After moving house and being in the middle of fitting a new kitchen, things are still unfortunately conspiring to prevent me even looking for a new workshop, let alone actually make anything.
However, my down time from work (when I would normally try and craft) has been put to use; firstly, my bone artefact article has now been submitted and I am waiting for comments from the editors and to find out whether it will actually be published or not, and secondly, I have been researching various aspects of Early Medieval life, costume and objects with a view to providing summary sheets about different cultures in different time periods. As I am often asked how I go about my research and why I reject some ideas despite evidence and accept others despite a (seeming) lack of evidence I thought I would write up a post with a few examples, my own personal view on them and how I arrived at that view.
Something I am often faced with is the simple question “why bother?”. The person in question usually means “why bother taking all that time to research stuff when no-one really knows what they looked liked?”.
The answer is simple – I bother because I am trying to be as accurate as possibly to the known evidence.
It really is a very simple philosophy – for each piece of kit I own I check for provenance from the period. This provenance can be archaeological finds, manuscript depictions, carved stones, contemporary writings or anything else that is appropriate. As a result, my own kit has been altered, tweaked and some just discarded as I cannot reasonably substantiate it’s use. Equally though, it means that my current set of kit I am working on will be as close an accurate depiction as possible (which will be posted and discussed when finished).
If there is no direct evidence for something, I look at the wider context – was it something that existed close to the beginning/end of the period, is there in indirect evidence for it’s use, would it be something highly unlikely to surviving or be depicted etc. If this kind of evidence exists then how useful is it in supporting or refuting the theory in question, obviously something that appears 350 years after the Norman Conquest is not suitable evidence, but something that is found in Late Roman Britain and then again in the 12th C is more likely to be a continuation but it needs looking at more closely to be certain.
The following topics are some examples where I have weighed the evidence of existence, use, popularity etc of a few things and formed my own conclusions. Others may disagree with my evidence, reasoning or thought processes; that’s fine, these are my interpretations and no more.
Rabbits are a common theme at times with Early Medieval re-enactors as the Romans had them, the Normans had them and they breed like, well, rabbits, so surely some must have escaped Roman captivity and set up warrens across England, it’s obvious!
Well, actually it isn’t. The first thing I looked for was the obvious – are there any archaeological finds of rabbit remains? The short answer is no, the many settlement sites (both urban and rural) that have been excavated from the time there are numerous bones of mammals from horse right down to mice, but not a single example of a definitive rabbit bone.
In a similar vein, ferrets were originally used to hunt rabbits and no definite ferret skeletons are found until after the Norman Conquest.
Casting the net further afield to be certain, I checked manuscripts and drawings. Again, many animals are depicted as are hunting scenes, but apparently not rabbits. Despite their similarities, rabbits and hares both behave differently in the wild and therefore the methods of hunting them differing. Hare coursing is depicted, but not rabbit warrens, netting etc. Illustrations of these (as with ferret skeletons) do not appear until after the Conquest. As well as images, there appears to be no word in the Anglo-Saxon language for “rabbit”, and in Aelfric’s Colloquy when asking the various people about their jobs, the hunter mentions boars, harts and hares but no rabbits.
Already the case for the rabbit in Britain was looking shaky, but for completeness I looked into Roman rabbiting and the possibility that there were “islands” of survivors within the UK after the Romans left. The Roman’s never had mass farming of rabbits in the way we think of intensive farming nowadays, and it will have been confined to carefully guarded warrens around urban areas, villas and so on. This suggests that the Roman rabbit, as an essentially domestic rather than wild animal, would have been seriously disadvantaged if it actually got out into the British countryside and while some areas may have had a wild bunny population briefly, the later evidence and the fact that the Norman’s had to re-import them does not suggest that it was either a long lived or widespread trend.
So, after examining the evidence I came to the following conclusion; the Romans had captive rabbits of which some may have escaped and established brief colonies after the Romans left, however these expired relatively quickly and for the vast majority of the Early Medieval period there were no wild rabbits in Britain. They did not make an appearance until after the Conquest and it was later still that a stable wild population emerged.
