I recently went on a workshop With Ruby Taylor of Native Hands to learn how to make bone needles. Ruby is a wonderfully generous teacher and very experienced maker who runs many workshops, especially wild basketry and pottery weekends at a wood in Lewes, near Brighton. She also runs some workshops at the Weald and Downland Museum near Chichester, which is where I went.
The method, using flint tools, is actually much easier than I had anticipated. It just takes a lot of time. In five hours I managed to make two needles, and that’s because I chose a fragment of bone that just needed to be scored once to make into two needle blanks. If you’re starting with a fresh bone, the first needle will need two scored lines to extract the blank and it’ll take a lot longer.
Ruby recommended deer bones from the lower leg, probably the metatarsus or metacarpus, and they needed to be boiled a little to clean them, and then the ends sawn off, leaving the hollow long bone. Deer bones are relatively thin walled to start with. Taking a sharp flint flake and protecting your hand with a piece of leather, long strokes are used to make grooves in the bone. As these get deeper and deeper, you will see that the profile of the groove is not straight down as it would be with a saw or metal knife, but is a deep v-shape due to the nature of the flint cutting edge. This means you have to cut your blanks slightly bigger than you expect to get a needle that’s not too thin.
You can keep scoring until you’re through the bone, or, at the point where you can see light through the base of the groove, you can take a flint with a straight edge and put it against the groove, cover the other end with some leather and take a rounded pebble to use as a hammer to snap the blank away from the rest of the bone.
The next step is to grind the bone into shape. The aim is to get a wide flat surface at one end and a point at the other. The flat surfaces are easier to drill. The bone can be ground on blocks of sandstone with a little water. As you grind this forms a paste, and this is what shapes the bone.
Ruby then taught us how to make flint hand drills. Taking a short length of fresh hazel, split one end to about an inch down with a knife. Set a flint flake with a nice pointy bit in the centre with the split wood holding it in place. You can make your own cordage or use some string to hold the split together, and therefore the flint drill bit in place. Use whipping to do this. Hold a loop of string on the surface of the hazel, with the end of the string upwards and the loop downwards. Then wrap the string round the centre of the loop tightly. When you come to the other end of the string, slip it through the loop and pull the two ends of the string, pulling the loop under the whipping. Trim both ends.
Key in an anchor point for the drill with another bit of flint. The drill can then be twizzled between the palms with a downward pressure to drill a hole in the flat end of the needle. I weighted the other end down with my grinding stone. When you can see light through the base of the hole, turn the needle over and go in from the other side. You’ll find the hole is chamfered slightly, again just due to the shape of the flint. The head of the needle around the eye can then be ground a little more into the desired shape.
Ruby told us that bone needles tend to break at the eye relatively frequently, and that they can then just be ground down and re-drilled until the shaft is too thin to drill a hole into. Bone needles like these may date back even as far as 60,000 years ago. A bone point that may be from a needle is known from Sibudu Cave near Durban in South Africa (Backwell, D’Errico & Wadley 2008). They were only replaced by steel in the medieval period.
Making my two needles was an eye-opening experience. Personally, it allowed me to think of myself as a maker, which I had hitherto not been able to do. I don’t have a history of making things and have felt a bit of a mental block about this but as I took the decision to stop grinding my first needle as it was just perfect, I felt quite emotional about it, and exultant that I had made such a beautiful object.
It has also let me see bone needles differently. They are a relatively common artefact in the archaeological record, and being so small and everyday, I had seen them as an ancient throwaway object, casually discarded. I had thought no-one spilled any tears over losing such an inconsequential object. But having spent a good three hours making one, I felt differently. When we took a break for lunch we all agreed we were going to keep our half-finished needles with us in case someone walked off with it. I took them to show a school last week and was frantic when one of them went missing. I was so relieved when I found it!
But perhaps this stems from my own experience of never making anything before. Hand-making an object to use is a very rare thing in the time and place I am living, and so the rarity increases its value. In this western 21st century world my time is also one of my most precious commodities, so investing half a day in making two tiny objects also makes them precious. Now I need to use them – perhaps I’ll make a leather bag, or go on one of Ruby’s basketry courses. There’s so much more to make.
Backwell, L, D’Errico, F, Wadley, L 2008. Middle Stone Age bone tools from the Howiesons Poort layers, Sibudu Cave, South Africa. Journal of Archaeological Science. Vol 35, Issue 6, pp 1566-1580. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jas.2007.11.006.