The Living Heritage of Craft


Funded by the International Research Fellowship (GCRF) at the University of Brighton and the Santander Research Placement fund, this study is a collaboration with the Centre for Secure, Sustainable and Usable Systems (CSIUS) at the University of Brighton, the Department of Computer Science at the University College London (UCL) and the Egyptian Heritage Rescue Foundation (EHRF) in Cairo, Egypt.

The CSIUS's project “Linking collections with the living heritage of craft: enhancing communities through digital innovation” (2019-2022) seeks to gather requirements and engage with heritage practitioners and international communities to develop novel technology mediated methods in order to contextualise crafted heritage collections. As a result, the project aims to transform and reinforce the links between tangible artefacts in memory institutions in the western world and the intangible living heritage practice and knowledge in communities around the world. Such “transformations” have the potential to enhance the documentation of handicrafts collections, while nurturing the living heritage craft practices in developing countries to support communities to preserve the knowledge of craft; enhance crafting activities (or develop them further); and create sustainable futures. As demonstrated by international efforts, political, social, and economic inequalities can be substantially addressed when communities affected by them can be supported through initiatives that reinforce their sense of belonging and resilience through crafting and cultural practices.

An additional aim of the project is to explore the application of digital technologies for the documentation and dissemination of this intangible living heritage knowledge. This includes experimentation with technologies such as 360 video and photography, ethnographic film and photography, Reflectance Transformation Imaging, and 3D photogrammetry.

As practitioners of the craft of Islamic and Central Asian woodcarving traditions, Lazo Studios were approached to help capture and document the carving process from start to finish. After several preliminary meetings between the stakeholders in understanding and defining the parameters of the project, the team decided to select a piece from a famous Lajin minbar on display at the Victoria & Albert Museum, as part of the project already involved work by craftspeople from Egypt.

Selecting the Object

After visiting to the Islamic Art Gallery at the V&A, where a relatively large collection of the original panels are on display, and studying some of the available pictures of the individual segments on their website, we chose one of the hexagon pieces from the eight fold design of the minbar (a short flight of steps used as a platform by a preacher in a mosque). Studying the original carved panels on display, a trained eye can detect multiple hands of varying skill levels involved in carving the pieces. Traditional workshops would employ a number of artisans to work under a master artisan and on large scale project various artisans would design and carve panels based on skill levels and the types of hand tools (chisels) available to each of them. This seems to reflect the nature of the workshop that produced the original pieces.

In selecting the object for our study we had a number of criteria:

  • The panel selected would need to be relatively intact.

  • In the absence direct access to the original pieces, a clear high resolution image was available for us to study.

  • The design selected would be executable with the tools that we would be able to procure and adapt easily.

Once the above requirements were met, we chose the panels with the more intricate and challenging design.

The original pieces on display have accumulated layers of historic build up. This patina makes the panels almost black and therefore difficult to determine the type of timber used in the original. For this study we work with American Walnut, a type of timber we are very familiar with.

In defining the overall size and proportion of the study panel we were guided by the information the Egyptian Heritage Rescue Foundation made available to us. Eight panels were produced to record eight stages of the carving process as outlined below.

V&A Museum, London

The Carving Process

Leaning to carve wood is a nondiscursive process. A large part of the learning is done by one's senses. The knowledge is acquired through a dialogue that develops between the artisan, the tools, and the material. A dialogue at which the artisan becomes increasingly fluent through practice. The muscles learn to memorise, the ears become adept at interpreting the sounds the tools make when they come into contact with the material, the temperament of the natural material is sensed when it communicates to the artisan how it wants to be treated..., putting all these into words pose a challenge. But below is an attempt to do exactly that. The following paragraphs should, however, be read and understood together with the analysis of the recordings produced by the researchers at University of Brighton and UCL.

A Note: The following stages were concurrently documented using a camera mounted on the artisan's head to recode 360 videos, as well as a fixed camera on the workbench recording all the movements of the artisan’s hand in close up. Links to the findings of these data will be shared in future updates to this blog.

