With lockdown set to drag on, I thought I’d share a little something that may be of interest to anyone looking to have a go at an ancient craft. It’s a 12 episode free tutorial on how to make a rough and ready coil basket.
Forms of traditional coil basket making can be found on every continent and it represents one of humankind’s earliest crafts. It may very well have found its technique borrowed by our earliest potters who imitated the coiling method with clay to build up the walls of their pots.
But one of the best things about coil baskets is that the materials for their manufacture are to be found everywhere. The binding can be made from bramble wood, willow, pine tree roots, bamboo and a range of other woody, fast growing species. The ‘foundation’ material – the stuff that makes up the snake-like coil – can equally come from a huge range of plants, from agriculturally produced cereal straws such as rye, wheat and barley, to wild grasses such as Cocksfoot, Sweetgrass, rushes, Coarse meadow grass and sedge.
It will come as no surprise that making your own coil basket involves very much more preparation time than it does actually ‘making’. But growing plants, harvesting them, processing them and preparing them for the work is one of the best ways of engaging with a craft and truly understanding its value. And it forces us to think about what we take from nature.
You can read all the histories you like and scour the archives for facts and figures about the importance of maritime trade to the Cornish communities of old but for me, nothing speaks louder than the depths of the cart wheel ruts cut into the hard Cornish bedrock on the surface of a path that has itself been hewn through that same rock in order to access one of the most magical coves on the southern Cornish coastline. It was these coves – natural harbours and secluded landing places – that made Cornwall such an ideal place to conduct smuggling enterprises on an enormous scale. I won’t spoil it for those of you who have yet to watch Ep2 of Digging Up Britain’s Past (series 2), but in many ways the fortunes of the Cornish smugglers are bound up in the story of a ship that has lain at the bottom of the Solent for over 250 years. Thanks to the efforts of maritime archaeologists in a LIBOR-funded rescue excavation, at last, its story can be told. And what an amazing story it is. So join me and Raksha Dave on a fascinating journey as we map out the story of a ship that was to have arguably the most profound effect on Britain’s maritime story – ever.
I’m absolutely thrilled to be teaming up with an old friend: the brilliant Raksha Dave for series 2 of Digging Up Britain’s Past. The series sees us travelling through some of the key episodes of Britain’s history but casting a critical archaeological eye on what the material remains can tell us. In this first programme, we’ll be joining a team from Reading University at a site in Silchester, near Reading, as they examine one of the best-preserved Roman sites in Britain. It’s remarkable what has been left behind – and to see a whole Roman city abandoned. Whilst Raksha checks out the excavations of the bath house, I am sent across the country looking at comparable sites and looking at the archaeological evidence for the decline of the Roman way of life in Britannia. One of the highlights for me was a walk along an abandoned Roman road that once led to Silchester. It felt eerily quiet and serene for a road that once carried the wealth and might of the Roman world along its cobbled stones. And then there was Boudicca’s revolt. Much of what we know about this revolt comes from a handful of quite problematic historical sources – which, necessarily, we have to take with a pinch of salt. But seeing the archaeological evidence for the levels destruction wrought on the city of Colchester by Boudicca’s armies brought home, first hand, just how violent the uprising was, and how turbulent those early years of Roman conquest were.
Over the course of the past year I have been thinking through how we can go about using natural raw materials and and employing them in the fabrication of day to day objects. Of course, we’ve been doing this for millennia but I’m rather keen to use certain types of natural materials. An oak tree can be felled in order to build a house. That’s a pretty obvious kind of day to day requirement. But structural timber takes centuries to grow. I’m interested in using stuff that take a year to grow: natural materials that shoot from the ground in spring, seem to effortlessly grow to full maturity in a matter of months, and then either die or lie dormant over winter. These are the materials that I am interested in. Mostly because, costing little more that a bit of fertile soil, light and water, they are essentially free of charge.
