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The Ancient Roman Plane Of Yorkshire Wolds


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Plane Old Archaeology

In the Summer of 2000, while excavating for the BP Teeside-Saltend Etyhlene pipeline project near Goodmanham on the Yorkshire Wolds, it was discovered that under part of the proposed site lay a 1st to 5th century AD Roman-British village.

While working near a simple rectangular timber building, along the upper fill of a ditch which defined one side of the enclosure, an unusual discovery was made - an early Roman woodworking plane made of ivory and iron.

Historically speaking, the Goodmanham Plane was of a similar style and dimensions as that of other early Roman planes, such as those found at Pompeii. This consisted of a stock which had two hand grips consisting of rectangular slots - one forward and one at the rear - which had been securely riveted to an iron sole (turned up at both ends) by three dome-headed iron rivets. The plane also had its iron cutting blade set snugly in the stock. Size-wise, the plane measured 330mm long by 60mm wide and is 85mm high (approximately 13-1/4" by 2-3/8" by 3-3/8"). The pitch, or bed angle, of the plane is set at 65 degrees and the cutting iron is 35mm wide (1-5/16"). This size fits nicely in the middle of the range of the other Roman planes found complete with irons.

To date, this plane is the most complete Roman example known and the only known example with an ivory stock. The inclusion of ivory as the infill is very interesting indeed, as it could indicate that the owner may have been reasonably wealthy or of some stature within the community or, at the very least, well travelled. Then again it may just be a presentation piece, as some have suggested, though I do not proscribe to that belief personally.

It's also interesting to note that from these very early, and basic, designs we can easily see the emergence of the styles which would later be found in the Dutch planes towards the end of the middle ages. It may therefore be assumed that this could suggest a direct, and largely unbroken, lineage between early and later handplanes, stylistically speaking. It's not known if the Romans were aware of the benefits of different bedding angles, however, as most Roman planes are set in the vicinity of 50 to around 65 degrees, which is optimal for hardwoods, rather than softer woods such as pine.

Though it is important to note that only a few examples of Roman woodworking planes have been discovered in Britain and mainland Europe, the Goodmanham plane was unique as it is the only complete one of its type that is known to date from this period (circa 200-400 AD). Planes made from ivory are extremely rare from any period and this adds a significant new object to the exclusive collection of woodworking tools from the ancient world.

Goodmanham Ivory Roman Plane

As far as we can tell, the plane can be provisionally dated to the second to fourth centuries AD, though it may even be older than that. This makes it a very important discovery which only helps to extend our knowledge of the history of woodworking tools. Although a number of Roman planes have previously been discovered - the earliest being at Pompeii (79 AD) - there have been images of different styles of woodworking planes found on Roman silver coins from around 100 years BC, showing that certain styles had already been developed some 2100 years ago. Most Roman planes are simple affairs, made entirely of wood with the cutting iron wedged against a pin. Others, such as the Pompeii and Goodmanham planes, are riveted to an iron sole - greatly extending their working life. The Pompeii planes also incorporate iron cheeks to strengthen the throat sides, in a way making them not only the earliest dated hand planes, but the very first infill planes as well.

The owners have since donated the plane and other objects found at the site to the East Riding of Yorkshire Museum Service in Beverley. A display case for the plane was generously paid for by BP, with a £5000 donation.

Last Updated: May 9, 2015 @ 10:38 pm

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