A Leather Bucket from the Seige of Oostende, 1604.

A few years ago, I was asked by an archaeologist to comment on the possible uses of a leather bucket that had been found during a dig in Holand. My opinion at the time was that it was a gunpowder bucket, based on the method of attachment of the handle. Powder buckets generally have the handle attached directly to the top band rather than use metal loops that introduce a risk of causing sparks. I also thought it would have been impossible to waterproof due to the number of pieces and the stitch holes. Now I’ve made a copy of one of the Mary Rose buckets (1545), I’ve changed my mind on being able to seal it, although I still think this example is a powder bucket. The lead archaeologist was convinced that because it is a bucket, its for water, regardless of the technical challenges involved. His report, so he won the argument.

The dig report is in Dutch, I’ve attempted to translate it into English using online tools but have kept the sytle of the Dutch. Feel free to correct any errors or clarify any points I’ve muddled.

Een lederen emmer gebruikt tijdens het beleg van Oostende

Leather water bucket used during the siege of Oostende

Tijdens de opgraving langs de Van lseghemlaan in 2004 werd een bijna volledige lederen emmer opgegraven.

During the archaeological dig at lseghemlaan, Oostende in 2004, an almost complete leather bucket was dug up.

De emmer bleef relatief goed bewaard en werd in zijn geheel geborgen, niettegenstaande deze bij de ontdekking ongelukkigerwijze met een schop in twee stukken ‘gesneden’ werd. Het leder was niet gesplit en alle stukken zaten nog in verband. De bodem van de emmer was nog zo stevig dat het Ieder moeilijk te manipuleren was en de binnenkant ervan niet onderzocht kon worden. De emmer was – gezien de gedeeltelijke bewaring van het Ieder aan één zijde — toch zeer [97] sterk gesleten. Daar de emmer samen met de omringende klei gelicht is, kan met zekerheid gesteld worden dat het ontbreken van materiaal aan slijtage te wijten is en geen gevolg is van schade toegebracht tijdens het opgraven.

The bucket remained in relatively good condition and was intact, in spite of the fact that discovery was in an unfortunate manner, and it was split in two pieces with a shovel. The leather was not damaged and all pieces were still in situ. The base of the bucket was stuck firmly, it was difficult to move and the inside could not be seen. The bucket had been partially protected on one side – nevertheless it was very [97] badly worn. When the bucket and surrounding clay were lifted it was apparent that the missing material was due to wear and not a consequence of damage during digging up.

De emmer had vóór droging en conservering de volgende afmetingen:- boven aan een diameter van 26.5 cm, op de bodem een diameter van 14.5 cm en een hoogte van 28.5 cm. De wand van• de emmer bestaat uit drie trapeziumvormige stukken Ieder die telkens 4 tot 8 cm overlapten en Iangs de beide randen direct op elkaar genaaid werden met een zadelmakersteek. Deze stukken werden gemaakt uit dik en stevig leder data an de bovenrand van de emmer tot 4 mm dik was. De nerfkant zit aan de buitenkant. Aan de hand van het nerfpatroon kon niet bepaald worden van welk dier het Ieder afkomstig maar de dikte en de stevigheid ervan wijzen in de richting van runderenleder. De bovenrand van de wand van de emmer werd verstevigd door meerdere repen langs de bovenrand van de wand van de emmer te naaien. Deze versteviging was op sommige plaatsen tot 4 cm breed.

The bucket had the following dimensions after drying and conserving: top diameter of 26.5cm, base diameter of 14.5cm and a height of 28.5cm. The extant portion of the bucket has three trapezoidal shaped pieces that taper from 4 to 8cm and were sewn to the body on the two long edges with a harness-makers’ stitch. These pieces were made from thick leather, at the upper edge of the bucket up to 4 mm thick. The grain side of the leather faces the outside. It could not be identified which animal it came from by means of the grain pattern, but cross-section and firmness of it in the direction of grain was taken  into consideration when laying out the pattern. The top of the bucket was reinforced with several bands sewn along the upper edge of the body. This strengthening was at some places up to 4 cm wide.

De emmer had één hengsel dat in de verstevigde bovenrand van de emmer werd aangebracht. De aanwezigheid van een hengsel was al tijdens de constructie van de emmer voorzien: in de wandfragmenten was een rechthoekige opening uitgesneden. Van het hengsel zeIf bleef zeer weinig bewaard: enkel de bevestiging aan de emmer. Het hengsel bestond uit een Lederen reep die in de lengte dubbel geplooid was. De uiteinden van het hengsel werden van de buitenzijde naar de binnenzijde door de rand van de emmer gehaald en omgeplooid. Het korte uiteinde werd boven de rand van de emmer aan het hengsel vastgenaaid.

LeatherBucket1

De vrijwel volledige lederen emmer, gevonden op de site `Van lseghemlaan’.
The nearly complete leather bucket, found on the site `of lseghemlaan’.

LeatherBucket3

De bodem van de lederen emmer.
The base of the leather bucket.

ostend bucket3

De aanzet van het hengsel gezien vanaf de buitenkant van de emmer.
The beginning of the handle seen as from the outside of the bucket.