After visiting the display at the V&A and studying the photographs available to us, we needed to make a trial pieces to figure out the design and review the tool requirements to execute the work. Despite being familiar with the general rules of the floral Islamic designs, there were particular elements of the Mamluk design that we needed to study. We also needed to figure out the proportions of the design in relation to the overall size of the carving area (ca 145mm x 120mm). This was important as we would need to ensure all elements of the design fit within the limits of the defined boarder. Once the initial test sample of the preparatory stage was competed the work proper began.

Stage 1

After defining the boarder of panel, based on the information obtained from EHRF, the high resolution image of the original panel is used to freehand the design directly onto half of the timber panel with a pencil. Only half of the design is drawn because the pattern is symmetrical. With the design of the half of the panel completed to a satisfactory level, a dark ink pen is used over the pencil marks to make the outline of the design more visible.

Stage 2

Next, a piece of tracing paper is overlaid onto the design and using a pen an exact copy of the pattern is transferred onto the tracing paper. Then using a piece of carbon paper, the design is mirrored onto the other half of the panel thereby completing the transfer of the design onto timber.

Stage 3

Once the design is transferred onto the panel, the outline of the design is marked on the timber using various sized chisels and a mallet. This stage requires the artisan to know the exact tools in their repertoire as by simply looking at the degree of the curvature in the design they would need to know exactly which chisel to choose. This means that a curved line might require several different chisels to complete.

Stage 4

As the design has two layers, to differentiate the background of the design from the foreground pattern a layer is taken off from the background area. It is important when marking the outline of the design that the chisel makes a perpendicular mark/incision - rather than a slanted one onto the timber- according to the depth of each layer of design. This would ensure that once a layer is taken off, the outline of the lower level design is still visible. This stage allows the artisan to see the overall pattern more clearly and start to envision the three dimensionality of the top layer in relation to the deeper layer and how they intertwine.

Stage 5

With the outline of the design of the lower level still visible through the chisel marks, the background of the whole panel is then carved out again to bring out the foliage of the lower level design, hence creating three levels: the back ground, the middle ground design and the foreground design with the latter two intertwining in various areas. How deep the background and how fine and intricate the design can be is therefore very much connected to how fine (ie. thin) the chisels are.

Stage 6

At this stage it is important to ensure that the background in every section of the design is carved down to the same level. The sound that is reflected from the timber pieces when the mallet hits the chisel communicates the depth of the mark being made with the artisan. This dialogue between the material and the artisan’s hands and ears takes place through the feel and vibrations of the hand with the tool. Ensuring that the background is at the same level throughout the panel and that it is smooth and clean is one of the criteria by which the quality of a piece of carving is judged.

Stage 7

The next step is to shape more rounded and fluid forms of the leaves and the foliage as well as the intertwining stems, thereby lending more movements and dynamism to the design.

Stage 8

The final stage entails carving out the elaborate details of the leaves, petals, stems, and knots. This step involves some of the finer tools and creates the more intricate minutiae of the design. Any cleaning of residues from the hard to reach areas of the work is done using a fine soft metal bush. The finishing stage would involve oiling and polishing of the work after the installation of the pieces in place.

The Future

This project is part of various teams' efforts towards the development and application of novel digital technologies for the documentation, preservation, and access to both tangible and intangible cultural heritage processes and assets. In this way scientific research is conducted to benefit different communities, including heritage institutions, audiences, as well as world-wide communities and their living heritage.

Currently, we are investigating ways to provide open access to this information. Transmitting such invaluable knowledge is key to preserve the craft for future generations; to support the dissemination of the artistry and the skills which crafters display in the execution of their products; and to reinforce living heritage practices, while potentially improving branding of handcrafted products.

Special thanks to the Victoria and Albert Museum for allowing us access to their high resolution images.