The very fact that they were present before and after the period is one of the reasons why so many people assume they were present during the period as well, but because it seems “obvious” is also the reasons why it has to be scrutinised to be certain, and in this case it appears that there is a total lack of evidence to support wild UK rabbits and some indirect evidence to the contrary.
Rigid heddles are like rabbits. Leave two alone and they multiple. Well, sort of.
They are similar because there is widespread evidence that the Romans had them (including a rather nice example from South Shields that I have used for inspiration) and they appear in the Medieval period. However, also as with rabbits, there is no direct evidence for them during the Early Medieval. So were they used by Saxons or Vikings?
The first port of call for me (as always) is to check the archaeological record. As stated above there is no direct evidence i.e. no definite finds of a rigid heddle in a Saxon or Viking context. In Britain. Across the water though in Bergen it is a different matter. Excavations there have found at least two rigid heddles dating from the 12th – 13th C and 13th-14th C. So not only is the period once again “bookended” by finds, one comes from Britain and the other is actually Late Norse.
The next archaeological piece of evidence to hunt for is their product. As a tool, heddles make something, if that something exists then it in turn implies the existence of the tool used to craft it. Tablet braiding and heddle weaving both produce a very similar looking braid, but with an important difference – heddles move vertically whereas during tablet weaving the tablets are rotated and this imparts a twist of the threads that is not present in heddle woven bands. Unfortunately no-one has performed an extensive study of discovered braids to determine their method of manufacture, but there is a single grave find where the body was preserved along with clothing and dated to the mid-late 11th C and some of the braids are thought to heddle woven.
Following this up by checking manuscripts and such, I could find no specific reference to rigid heddles or illustrations of them until the Medieval period.
So the archaeological evidence so far is inconclusive but indirect evidence suggests the presence of rigid heddles at least towards the end of the Early Medieval, and evidence from other sources is non-existent.
However, unlike rabbits, I do think that rigid heddles are acceptable despite a lack of evidence. The reason I believe is that the heddle is a simple piece of technology and one that appears to be spread across the world through many different cultures and time periods. Unlike something more complex, the heddle appears to have been “invented” at many places rather than the idea spreading from a single (or limited) location. Also, the rigid heddle simply replicates a process that is central to any sort of weaving – that of moving threads back and forth and separating them to create the shed. The fact that string heddles are used on warp weighted looms suggests to me that there is no reason to believe that rigid heddles disappeared with the Romans and didn’t make a comeback until the Medieval.
Therefore, unlike rabbits, I consider the rigid heddle to be an acceptable item despite the lack of evidence. I cannot prove that they did or did not exist, but looking at the item in the wider context of the craft and other examples, the level of technology it represents etc all offer sufficient support to me to say that it is a perfectly viable item to have in an Anglo-Saxon or Viking display.
Trelleborg or “Trollen” wheels
I have already written at length about these abominations, so I will keep this more about the process. If you want the long version, read it here 🙂
These are scattered all over the internet and many re-enactors will happily tell you that their example is based on the find from York, Hedeby, Dublin or Birka or even the original from Trelleborg. This is where doing your own research comes to the fore.
Checking the archaeological record for the Early Medieval uncovers nothing – not a single one from any site of the period. Thus the chronological range is extended – do they appear in the Roman period? Nope. How about later? Medieval? Nope. The earliest I can find one is the 17th century, it is indeed from Trelleborg, but not the Viking period by a long way. Even expanding the search to “textile tools” in general and contacting relevant museums, professors etc still turns up nothing, no one has heard of these from the Early Medieval or seen anything that looks like it.
However, continuing with the same approach that I applied to the heddles, are there any finds of the product – the braid itself. Something that can be definitely linked to the use of one of these. Again, no.
Archaeological sources complete, it’s onto carvings, wills, illustrations etc – still nothing.
So far the evidence is incredible scant – a single object from hundreds of years after the Viking period. Still following the same method as before though, I checked for ethnographic parallels, maybe the trollen wheel is a common object just like a rigid heddle. Nope. It seems to be very Eastern and the only similar objects are the Japanese muradai used in kumihimo.
After reviewing the (lack of) evidence my conclusions about these were the opposite of that for heddles – yes it is simple, but it seems to have no parallels. As many re-enactors are quick to point out it would most likely be made of a perishable material – leather, wood, horn etc, but we have sites where organic artefacts are produced by the thousand and still no sign of these. A single find from centuries after the period cannot used to reasonably support a object that may be superfluous to requirement anyway – it is not as if the Early Medieval is lacking in ways to make braids.
Thus “trollen” wheels were a big, fat NO for me and I wish to see them all burnt 😀
The “shave horse” is an odd piece of kit. It’s use is extensively documented and known among green woodworkers of the last few hundred years. Varieties of it can be used for bow or besom making (amongst other things) and it is invaluable when using a drawknife on any material. The big question though is whether or not it is suitable for use in a Early Medieval setting.
The usual hunt through the archaeological record for the period turns up nothing. However, this is unsurprising – assuming any part of this broke or was to be discarded, then it is more than likely going to be used as firewood. Thus, the chance of finding a piece is very small. Additionally, even if a piece was found, then there are very few diagnostic elements present. The board is just that – a board of wood, the legs are simple tapered branches, even the bench is a relatively simple plank (even the “European” style only has a slot). The only components that may help are the uprights and cross pieces that make the actual vice part and even those vary so much from example to example that almost anything could be interpreted as one!
A look at contemporary manuscripts again doesn’t help. Checking outside the period, they do not seem to appear in documents until the late 15th century, though the example is a drawing with no explicit description – possibly suggesting that the object was well enough known to not require one. Also, the earliest depicted styles are the “European” or “dumb/drophead” varieties. The “English” style with the outside uprights rather than a slot is not described or depicted until the late 19th C.
Earlier than the Early Medieval, the evidence is pretty much the same – lacking. The Romans do not appear to have had it, but they did have a strap based foot vice. Various “obvious” ideas for woodworking benches seem to be present in the Roman and later periods, so is it possible that the shave horse simply has not been recorded? After all, there is only a single depiction of the Roman strap vice, yet surely more than one existed.
Unlike some other tools, there is nothing really can be called in indicative product of the shave horse – while it helps with many jobs, it is totally essentially for none. However, there is at least one tool that works very well with the shave horse and it’s use is made so much easier by having one – the drawknife.
This where some really hard research had to be done. There are later descriptions of workers holding boards between their stomach and a suitable stop in order to use a drawknife, which is fine for wood but not smaller materials. Antler was used extensively by the Saxons and Vikings and a drawknife is often cited as the best tool for shaving down antler plates and strips ready to make combs (and from practical experience I can say it is). Additionally faceted waste materials and the shavings themselves have been found. Thus it is pretty conclusive that drawknives were used on antler. Now try and successfully use a drawknife down a 200mm antler sideplate without having it held somehow. There are many different ways of doing this, but for ease and speed, the shave horse is the best I have found, and looking at the resulting tool marks, produces the closest similarities the parallel, longitudinal striations that are sometimes seen on these artefacts.
Green woodworkers also often use the shave horse in their work and the pole-lathe and horse are often seen together, as in order to most easily make the components for one, the other is required.
Do these ideas constitute definite proof that shave horses (or a proto-version) existed? No, of course they don’t. However, it is strong circumstantial evidence that SOMETHING like it existed and in the absence of a definite artefact, the shave horse is as good a stand-in as any – it can be made using tools and materials of the period, the technology involved does not require an unknown element e.g. the screw thread etc.
So based on my research, I will not conclusively say that I think they existed (or not), but some sort of holding device almost certainly did, and until we know what, the shave horse is a good interim measure. Though probably a European style rather than English would be best 😉
Bone and antler “toggles”
Another regular occurrence, and one that really makes me twitch (sad I know, but hey I am an authenty bone nerd 🙂 ) is the widespread use of bone and antler toggles on pouches, bags, shoes etc. It may seem a little thing, but once again it is something I believe is incorrect and here is how I arrive at that conclusion.
Broadly speaking there is one specific type of toggle in bone and another in antler that are seen time and time again. The bone example is the perforated pig metapodial and the antler one is the perforated antler tine.
Also seen, but less frequently, is the horn toggle similar to the antler example, but made from the tip of a horn.
