Splitting a log using non-metal tools

This is the third and final post from our bush-craft day at Reaseheath College in Cheshire. Hannah Cobb made a bone point that Peter Groom thought would make a useful wedge for a log splitting exercise that was happening close by. Apparently the bone point broke quite quickly, but by then I had wandered over to have a look, and the next thing I know I was hammering the top of a log.

The day was organised as a series of mini workshops being run by Peter’s students concurrently and in series. I hadn’t ‘booked onto’ log splitting, I somehow ended up there and this seems to be a very inclusive and social way of working. Two decades ago I read a lovely book about child rearing called The Continuum Concept by Jean Liedloff. She described how South American tribal groups educate their children. Activities take place and children can drop in, or not. The child is welcomed to gravitate to whatever is of interest to the child, without parental judgement of what activities the child ‘should’ be doing. A similar approach was adopted here. Anyway, back to the log splitting.

The end of the log to be split was placed on top of another log forming a ‘T’ shape. James Findlay had made a tool that was a cross between a sledge hammer and a mallet, the size and form of a sledge hammer but made totally from wood. The first stage was to hammer the top of the ‘victim’ log on the top edge three times. The log is then turned 180 degrees and the same process occurred on the opposite end. The aim of this exercise was to produce a micro-crack in the cut face of the log. When the crack appears a wedge is gently hammered in, and that is when Hannah’s bone point broke. Alex Lewis-Hand was explaining the process to me, and at the point we were alternating the hammering and turning process. As the crack developed Becca Smith was producing and providing wedges of the necessary size, and James was regularly wedging the head of the sledge mallet to keep it in place. I started photographing at the point we got two wedges in the cut face.


At some point early in this process I became the chief hammerer, which I greatly appreciate, having never had the opportunity to have a go at this before. On the floor next to the log you can see a smaller mallet that was used to hammer in the wedges. In fact there were three of these of varying sizes to accommodate the varying wedge sizes.


The wedging process was really interesting as it is a battle of millimetres. The smaller wedges are very delicate and only strong longitudinally, and so selecting the correct size mallet and hitting vertically onto the wedge is really important or it can simply break off rather than penetrate the crack. The acoustics are really important here as you can hear very clearly if the angle is right, and therefore adjust accordingly.


Alex is very well informed on this process and directed me through it really well. He told me that hard oak wedges were ideal, but we were working with what was available on the day. Once the face crack had opened enough we could start to chase the crack along the log’s length. Alex described it to me as a bipolar technology, and that gave me the idea to place a stone underneath to decrease the absorption of the blows and therefore increase the value of the impact. We did so and I think this was a good idea.


This was actually physically hard work, but because you are engaging in a dynamic process that seems to be unimportant. It also reminded me of a saying, that wood warms you twice, once when you cut it, and again when you burn it. It got me sweating anyway. I would again emphasise the acoustic aspect of the process as in the later stages the log starts to creak as it splits, and this can occur when no hammering is happening. I imagine it is similar(ish!) to bomb disposal, only the other way round.


Peter suggested hammering each wedge gently and in sequence to get a continuous and dynamic pressure working all along the split. At this stage the work is much more delicate and I related it to tightening wheel-nuts on a car to make sure they are all tightened to the same degree. It is a fully engaging process, and although I was hammering both Alex and Peter were suggesting points at which to wedge, and James was keeping an eye on the sledge mallet, whilst Becca made sure we had enough wedges of appropriate size.


I am not really sure how long we were at it for, but once we started to hear the log cracking of its own accord we knew we were there. The wedging and hitting became more fundamental.


And we split it. There was an interesting parallel for me with the sinew making, in that you are working with the natural grain of the material. Alex was telling me about how splitting keeps aspects of the timber’s water resilience in tact, whereas sawing cuts through the fibres and makes the timber more absorbent. This is a long post, but I got a lot from this process. Executive summary: for anyone interested in experimental archaeology I would highly recommend Peter’s Bushcraft course at Reaseheath in Cheshire. It’s great! My thanks to Nick Overton for organising.



