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

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.

The Discovery of the Ballachulish Goddess, “This strange relic of paganism…”

By this time, everyone must have heard of the ‘graven image’, recently discovered in old Ballachulish Moss; a find the most intriguing and curious and puzzling that has ever yet engaged the attention of Scottish archaeologists.”

The two contemporary accounts of the discovery of the Ballachulish goddess are tantalisingly vague as regards certain key details that might help us better contextualise and hence interpret the artefact: a piece in the Inverness Courier (9th December, 1880) and a paper in the Proceedings of the Royal Society. The former is a remarkable piece of writing, written in a languid prose with florid touches, replete with the inevitable late 19th century classical allusions. Much of the information in this piece seems to have come from a ‘luncheon’ hosted by the Rev Chinnery Haldane (owner of the land where the goddess was discovered and subsequently Dean of Argyll). The authors should also be thanked for apparently providing our best visual record of the Goddess, the black and white photograph (Plates 1-4) of the artefact before it started to deteriorate. The relevant passage is worth quoting in full:

“We have suggested to the Rev Haldane that it should be photographed, for the edification of the intelligently curious in such matters, who may not have had an opportunity of making acquaintance of Our Lady of the Ferry in propria persona. The balance proceeds of such photograph sales would be an acceptable boon to the deserving poor of the district in this inclement season.”

Whether the ‘deserving poor’ ever benefitted in such a manner isn’t recorded; but the resulting photograph is our only image of the goddess shortly after her discovery.

Plate 1

The subsequent scholarly paper by Sir Robert Christison (1881), is a lengthier, somewhat more focussed account carried out at the behest of the Antiquarian Society, but is lacking in terms of specific information including archaeological details that are reported in the Courier: Christison states that he drew on discussion with the Rev Haldane and the Rev Alexander Steuart, local cleric and also noted archaeologist, who apparently declined from reporting to the Society due to “…distance from the necessary opportunities of literary research…” (i.e. presumably he couldn’t make it to the library in Glasgow…or at least that was his excuse?). Slightly oddly, Christison reports that he felt himself unqualified to carry out the necessary “…literary antiquarian research…” and proposed other members of the Society, who declined but provided the necessary documents. There is almost a sense that no one much wanted to go near the subject, nor indeed the goddess herself. This might be echoed in an account from one of the villagers in Ballachulish who told the story that the railway workers charged with moving the goddess to Edinburgh in 1880 were apparently reluctant to handle the ‘pagan idol’.

Christison expands at some length on questions concerning the rates of peat accumulation as a means to date the artefact, and devotes rather less space in his paper to the actual find or the other archaeological material at the find spot. Whilst some of his discussion concerning the accumulation of peat is perceptive for its time, it provides little substantive detail on the find spot as such. It appears to draw directly or indirectly on the Courier account for much of the archaeological detail, apparently missing out or abbreviating certain facts. This much is clear: the figurine was discovered in November 1880, during “ditch making and…trenching the strip of mossland” close to the Rev Chinery Haldane’s property, Ardsheallach House, North Ballaculish. The find spot was ‘130 yards’ north from the shore of Loch Leven around 50 feet above sea level, and close to the ferry crossing (now bridge) across the opening of the former into Loch Linne..

Plate 2

The peatland is described as previously of much greater extent, covering much of the current area of North Ballachulish but reduced by peat cutting and drainage by the late 19th century. The description of the peat itself implies the presence of a ‘raised bog’ probably dominated by Sphagnum (bog moss) with the presence of many ‘sub fossil’ tree trunks beneath the peat suggesting a previous, pre-peat phase of woodland cover which was drowned as peat inception progressed. This mire survives as Ballachulish Moss, now boxed in by housing development and roads. The goddess was found just over four feet down (although previously the surface of the peat is described as at least 6 feet above this) and close to the interface between the peat and the basal gravels. The figurine was facedown and overlain by “…many twigs and branches, woven and interlaced in such a way…” that the workers present, named as Donald Mcinnes, Munro “…and others, the most intelligent and interested amongst the workers…” reached the conclusion that these remains were a “wicker work crate or basket” with other longer pieces of wood suggested to be part of ‘a wattled hut’. This is a frustratingly vague if tantalising conclusion.

