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November 2014: Exeter Dialogue with Science Workshop 4 - Learning Craft Skills: Hides and Tanning

Monday, 24 November, 2014 to Friday, 28 November, 2014
Linda Hurcombe
Number of Participants / Visitors / Audience: 

Over the week of the 24th through the 28th of November 2014, an international group of students and OpenArch participants engaged in a skills workshop covering a number of animal skin tanning technologies. The main goal of the daytime activities centred on skills acquisition. A number of different skin types were used including small furbearers (rabbits), larger species (with examples as from the deer family of Roe, Sitka and Red deer), and fish (salmon and plaice). Skinning techniques were discussed as these affect the ability to achieve an evenly shaped skin, free from holes and partial holes (scores). De-fleshing and de-graining skills using bone, wood, slate, flint and metal tools were taught for skins in both a wet and dry state. The above activities were used with the skins supported by a variety of tanning devices such as beams, lap boards, frames and laid out simply on the ground. The use of alkaline solutions for de-hairing the skins, both as a way to break down the ground substance, and as an aid to the softening process later on, were discussed and employed. Tanning agents including oil/brains, vegetable tannins, and alum (potassium alum KAl(SO4)2) were used to tan the deer, calf, rabbit, and fish skins. The tanned skins were softened using multiple techniques including staking, frame stretching, hand-pulling and working through a cable. Though not enough time was available to demonstrate finishing techniques for tanned skins, the benefits of smoking fat-tanned skins was discussed, as was the option of dyeing the skins using various natural dyes. The theory of over tanning or combination tanning, by using more than one tanning technology in sequence to colour or to change the skins characteristics was also touched on.

Over the course of the week a number of meetings with members of staff and consulting academics took place. Professor Robin Dennell, a specialist in Palaeolithic Asian Archaeology joined key participants for dinner to discuss the Asian Palaeolithic. The discussion ranged from climate and animals species availability to clothing design for cold weather and ethnographic tanning technologies employed by modern Asian groups.

Alan Outram and Bruce Bradley joined Hanni Hapaaniemi,Theresa Emmerich Kamper, and Linda Hurcombe for a lunch discussion of the fundamental skills necessary for hide working to have developed. Where these skills cross linked with other daily activities and the hierarchy these skills would have assumed.

A major benefit of this workshop was the opportunity to share personal libraries of patterns, ethnographic accounts, archaeological finds and personal experiences with tanning and skin clothing. The university library and personal academic libraries and hide samples were also made available for participant research. Also beneficial for workshop participants, was the chance to compare notes on effective ways of teaching hide tanning and leather working in different learning environments.

On the last day of the workshop a fieldtrip was taken to the Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery where an exciting and very rare archaeological find from the Bronze Age White Horse Hill site was on display. The White Horse Hill finds are exceptional in that there is very little organic material surviving from the Bronze Age. This site contained fur and worked skin, as well as basketry. We were given a tour of the exhibition by curator Fiona Pitts and discussed the identification of the brown bear pelt contained in the find. Also found as part of the grave goods was a nettle and leather textile. We talked about likely tanning techniques employed for both skin finds as well as discussing the audience response to the 3D prints and traditional replicas made of some of the finds.


Alice La Porta De-hairing a framed and dried...
Hanni Haapaniemi de-fleshing a rabbit on a...
Linda Hurcombe securing a skin to be de-...
De-graining using a bone tool.
Clothing made from traditionally tanned...
Softening over a staking beam.
Fiona Pitts, Hanni Hapaaniemi and Theresa...