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Monday 15 January 2018

Making replicas of the earliest objects made by woodturning ever found in Britain, from Whitehorse hill on Dartmoor

I like woodturning. It's a nice compliment to my carving work and there's also something that feels quite relaxing about putting the tools to the spinning timber and watching the shapes develop.

There have been a couple of commissions recently that have allowed me to do some turning and which have also been a little more challenging. Making some of the components for the instruments that are now installed in St Werburghs Community Centre meant turning larger pieces than I've worked on before. 

Woodturning on Myford ML8 lathe

I was also asked by a local furniture maker called Dave Porter to turn eight discs, 60mm (2.36") wide, from European oak to decorate some furniture that he was making. It was a nice test of skill to try and make the discs as similar as possible, whilst turning them by hand. Both of us were happy with the outcome. Here they are, with one spare:

woodturning oak

After making these commissions, I came across the story of the Whitehorse hill burial

This Bronze Age burial happened nearly four thousand years ago in what is now the wild, empty middle of Dartmoor national park - a place that is very important to me. This view, taken near Whitehorse hill, shows what the area looks like:

Dartmoor landscape

In 2001, a walker found a small, rectangular burial chamber made from stones protruding from a remanent 'hag' of peat, which had been left standing as the peat surrounding it was cut away. These small stone boxes or chambers are known as kists, cists or kistvaens.

The erosion of the peat stack had uncovered the kist and one of the stones had fallen. The rest looked like it could also fall out at some point soon, so the decision was made to open the burial and see what was inside. This was even more exciting as most kists on Dartmoor have been excavated or robbed at some point but this one, having been hidden underground in a fairly remote part of the moor, was probably intact.

Whitehorse hill Bronze Age kist
Image by Cornwall Archaeological Unit, from

In 2011, the kist was opened. Inside, well preserved by the peat (which excludes oxygen so preventing the decay of organic matter), was a bundle wrapped in an animal pelt, thought to be from a bear.

The contents of the bundle were the cremated remains of what is believed to have been a woman of high status, aged somewhere between 15 and 25 years old. The presence of a necklace and absence of weapons in the burial led researchers to think the deceased was probably female. She was buried in August or September (from the purple moorland grasses laid on the floor of the kist at the time). On top of these grasses was laid what looks like a woven belt or sash decorated with calfskin leather, then the wrapped cremation on that.

Apart from the remains, the wrapping held a woven bag made of lime bast (the fibres under the bark of a lime tree). This contained several objects: a necklace made from beads of clay, shale, amber and also a single bead of tin, a flint flake, a copper pin, a woven cattle hair band or bracelet decorated with small tin beads and two pairs of wooden discs. 

Image from
These wooden discs are the earliest examples of wood turning ever found in Britain. They could have been ornaments fitted into a leather bag or belt, but most people think that they were body ornaments, similar to modern ear expanders. They would have been worn in stretched ear piercings, or perhaps in lip, nose or cheek piercings. 

Some think that the smaller studs were perhaps the intermediate ones used as the hole was being stretched, before the larger ones were worn. Personally, I think they might have been worn at the same time as they show similar amounts of wear and were buried together.

The wooden discs were turned from tough, pale coloured spindle tree wood, a native species which still grows around the edge of the moor. At the time of the burial, this area would have been much more wooded than now. It's strange to imagine what the person who wore these wooden ornaments was like; speaking a language that we wouldn't understand in the present day but perhaps knowing some of the many stone monuments, such as the double circle at Greywethers, that still stand not far from where they were buried and that we can still visit.

Greywethers stone circles on Dartmoor

Radio carbon dating from underneath the fallen stones of nearby Sittaford Tor circle returned a date of about four thousand years ago, so the circle itself is probably older than that. This means the person buried at Whitehorse Hill would have known it and probably visited it as well.

I couldn't resist having a go at recreating the discs myself! We have some idea of what Bronze Age woodturning was like, having images preserved from ancient Egypt. A note about the picture: the lathe would have been horizontal even though conventions in ancient Egyptian art mean that it's illustrated standing vertically.

Image from

These sources helped woodturner Stuart King to recreate the making of the wooden discs for a programme called 'Mystery of the Moor'.

I had to cheat a bit, as the method Stuart King used requires two people to work best and also because I don't have the appropriate reproductions of Bronze Age tools at the moment (although I'm very tempted to acquire or make some now!). It was still fun to make replicas of these objects that connect us to that ancient and mysterious time. 


I had some seasoned spindle tree wood that was suitable, and the discs finished well. After turning, I put some natural nut oil onto them, to bring out the colour of the wood and stop them getting too grubby - a beeswax finish could originally have been used but it tends to attract dirt. The larger turnings are 25mm (1") and the smaller ones 15mm (0.59") in diameter.

Whitehorse burial wooden ear ornaments

Here's my friend Sion wearing a pair of discs very similar to those found in the kist at Whitehorse hill, but slightly larger than the bigger ones found in the burial at 30mm (1.18") wide. He said that they are very comfortable to wear and they were also tough enough to withstand a good deal of partying last weekend!

ear stretchers

ear expanders