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Monday 4 August 2014

Woodcarving and woodworking tools seen at the British Museum; from the Stone Ages to the Anglo-Saxons in Northern Europe

After writing about ancient Egyptian woodworking and tools from ancient Nubia and Mesopotamia, it's time to head north and look at Europe. I have focussed mainly on the woodworking tools that are in the collection of the British Museum.

Stone Ages

The Stone Ages in Britain ended with the arrival of settlers who knew how to use copper alloys to make tools and weapons, about 4,200 years ago. It's hard to find a lot of evidence of woodworking from the earliest known human habitation of Northern Europe. A perishable material like wood just doesn't often last for long enough. However, there are a reasonable amount of wooden objects known from the last part of the Stone Age, the Neolithic Period, including what was a raised wooden trackway through marshy ground. It was found in Somerset and is called the 'Sweet Track', dating to 5,821 years ago. The stone axe shown above was found at Ehenside tarn in Cumbria and dates to between 5,700 and 5,100 years ago. It is made from a local stone that was also traded elsewhere due to its suitability for toolmaking.

The Neolithic period saw an important change in the making of stone tools in Northern Europe. During the Mesolithic, about 7000 BCE, stones like flint were 'knapped'. Flakes were knocked off the workpiece to form sharp edges in order to make scrapers, knives, axes and other useful bladed tools. During the Neolithic, about 4000BCE, stone started to be ground to shape by using the time-consuming method of rubbing against abrasive stones, or perhaps leather with abrasive rock powder on it, using water to aid the process.

Why spend so much extra time grinding down blades? BBC television's 'Time Team' programme did an interesting experiment for an episode called 'Sussex Ups and Downs' aired in 2006. The action of a ground axe blade was tested (by cutting down a small hazel tree trunk) against a blade made by knapping. The ground blade was found to work much more efficiently, cutting far more cleanly and not becoming damaged by bits of timber getting lodged in the blade and causing fractures to form. It required less effort to use and would last much longer without becoming damaged beyond further use.

The objects in this image were put in a pit dug into a cairn (a mound of stones) and may well have been part of a burial. They were found at Ayton east field in North Yorkshire and date to the Late Neolithic, about 5,300 to 4, 500 years ago. There are three flint axe heads, a flint adze for carpentry work, five flint arrowheads, a flint knife with two flakes, an antler mace head and two boar tusk blades.

After seeing First Nations tools from the North-West Pacific coastline, it is obvious that complex woodcarvings were possible with the tools available in Europe before the discovery of copper alloys. The hard stones were shaped into sophisticated and sharp blades. I also wonder if the teeth of the native European beaver were used to make woodworking tools, as the teeth of American beavers were in the North-West Pacific before contact with Europeans. No such tools have been found in European archeological studies to my knowledge, but in her book Cedar, Hilary Stewart comments on how a split beaver tooth was one of the principal tools for making wooden bowls, spoons and ladles in the NW Pacific region, being the original 'hook' or 'crooked' knife. It strikes me that the boar's tusk blades shown above could perhaps also serve a similar function. She also notes how, when 'roughly hollowing out a cedar bowl using a maul and a bone-tipped chisel I had made, I was surprised by the blade's strength and cutting ability'. Stewart also notes the usefulness of mussel shell (Mytilus californianus) when scraping or shaving wood. However, she notes that it fractures easily when mallet blows are applied even though early ethnographers describe it being used in chisels.

Some very interesting and enigmatic stone carvings are known from the Neolithic. The carved chalk 'Folkton Drums' date from around the end of the Neolithic or the start of the use of copper, about 4,500 to 4,000 years ago. They are unique and were placed under the head and hips of a child buried in a barrow mound. Their purpose is unknown, although the chalk probably came from nearby Folkton Wold in Yorkshire.

These small stone objects shown below fascinate me. Over 400 have been found, mainly in northern and eastern Scotland. They come in various shapes and their use is unknown.

The Bronze Age

These bronze axes date to about 2,750 to 2,500 years ago. Two of the three below were found at Walthamstow in London and in the River Thames near the Tate Gallery, also in London. The other was found in South Yorkshire.

These axe heads were found at Petter's sports field in Surrey, England. They date to the Late Bronze Age, about 3,000 to 2,750 years ago.

The L-shaped wooden handle would fit into the socket at the back of the axehead and would be lashed on using the loop:
Image from:
It was interesting to see the similarities between these bronze axe heads and some found in China and Siberia shown below.

The two socketed heads on the left come from the Shang or early Western Zhou dynasties in China and date from between 3,200 and 3,002 years ago. The one on the right (note the loops) is about 3,000 to 2,800 years old and came from Southern Siberia, although it is based on a Chinese design.

