Raised in Primitive Skills

Nota bene! The following ramble was written at three in the morning and may contain sentiment, ramblings, and a bit of opinion. What was intended as a few childhood pictures from primitive technology events ran away with itself in the dark hours between sleeps.  ~G


There is a certain amount of balance that can become of the unique skills we gain along the path of our lives.  Some people come to events, take classes, and return to the ‘normal’ life at the end of the week relatively unscathed by the learning they paid for and the time spent.

To paraphrase a linguistic anthropologist I knew long ago,

“Some things are embraced the way most people embrace their religion, they take away some message, feel strongly about it, but leave it for Sundays. When we find the thing that is our passion, we embrace it like a lover; it encompasses all our thoughts and becomes our entire life.”  L.F.

This is how I feel about primitive skills, wilderness living, and pre-industrial craftsmanship.  Without consciously trying, it just became a part of life growing ever stronger from teenage into full adulthood.  While living in the consumer world, this alternative floated in the background of the mind and continued to influence activities when our child came along.

We were not perfect parents.  Far from it.  But we were consciously better than our own.  We really tried.  We learned.  I sometimes wish I had it to do all over again.  Overall, I think we did pretty well and were lucky in many ways.  We encouraged exploration, learning, and self-reliance.  By not child-proofing everything or creating needless prohibitions, we were forced to be more aware and in the present.  Yes, it is probably more work and yes, it can be exhausting but children should learn their most valuable lessons at home from family, whatever ‘family’ may mean to you and yours.

Every kid and every family is different.  They aren’t robots and it is clear to any observer that they have a mind and ideas of their own from a very early age.  We can only steer them as best we can, present them with our ideas and beliefs, and provide the types of opportunities we think will give them a good grounding for their future lives before setting them free to try their skills in the world.

It makes me sad to read in social media that parents that I actually know are so down on the next generation.  Complaining that they don’t go outdoors, have useful lifeskills, proudly hitting them, or even ridiculing them for using the technology they themselves provided.  If that is the case, it is our fault!  We cannot place the blame on media and movies and video games, schools, government or a general millennial malaise.  It is not anyone elses job to raise our children well.  We are, to a large degree, culpable.


Modelling the yucca fiber skirt with her buckskin shirt.  A monumental amount of yucca processing.

None of us are perfect, but we can give the following generations the values and ideals we may only cherish in the abstract.

The intended descriptions have strayed into a hopelessly sentimental post, but anyway, enjoy some of my favorite photos I dug out for this ‘throwback Thursday.’

Winter Count 2009 - 67

Making fire in the Arizona desert 2009.

I leave you with this broad paraphrasing of Edward Abbey:

Give them the skills and encouragement to get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with friends.  Let them ramble out yonder and explore the forests, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air.   And at the end of the day, sit quietly for a while with them and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space we call earth.

We are fed by those that surround us. Choose wisely.

We are fed by those that surround us. Choose wisely.

I hope to see a few of you in the desert very soon.  And bring the family if you can.

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Antler and Bone

Despite my lack of free time currently, I have been re-inspired to get back to antler and bone as a medium for tool production.  My only issue with them is that they are enormously time intensive.  Even using a modern saw and occasionally a steel rasp these take a lot of energy to make.  However, the end product is amazing and I would really think they are often underestimated in the archaeological and primitive technology communities.  The rarity of these materials leaves most of us with such a lack of familiarity with them that they take a back seat to lithic weapons in study.  A little experiential archaeology goes a long way to clarify the devastating effectiveness these points have.


Antler point and “scraper”-like tool used to produce it.

Archaeological terms that include function in the name are loaded from the beginning.  The term scraper is bandied about with little regard for the tool’s actual function. I believe, and experiments bear this out, that the type of unifacial knife-scraper-planer combo, shown above, was the essential backbone of a hunter’s tool kit for much of our prehistoric past.


More antler points.

I don’t have ready access to the beautiful reindeer or caribou antler so treasured by our Upper Paleolithic ancestors but large mule deer, white tailed deer, and elk can suffice in a pinch.  Just as in Europe 15,000 years ago, these would be effective weapons against land or marine mammals of all sized.  My fairly limited use of antler points in “real life” indicates that antler is much tougher than stone and is easily resharpened if it is dulled or damaged.


Tanged arrow point of antler.

The pithy cancelous (spongy) tissue inside some antler makes them less than perfect for large points.  The denser tissue on the outside can be cut off and works well for flat projects, like buttons or, in the above case, an arrow point.


Sewing kit.

I find that one of the tougher tasks for the primitive craftsman is the making of eyed needles.  We know these have been produced for many millennia so we can imply some fine sewing. I find the eye particularly difficult to make but, for what it’s worth, here is what I have learned.

After getting the needle close to it’s desired finished size, flatten the area that is to become the eye on each side.  This flat area keeps the flake from rolling off the work piece while piercing the bone.  Instead of circular drilling, I find it a little more efficient to just scrape a tiny oblong hole by moving the flake tool back and forth.  Be patient, this takes a long time.  Holding it up to the light will tell how deep you’ve gone. When you are nearly through, flip the needle over and finish the hole from the other side.  Once you are through you can slowly widen the hole until it’s large enough to take your intended thread.  Finally, you can narrow the cylinder around the eye to make it as small as possible after the eye is safely made.  And note: you will break some; those become the short ones.


The indispensable awl.

An awl for heavy stitching can be made simply from the metapodial (lower leg) bone of most grazers.  This is a tough and dense bone useful for making fish hooks, needles, knives, etc. The knobby end (metapodial condials) fit in the human hand very comfortably and make a great handle or grip.  More tool experiments and replicas are being made around here in the long winter’s evenings and I hope to post them when I get some photos taken.

