The heating and kneading

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?

The heating and kneading from Brian Mac Domhnaill on Vimeo.

The Second Sounding

Brian Mac Domhnaill

It was during crafting in 2015 that I first noticed the acoustic properties of our replica vessel. Later the same year this inspired our first sounding and what was to become a christening of sorts for our newly created object. I was not suggesting that the vessel was crafted to produce sound but if we noticed its potential to do so it follows that the same observation may have been made in the Iron Age. A second ‘sounding’ was arranged in September 2018 this time in the form of a duet. Letting my imagination run away with me I proposed the scenario that an Iron Age horn player had become frustrated with the imposed restrictions of playing at druid-led rituals and ceremonies and longed for more freedom of expression. Likewise a percussionist felt the acoustic properties of the Pallasboy vessel were underutilised. What these guys needed was an Iron Age freestyle jazz jam and this what we staged in the Granary Theatre, conveniently located next door to the UCC Archaeology Department where the vessel resided at the time. The dress code for the musicians was black. Billy Mag Fhloinn brought along his replica Iron Age horn and percussionist Solamh Kelly took on the task of ‘playing’ the vessel. My goal was to gather some sounds that were in some way derivative of the Iron Age due to the objects/instruments used but also contemporary, improvised and unique to our project.

Billy and Solamh spent most of the day experimenting, playing solo and in tandem whilst I took some footage and photographs. The priority was to record the sound so I enlisted the services of Cork-based Australian artist and composer Robert Curgenven. We were in an empty theatre, not in a recording studio, so we were relying on his expertise and equipment to compensate for the difficult acoustics. There were some initial issues with the sound of Solamh’s socks on the floor and the high notes of the horn were hard to cope with but after some careful repositioning of rugs and microphones we were back on track.

Solamh worked his way through various options we had for drumsticks including two that our friends at Meitheal Mara turned for us. These were made from batons I cut from a plank off our 2015 alder trunk (Incidentally the wedges you can see holding the vessel in place during the sounding are the very same ones used to spilt the plank from the trunk). Solamh and I coated the matchstick-like heads of our drumsticks in a variant of the mixture Billy uses as a glue to haft his Bronze Age replica tools. Our hope was that it would act like a shock absorber but in the end it was quite hard so we had to add leather. The size and weight of the sticks combined with the lack of a sufficient cushion made the strikes on the vessel very loud and harsh so we scaled down to two smaller sticks Billy had brought along. These worked far better giving a deeper, softer sound and a more suitable accompaniment for the horn.

Billy’s replica Iron Age horn is based on The Loughnashade Trumpet (c.100BC) which is like a giant hunting horn with didgeridoo-like possibilities. Thankfully Billy has had plenty of practice because playing the horn requires a particular set of skills including circular breathing. As audience members we were blown away by the staggering range of the instrument and the bestial noises it could produce. Billy also took along some other weird and wonderful instruments to demo for us.

The style of the jam varied but the duo regularly found a rhythm and a focus resulting in duets of about three to five minutes. The passages of play that I felt were most successful were those that had a prehistoric or tribal quality whilst also sounding surprising or alien, like we were listening in on a past normally out of ear’s reach. It is these passages that I will use for future Pallasboy video soundtracks. I have also featured a selection in a sample video (see below). There is talk of remixing some of the gathered sounds so more on that another time, but for now put on your best Iron Age polo neck and nod in an appreciative manner from a candle-lit table somewhere off camera:

The Second Sounding from Brian Mac Domhnaill on Vimeo.

From guerrilla deposition to lines of desire…

Dr. Benjamin Gearey

The wooden figurines carved by the participants in the Pallasboy Project’s workshop in 2015 had been sat around doing, well, nothing much. We’d discussed the best thing to do with them, and were drawn to the idea of releasing them into the wild; placing them somewhere that might feel like their natural habitat. Following some discussion as to the optimal location for such an undertaking, as well as the legality of leaving strange wooden carvings lying around the place, we settled on a location in West Cork. Last October (2019), around Halloween, we carried out our act of ‘guerrilla deposition’. Originally, we’d thought of placing them deep in the woods somewhere, perhaps close to a little used footpath, to surprise the occasional walker, but Brian suggested that a location closer to a larger track would be better. Following a short discussion, we settled on this and installed them amongst the trees, but in a spot where they would hopefully catch the eye of anyone half alert heading up the track.

We had no idea how long they might survive on their own, I was convinced they would quickly fall victim to the weather or to passersby with no thought to their wooden beauty. So, it was with great joy to find they remain in position, until yesterday at least (16/02/2020). What’s more, a line of desire has been trampled through the briars, signalling a fall of foot to view them closer up. There’s no sign of their having been disturbed; a respect for their right to lurk, or maybe a small bit of superstition over what the desecration of this strange woodland gathering might bring?

