Experimental Archaeology – TIMBER!

At the Bradford Kaims we have been branching (sorry…) out into woodworking as a part of our Experimental Archaeology Programme. Similar to our brewing experiments where we have used hot-rocks due to evidence from the burnt mounds, we decided to try some woodworking due to the exceptional preservation of wooden material at the site. To assist us we had the help of local woodcarver Dave Robson, who kindly supplied us with several sycamore logs and rowan branches and to offer guidance in woodcraft. As well as utilising local specialists, we had community volunteers Barbara and Tim partaking in the experiments along with our students.

For our initial investigations, we have been looking into splitting wood (inspired by our potential Neolithic plank in T10!) to see how easy/difficult the process would have been only utilising resources available before metal working. To split a modern log a woodcarver might begin by creating a notch along the diameter of a log with a steel axe or froe before driving wooden or even steel wedges into this notch to prize the wood apart. Rather than using an axe however, we attempted to use bone “chisels” which we had created ourselves (by smashing the bones and subsequently grinding them on a piece of sandstone to create an edge.)

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Our prehistoric bone “chisels” ready for action!

With the bone chisels ready, we used them in place of the axe, creating a groove across the diameter (through the central “pith” – the weakest part of the log) by holding the chisel in place and subsequently hitting it with a wooden mallet. Once our groove was created, we hammered oak wedges into the groove and proceeded to drive them into the wood with the mallet, trying to keep the wedges at an equal depth by hitting them alternately. Within minutes, the logs would make audible groans and cracks, before splitting apart down their length! We found that for the sycamore logs which we were using (admittedly not present in Britain until the middle ages so not found in our trenches) the bone chisels worked incredibly well for initialising the splitting, from there the wedge process was the same as it would be for modern log splitting. We were able to demonstrate that log splitting can certainly be achieved with little difficulty with prehistoric resources – though of course whether this was the manner for splitting logs prior to metal tools we are unable to know for certain.

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Student Tom and community volunteer Barabara planking a split log

With logs split down the diameter, we moved onto further splitting in an attempt to plank our now halved logs. This came with mixed success, while splitting would go well initially on several occasions the split would shear off due to knots lower down the log. One of our best efforts came from students Tom and Sammi, who managed to split off a plank with minor shearing from the mid-way point. To flatten the plank, we used a flint axe provided by Dave Robson which allowed us to gradually create a flatter surface. Rather than cutting into the wood like a modern steel axe, the flint axe tended to shear off and tear the wood creating a rough surface. In order to smooth this, we used our polished bone chisels and knives like a modern plane to take off smaller chips of wood which made a surprisingly smooth surface!

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One plank ready for further working

An enjoyable day was had by all of our participants, with students and volunteers alike surprised at how easily we were able to split the logs using little more than bone and wood! With our planks of sycamore we are hoping to continue our experiments further this week by trying to replicate artefacts found in our wooden platform again only using prehistoric tools!

One thought on “Experimental Archaeology – TIMBER!

  1. Wonderful! Good to see more projects with wood. I am a PhD student from Dublin. Just got back from working in a museum in Norway where we I made bows and arrows and spoke to many tourists. Starting a few projects now on Bronze Age carpentry in the Eastern Mediterranean, and I will be reconstructing the 18th century Duxbury house on our campus. Would love your input when the articles come out 😉

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