Ostend bucket4
De aanzet van het hengsel gezien vanaf de binnenkant van de emmer.
The beginning of the handle seen as from the inside of the bucket.

Zoals gezegd, werd de exacte constructiemethode van de bodem van de emmer niet achterhaald. Het werd [98] set opportuun geacht deze uitzonderlijke vondst daarvoor uit elkaar te halen. De ronde bodem van de emmer werd zodanig geconstrueerd dat de emmer zelfstandig kon rechtop staan. De bodem bestaat uit drie stukken leder die tegen mekaar genaaid zijn, op zo’n manier dat de naad naar onder uitsteekt, dus niet overlappend zoals de wandfragmenten. De buitenste rand van de aldus bekomen bodem werd naar ‘onder’ geplooid en tegen de onderrand van de wandfragmenten genaaid. Op hetzelfde moment dat de bodem in de emmer genaaid werd, werd ook een verstevigende strook Ieder langs de buitenkant van de onderrand van de wand van de emmer meegenaaid. Op die manier werd de onderrand van de emmer 3 tot 4 lagen dik. In deze onderrand zijn drie horizontale ’stiksel’—lijnen te zien, evenwijdig aan elkaar.

The bucket handle passes through the reinforced upper edge of the bucket. Rectangular openings have been cut out during construction to allow for the handle. Of the handle itself, very little remained: only the parts attached to the bucket. The handle was made from leather band which was folded twice in length. The ends of the handle passed from the outside to the inside through the cut out in the edge of the bucket and were turned upward. The short end was sewn to the handle above the edge of the bucket. The exact construction method of the base of the bucket was not evident. It was [98] inferred from the relative positions of each of the parts. The round base of the bucket was constructed so that the bucket could stand independently upright. The base is constructed from three pieces leather sewn together, two semi-circular pieces with the seam sticking out underneath, and the third narrower strip covering the seam. The outer edges of the base are folded down and sewn to the bottom of the side. A welt strip has been sewn between the base and the side, making the base of the bucket between 3 and 4 layers thick. At the base three parallel horizontal lines of stitches are visible.

De wand van de emmer werd eerst genaaid en pas daarna werden de verstevigingsranden er tegen genaaid. Er werden geen sporen van pek of teer, die er zouden kunnen op wijzen dat de emmer extra waterdicht gemaakt was, waargenomen. De naaidraad was nog gedeeltelijk bewaard. Welk materiaal er precies voor gebruikt werd, kon niet achterhaald worden. Evenmin is er een analyse uitgevoerd om te achterhalen of de naaidraad met een waterwerend materiaal geïmpregneerd werd.

The partition of the bucket was sewed firstly and afterwards the strengthening edges against was just sewed. There are no traces of pitch observed, which could indicate that the bucket was made waterproof. The thread had been partially retained. The material used could not be identified. Analysis has not been carried out tell if the thread was treated with a water-repellent material.

Lederen emmers worden bij opgravingen zelden aangetroffen; het exemplaar uit Oostende dateert van de eerste jaren van de 17de eeuw en is dan ook een belangrijke bron voor de kennis van dit soort objecten. Twee 18de-eeuwse lederen emmers werden aangetroffen in een waterput opgegraven in de kapel van het Heilig Kruis van de vroegere Sint—Donaaskathedraal te Brugge. Het betreft wellicht brandweeremmers. Ook de emmer van Oostende zou kunnen gebruikt zijn om branden te blussen. Lederen hengsels werden o.a. ook reeds in Walraversijde en in Zierikzee (Nederland) aangetroffen. [99]

Leather buckets are seldom found at digs; the one from Oostende dates of the first years of the 17th century and is thus an important source of information about this type of object. Two 18th century leather buckets were found in a well in the vault of the holy cross at the former St. Donatian’s Cathedral in Brugge. They are possibly fire buckets. The bucket from Oostende could be used to extinguish fires. Leather handles were among other things already found in Walraversijde and in Zierikzee (the Netherlands). [99]

Reference

Pieters, M., Schietecatte, L., Zeebroek, I, Oostende: Stadsvernieuwing en Archaeologie, 2005

Advertisements

Two Stuart period knife scabbards

This article serves a number of purposes. Firstly, for me to show off a couple of the scabbards I’ve recently made as a commission for an English Civil War living history group, secondly, to head off questions about the accuracy of the construction method and finally, to discuss the trends in scabbard construction and fashion during the late Stuart period. I’ve made a third one I made for my use, with normal stitched construction instead. I’ll write that up another time.
With these scabbards, I deliberately avoided using any modern leatherworking equipment. One reason was because I could, but the main reason is that it’s unnecessary and proves there’s no any excuse about not being able to find or afford the gear. Total time from start to finish on the two glued examples was three evenings while watching telly.
Here is a photo of the couple of glued scabbards.