Of course, we can’t build a house out of a few stooks of rye grass and some spindly bramble cane, but you can make other useful objects to alleviate the pressure we place on our planet to enhance our lives with material objects. The coil basket has fascinated me for years. I first cam across this technique of basket making when I attempted my own beehive – using an old fashion bee-skep. Since then, I have become addicted and I spend whatever free time I can muster (between work and kids) playing with different species to make different forms of basket. I fell upon rye grass because, having been used to stuff horse collars, I knew it was a very durable straw. For the binding I have, despite a brief love affair with bamboo, returned to bramble cane with renewed vigour. No two bramble canes are the same and it can make for a difficult plant to get any uniformity with. But let a favoured plant spread to, say five or six plants (it will do this naturally if unhindered) and ensure the same growing conditions for each plant. This is best achieved if they are all racing upwards to the light through a dense and well-clipped hedge. In good fertile soil, and well-moistened, each plant will produce a couple of canes each in a calendar year. These can be split into four and processed to make fine, pliable canes with which to bind the twisted and coiled rye grass. Light-weight, durable and, despite the hours of processing (which in any case is good for the mind), completely free of charge.
Of course, we need to bear in mind that if we all went out and flayed the landscape of grasses and brambles, the world would be a poorer place. Take only what you need, propagate intelligently, let at least two thirds of a grass crop go to seed and be sure that next year more of the same will be available. The best thing about this basket is that when it has had its day, it can be chucked back into the hedge and will rot down without a trace – going back to the earth as it would have done if it had been left there in the first place. It’s great to think that a useful object can be made from natural materials that are essentially just being held in a state of suspended decay.
I am delighted to announce ‘Digging Up Britain’s Past’, a new archaeology-based series coming to Channel 5 in January. In it, myself and co-presenter Helen Skelton will be exploring some of the fascinating archaeological stories from Britain’s past. Our journey takes us through the neolithic landscapes of Stonehenge, to sites of witchcraft in the seventeenth century. We follow in the footsteps of Henry VIII’s infamous spending spree and examine the impact Viking invasions had on life in early medieval Britain. Forensic analysis of the medieval peasantry will see us explore the skeletal and dendrochonological (tree ring) evidence for major climatic events in the fourteenth century whilst Helen gets up close and personal with the outlaw’s most trusted weapon – the long bow – in a bid to explore the truths behind the legend of Robin Hood. We had a great time making this series as we travelled up and down the length of the British Isles in search of the archaeological evidence for some of the most fascinating periods in Britain’s past. I do hope you can join us!
I’ve been hugely inspired by the work of American authors on craft – Richard Sennett, Peter Korn, Matthew Crawford, Howard Risatti, to name but a few. I am therefore thrilled to be entering into the debate in the US about the importance and value of craft in everyday life.
Mine is an exploration into the rich time-depth of many of our crafts, charting their origins back through the medieval and ancient past. Woven into these narratives are the stories of my own experiences, those working as an archaeologist, as a small-holder as well as those cherished memories I have of working on a range of BBC history programmes – Victorian Farm, Edwardian Farm and Wartime Farm.
But I like to think that I arrive at some of the same conclusions as the great craft-theorists: Crafting defines us. We are makers. It’s healthy. We are at our best when we are making, from natural materials, to a standard, for use, and with care and compassion.
Cræft: How Traditional Crafts are About More Than Just Making
“In a period of meaningless mass manufacturing, our growing appetite for hand-made objects, artisan food, and craft beverages reveals our deep cravings for tradition and quality. But there was a time when craft meant something very different; the Old English word cræft possessed an almost indefinable sense of knowledge, wisdom, and power.
In this fascinating book, historian and popular broadcaster Alex Langlands goes in search of the mysterious lost meaning of cræft. Through a vibrant series of mini-histories, told with his trademark energy and charm, Langlands resurrects the ancient craftspeople who fused exquisite skill with back-breaking labour-and passionately defends the renewed importance of cræft today.”