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Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Woodcarving and woodworking tools seen at the British Museum; from ancient Nubia and Mesopotamia around 4,000 to 5,000 years ago


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.

Ancient Nubia

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?


Early Mesopotamia


These tools date from about 8,000 to about 6,200 years ago, to the early days of farming and of the development of towns and villages. The copper chisel in the centre was found at Tell Arpachiyah, in what was Northern Mesopotamia and is now near Mosul in Iraq. It is one of the earliest copper tools ever found. The tool to the left is a bone awl from the same place, set into bitumen. Between them is a sickle blade, also set in bitumen. Behind is a worked stone hoe blade and on the right, a stone mace head. In northern Mesopotamia, flint and metal were used for tools whereas in the south, pottery was generally used.

Ancient Sumerian

The Sumerian city of Ur was located at the site of what is now Tell al-Muqayyar in southern Iraq. At its peak, it was very powerful and wealthy. Some believe that Abraham (Abram or Ibrahim), the great prophet of the Jewish, Muslim and Christian faiths, may have been born here about 4,000 years ago. Archaeologists discovered a large cemetery area here dating to the Early Dynastic III period, about 4,600 to 4,300 years ago. Many of the stunning treasures excavated from this area are now in the British Museum. The copper used to make many of the tools probably came from Oman. 

These copper alloy chisels all have a flattened, triangular-shaped end away from the cutting edge. It doesn't look like a useful shape to be struck with a mallet or held in the hand, so I wonder if that end would have been held in some kind of handle? If that was the case, the shape wouldn't have been easy to drive into a wooden handle (like modern square- or round- sectioned tangs), so maybe that had a slot cut into it and was then bound together with the blade held inside? Perhaps the blade was simply wrapped in leather or another material to make a handle? I don't know of any evidence for this, by the way.
The chisel blade furthest on the right has an original engraving in cuneiform script on it.

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.


The one on the right is made of silver - perhaps another mainly ceremonial representation. These objects probably came from the tombs of very wealthy and powerful people. It is hard to say whether these axes were just for use by guards and, if so, would they have looked considerably different to those used by craftspeople? During these times, there doesn't generally seem to have been the large differences in axe head shape according to the job required from it that can be seen in later axes, for example from the Anglo-Saxon times in Britain. However, perhaps the specialist craftsperson's hewing axes just weren't preserved in any graves?


Akkadian Ur and Canaan

From 4,300 to 4,150 years ago, the city of Ur was ruled by the Akkadians who succeeded the previous Sumerian rulers. The adze head below comes from the late Early Dynasty III or Akkadian periods. The handle is modern.



Notice the axe head shown bottom-right in the collection above. It is very different in shape to the earlier ones. This 'fenestrated' shape ('fenestrated' because of the 'windows' in the axehead) developed between 4,500 and 4,000 years ago, in the area around what is now called the Levant. The Canaanite axes below show this form with complete sockets for a handle. These windows meant that the whole axe was lighter in use. I wonder if this development was confined to military axes, given that the lighter weight would also benefit other people using them. Would these heads have been too vulnerable to distortion by twisting or side-to-side movements if embedded in timber? It's hard to say without any practical testing.


Ancient Babylonian

A hoard of 86 copper alloy and bronze tools and farming implements was found at Kutalla (what is now Tell Sifr in Iraq). They are about 4000 years old. Some were in a good, usable state although others were damaged. Axe heads (note: not of the fenestrated type), a chisel and a saw can all be seen amongst other tools. It is thought that they were held originally in a big agricultural establishment, where it would be customary to check the total weight of items issued and returned at the end of each season.



Monday, 28 July 2014

The mysterious carved symbols on the kerbstones of London

kerbstone symbol

Whilst walking from Oxford Street through Soho in London, I saw this symbol carved into the kerbstone at my feet, then another further along the stone. The stones each side were not marked in such a way. At first they looked like stonemason's marks, cut to show that a certain number of kerbstones had been completed that day. But, in common with some other kerbs in the area, why two marks on a single stone?