There are obvious similarities between the Chinese-style bronze axehead on the right and the Northern European ones. I wonder if they show a kind of 'convergent evolution' of design, where similar requirements created similar tools, or whether they reflect a passing of ideas between cultures, perhaps by contact through ancient trade routes such as the Silk Road.

Again, a lot of wooden items from the Bronze Age must have rotted away over time. The photo below shows a wooden ladle at top left found at Flag Fen in Cambridgeshire and dating to the Middle Bronze Age (about 3,300 years ago). Around it are various bone and pottery utensils from this time until the early Iron Age (2,650 years ago) that were found in Surrey, North Yorkshire and Suffolk, England.

The Iron Age

The files, gouges and chisels in the top row came from Tiefenau in Switzerland. The tools on the left appear to have tangs ready to fit handles onto them, whereas the one on the right seems to have a ready-made handle cast as part of it. The gouge second from the right has a socket to fit a handle. No dates are given for these tools.

The adze head below them came from Lisnacrogher in County Antrim, Ireland. Below it is a circular disc cutter from King Harry Lane cemetery in St Albans, Hertfordshire, England that dates to between 2,014 and 1,064 years ago. 

In the BBC documentary 'A History of Celtic Britain: Age of Iron', Neil Oliver shows examples from a hoard of iron tools discovered near Fiskerton in Lincolnshire (the next two images are screenshots from that programme). They are thought to date to around 2,400 years ago. It is very noticeable how similar they are to tools dating from more recent times. 

Oliver holds up a file and points out that 'if someone was to show you this and say, "this is from my great-grandfather's toolbox"', you would believe them. He also shows a fragment of saw blade and notes that iron working allowed much stronger and  thinner blades than cast bronze, making more efficient tools that were relatively cheap and simple to make and repair compared to their bronze equivalents.

Roman Britain

Many of these Roman tools really are similar to modern examples. The curved blade top right is described as a 'drawknife' and came from Hod Hill in Dorset, England. It dates to the first century CE (or AD, if you prefer).  

I recognise this blade as an 'inshave'. It is used to hollow out chair seats and also by barrel-makers (coopers) for shaping the inside of barrel staves. Similar ones can be bought today from woodworking suppliers. Travelling clockwise from this blade, we come to a solid-handled punch (with a grooved face for decorating woodwork) and a broken spoon-shaped drill bit (probably used with a bow-or strap-drill according to the label), both from the 1st century CE and found at Camerton in Somerset. Bottom right is a tool suitable for use as a 'float', to remove stone in masonry work, as a coarse rasp to remove wood in carpentry or for filing horse's hooves. It also came from Hod Hill and dates to the same time as the inshave. 

The thin-bladed paring chisel on the left came from Walbrook in London and dates to the first or second century CE. It would have been hand-pushed and used for fine work. This tool has the maker's name MARTIALIS stamped onto it, a custom with tool makers that survives to this day.

The tools shown above and in the following two photos probably all date from the first or second century CE. Going clockwise from the top left;

A double-ended spatula found in London, probably used for spreading wax onto wax tablets,

A very well-preserved awl, for making small holes in wood or (more probably) leather, found in London. This one has an iron point, a bronze collar and a handle made from turned boxwood (Buxus sempervirens),

The paring chisel mentioned above,

A socketed carpenter's gouge found at Camerton in Somerset,

A carpenter's firmer chisel with a socket for a wooden handle, found at Smith's Wharf in London,

A firmer chisel with a solid handle, found as part of the 'Sandy Hoard' in Bedfordshire,

A solid-handled mortice chisel, with the handle battered down by hard use. Found at Hod Hill.

The adze head on the left was found at Camerton. The small hammer head on the other side of the eye hole for the handle has been burred by use.
In the centre is an adze-hammer, used by carpenters and boatbuilders and found at Bull's Wharf in London. The handle is a modern reconstruction.
The axe on the right also has a reconstructed handle. It is a kind of military axe called a dolabra, found at Hod Hill. It would have been carried by a Roman soldier in addition to his weapons and was used for felling trees and construction when on a campaign.

The pickaxe head at the top of this photo is immediately recognisable as such. It was found at Camerton and is a military-pattern tool, used by Roman soldiers for construction work. The axe head below it was also found at Camerton and would have been used to fell trees. It has a short inscription stamped into it, perhaps a maker's mark, but it is now impossible to read it.

The axe head at the bottom came from an unknown source, but represents the commonest kind of Roman axe. A weld line shows that the cutting edge was welded onto the rest of the axe head. This may have been hardened metal, to give a sharper cutting edge.

