Friday 17 November 2023

Some more madder business

Both blogs on colouring bone and antler red with madder (part 1 and part 2) had attracted the attention of the Dutch historical bone and antler craftsmen of Bikkel and Been. Monica, one of the members of the company had been working on a replica of the Gloucester medieval backgammon set - the board as well as the game counters, as it was found complete - for the French re-enactment group Aisling 1198 (the same group that received my alquerque game set). The board dates from  the 11th or early 12th century and is made up of 150 bone pieces with carvings in an art style associated with vikings (Borre, Ringerike and Urnes artistic styles). The boardgame was found in a rubbish pit at the site of the Norman castle. There is no evidence to indicate that the board was hinged. Corrosion from iron pins indicates that the bone inlay was fastened to a wooden base, about 600 by 450 mm in size. 

Linedrawing of the Glouchester trictrac board design. Scan from the book  Schach und Trictrac by Antje Kluge-Pinsker.

The points are obelisk shaped. Roman boards had square points, whereas triangular points appeared in the 13th century. The board includes spaces between points, and rectangular plates laid lengthways down the centre of the board. The latter are covered in an interlaced snake design. 

The original Glouchester board. Photo by Celuici - CC BY-SA 3.0,

The board made by Bikkel and Been for Aisling 1198.

The playing pieces - a full set of 30 -  are in the Romanesque style of the Normans. The pieces average 44.5 mm in diameter and are 7.5 mm thick. It is possible that a lathe was used in the manufacture. A central dimple is present on 26 of the 30 pieces.  Fifteen pieces are made from red deer skull bone and the other 15 from red deer antler (but this is not easily distinquisable for a player). There is no evidence that the pieces were stained to create two distinctly coloured sets. There is also no unifying theme in the symbolism, making it difficult to group the  counters into two sets. Different scholars therfore propose differnt groupings. I must confess that I do not know which grouping has been made for the Aisling replica counters.

The 30 original game counters. Compilation of the photos by Celuici - CC BY-SA 3.0.

The game counters were carved in bone as well as antler and contain scenes from Greek mythology as well as other topics. Each game piece has a different design. For ease of playability with the replica counters it was decided that one set had to be coloured red with madder. Medieval trictrac counters coloured with madder are not uncommon, and can be found in many museum collections (for instance in the Museum für angewandte Kunst in Köln, Germany). They asked if I could help with the colouring process.

There were some additional spare counters made, so the total to be coloured was actually 18 pieces.

Some details of the counters.

Colouring of (half of) the Gloucester counters was done last year November at our house with Sylvestre of the Aisling group present (and doing most of the work). The process was the same as done for the alquerque pieces. The weight of the 18 pieces (there were 3 spare ones added to the 15) was around 320 gram. The counters were presoaked in water for one hour.  During that time the madder solution was made with 14 grams of madder extract and 4 grams of sodium in 400 ml water at 60 degrees Celsius, also for one hour.

Soaking the counters in water.

After that the counters were kept for 2 hours at 60 degrees Celsius in the madder solution. We used 2 jars for the counters so they would touch each other as little as possible, thereby avoiding problems with colouring. After the 2 hours, the counters cooled down overnight in the madder solution. The still wet pieces were then taken home, where walnut oil was applied when the pieces were dry. The walnut oil then needed to dry as well for some weeks. 

Dividing the counters over two glass jars, so that the counters did not touch each other .

Dividing the madder solution equally among the jars.

The counters just after they were dropped in the jar with madder.

A few counters directly after the one hour madder bath at 60 degrees. Some parts were still a bit lightly red coloured.

The wet counters after a one night cool down in the madder solution.

The pieces when dried a bit with a kitchen tissue. I also coloured two small dices.

All the 30 counters on the Glouchester board.

The game counters in use on the Aisling 1198 Glouchester tablas board. Here the board is set-up for 'a game of 'Todas Tablas' (for rules, see the Libre de los Juegos created by king Alphonso X the wise in 1283).


  • Grandet, M. and Goret, J.F., 2012. Echec et TricTrac - fabrication et usages des jeux de tables au moyes âge', Editions Errance, Paris, France. ISBN 978-2-87772-503-3.
  • Kluge-Pinsker, A., 1991. Schach und Trictrac. Zeugnisse mittelalterlicher Spielfreude in Salischer Zeit. Jan Thorbecke verlag, Sigmaringen, Germany.  ISBN 3-7995-4138-1
  • Wikipedia: The Glouchester tabula set.

Wednesday 15 November 2023

A painting of the woodworkersshop of (Saint) Joseph


The doubt of Joseph by the Master of du Jardin de Paradis, early 15th century. Musee de l'Oevre Notre Dame, Strassbourg, France.

I have been able to view this painting myself last summer in the museum, which also holds quite some medieval chests and chairs. The painting is impressive as there are many interesting things to see with regards to woodworking. For instance the workbench is the first medieval one that I know of, that actually has a specific shelf for holding tools beneath the benchtop.

Also the tools displayed on the shelf and the benchtop are worth a closer look. On the shelf lies a special chisel, a so-called dog leg chisel. These chisels are used for finsihing rectangular depressions and undercuts, but I have never encountered a medieval one before. The two other tools are a typical medieval push saw - although usually this saw is encountered in larger versions - and a typical medieval hammer.

The woodworking tools on the top of the bench are also interesting. A medium-sized block plane (looking similar to the French one found in Lake Paladru, containing a small blade. Next is something that is either a (large) knife or a mortise chisel. Considering the special chisels shown on the painting, I think a mortise chisel is more likely. The other chisel shown looks like a short firmer chisel. Usually, medieval chisels flare out, like a fish tail, however this one has a short straight broad cutting part -  a bit remiscent of a Japanese chisel. The last tool on the table is a gimlet.

The table next to Maria shows some thin wooden boxes and a band comb used in band weaving.