Recently, I came across several early medieval awls in publications and on the Internet, which aroused my interest in writing a shorter article. I would like to dedicate it to all craft-oriented readers of this site. I do not want to create an overview of all the tools we have available from early medieval Europe. Instead, I want to cover the basic characteristics and construction, taking into account the Scandinavian material.
Awl is one of the tools that has not changed much in history. Although today’s awls use other materials that are machined and tend to to be versatile (interchangeable head), they are still essentially the same tools that can be used to manually pierce a material. As for the early medieval awls, it is thought that they could have been used to punch wood, leather, fur and textiles (Petersen 1951: 232; Saggau 2000: 74). It could also be used for engraving bone, antler, amber and other materials. Awls are commonly found in male and female graves and settlements.
The needles of early medieval awls are relatively uniform, although we can define several types. The first and most common type is a needle with two points and an enlarged central part with a square or flattened cross-section. The second and less common type is an asymmetrical needle with a much thinner tang. The third type is represented by a curved awl. Awl of the first type usually have a circular, oval, rectangular or diamond cross-section (diamond cross-section is perfect for working with leather because it does not tear it) and usually have a diameter of 2-4 mm. In the case of preserved awls, the central part of rectangular or flattened cross-section fits snugly on the handle and it apparently acts as a stop to keep the needle from driving deeper into the wood. In addition to the shape, the length of the needles can also vary, which is also adapted to work with a specific material. The usual length is between 45-140 mm (most commonly around 80-100 mm) and depends on the method of attachment in the handle – some needles have the tang long enough to pass through the entire handle, while the tang of other needles reach only to a certain part of the handle. One of the awls from Birka (grave Bj 924) is equipped with an attached cap that protected the needle tip.
The handle into which the needle was struck was usually made of wood or antler. It was smoothed into a circular or oval cross-section for good handling. The length of the handle is usually up to 100 mm, the width around 30 mm. The handles are usually tapered towards the tip, in some cases tapered towards the opposite end. Some awls were provided with a hole or ring at the end of the handle, which was attached to the bent tang passing through the handle. Some handles, especially antler ones, are decorated with carvings of lines, zigzag patterns, circular motifs and knots. Plastic carvings can only be seen on awls from Dublin and Birka. Some wooden handles of Birka awls have lower parts reinforced with three silver wire wraps (Bj 838) or two bronze bands (Bj 956).
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