Too much to do!

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Practicing Primitive Daily

(Sorry, the initial post had no title)

Primitive is a loaded word for some people.  To me, it means simple and lacking industrial materials.  That’s not to say primitive cannot be complex or fine work; in fact, it’s often just the opposite.  Sometimes it’s recycling the detritus of the modern world, such as tire rubber for shoe soles.

18th century style.

18th century style.

Looking at my high-graded and favorite camping gear I came to the realization a couple of years ago that by removing a few modern items my kit looks about 250 years out of date.  That made me kind of happy.  I’m not really a reenactor but I do occasionally participate n period events.  It seems my tastes really do just lean toward a quieter, handmade, preindustrial world.

An overview of traveling gear. I see this format on the web a lot so I'm stealing the style from far batter photographers than I.

An overview of traveling gear. I see this format on the web a lot so I’m stealing the style from far batter photographers than I.

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More Historic Caravans in Art

Copyright The Munnings Collection at The Sir Alfred Munnings Art Museum / Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Copyright The Munnings Collection at The Sir Alfred Munnings Art Museum.

Here are a couple final Alfred Munnings images of Romani caravans in an English countryside.  As a keen observer, he definitely caught the important details of each type of caravan and the essentials of camp life.  The watercolor above is somewhat unusual for Munnings as it shows no animals, people, or campfire.


Alfred Munnings.

Above is a rarely shown rounded square-top among other carts and caravans with livestock milling about.  The variety detailed in these historic images should be helpful for those desiring to design and build a similar living accommodation.  The previous post gave a glimpse of Laura Knight’s work on the subject and her subjects are remarkably detailed and informative.

Gypsy Camp, ca 1938, Dame Laura Knight.

Gypsy Camp, ca 1938, Dame Laura Knight.

This is one of my favorite scenes of a camp in the countryside; two beautiful ledge wagons and a marquis tent in a field.  I could picture this in a high parkland of the Rocky Mountains.  Many people don’t know that the outlier tent, awnings, and tarps are almost ubiquitous with the old caravans.  This allows for a very flexible and expandable living arrangement or a sheltered kitchen area.

Young Gypsies 1937, Dame Laura Knight.

Young Gypsies 1937, Dame Laura Knight.

If you look closely at the sketch above, you can see that this is the same encampment from another angle, focusing on the kids at play.  It looks like a fine way to grow up.


Gypsy Wagon and Tent, Dame Laura Knight, 1962.

And finally, another favorite of mine.  I suspect it’s the same little yellow wagon next to the sketchiest bender tent ever.  Probably a makeshift shelter for work or cooking.  A wagon wheel in the foreground seems to await repair while the kids look on.  Note the size of these caravans relative to today’s “needs” and remember that whole families lived and were raised this way.

If you missed the previous post about historic caravans in art go HERE or check out a whole page of images I have curated HERE.

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Historic Romani Caravan Paintings

These images might whet the appetite for summer days, picnics, an caravanning off into the great unknown; or it might just be a bunch of pretty pictures if the former isn’t your cup of tea.  Anyway, these are generally labelled and classed as Gypsy images although we know that this is often seen as an offensive word to many Romani (Roma, Romany, etc.), I don’t think it was intended this way in many cases.  For that matter, when not applied to an actual people, the word gets thrown around in art, aesthetic style, dance, music, and many other ways.  I have only known a few “Gypsies” in my lifetime and that was the term used; maybe out of simplicity, maybe just as resignation to the common language.  But enough of this digression, enjoy the paintings.  There will be more to come.

Dame Laura Knight, Gypsy Caravans, 1935. LONDON.- Trinity House.

Dame Laura Knight, Gypsy Caravans, 1935. LONDON.- Trinity House.

“Knight … bucked trends through depicting liminal sites, such as circuses and gypsy settlements, from the very beginning of her career. An example of this is her delightful work Gypsy Caravans (1935).”

The caravans depicted above are the Rolls-Royce’s of their day; highly ornamented Reading Wagons with mollycrofts, awnings, windows, and fine paint work.  They would catch they eye of any artist.  I am particularly fond of the domestic scene around the hearth; laundry being done and hung out to dry in the background.

The paintings below are by Sir Alfred Munnings (1878-1959), a British artist who made many beautiful watercolor paintings of horses, encampments, and caravans.  What better, more colorful, and dynamic subject matter?  Alfred Munnings’s biography states that he clearly considered himself accepted among the gypsies when he was able to persuade several of the older women to bring out the brilliant shawls, boldly coloured aprons, and flamboyant ostrich feathered hats that were special occasion wear for the women.”


Sir Alfred Munnings.

The ubiquitous fire hook and kettle rest as the true center of this scene.  Everyone is done up in the Sunday best at Epsom Downs.  We see all kinds of accommodations from a bender tent to various quality of living wagon.  And no camp is complete without a lurcher (dog) and the milk goat.

Munnings became president of the Royal Academy and was made a Knight of the Victorian Orderwhile Dame Laura Knight (1877-1970) served on a panel of European judges for an international exhibition at the Carnegie Institute and was appointed as an official artist for the Nuremberg War trials for her technical abilities.  In other words, good documentary artists.


Sir Alfred Munnings.

Travellers and their goat gather ’round the morning tea.  I envision Mick’s garden will look like this once Jim and I get our ‘vans parked for the summer.


Gypsy Life, the hops pickers, Sir Alfred Munnings..


One of my favorites.  So much going on here and a great color scheme.

More images added HERE.

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