A day of remembrance

Ciara Finan, Musician

Saturday July 6th was a day of remembrance of our ancestors and of the history of the Oughterard and Moycullen area, as well as a day of appreciation and wonder at the future that they behold. I felt that the music which would ring out over the launch of the 2,400 year old boat into Loch Coiribe needed to be relevant and expressive. Irish traditional music, on the fiddle which I play, was the obvious choice. The initial piece was an easy decision to make as it is aptly named ‘Launching the Boat’. The reel composed by great Donegal fiddler, Francie Byrne, lifted the atmosphere into immediate celebration as the replica floated along the water. To complete the set, I went into a second reel, ‘Lad O’Beirne’s’, a familiar tune for most trad session enthusiasts. As the rower powered through the water with surprising agility and control over the long boat, I launched into a set of reels I learned from the Dubliners, ‘Gerry Cronin’s Reel’ and ‘Denis Langton’s Reel’. Before the rain started on the gathered crowd, I had time to play a set of jigs, ‘The Sheep in the Boat’ and ‘The Rooms of Dooagh’, a jig from Mary McNamara and named after a cave system in the hills between Maghera and Tulla in Co. Clare. The first jig is an adaptation of a slow air by the name ‘Eanach Dhúin’, or ‘Annaghdown’ in English. The tune was composed by famous blind Irish poet, Antoine Ó Raifteiri. I picked this jig as it was in remembrance of the tragedy that occurred in 1828, when a boat of twenty people were making their way across the lake from Annaghdown to Galway for a mart. A sheep on the boat put its foot through the bottom board and ended up causing the boat to sink in the Loch Coiribe drowning its owners with it. Saturday was an opportunity to pay a small recognition to those people on such a remarkable day on the Loch Coiribe.

A Blood Sacrifice for the Iron Age Ancestors? Launching Lees Island 5 on Lough Corrib

Dr. Benjamin Gearey

I can’t remember which of us suggested that it was a good idea to launch Mark’s replica of the Lees Island 5 Iron Age boat on Lough Corrib in Co. Galway, on the bottom of which the original had been lying for nearly 2500 years. But what I do remember thinking is: ‘sure, great idea, no bother, we just need a trailer to get it up there, a willing driver and a place to launch it…’. If we’d known quite how drawn out and difficult the actions briefly outlined in the previous sentence would turn out to be, we may have been tempted to quite literally push the boat out a bit closer to Cork City.

In fact there were a few moments when Mark’s blood sacrifice seemed to have been insufficient to assuage the unquiet Iron Age ancestors who seemed to be determined to prevent our Lee’s Island 5 replica from taking to the water. As it was, I will gloss over the extended problems of lifting and moving two tons of oak via road to Lough Corrib, finding a suitable time and place to launch, advertising the event to ensure a people actually came out to witness the event, and actually persuading a trained kayaker (well, two of them in the end…) to do the all important first paddling of the vessel. The main reason that these problems ended up dispersing like an autumn mist over the Lough, was due to the remarkable efforts of Paul Naessens and his colleagues in Oughterard and Moycullen Heritage. Their enthusiasm and persistence in the face of recurring obstacles and difficulties was truly inspiring and genuinely touching, especially because other than a series of phone calls, none of us had ever met Paul or any of the groups. To add to the occasion, Paul had managed very late in the day, to find musician Ciara Finan to play at the launch, as Sarah Roche, who had been working on a composition to mark the event, had been unfortunately taken ill the week before.

And so it was, that we all found ourselves on the Knockferry pier, on a cloudy but generally dry Saturday afternoon. Every launch needs a VIP: in this case TD Sean Kyne had kindly agreed to do the honours. A few short speeches later we were watching a JCB hoisting the vessel up in the air and down into the water. There were some nerves, especially because Dr. Niall Gregory had speculated that the original vessel had never been intended to float: visions of Youtube immortality for all the wrong reasons sprung up as many of the crowd of 200 or so people, raised their camera phones to capture the moment the boat was released into the water. But float she did, perhaps not the most elegant or lithe vessel across the Lough, but a remarkably moving sight after so much effort (and some small blood loss..) by Mark and our new friends from Moycullen and Oughterard. Some things you know will stay long in the memory; for me this was one such time.

Construction of Lee’s Island 5 – A Dugout Boat sacrificed in the Late Bronze Age?

Niall Gregory, Gregory Archaeology

In February 2019, I took the short trip to Meitheal Mara boatyard in Cork to visit the latest Pallasboy Project. A couple of weeks previously I received an email from Mark Griffith and Ben Geary about this latest exciting endeavour. Mark was undertaking the significant task of remaking the Lee’s Island 5 dugout boat. The original discovered by Capt. Trevor Northage and surveyed by Karl Brady of the Underwater Archaeology Unit of the National Monuments Service, was found to be of late Bronze Age date. A remarkable aspect of this boat is how one the most significant axes ever discovered of the period was deliberately secured against the boat’s side and beneath one of the boat’s seats or thwarts. A notch had even been cut into it’s haft in order to firmly keep it in place wedged under the thwart.

Aside from genuine curiosity about the boat project and Mark’s work, the reason for the initial email and my subsequent visit, is that it was felt that the reconstruction had reached an impasse – was the boat (based upon Karl’s records) complete or should it receive more work? I was invited to view the work based upon both my knowledge of these boats as well as experience with crafting them. My visit to the boatyard coincided with me being on route to Bonane Heritage Park in Kerry to meet and discuss another forthcoming replica dugout boat project. Unfortunately at the time of my visit I did not have the opportunity to meet Mark, but Ben was in the yard waiting to greet me.

Without yet having had the advantage of access to the original boat’s records or previous discussion in any depth, Ben presented Karl’s drawings to me on his mobile phone. However, prior to this, he pulled back the tarpaulin to reveal Mark’s fantastic work. A number of details immediately struck me. The shape of the boat was very blocky or rectilinear in plan, longitudinal and cross-section; there was an inordinately excessive thickness to both ends; and the sides were three and a half to four times thicker than normal for dugout boats. All these considerations are contrary to the corpus of Irish dugout boats. With a little examination I could see that the base of the boat was extremely thick. My immediate conclusion was that this was an unfinished dugout boat. However, this conclusion did not rest easy with me as with dugout boats, the external hull is shaped and finished before the trunk is turned over to make way for the boat’s hollowing out process. Clearly with the squared or rectilinear hull shape, it defied the completed external shape of these boats. This further presented the conundrum of internally the curvilinear ends (on all three axis) appeared complete. The other unique aspect of this boat was that the two (oval in cross-section) thwarts (seat insets into the boat and transverse to the hull), were mounted through the sides of the boat, which presented an apparent potential point of water ingress. In all other circumstances with dugout boats, the thwarts are flat boards set onto internal shelf-like projections.

At this point – and not having met Mark or had the opportunity to discuss the project with him – I informed Ben that Mark appeared to have been working from two perspectives at the one time – that Mark had commenced fashioning the external hull shape up to a point and then stopped for the time being in order to commence the hollowing. I advised while suggesting referral to the original boat data, that both ends have more rounded profiles externally to emulate the interior and be of reduced thickness; that the cross-sectional profile have rounded edges rising from a flat base; that the floor thickness be reduced a little and the sides be internally reduced significantly. Ben presented the drawing of the original boat to me on a small phone screen from which it appeared that the thickness of the sides were obscured by a tumblehome – the top edge of the sides curving back in towards the interior, which suggested a smaller original tree trunk than originally desired.

On my return to the office I emailed Ben, Mark and Karl what I had discussed as well as my suggestions. The following day Karl responded and thankfully provided clarifications. It transpired that Mark’s work was indeed nearly complete and that the 7 to 8cm thick sides were an accurate portrayal as was the reminder of his work, except where Karl suggested the sides in location narrowed through wear and use of the boat. Karl also noted that reducing the floor thickness from it’s 20cm to that of 8cm would complete the boat.

Once I recollected my thoughts, my first reaction was that the original must be an unfinished boat, as there is sufficient evidence in the archaeological record to demonstrate that the unfinished dugout boats were sunk between periods of fashioning them in order to keep the oak wood soft and pliable. Perhaps the best known example of this is the Lurgan Boat on display in the National Museum of Ireland. However, the fact that the interior appeared to be finished, the thwarts were in situ and an axe was deliberately secured beneath one of them, more than aptly demonstrated that this was indeed a finished dugout boat.

I carefully considered the implications, in particular of how such a boat would perform in open water and with timber as dense as oak… The inordinately thick ends would invariably have caused the boat to pitch and yaw in any waves, regardless of the wave size. This would have significantly increased the potential for, or actual swamping of the boat. Having the boat’s sides as thick as the base almost completely negates the stability of these craft normally have with much thinner sides. The enhanced roll of the boat as a consequence would have caused the boat to capsize and sink. In other words, if the boat did not swamp and sink, it would invariably have capsized and sunk. It interesting to speculate that by having thwarts running through the sides of the boat, water may have leaked aboard by this means. However, I believe, the swamping or capsizing of the boat would have overtaken the slower rate of leaking.

As a consequence, the only satisfactory conclusion that I have arrived at is the original boat Lee Island 5 boat was deliberately designed to have a short lifespan and not for sustained use. The fact that the axe was deliberately and permanently secured beneath the thwart, or at least in a manner that the haft was made deliberately no longer useable, suggests ritualistic connotations. I can only surmise that this boat was designed and used for a one-off deliberate, watery sacrifice. While I wish Mark well with the completion of his project, I look forward with mixed feelings about the boat’s maiden voyage. As I have made a number of these boats, I fully appreciate the sheer effort in embarking on such an endeavour and of course wish the boat and its crew safe and happy passage. Yet, I can’t help also visualising a sinking outcome and safe rescue of the crew…