Making a bone awl following the Matt Bonwick method

After having produced our sinew Matt Bonwick led us through the process of making an awl from the remaining deer bone. I had a good look at some Mesolithic (Natufian) bone points and awls before I came. The only difference I could perceive between the two types was that the awls had the bone ‘knuckle’ left on as a handle. Matt mentioned (and I immediately forgot) that it can be useful to gouge a slot along the bone to guide the breaks. He said it was also possible to just smash the bone on a large rock. That was the bit that resonated with me, and off I went. It worked, although my bone fragments were noticeably shorter than those produced by gouging first.


A close look at the shattered bone fragments above and below shows the bone marrow oozing out from the inner cavity. Lewis Binford (1983: 101) has discussed how for the Nunamiut of Alaska the marrow from Caribou long bones was a valued emergency food supply. As highlighted in the previous post, the lower limb forms a self contained and easily transportable container, and the marrow can be accessed as and when needed. Matt suggested that it could be used as a stock, or prehistoric ‘cup-a-soup’.


As we had already had lunch I selected my largest bone fragment and started grinding and scraping it into shape. I used the large rock that was available, but ideally would have selected a more abrasive type of stone. The shaping process was relatively easy and took again, about 20 minutes.


An awl of this type could be used for piercing skins or working on baskets. The inner surface shown on the photo below allows new pieces of willow to be inserted between already woven sections of basket. I got rid of the horrible meaty bits on the base by burning them off.


This process was useful on a number of levels. I can see how the production of tools like these is relatively simple. The marrow illustrates another valuable aspect to this process, along with the skin and sinew it provides. For my PhD research I looked at an Early Upper Palaeolithic site at Glaston in Leicestershire. Spirally smashed horse metapodials were interpreted as the result of human action, and I used Binford’s ’emergency marrow’ explanation to make sense of the inland and upland location and expedient stone tool signature. No cut marks were reported on the horse bones, but it would be very interesting to examine them now in the light of this experience. Anyway, here is a photo of Matt at work with his interesting arms!


Binford, L.R. 1983. In pursuit of the past: decoding the archaeological record. London. Thames & Hudson.

Our bushcraft day out at Reaseheath College with Peter Groom and company

This is a short photo-essay and summarises part of my experience yesterday on our joint University of Manchester / University of Chester bushcraft day out. Spoiler alert: it was excellent. This post focuses upon sinew making from a deer metapodial, or lower part of the leg. To begin the process we each selected a limb. Apparently Peter Groom, who runs the course, can get these free of charge as they are of no real commercial value. The thing I would emphasise is how the metapodial is an very self contained unit, and as Peter pointed out, you get four of them from each animal.


The first step was to select a stone flake with a sharp edge and make a cut so that the skin could be peeled off. It became clear that my metapodial had been lying around for a long time and dried out. This resulted in it being pretty difficult to ‘peel’ the skin off. Two of Peter’s students, Evon Kirby and Matt Bonwick were on hand to help guide us through the process.


Hannah Cobb, who I was sat next to, had a ‘fresh’ one and was able to skin it cleanly and quickly. However, with persistence I got the hang of it and managed to get the skin off. The tools used are in the lower right of the above image.


One of the purposes of removing the skin was to expose the tendons. Tendons runs up the front and back of the metapodial and once exposed both of these were cut and removed.


As can be seen the tendon is pink and feels plastic. The task is to transform the tendon into sinew through a process of beating. As the tendon is beaten it first of all changes colour from pink to white. As it flattens the differing elements that make the tendon are separated out into individual fibres. Hannah’s ‘fresh’ tendon took a lot longer to process than my dry example. Mine took less than 20 minutes.


Once the complete tendon has been sufficiently flattened the individual filaments can be separated out and this is the sinew. Evon then showed Hannah how the sinew could be used to attach flights to an arrow shaft. What I found interesting though was the range of materials we had also acquired through this process. Most obviously a section of skin and a bone as well as the deer’s ‘toes’. Matt thought the toes may be useful for making glue a bit like horse’s hooves. This is a short post with more to follow, however, as already mentioned the day was excellent and if anyone is interested I would encourage them to get in touch with Peter for a chat.