THE MEDIEVAL TOOLBOX

By Lady Carowyn Silveroak

Tools. Raw metal. The everyday basic materials that make up our lives.

Do you think about the things you use every day? The remote control, the cell phone, the spoon and fork - easily used, easily discarded, easily replaced. So what are the things that we look for as researchers and re-enactors and experimental archeologists? Mostly, the details - what can complete our picture of the past better than using the everyday materials that were used in the time period? (Talk to anyone who owns or has held an artifact...you can feel the age of the piece, and it makes you want to reach for more. Isn't that what we're doing? Reaching into the past?)

Fast forward to 1936, in Gotland Sweden. Some new farmland was opened by draining a swampy area in the Mastermyr region of Snoder, in Sproge. A man named Emil Norrby owned the new field, and he hired Hugo Kraft and his tractor to plow the field. At a depth of 30 centimeters he turned up a chest of metal objects and other things (a fire grate, a copper cauldron, and tongs), which wouldn't fit in the box. Some articles went missing between the time that the pieces were removed from the find and when they were turned over to the Department of Antiquities, but on the whole, the find is intact. Subsequent digs in the same field have turned up nothing, though a later-period axe was dug out of an adjacent potato field two years later.

So, what's so cool about a box of metal bits?

It's a complete set of objects that can be taken as a whole, or a snapshot of reality for a tiny window of time. No one knows how the box got there in the first place - was it buried for retrieval later? Dumped out of a boat? Shifted off a sleigh that cracked on thin ice? Tossed into a bog to get rid of evidence of a crime?

However it got there, it's a treasure of everyday objects that a blacksmith uses. If you were to take my tool boxes (three at last count, not including the lampwork glass bead kit)...well, first of all, you'd have a very angry lady on your hands! Secondly, you'd have a variety of objects that make perfect sense, and some that make no sense whatsoever. Yeah, the Dremel looks normal, and all the drill bits for it.....why the Play-Doh? The string might rot away, but maybe the cellophane tape would be a plasticine lump, and almost decipherable. But why the glass bottle with talc powder? The bits of leather? The leather strips? (Don't go there!)

Tool boxes are unique.

They offer insight into the owner, the work that he does, and what work is common. So what's cool about this box?One thing that's great is that a bunch of blacksmiths up and down the east coast of the U.S. decided that a copy of the Mastermyr find would be a great way to study the pieces. There are some incredibly detailed books describing the find down to exact measurements, so they studied the books, got permission to study the artifacts (and make some measurements of their own), and reproduced each article as close to the original as they could possibly get. In order to be that precise, the blacksmiths had to create the tools in order to create the pieces! So they made tools using their own handmade tools, and then created the other pieces found at Mastermyr using those tools. Some neat things were discovered along the way: the slots in the lock were the exact width of the hacksaw blade. The nails in the box exactly fit the nail header, and the hollowed-out shape inside the lid of the box equaled the curve of the blade in the draw knife. So the tools in the box were used to make other pieces! This information comes from the experimental archeologists, who got their original measurements from the archeologists. This is an excellent example of unique pieces of information coming from locations that sometimes seem to be in conflict with each other.

Some of the stranger pieces are still not identified as specific tools, but it's very fun to sit back and watch the blacksmiths pick them up (they can actually pick them up!!) and turn them over as they discuss among themselves what it could be used for. This, more than any other experience, convinces me that exact reproductions have a very real place in archeology. They can be handled without fear of destroying priceless artifacts, and they can be displayed and transported without a great fear of being stolen or damaged, but they still give you the feel and look of great age and antiquity. Touch is an important factor in "reaching" (the word's not a pun!) into the past. You can't touch in a museum.

Anyway, back to identifying tools. It was also fun watching the blacksmiths pick up objects, turn them over, and determine that a piece or two seems broken! They could identify what the tool *might* have been, if it wasn't broken in a particular location. So was it a broken tool that the ancient blacksmith hadn't gotten around to fixing, a tool that broke while the box was in the bog, a piece of scrap iron, or something altogether unidentifiable?

So the Mastermyr is an excellent model for blacksmiths, and a great tool for delving into the mindset of an ancient blacksmith. Why those tools and not others? Why this object in his kit, and not some other things that modern blacksmiths or other tool-users would choose instead? Why only a few nails, and not a double handful, unless he was about to make more? Why a box only so big, when there were bigger things that must have been bulky to lug around that didn't fit in the box? Did he use rope or leather thongs that have since rotted away? Is everything a tool, or are some pieces downchecked / broken tools that will be scrapped?

And, of course, the most important question of all......what happened to the poor guy who lost his tool kit?

One way to reach into the past...

what reaches back to you?

Bibliography:

The Mastermyr Find: A Viking Age Tool Chest From Gotland, Greta Arwidsson & Gosta Berg, 1999, Larson Publishing Company, ISBN 0-9650755-1-6

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Reprinted from the Fall, 2005, issue of Arts and Sciences, a special issue of the Pikestaff,
the official newsletter of the Kingdom of the East. Used by permission.