The Courier accounts goes on to describe the previous discovery beneath the peat “several years previously” of “…several barrow loads of flint chips…hundreds of them in every stage of completion, arrow heads, spear points, knives and scrapers” contained within a “circular wattled building, of which stumps of the tough heart of old oak remained in situ”. The apparently extensive organic archaeological record of the Moss during the 19th century also included: “wooden basins, platters and bowls of an antique shape”, bog butter in solid wooden containers and ox and deer horns. Other sites around the moss include cairns and cists, including one Christison describes as “110 yards off and at the same level” which contained a ‘white powder’ (cremated bone?). It is unclear from this description whether the cist was found sealed beneath the peat or not.

Where does this leave us in terms of reconstructing the findspot itself? The location of the goddess and probably the ‘circular building’ associated with the abundant lithics, imply that these were constructed during the very earliest phases of peat growth in this landscape. If the description of the lithic assemblage is anything to go by, the structure probably predated the Iron Age and hence the goddess. Nor is it clear, if the goddess was located within a structure, although there seems a fair chance from the description of the woven twigs and branches, that the artefact was contained within (or placed under?) some sort of hurdle or wickerwork. This is reminiscent of later prehistoric human remains (‘bogbodies’) deposited in wetlands (for example, male and female bodies from Windeby, Schelswig Holstein; Aldhouse Green 2004); a detail we will return to later.

Plate 3

In terms of the relationship of the goddess to the peat that preserved her, it is tempting to suggest that peat growth had begun earlier to the west (the current location of the surviving Ballachulish Moss). In other words, the goddess, might have been deposited at the edge of a peatbog that by later prehistory, was expanding across the landscape. Certainly the position of the archaeological remains at the base of the peat, indicate waterlogged conditions but not such that access on foot was entirely impeded. It would likewise be tempting to suggest that the location thus associated with a still accessible, if rather wet, location or route between the east edge of the peatland and the western edge of the Loch: potentially dangerous, watery places on two sides of the traveller. The deposition of bogbutter (albeit undated) and other items implies the votive deposition of material into the moss, is in keeping with prehistoric traditions elsewhere.   If this was the case, then the context of the goddess might be somewhat similar to other later prehistoric anthropogenic figurines (e.g. The Wittemoor Figurines, Lower Saxony, Germany, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wittemoor_timber_trackway), at the edge of a routeway across a wetland. This is a tempting hypothesis but one for which we currently lack supporting data, not least radiocarbon dates from the base of peat and other associated palaeoenvironmental data to allow us to map the spread and extent of peat across this period. The surviving core of Ballachulish moss offers potential opportunity to collect such information and might be a target for future study although recent geophysical survey (https://canmore.org.uk/event/786479) indicates that little peat survives intact. However, the presence of even relatively thin in situ deposits raises the intriguing prospect that further archaeological sites and finds survive below the peat in this (scheduled) area.

Plate 4

Another aspect of the artefact, not least the good condition of the goddess when she was initially found, indicates that she could not have been exposed above ground for too long. Unseasoned alder wood will dry out and crack quite quickly (within weeks) although this process might be slowed in a wet place. So, the figurine fell, if she was ever upright at all, or was deliberately sunk, into the peat within perhaps a short time of her creation. This is almost as much as we can state or infer concerning the context of the burial of the Ballachulish goddess. She may have been within a hut or some form of enclosure, and might have been contained within or under a hurdle. We will return to reflect and analyse some of these details and associated archaeological information in subsequent blog posts.

Aldhouse-Green, M. 2004. An Archaeology of Images: Iconology and Cosmology in Iron Age and Roman Europe. London: Routledge.

Christison, R. 1881. An ancient wooden image, found in November last at Ballachulish peat-moss Proceedings of the Society March 14th

 

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.

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