London is not the only town or city in Britain to have such markings on its kerbs. There are apparently many in Glasgow too. No one seems to be exactly sure what they mean. Some say stonecutter's marks, showing either a certain number of kerbstones that had been laid within a particular time or a certain number shaped at the quarry. Some say that they mark surveying points, while others even say that they mark secret Masonic meeting places or are related to the Great Plague or local executions at Tyburn. These particular marks are also repeated on other stones in the area.

soho kerbstone symbols

My own feeling is that they are probably stonecutter's marks or road laying crew signs. Maybe two symbols show either the end of one cutter's work and the start of another's, or are the foreman's marks from a particular gang of workers either shaping or laying the stones. I wonder who they were and where the stones were quarried? A visit to the remains of the stone quarries on Dartmoor will show half-finished kerbstones lying around in the wild landscape. It must have been a tough life being a stonemason up there, are those weather-beaten quarries where these stones were originally shaped?

On New Oxford Street, these signs were all carved within a run of fifteen kerbstones, with whole streets nearby not showing a single one:







Although nearby Museum Street has a few symbols on display too, surely too close to each other to show the start and finish of a run being laid:




A week later, I was walking through Bristol and noticed these marks on the kerb of Gatton Road in St Werburghs, unlikely to be a centre for Masonic ritual in my opinion: 

bristol kerbstone symbol

The same marks appeared three times on stones within a run of fifteen. The D-shaped mark then appeared again about half a mile away, alone on High Street in Easton:


...and again on South Street in Southville, on the other side of the city. This time it was accompanied by a circular mark that I haven't seen elsewhere in Bristol, apart from on that street.



While walking down Western Road, between Hove and Brighton, more kerbstone marks could be seen. These were at Second Avenue in Hove:

brighton kerbstone symbols

further along Western Road towards Brighton, more cross-shaped marks could be seen:


before letters started to appear.


Further still towards Brighton and these 'N' shaped marks could be seen. They are a little different to the others, as they were clearly made using a modern stone cutting circular saw rather than cut by hand. They were accompanied by long saw cut marks running along the kerbstones for a few metres.



I wonder if these marks point to such symbols being a road maintenance crew's work, or if it was just a bored workman messing about. The cuts along the kerbstones are pretty haphazard and not very straight.

Peter Dolan has written two very interesting articles in Geoscientist, the magazine of The Geological Society, which I recommend reading if you are also intrigued by these enigmatic markings. His first, Kerbstone Conundrum, introduces the subject and includes a list of symbols that he has seen or heard of. The second, Kerbstone Markings 2, goes into more detail. Peter has told me by email:

'Suffice it to say at present that I am 90% sure that most of these markings do relate to utility services, but haven't followed it far enough to get independent, documented verification.'

I like the way that the exact meaning of these symbols is still somewhat mysterious and subject to debate, whilst some of them are being walked past by hundreds of people every day.

Two African woodcarvings representing actual objects, made for very different reasons...




This ebony carving of a chainsaw is an artwork called I Want That You Want What I Want That You Want. It was in an exhibition called 'The Museum of Forgotten History' by the artist Maarten Vanden Eynde, which was shown at the Arnolfini gallery in Bristol in 2012.

The sculpture was made by a woodcarver in Cameroon in 2010 and was exchanged with Vanden Eynde for the actual Stihl chainsaw that was copied in ebony.

The next carved representation is less refined in its carving but is possibly a matter of life-and-death to those who use it, members of the Konso people of Ethiopia. It was seen in the British Museum in London and represents a Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifle.


The exhibit label says that 'Hand-carved wooden AK-47 rifles are frequently carried by poor road workers in southern Ethiopia as a form of defensive camouflage, and by their children to deter potential thieves while tending goats and other livestock. Road building works have brought itinerant labourers into contact with pastoralist groups in this remote region where traditional cattle raids have become commercialised rustling. The black 'metal' parts of the gun are painted using tar and pitch from the road-works'

Thursday, 17 July 2014

What's been going on recently? Carved oak signs, teaching woodcarving in Bristol and secret jobs!

