A Look Back through 4000 Years of Woodturning


A Look Back through 4000 Years of Woodturning:
Stuart King talks us through 4000 years of woodturning and creates lathe-turned ear studs.

Stuart King talks us through 4000 years of woodturning and creates lathe-turned ear studs

Woodturning is alive and well, there is a fabulous selection of tools and equipment available from a wide choice of suppliers, the woodturning clubs are buzzing with enthusiastic members eager to imbibe the latest technology and to be inspired by recognised experts. Today’s woodturning scene is largely one of leisure, supported by a respectable number of professionals. Whatever one’s involvement with woodturning, I wonder how many think about how our craft evolved, and over how many hundreds of years of development have led us to where we are today?
Well, we are not talking about hundreds of years but thousands, simple lathes have been in use in the UK for at least 4000 years, and recently I was privileged to be able to provide the practical evidence for this early technology. In August 2011, an early Bronze Age 4000 years old cist (a small chamber made of thin stone slabs) burial was discovered on Dartmoor. Inside were the cremated remains of a female, and, almost uniquely for this period, well preserved grave goods including four lathe-turned ear studs (labrets). Analysis has established that these studs are made from spindle wood, (Euonymus spp.) a small shrubby tree that still grows on the moor. Spindle tree is a hard, fine-grained wood that has traditionally been used to make skewers, toothpicks, knitting needles and, of course, ‘drop’ spindles. 

Studying high-resolution images, I was convinced that these artefacts were lathe turned rather than carved, but the question put to me by Andrew Brown of Defacto Films, who was producing a BBC documentary, was how were these exquisite items turned on a lathe, and what sort of lathe? These objects are no more than 250mm diameter so I ruled out the use of a traditional pole lathe, which is much too heavy for such delicate woodturning. As the invention of the crankshaft providing continuous revolution was at least another 1500 years away, possibly more, the only options were some form of reciprocating apparatus. This left me with the choice of either a ‘bow’ lathe or a ‘strap’ lathe.
This was to become an intriguing archaeological experiment. I set up a piece of ‘round wood’ spindle tree between two points and, with a bow in one hand and a chisel in the other it was clear that with a little practice, progress could be made, coordinating the bowing and holding the tool using a separate hand for each and only making a cut as the wood revolves forwards can be tricky at first. Perseverance proved that it could be achieved and I did indeed produce a passable ear stud, and so down to Dartmoor for the filming.
The location was perfect, in front of a recreated ancient round house. The lathe was set up; the presenter was Mike Dilger of The One Show with Dr Richard Brunning, a wood expert, in attendance. Using my set of Bronze Age tools, notably a socketed chisel and a small round nose scraper I bowed away, slow but sure. I then suggested that if Mike put a cord around the workpiece it would free up both of my hands and this would allow me to have more control, which makes a great difference with both the speed of turning and the accuracy of tool use. More speed, more torque, more accuracy, quicker production, this had to be the method used. Indeed, this form of turning proved so efficient that multiples could be turned, pointing possibly to the earliest form of mass production?
The original studs were so well preserved that one could see evidence of final finishing on some of the side walls, as if the turnings had been rubbed on a coarse stone to remove the uneven surface where the studs had been finally parted from the main stock, possibly with a knife. This was my first encounter with spindle wood and I was amazed at the fine finish that was achieved directly from the bronze skew chisel.

Spindle wood and repro ear stud against the image of an original

At the reconstructed Bronze Age Dartmoor dwelling with the film crew

The Bronze Age bronze chisel used in the experiment alongside a slightly earlier Neolithic flint chisel, could this also do the job?

It is possible to turn wood with a flint tool

Within a couple of hours, I had taken woodturning back another 500 years to the early Bronze Age. These ear studs (or are they cloak fasteners?) are in remarkable condition and rare organic survivors for this early period. Only one was subjected to species analysis which confirmed as spindle wood. This is the first time that I have turned this wood, it turns very cleanly, almost like box (Cornus florida) wood. There is no doubt that these pieces were turned, they are uniform and crisp/clean, there are no tool marks because as I have proved these can be turned using a sharp flat/skew chisel leaving a clean, polished surface. The bottom of the cove was completed using a sharp round-nosed bronze sheer scraper.
There are signs of abrasion on the centre portion of the sides, these can be explained thus; the turnings are completed down to approximately 5cm diameter where they are broken off the ‘blank’ leaving a central side area requiring cleaning up. This could have been done with a knife and completed by rubbing on an appropriate piece of stone leaving the abrasive marks.
I used an original Bronze Age chisel from my collection and found that these studs can be turned using a bow lathe and a one handed tool, but using the two man ‘strap’ lathe technique made it a breeze. Dr Richard Brunning stated: “These wooden studs are unique in British prehistory. It has been suggested that they may represent ear studs or studs for elsewhere on the body. They could also have been used as studs set into leather belts or clothing. They represent the earliest evidence for woodturning in the UK. It seems logical that woodturning may have begun with the manufacture of such small items rather than with the creation of more complex artefacts such as bowls.”

A hypothetical Bronze age turners tool kit

This small round-nosed scraper was made from a scrap piece of Roman bronze and used to create the cove in the stud

I found it easy to turn a series of studs usingnthe bronze tools, was this the origin of mass production?

So we are able through artefactual evidence and archaeological experiment to prove the technique hypothesis but artefactual evidence for the lathe itself is still missing from the historical record, we have to wait until about 300BC for our first illustration of a reciprocating lathe, in this case a two-man strap lathe. We know that reciprocating lathes had developed into the more sophisticated pole lathe capable of turning bowls and wheel hubs by c.50BC at the Iron Age Lake Village at Glastonbury. Continuous revolution lathes probably appeared during the Roman period but, as can be seen from later illustrations and modern use (Morocco and the chair bodgers, etc.) there is much crossover time wise.
The best view into the past is to study the simple technology captured on early illustrations and photographic images or to study long held traditional techniques still used today in certain, often isolated worldwide communities. 

An illustration of how the studs would have been turned from a half round section of branch wood

Earliest illustration of turning. This two-man reciprocating strap lathe is drawn from an Egyptian tomb dated c.300BC

My next piece of experimental archaeology is to prove that Neolithic (Late Stone Age) people had the potential technology to turn wood!


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