Brian Mac Domhnaill
Towards the end of last year Ben and I agreed that there were still a few loose ends regarding the various theories about the purpose or purposes of the original Pallasboy vessel. I had given up on the idea that our project could come to any decisive conclusion on the matter and that was fine by me given the fertile ground left for the imagination. As a ‘get-out’ explanation during our discussions I kept using the analogy of the kitchen sink and its many uses but perhaps a bath is closer in size and potential. In my lifetime I have used a bath to bathe, hand-wash clothes, cool beer and very recently as the temporary resting place of our shrouded deceased cat, before her ritual burial the following morning.
The issue with the Pallasboy vessel is that it is no ordinary sink or bath, now or in the Iron Age. It was and still is a finely crafted object made from a very rare tree and therefore it must have been a high status object. This in turn could have implications for its usage. If it was created to serve only one purpose it may have been forbidden to use it for any other. Alternatively it may have been used as often as possible in as many ways possible, elevating the status of each task by association with the precious object, a bit like getting out the fine china.
Our replica is a little narrow for comfortable bathing but the original would have been just right for a cowboy-style bath, so we set out in October 2019 to test its suitability to heat water using the hot rocks method. Our experiment highlighted a few issues. We could demonstrate without any great difficulty that it was possible to heat water in the vessel. We were able to get the water to a very hot bath temperature in about ten minutes but to go any hotter one had to remove rocks and keep feeding fresh rocks from the fire, which is a bit of a fishing exercise given that the water became murky very quickly. How could one keep the water clean if that was important? Perhaps one could keep clean stones elevated above the ash? or the vessel could be lined with textile to collect silt etc and a basket-type lining used to collect and remove the stones? The textile could be removed last letting the water through the weave but removing at least some of the dirt and stone fragments. These measures might seem elaborate but perhaps not for a royal bath.
Our host for the October heating was Mike Cleary who, amongst other things, does catering for events. In addition to providing the fire for our heating he kindly agreed to test the theory that the vessel was purpose-built for kneading bread. The profile of the vessel was fit for the task and the proportions accommodated the kneeling position quite well. It was however excessively long so perhaps it could be used by two people at once. I brought along some of the alder that Mark had split from our trunk in 2015. I had been holding on to it for some unknown creative output but I thought it fitting to use it to fuel the fire that would bake the bread made in the vessel. We like a bit of circularity. Mike made a few flat breads that we ‘baked’ on a pre-heated stone. We both agreed it was a bit bland and that it needed something, maybe honey or a good Iron Age stew.
You will notice in the video that the vessel was leaking or crying at its handles. This was in part due to the repaired splits in the rim at either end but also radial splits around the heartwood, which itself remained quite soft and vulnerable. The next outing for the vessel was to be as a beer cooler at Ben & Sinead’s wedding so I made some speedy repairs with not-so-Iron Age woodfiller. It did the job. We then carried out a second heating/cleansing at my house to clean out the remaining flour residue. Post-wedding the vessel now sits in my garage waiting for its next event…any ideas?