There's been a mix of different work keeping me busy recently. I've worked on a couple of commissions lettercutting in oak :



Here's another house plaque, carved in oak for someone who is very keen on the 'Star Wars' films. It was fun carving the ewok in relief!




There's also been a commission carving 'rope' for the skilled furniture maker Jim Sharples.  Jim is working on an oak stand for the ship's bell from HMS Cornwall and wanted some carved 'rope' wrapped around the top crosspiece, to give a suitably nautical look to the finished piece. Getting it all laid out correctly was a bit of a puzzle, but I'm happy with the results. This bell stand may well end up in the Maritime Museum, which is a nice thought.


A pleasant Friday was also spent teaching Matt relief carving in oak. He spent the afternoon at my studio and got to use my own woodcarving gouges and chisels, which is something that I can only really do when working with small numbers of people, as some of the tools (such as the hook skew) are very fragile. We covered using a handsaw, a block plane and a V tool, some relief carving techniques, sharpening tools effectively and laying out a design onto the wood from a paper copy. Matt carved a chinook helicopter and seemed to really enjoy learning some of the skills that are an important part of this craft.



I have also been working on a couple of jobs that I can't talk about! One was for a client in mainland Europe and I have undertaken not to discuss it online (for good reasons; it's nothing illegal either, I promise!). I will say that it was very interesting though. Another project has been one of the most interesting that I've worked on and that will be posted about in the near future, so watch this space.

Sometimes, I have a big project on and can't discuss it until the finished carvings are unveiled or given to the person that they are meant for. It doesn't seem right to spoil the surprise of a gift by posting about it here and sometimes commercial clients need to keep things under wraps until a grand unveiling or promotion is completed.

Occasionally, a client will also ask me not to write about a job on my blog, for various reasons. Perhaps they wish to keep it personal to them or they need it to be anonymous. Needless to say, I always honour such requests.

So if you see gaps in the blog, don't think that I've stopped carving or blogging. Just wait and see what the next few posts bring!


Wednesday, 16 July 2014

More Bristol street art: Cycling around looking at walls


I was cycling through Nelson Street yesterday and took some photos of the street art there. This area has been the site of the 'See No Evil' street art events and there are some pretty spectacular pieces to be seen, even though some buildings have now been demolished.


The area around the demolition site has boards set up, which have also been decorated by some of Bristol's top street artists. They include Andy Council, Sepr, Feek, Inkie and Silent Hobo.






















Larger artworks can be seen by looking up at what used to be the blank, boring walls of buildings nearby:























I have been asked why a woodcarver talks about street art on their blog. Some people I know have said that they just think that this kind of thing is just vandalism. I have to say that most tagging doesn't interest me and I'm not really interested in the 'Keeping it Real' stuff that some people spout about it. I just live in an urban environment and I like a lot of this colourful artwork that brightens up dull walls and has obviously taken a bit of time and thought!

Living in Bristol gives the people who live here access to some of the most interesting street art that you could hope to see. Riding a bicycle around the small city means that there is time to see a lot of it before it is inevitably painted over by another artist. Organised events such as See No Evil and Upfest bring street artists from all over the world to Bristol. There are certain areas that are basically free to paint, where established street artists can execute large, complex pieces without having to worry about being arrested. A lot of house owners will also have their walls painted to brighten them up, or maybe also to discourage tagging and throw-ups. That means it is fairly easy to see really good stuff, often tucked away in hidden corners. Just around the corner from my house is this painted wall:


It was great to wander round one day and see it being painting. I think one of the painters may be Boswell, who is quite a well-known Bristol artist. It beats a boring, plain wall any day:


Here's a couple more pieces from round the area: