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Shaker archaeology, wood use highlighted at field day workshop
(Oct. 1, 2008) - Shaker life, culture and craftsmanship have intrigued Kentuckians for decades. Shaker crafted items still reproduced today include brooms, baskets, furniture, wooden boxes and other regional favorites. In a workshop at the recent University of Kentucky Robinson Station All Commodity Field Day, Shaker archeology and wood use were highlighted.
UK Professor and the co-director of the Kentucky Archeological Survey Kim McBride was a featured speaker. McBride has directed a number of archaeological digs at Kentucky's largest Shaker village at Pleasant Hill beginning in 1990. Most of the digs involve UK students. They use old maps and journals as well as infrared and aerial photography to locate old building sites.
McBride and her crew commonly find items such as stone fence bases, wood fence posts, parts of building foundations, buttons, water pipes and smoking pipes. All Pleasant Hill artifacts are curated at UK.
She said two finds she was particularly excited about were the original log cabin, where the village began, and a sacred Shaker worship site called the Holy Sinai Plain, which was bordered by a circular fence. Inside the fence was a smaller oval shaped fence that the Shakers would dance and sing around in private worship.
"The greatest challenge at Pleasant Hill is the aging construction," she said. "The last restoration work was in the 1960s, and it's a little outdated. They are embarking on a massive undertaking of installing geothermal air conditioning and heat."
McBride said that although she believes the Shakers would have approved of the geothermal project because of its innovation, it can be extremely destructive to the archaeology. She's been called in to study areas before any digging occurs so the village can preserve important artifacts and clues to the past that may lie under the ground's surface.
Workshop participants listened as UK Wood Utilization Center Superintendent Carroll Fackler discussed what types of wood the Shakers used in their products.
"Most Shakers came to the village as adults, and they already were knowledgeable in certain areas," Fackler said. "They brought their skills with them. They knew which woods would bend well (for the oval shaped boxes and other specialty items). They used many of the same woods that other people in the region used at the time and still use today - cherry, walnut and poplar to name a few."
With help from Tom Richards of the Freeman Corporation in Winchester and Tommy Howard, a juried member of the Kentucky Craftsmen, Fackler, UK Secondary Wood Adviser Bobby Ammerman and UK Wood Utilization Center staff guided participants in crafting their own oval-shaped Shaker box. Fackler said after hearing McBride talk about the Holy Sinai Plain, he could see why the Shaker's chose the oval shape for the box. He said perhaps it reminded them of their time at the secretive and sacred worship site.
Participants used authentic copper tacks to secure the box and lid bands around a jig for drying. Since the drying process takes 24 to 48 hours, Fackler and the wood center staff provided each participant with a finished box to take home but not before they learned about laser engraving.
"You can use laser engraving to put just about anything on the finished product," Fackler said. "Today we let the participants choose from several designs, including the Tree of Life that was so popular in Shaker life. Laser engraving is a beautiful way to add value to woodworking."
The workshop concluded with a discussion of Internet marketing opportunities for woodworking entrepreneurs.
For more information about Robinson Station and the UK Wood Utilization Center, contact Fackler at 606-666-2438, ext. 235.
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