This ship's figurehead made of oak looks like a Viking one, but it was actually made earlier, during 300-400 CE. It was found in the River Schelde in Belgium and had a tenon allowing it to be removed, maybe for travelling under low bridges. It is not known if the figurehead was made by Gallo-Roman craftsmen, Germanic craftsmen who settled in the local area or by Germanic craftsmen who used the Gallo-Roman style.

The wooden objects shown below were found in various parts of Britain and illustrate some of the humbler day-to-day Roman uses of wood. They include spindles and spindle whorls, a tent peg, a wooden key for a wooden lock, a bowl and a strange object that is listed as a bobbin but which also looks a lot like a yo-yo. The board on the right was a barrel stave, which was reused to line a well near Mansion House in London. It bears two stamps of Fuscius Macrinus, who is thought to have been the cooper who made the barrel.

The Anglo-Saxons

These Anglo-Saxon woodworking tools were found at Hurbuck in County Durham and date to around 1,200 - 1,000 years ago. The curved adze at the top would be used for smoothing and shaping wood. The splendid T-shaped axe head is labelled as being used to 'fell and chop trees', although such a broad yet lightweight cutting edge would seem more suited to hewing felled timber into beams and boards. On the right is a spoon-shaped auger, used to drill holes in wood. You can see Dave Budd's reconstructions of such drills on one of my previous posts, which you can find by clicking on this link.


  1. Replies
    1. Thank you, glad to hear that you have enjoyed reading it

  2. These tools seem to have a history of more than a thousand years, and the wisdom of the ancients is beyond our imagination.

  3. Most interesting Alistair - thanks for all of that.
    I suppose it should come as no surprise to us in the modern age that we can recognise these woodworking tools of the iron age onwards , wood was all they had & their design was perfected over millennia!

    Having been a woodcarver who primarily uses knives for 35 plus years one find that I found profoundly interesting is the wood carving knives found in Novgorod, Russia.
    YES ! this is precisely the conclusions that both myself & others independently come to as to the ideal shape for a carving knife blade. Of course the size might vary with the size of the work in hand but these are perfect.
    Having seen these I started to wonder about the steel used & any tests that had been done but alas only swords of this period have been tested of European origin.54 Rockwell was the hardest BUT you don't want a sword to be brittle do you ?
    Some say it was the impurity of the steel at the time YET the Japanese had perfected their slashing swords using damascus laminating methods. Lamination was the order of the day in anglo-saxon times too. The Romans have chisels & tools with a billet of steel inlaid at the end.
    Taking all of this evidence into account it seems very likely to me that the ancients had very well made & designed/evolved woodworking tools much earlier than is generally thought.
    It has long been a negative habit of historians to imagine that any culture outside of the "classical" Greek & Roman tradition was primitive ,uncultured & backward.
    The hard evidence of sophisticated modern testing is ever so slowly changing this distorted view.
    If only wood didn't perish so fast in the ground !

    1. Thanks very much for this reply Mike: very interesting! Yes indeed: how much incredible engineering and design has been lost forever to rot, termite and worm? I'll have to check out the knives you mention too. All the ebst, Alistair

  4. These are some amazing photos and pffer a great view at these tools. I am in the process of making some replica wax tablets when I stumbled upon your photo above of a "A double-ended spatula found in London, probably used for spreading wax onto wax tablets," Was this description taken from the sign at the meuseum describing the object?

    1. Hi Dan, sorry for the slow reply, The information did come from the museum label - glad you enjoyed the post and thanks for commenting!

  5. "The L-shaped wooden handle would fit into the socket at the back of the axehead and would be lashed on using the loop"

    Just saw this image on a search and followed it here. A note for you, that pictured axe has very clearly been made by someone who has no idea and should not be taken seriously - the grain running across the sawn bend would break immediately if used, the haft should be a crooked stick, not a sawn bend - furthermore, if you look at the evolution of these axe heads, the vast majority lacked that small loop cast onto the head... This means they had no need for that loop to fasten on the head, this was likely achieved with a fish glue or some such and raw hide.

    The usage of that loop has long been contested, personally, having used a small axe a lot, I would suspect that it was used to anchor a chord running from the head and fastened halfway down the handle in order to reduce the strain put on the crook bend when pulling the axe out of the wood, which is the most common moment for an axe handle to break.

    I am pretty sure I have seen primitive axes and adzes with this feature incorperated in them from relatively contemporary technologically primitive cultures.

  6. Thanks for sharing these thoughts: they are some very interesting points! Yes, the haft shown here probably wouldn't be ideal in heavy use - a crooked stick (or also perhaps the junction between a branch and main trunk, which was then shaped?) would be far more suitable. Good points about the possible use of the loop too. It's great to know how these tools might handle in practise from someone with some experience.