The British Museum is so full of incredible objects that a visit can be a bit overwhelming. Sometimes it is nice to just pick out a particular theme and to follow that through the galleries. On a recent visit, I took the chance to explore the history of woodcarving tools a bit further. A lot of the factual information here came from museum labels for the exhibits.
Many sophisticated cultures developed in Nubia (along the Nile river in what is now northern Sudan and southern Egypt) in ancient times. This copper adze blade and axe head were found at the site of the ancient city of Faras. The remains of the city are now under the waters of Lake Nasser, having been flooded following the building of the Aswan dam.
They date to around 5,000 years ago and were probably imported from Egypt, Nubia's powerful neighbour. You can find out more about ancient Egyptian woodcarving and the making of copper alloys by visiting my previous post about it.
The Kerma civilisation developed in Nubia from about 4,500 years ago. It was based around the urban centre of Kerma, which the ancient Egyptians called 'Kush'. The city was known for skilled bronze (copper alloyed with arsenic or tin) workers. Going from left to right, this stone axe head, stone grinder and whetstone (for sharpening metal blades) date to between about 3,760 and 3,560 years ago. The whetstone was one of ten hones interred with a sacrificial burial. It has traces of red pigment on it. I wonder if that was purely ritualistic, or if these stones were used with some kind of compound such as ground ochre to improve their sharpening performance?
The image below shows whetstones and chisel blades found in the tomb of Puabi, a very powerful and wealthy Sumerian woman. The beautifully-shaped honing stones on the right were found being worn by several of Puabi's male attendants buried with her.
The chisels are, according to the exhibit label, 'made of base gold with the surface artificially enriched'. Gold seems a strange choice for practical cutting tools. It is quite soft and so doesn't usually hold a cutting edge well. Perhaps, like the model tools found in the grave of the Egyptian king Khasekhemwy, these were meant as representations of (rather than working examples of) actual tools.
Several adzes were found in the Ur cemetery area. Unlike many ancient adzes the blades have a socket for the handle attached, rather than being lashed to the wooden handle like the adze blade shown above.
You may have noticed that two of the copper alloy adze blades have an animal's leg design engraved into them. Many tools and containers in these 'royal' graves have the same mark. No one is sure if it was the emblem of the royal house, the emblem of the manufacturers or something else.
The graceful-looking adze head in the central picture above is a replica of one in the collection of the University Museum in Philadelphia. The original is made of gold: another non-working representation of an actual tool? The objects shown with it are a gold spear head, a cluster of arrow heads corroded together and a whetstone.
The axe heads shown below illustrate something that is worth considering when looking at these objects.