Now these seem obvious items, particularly to anyone who grew up with duffle coats and the like with their wooden toggles that seem very similar to these. Unfortunately that may be part of the problem – it is a simple (but not necessarily correct) leap from seeing something in a modern context using “natural materials” and then thinking it is a perfectly acceptable idea 1000 years.
However, before denouncing them entirely, the evidence needs to be checked. So firstly, the finds. Perforated pig metapodia are a common find, in many archaeological excavations they are indeed described as toggles. Antler tines on the other hand are found, but not perforated and almost always in waste pits with the rest of the comb-making debris. Horn has a horrendously low chance of survival so no horn toggles exist. So of the three, only the bone items are worth looking at in any further detail as similar objects in antler and horn simple do not seem to exist.
“Excellent” some people say, “bone toggles are found and therefore they are perfect for Viking shoes”. Well, not so fast. If the bone toggle were a feature of Viking shoes then the logical conclusion would be that we would find them on remains of shoes, in and around leather-working sites and so on. However, this is not the case. I could not find a single example of a Viking shoe with a bone toggle, they all had neatly made leather toggles instead.
“Hold on though” continue the supporters, “archaeologists have identified these as toggles and they know what they are talking about”. Again, I have to say “not so fast”. Many archaeologists do know what they are talking about and are very good at their job. However, they are influenced by the modern world as much as anyone, and with a lack of exact context it is easy to see an object and give it a purpose that conforms to your own thinking. Also, more recently, this identification has been challenged with another more appropriate suggestion – that these bones are “buzz bones”.
A buzz bone is a small perforated bone threaded on some cord and wound back and forth to make a humming sound as in the below image.
These are recorded as being a feature of Scandinavian life in the last few hundred years and that children in particular enjoy collecting the bones from meals in order to do this (there is even a tradition of using them to scare away the trolls living in the sauna! 😀 ). Additionally, at least one example of a perforated pig bone has a leather cord that is too long for a toggle but could be a broken buzzbone set.
Checking other avenues of enquiry shows them all to be dead ends – something so small is not depicted in manuscripts, carved on stones, discussed in wills etc, so interpretation of the archaeological finds is the only way forward. Even out of the period there is nothing to suggest the use of bones and tines in this manner until much later.
Looking at the finds logically, and viewing the finished product of a leather-worker as a crafts-person would, why would you go to all the trouble of selecting the correct leather, doing some wonderful hidden stitching, tweaking bits so it fits just right and is comfortable and then go and stick a random (very obvious) bone onto it? That attitude is not in keeping with the way that period crafters seem to have worked. Virtually no skeletal material is left looking that way; the “guttering” on antler is smoothed off, epiphyses on bones are removed and so on. The idea that a Viking period leather-worker would invest so much time in a product only to finish it that way is almost insulting to their level of skill and too similar to the classic “caveman” idea for my liking.
So on the one hand you have a well crafted product that takes time and skill to manufacture, finds of which are known to have used leather closures, but you also have a crudely worked bone which is known in more modern Scandinavian culture to have a particular use, the archaeological finds of these give no suggestion that their use was different in the past. These two items are totally separate.
On the other hand you have the same crude bone, and well crafted item that for some reason the skilled crafter decides to merge despite the fashion of their society and culture and despite the fact that there is already a common style of fastening for the product.
Looking at the two options above, to me it seems obvious that a skilled craftsperson would not sully their work with a crudely worked waste bone and that a neatly made leather toggle would be far preferable – after all, a leather-worker will have an abundance of leather but why would they have a whole bunch of pigs feet processing?
A similar argument applies to the use of bark on wood or rough antler for handles on knives etc – it doesn’t appear in the archaeological record and all the evidence actually points to the contrary. The idea of “rustic” looking nice is a far more modern ideal.
There you have it, a brief insight into my research pattern and how I applied it to a number of different objects. Hopefully this demonstrates that in order to make an informed decision about anything historical that does not have hard evidence, you need a sensible, methodical approach and a willingness to look around at other cultures, time periods etc as well as try to understand things from the point of view of the period in question while trying to ignore modern conventions and fashion.