Cruciform Stamp, West Stow
Over the course of this term, both individually and as a class, we have learned a good deal about both the benefits and limitations of historic recreation as a method for exploring the past and the objects that survive from it. The following project is my personal effort to learn about a cruciform pottery stamp fashioned from antler from West Stow, a small Anglo-Saxon settlement that likely flourished in the early 5th to early 7th centuries. I researched the stamp and its context, and attempted to craft a replica using modern tools and my very limited (read: literally no) experience.
The original stamp was found not in one of the many excavated buildings at West Stow, but was rather one of the numerous artifacts found around the buildings, indicated that it was at one point lost or discarded. Pottery stamps were sometimes used on ceramics such as everyday cookware or storage vessels, but more often on funerary urns, pots that contained the cremated remains of a deceased member of the community.
Antler was a commonly used material in the Anglo-Saxon world. Though more difficult to find than horn or bone, it has more tensile strength, and was usually used for objects that would be under stress regularly, such as combs, or in this case, stamps.
It is unclear whether the shape the stamp forms has any spiritual or religious significance. At the time of its creation, Christianity had long gone from that area of the British Isles, and had not yet returned, so the cross shape it makes was probably not intended as a Christian sign. Perhaps the shape was influenced by designs from the continent– specifically from the Franks, who often traded with the Isles and who had remained Christianized. Maybe it was just aesthetically pleasing. Or perhaps it was informed by some error during the carving, as my own copy was. Whatever the truth is, however, it remains a mystery.
(Sorry about the bad picture quality for these, but I don’t know how to fix it.)
To start, I was given a piece of deer antler and a box of assorted tools, including metal files/rasps, saws, chisels, and clamps for securing the piece. I also ended up borrowing a knife from a friend, which was helpful in refining the stamp design towards the end of my work. All of these tools, with the exception of the clamps, are the recommended toolset of “Halldor the Viking,” a dedicated boneworker and Medieval re-enactor.
Halldor had some other pearls of wisdom to share apart from the components of a perfect toolkit, like steering clear of roe deer antler and recommending that the horn be soaked for the 48 hours prior to carving to soften it, but I decided to dive right in. I took the tools outside with me to work in the spring sunshine and wind, as an Anglo-Saxon craftsman might have done when the weather was good. I realized fairly quickly, however, that working outside, though pleasant, was difficult without any kind of infrastructure for antler carving, such as a workbench to place my work on. In the end, I split the difference and moved to sit on a cement and rock feature that I could use as a hard and stable surface.
I was very hesitant in making the first cut, not wanting to squander my precious single piece of antler by breaking it right off the bat. Instead, I sawed and chiseled off the very tip of the horn as practice before getting to work on the much thicker area towards its middle. That cut took some time, and I had to use a variety of saws and chisels accomplish it. As soon as I had finished, however, I realized that there was an odd slant to the cut and I was forced to take another slice off of my future stamp, which took equally as long and was just as difficult as the first time. Additionally, in the process, I accidentally chipped the top of the future stamp, which later informed my decision on how I would position the cross design.
Because the bottom half of the antler would become the true stamp, I used the other half of the antler to practice my method for forming the cross. The natural taper and smooth finish of the fragment made it exceedingly difficult to secure in such a way that would let me carve it, and so I quickly moved on to the real piece after deducing that the file shaped like a triangular prism would be my best bet for roughly forming the arms of the cross.
I had more success stabilizing the bottom half of the antler, so I knew that creating the rough shape of the cross would be relatively easier. However, I wasn’t sure if the beveling that appeared on the original stamp was created before or after the cross itself. Did it somehow facilitate the shaping of the cross, or was it added later as an design feature? How was I to even go about carving it, given the toughness of the cortical exterior of the horn? Eventually, I decided that since I had been able to create the shapes that I needed with the triangular file on my trial piece, I would forgo the beveling for the moment and carry on forming the cross.
As planned, I used the file for the cross shape and a chisel to carve the furrows in the center of the cross. I chose the site of the accidental chip to begin and worked from there to create four approximately even furrows as the spaces between the arms of the cross. With that, I had finished the rough stamp– all that remained was to refine it a bit, as much as I could.
For refining my work, I went to a ceramics studio to get a bit of a taste of the environment in which the stamp would have been used. With a knife and file, I once again tried to tackle the beveling problem, but no luck. I resigned myself to a completely rounded stamp with none of the carved planes that give the West Stow stamp its intriguing prismatic character. I spent a good hour whittling away at the arms of the cross with a knife, narrowing them down bit by bit, though they never reached the desired narrowness. I also took a stab at widening the grooves in the center of the cross, but the awkward angle of the knife seemed unsafe, so I abandoned the attempt. A few more shavings carved off here and there, and I had my stamp. I tested it on some wet clay (not leather hard, unfortunately, which is when the design would have been implemented), and it left a satisfying impression of a cross with thin ridges down the center, just as the original would have. Even if my stamp looks nothing like something the Anglo-Saxons produced, at least it works the same.
Overall, I enjoyed the process of creating this stamp, though it was more difficult than I had anticipated. Having worked with wood before, I was expecting the horn to be easier to carve and mold into a shape that I wanted. From the start, however, there were indicators that my copy could not be identical to the original. Firstly, the antler was shaped differently: mine was much thinner and less tapered from the get-go, and in order to achieve the appropriate proportions I had to make it shorter as well. Additionally, I believe that the spongy cancellous tissue at the center of the antler extended farther up the horn, and as a result the cross shape and grooves were muddied and rough, rather than clearly defined. Otherwise, the best explanation for the difference would be that I am a college undergraduate with no experience working with bone but armed with modern tools, whereas the original maker was presumably an experienced Anglo-Saxon craftsman using tools that may have been prone to warping or breaking. The unpredictability of his tools would have almost certainly informed how he went about carving his piece.
In my own attempts to carve a stamp from antler, I was able to feel and manipulate the material myself, giving me a greater appreciation for the craftsmanship and the purpose of the object. If a person was willing to spend the time and effort to gather the antler, soak it, and spend hours carving and refining it, then using the stamp must have been important. Recreation, though relatively novel and sometimes difficult to accomplish, is a fascinating and engaging way of understanding the past, one that we should continue exploring alongside more traditional techniques.
For Further Reading
Fleming, Robin. Britain after Rome: The Fall and Rise. London: Penguin Group, 2011.
Leahy, Kevin. “Animal Skeletal Materials.” In Anglo-Saxon Crafts, 53-60. N.p.: Tempus, 2003.
Magnusson, Halldor. “Basic Boneworking 101: The Toolkit.” Halldor the Viking: The Adventures of an Early Medieval Re-enactor (blog). Entry posted March 20, 2014. Accessed May 12, 2018. https://halldorviking.wordpress.com/2014/03/20/basic-bone-working-101-the-toolkit/.
———“How to Make a Composite Antler Comb.” Halldor the Viking: The Adventures of an Early Medieval Re-enactor (blog). Entry posted April 4, 2014. Accessed May 12, 2018. https://halldorviking.wordpress.com/2014/04/04/how-to-make-a-composite-antler-comb/.
Welton, Andrew J. “Encounters with Iron: An Archaeometallurgical Reassessment of Early Anglo-Saxon Spearheads and Knives.” The Archaeological Journal, 2016, 1-39. doi:10.1080/00665983.2016.1175891.
West, Stanley, ed. West Stow: The Anglo-Saxon Village. Research report no. 24. East Anglian Archaeology. Ipswich, United Kingdom: Suffolk County Planning Department, 1985.