Two Stuart knife scabbards

There. Now showing off is safely out of the way, lets get on with the construction. All three are based on scabbards from London in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Interestingly, there appears to be a decline in the number of scabbards found during this time, but no corresponding decrease in the number of knife finds. This reflects a change in men’s fashion, where wearing a scabbarded knife was no longer de rigueur. In fact, there are a total of three scabbards known from this period, two of traditional construction, and one showing all the techniques of bookbinding instead. It is this last one I copied for the regimental scabbards, taking a bit of artistic licence making it one of a matched pair. Apart from it being a chance to practice my embossing skills, the main reason for the choice was that there is no stitching for careless people to cut when putting the knives back.
The top of the original scabbard is damaged, so I’ve based the way they fit the knife handles on some earlier scabbards and an early 17th century pen knife in the Museum of London.scabbard443
After making a paper pattern and roughly cutting the leather to shape, the leather was dampened and shaped by stretching and clamping around wooden knife-shaped formers the same shape but slightly thicker than each knife.
The gluing was done once the leather was dry, before any of the design was applied. This was mainly to ensure that the shape was more or less final and embossed parallel lines were approximately parallel and the lines going around the blades didn’t spiral. If I’d done the embossing first, it would have changed shape where the leather stretched. If you prefer to do the embossing flat and then mould and glue, go ahead: that’s how I do scabbards with knot work designs where distortion of the design is less noticeable.
The design consists of stamped diamonds, fleur-de-lis and arabesques, framed with straight lines and highlighted with short parallel lines and dots. I made the diamond and lily stamps from scraps of metal lying about, the thin curves from the edge of a bit of thin steel cut off a forged spearhead socket, the rondelling with a plastic gear from elder son’s Meccano and the dots with an old bit of brass rod. The frame was embossed in the now traditional method with the back of a butter knife. The leather is 1.6mm veg tanned cow hide, glue was contact cement because I knew these would have a tough life and finished with olive oil, which protects the leather but is also food-safe.

References

Egan, G., Material Culture in London in an Age of Transition – Tudor and Stuart period finds c1450-c1700 from Excavations at Riverside Sites in Southwark MoLAS Monograph 19, London, 2005

Feeding and Caring for your Leather Vessel

With care and occasional cleaning, your leather vessel should provide at least twenty years of good service. Leather vessels require periodic maintenance, normally by waxing, patching, relining and occasionally, re-dying. Many ended a long and useful life, first as a vase or container for holding small objects, and when too worn for that use, as a football to entertain the children.
When new, it will still smell of pitch. To remove the smell, fill with water and leave sitting overnight before tipping it out. You may need to repeat a few times. Despite the smell, it won’t flavour beer or water. On really hot days in the field, keep it full of water or beer to prevent the pitch getting soft from the heat. It softens at about 35-40°C and can start to run at 60. Don’t use it for anything stronger than beer or for hot liquids as alcohol dissolves the pitch. Heat above 70°C polymerises the leather, making it brittle.
Clean it by not letting it get too mucky and rinse in clean warm water only. Don’t rub or scrub with scourers or scrubbing brushes, or use soap or detergent, particularly if it has painted decoration. Air dry before putting it away. I usually keep the stopper in to help maintain the shape of the neck. Don’t drink the washing water as there are traces of heavy metals in the paint pigments
At least once a year, feed the leather by waxing the outside heavily with a commercial pure bees’ wax and turpentine furniture polish from a reputable furniture store, and buff off.
Occasionally, small cracks will form in the pitch, you’ll know because you can see a small dark patch on the leather. Leaky stitching shows first as small beads of liquid, or if left too long, as a puddle near an embarrassed looking leather vessel. It’s best to treat these early rather than wait for the cracks to join up, flake the pitch off and leak badly. Preheat the oven about 70°C, turn the heat off and place the costrel on newspaper on a flat tray in the oven for a few hours to let the pitch reflow. This sort of reproduces the historical technique of hanging them in the smoke of a fire. I haven’t yet experimented with hanging over a fire, if you want to try, be careful.
There’s something deeply seated in the Australian psyche, that doesn’t seem to happen anywhere else. When presented with a bottle or jug and told that it’s made from leather, your average Australian, regardless of age, beauty or intelligence, will then immediately thrust both thumbs in to the side of the vessel as far as they can, invariably cracking the pitch. Leather vessels are best handed to other people while chanting the Parents’ Mantra for Tetra juice containers: “Don’t squeeze it”. Repeat as required.

Materials

Leather vessels are made from vegetable tanned, unsealed cow hide. Stitching is pure unbleached linen thread, hand plied and worked with bees wax. Any moulding has been done using wooden formers and any carving or stamping with wooden or brass tools that I make to match the impression of the originals. Interior sealing is done with Brewer’s pitch, cheaper honey coloured pitch for closed vessels, the more accurate black when it can be seen. The paint is pretty basic, just pigment with an egg-white binder. I’ve taken a leaf from 17th century landscape painters and protected the paint with a coat of varnish, but it can still be fragile. The exterior finish is beeswax.

Warranty

If a leather jug I’ve made for you does leak at any time over the ensuing years, send it back and I’ll repatch it and replace the neck gasket. I’ll also repair stitching and can patch most cut, crack or burn damage, although I reserve the right to poke fun at you if the burn is the shape of a candle flame. Paintwork can be redone, but due to the presence of wax in the leather, is never as fine or clear as the original.