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Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Woodcarving and woodworking tools seen at the British Museum; from ancient Nubia and Mesopotamia around 4,000 to 5,000 years ago


The British Museum is so full of incredible objects that a visit can be a bit overwhelming. Sometimes it is nice to just pick out a particular theme and to follow that through the galleries. On a recent visit, I took the chance to explore the history of woodcarving tools a bit further. A lot of the factual information here came from museum labels for the exhibits.

Ancient Nubia

Many sophisticated cultures developed in Nubia (along the Nile river in what is now northern Sudan and southern Egypt) in ancient times. This copper adze blade and axe head were found at the site of the ancient city of Faras. The remains of the city are now under the waters of Lake Nasser, having been flooded following the building of the Aswan dam.


They date to around 5,000 years ago and were probably imported from Egypt, Nubia's powerful neighbour. You can find out more about ancient Egyptian woodcarving and the making of copper alloys by visiting my previous post about it.

The Kerma civilisation developed in Nubia from about 4,500 years ago. It was based around the urban centre of Kerma, which the ancient Egyptians called 'Kush'. The city was known for skilled bronze (copper alloyed with arsenic or tin)  workers. Going from left to right, this stone axe head, stone grinder and whetstone (for sharpening metal blades) date to between about 3,760 and 3,560 years ago. The whetstone was one of ten hones interred with a sacrificial burial. It has traces of red pigment on it. I wonder if that was purely ritualistic, or if these stones were used with some kind of compound such as ground ochre to improve their sharpening performance?


Early Mesopotamia


These tools date from about 8,000 to about 6,200 years ago, to the early days of farming and of the development of towns and villages. The copper chisel in the centre was found at Tell Arpachiyah, in what was Northern Mesopotamia and is now near Mosul in Iraq. It is one of the earliest copper tools ever found. The tool to the left is a bone awl from the same place, set into bitumen. Between them is a sickle blade, also set in bitumen. Behind is a worked stone hoe blade and on the right, a stone mace head. In northern Mesopotamia, flint and metal were used for tools whereas in the south, pottery was generally used.

Ancient Sumerian

The Sumerian city of Ur was located at the site of what is now Tell al-Muqayyar in southern Iraq. At its peak, it was very powerful and wealthy. Some believe that Abraham (Abram or Ibrahim), the great prophet of the Jewish, Muslim and Christian faiths, may have been born here about 4,000 years ago. Archaeologists discovered a large cemetery area here dating to the Early Dynastic III period, about 4,600 to 4,300 years ago. Many of the stunning treasures excavated from this area are now in the British Museum. The copper used to make many of the tools probably came from Oman. 

These copper alloy chisels all have a flattened, triangular-shaped end away from the cutting edge. It doesn't look like a useful shape to be struck with a mallet or held in the hand, so I wonder if that end would have been held in some kind of handle? If that was the case, the shape wouldn't have been easy to drive into a wooden handle (like modern square- or round- sectioned tangs), so maybe that had a slot cut into it and was then bound together with the blade held inside? Perhaps the blade was simply wrapped in leather or another material to make a handle? I don't know of any evidence for this, by the way.
The chisel blade furthest on the right has an original engraving in cuneiform script on it.

The image below shows whetstones and chisel blades found in the tomb of Puabi, a very powerful and wealthy Sumerian woman. The beautifully-shaped honing stones on the right were found being worn by several of Puabi's male attendants buried with her.


The chisels are, according to the exhibit label, 'made of base gold with the surface artificially enriched'. Gold seems a strange choice for practical cutting tools. It is quite soft and so doesn't usually hold a cutting edge well. Perhaps, like the model tools found in the grave of the Egyptian king Khasekhemwy, these were meant as representations of (rather than working examples of) actual tools.

Several adzes were found in the Ur cemetery area. Unlike many ancient adzes the blades have a socket for the handle attached, rather than being lashed to the wooden handle like the adze blade shown above.



You may have noticed that two of the copper alloy adze blades have an animal's leg design engraved into them. Many tools and containers in these 'royal' graves have the same mark. No one is sure if it was the emblem of the royal house, the emblem of the manufacturers or something else.

The graceful-looking adze head in the central picture above is a replica of one in the collection of the University Museum in Philadelphia. The original is made of gold: another non-working representation of an actual tool? The objects shown with it are a gold spear head, a cluster of arrow heads corroded together and a whetstone.

The axe heads shown below illustrate something that is worth considering when looking at these objects.


The one on the right is made of silver - perhaps another mainly ceremonial representation. These objects probably came from the tombs of very wealthy and powerful people. It is hard to say whether these axes were just for use by guards and, if so, would they have looked considerably different to those used by craftspeople? During these times, there doesn't generally seem to have been the large differences in axe head shape according to the job required from it that can be seen in later axes, for example from the Anglo-Saxon times in Britain. However, perhaps the specialist craftsperson's hewing axes just weren't preserved in any graves?


Akkadian Ur and Canaan

From 4,300 to 4,150 years ago, the city of Ur was ruled by the Akkadians who succeeded the previous Sumerian rulers. The adze head below comes from the late Early Dynasty III or Akkadian periods. The handle is modern.



Notice the axe head shown bottom-right in the collection above. It is very different in shape to the earlier ones. This 'fenestrated' shape ('fenestrated' because of the 'windows' in the axehead) developed between 4,500 and 4,000 years ago, in the area around what is now called the Levant. The Canaanite axes below show this form with complete sockets for a handle. These windows meant that the whole axe was lighter in use. I wonder if this development was confined to military axes, given that the lighter weight would also benefit other people using them. Would these heads have been too vulnerable to distortion by twisting or side-to-side movements if embedded in timber? It's hard to say without any practical testing.


Ancient Babylonian

A hoard of 86 copper alloy and bronze tools and farming implements was found at Kutalla (what is now Tell Sifr in Iraq). They are about 4000 years old. Some were in a good, usable state although others were damaged. Axe heads (note: not of the fenestrated type), a chisel and a saw can all be seen amongst other tools. It is thought that they were held originally in a big agricultural establishment, where it would be customary to check the total weight of items issued and returned at the end of each season.



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