurine, held in a glass case at the National Museum of Scotland, bears very little resemblance to the only surviving photograph taken around the time of her discovery in 1880. This blurred, grainy image hides much of the figure’s carved detail, however it cannot hide the goddess’s haunting stare. And it was the challenge of capturing her unique personality that woke me in the early hours.

On landing at Glasgow, I quickly collected our hire car and made my way to Dumbarton, where Orla, Ben and Brian were waiting. We planned the next few days work as we drove through the stunning landscape of the Scottish Highlands. Our small hotel, nestled like the rest of Ballachulish, on the shoreline of Loch Leven was soon found. As soon as we had deposited our heavy bags of tools and technical equipment we made our way to the local village hall to meet with Rob. It was Rob who had organised our project venue, the event publicity and even the timber for the carving, and that was our next destination, to meet up with a local woodsman who would fell a suitable tree for us. Finding timber to match our projects is often a challenge. Our woodlands and access to them is very different from what it was two thousand years ago. Therefore, unlike the original figurine which was carved from a single trunk of Alder, our goddess would be crafted in Birch. The Birch tree was locally sourced, grown on the hills overlooking Ballachulish, donated and felled especially for our project, this was good enough for me.

In the evening the group held an open event at the village hall for anyone interested in the project. We introduced our work and explained how it brought us to Ballachulish. As the evening progressed, the importance to the community of this figure created two thousand five hundred years ago was made very clear and a lively debate was had on the recorded find site and her origins.

Early the next morning I started carving. The first task was to strip the Birch log of its thin layer of bark and the slimy sap residue that covered the bone-white timber. The clean surface could then be marked with the figure’s outline. As well as a number of enlargements of the original photograph I had one printed to scale, on to this I could plot the goddess’s exact proportions and then transfer them onto our log.

The soft, creamy wood of the Birch carved well. Just a day after felling, the cuts made were crisp and sharp, even when using the crude Iron Age tools. This said, it was still going to prove a challenge to craft a credible likeness in the short time we had. By late afternoon I had her form roughed out and by end of day her rather stumpy legs were taking shape. As I worked, a steady stream of tourists and locals wandered in to chat and watch the figurine emerge. Ben asked visitors to collect examples of the distinctive quartz stone found on the shoreline. Set into the eyes of the original goddess its washed grey colour mirrored the deep loch and looked as if it had been chipped from the water.

The work on the first day had gone well. Before our evening meal we wandered to the contested find site in the bog fields of Ballachulish then on down through a stand of Alder and Oak to the Loch Leven shoreline where we walked silently, heads bent, looking for small quartz stones.

Waking early the next morning, I read that the West of Scotland had experienced its largest earthquake in thirty years on the same day as we had started work on our goddess of wind, thunder and mischief. Maybe it was fear of unleashing further wrath that found me unlocking the village door at five thirty in the morning ready for work. As the weather had improved from the day before (a happy goddess?) we decided to move the carving outside to attract more interest. It felt good to work in the open in the shadow of the same mist-shrouded mountains which, thousands of years past, had inspired a carver to create this iconic woman.

By midday the head and body were finished as were the only carved details found on the torso that we felt were clear enough to faithfully reproduce. All that was left was that face. For me, the power of the Ballacuhlish figure is found in her expression. Though formed in the distant past, her look of indignant rage has lost none of its potency. Pensively, I shaped her long nose, furrowed brows and twisted mouth. Two of our visitors, Bilil and Edouard, who had recently moved to Ballachuhlish, had both taken a keen interest in the project, even offering to bury the finished figurine in the garden of the beautiful house they were restoring. Looking at one of the printed images of the original, Bilil noticed the mouth had been finished with an exaggerated ‘Joker’ grin – a wonderful detail missed by me, but soon incorporated. After much apprehension the figure had her face and I was happy with it.

Late in the afternoon, putting the final touches to the carving I became aware of the large crowd of people gathered around – some had wandered curiously over, some had been following us for the past two days. It felt like the perfect time to give the goddess her eyes. The final act. Taking the two small quartz stones, selected by Brian as the best match, I cut two sockets under her brows then gently tapped the stones snugly home. As I raised the finished figurine to her feet I became aware how the conversations of the people around me silenced. This was the moment that a crudely carved log had taken on a deep significance to this place and people.

We drove the finished figurine to the location the original was supposedly unearthed. Here, in the soft rain, Brian captured some beautifully evocative images of the goddess framed against her mountains. As the sky darkened with the threat of a heavier downpour we headed back to the village for shelter and food.

Early the next morning, we made a last visit to the hall to assist Orla as she made a scan of the figurine, capturing our creation in digital form. Bags of equipment were then squeezed into the hire car, goodbyes were said and soon we were following the Glencoe road back to Glasgow. My focus on this trip had always been to capture something of the power evident in the stare of that figure carved over two thousand years past and rudely unearthed a mere two hundred years ago. However, over three days I learnt that the true power of the Ballachulish figure was her bond to this part of Scotland and its community. Her legend and myth, inspired by the landscape’s fierce beauty, were still told and passed on. When unearthed in 1880 the local workmen refused to touch her, such was the respect still for all that she represented. That the people of Ballachulish welcomed us, worked with us and made this new figurine part of their story was in the end the true success of the project.


A NEW GODDESS FOR BALLACHULISH from Brian Mac Domhnaill on Vimeo.