kim biddulph

Archaeology History Museums Schools Writing Consultancy


April 2018

Making a bone needle

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.

IMG_6123Ruby 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.

IMG_6126You 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.


IMG_6129The 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.


IMG_6143Ruby 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.

IMG_6146Key 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.

IMG_6150Making 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.

How did I get into freelancing?

I don’t want to use the J word, but I have been deleting old emails recently and it reminded me about the way my freelancing career has developed over the years.

At first it all started as an extra to full time work. I left English Heritage to work at the London Borough of Camden on a Heritage Lottery Funded project, but I was keen to continue to do something in association with the Charles Darwin Trust and, as it turned out, they wanted that too so I started to do some writing and teaching work with them. During the bicentenary of Darwin’s birth and 150th year since the publication of Origin, 2009, I was very busy with work for them as well as work for Camden. It quietened down a little in 2010, and then got quieter still after that, and I had a new baby which also reduced the amount I could do.

Pitt Rivers Museum at night

I eventually moved from the London Borough of Camden to another employed role at the Pitt Rivers Museum and freelancing went by the wayside. After the maternity cover contract ended I decided to go it on my own. The costs of childcare while working full-time were too onerous and I wanted to spend more time with my little one. At first I trained to be a childminder and managed three months of this. Childminding is not an easy job, let me tell you. I was more tired doing that than any other job I have had, and I have worked as a field archaeologist, in the catering industry and now visit schools to do days of teaching, all of which are tiring but not like childminding. So I looked for other things.

All of a sudden, I found things. I had experience of writing for teachers through English Heritage and the National Museums Online Learning Project so a friend introduced me to a friend who had set up a business called Plan Bee. She needed a history specialist to write lesson plans and resources for the new curriculum so I took that on, writing lesson plans on the Prehistory of Britain, the Shang Dynasty of China, and the Kingdom of Benin, for instance. With this experience under my belt I approached the Hamilton Trust, on the advice of another friend, and said I could write their Prehistory of Britain topic. I found the Hamilton Trust work much more in depth and I still write for them, just recently having finished a recap of all British history for a post-SATS topic for Year 6s.

Roman cooking day at Wycombe Museum

At the same time I had applied for two local jobs. One was as a secretary for my village’s Neighbourhood Plan at £10 an hour and this lasted for over a year with me working mainly in the evenings. I also applied to be a workshop leader at the Chiltern Open Air Museum and I work there still on a zero-hours contract mainly teaching schools but also families and home ed groups. I also volunteered for Kids in Museums and an opportunity came along to take over organising their workshops on working with families and young people.

I set up Schools Prehistory in order to get information out to teachers for the new topic in primary history, as it is my specialist subject, and I think on the back of that was approached by a contact from the British Museum (which was part of the National Museums Online Learning Project that I had written for) to apply for a job as a writer on the Teaching History in 100 Objects website that the DoE had funded to support the new history curriculum across Key Stages. I wrote about lots of objects for them from Late Bronze Age logboats from Must Farm to a cloth celebrating Ghanaian independence from 1957.

Stone Age Woman, hear me roar

I also started marketing myself as a time travelling visitor with Schools Prehistory to schools and still visit schools across the south-east and midlands as a Stone Age, Roman, Saxon of Viking woman or as an archaeologist, sometimes with colleagues and sometimes on my own. I had difficulty in selling lesson plans through my own website so now they can be downloaded if teachers sign up to my newsletter.

As a time traveller, and for the purpose of developing a Mesolithic workshop at the Chiltern Open Air Museum, I developed some bushcraft skills and so my latest venture has been to set up 500 BC. I asked the Forestry Commission, who look after Wendover Woods near me, whether I could work on their site and duly applied for a licence to do so and now run toddler groups, home ed courses, family and adult bushcraft days, holiday clubs, school visits and team-building workshops. I am expanding to other sites and to sub-contracting.

I have also tendered for shorter freelance contracts conducting market research with families, or devising and piloting schools workshops but have not had much luck with those. Where I have been successful it’s usually through recommendations and word of mouth.

This isn’t meant to be a self-congratulatory post. I wanted to show how I built my freelancing portfolio, which is a little unusual, but has all the elements of how to be successful at freelancing whatever field you’re in.

  1. Network. Having a good network that you stay in contact with via social media and attending sector events is essential.
  2. Don’t be afraid to approach people cold. Before you do this you have to do your research and be sure that they want something only you can offer.
  3. Create your own opportunities if you can – apply for funding, see a need in the market you can fulfill.
  4. Collaborate. Find like-minded people you can sub-contract to (you’ll need employer’s insurance) or pass work to, and they will hopefully pass some back.
  5. Try to have a couple of relationships that bring in a regular income and supplement them with shorter contracts. Then when you need to find the next job, you still have a little work and money to tide you over (I can’t say I’m very good at saving!)
  6. Be flexible. Not everything you will end up doing is going to totally rock your world. As you get more confident and busier, you will be able to say ‘No thanks’ to those contracts that don’t totally float your boat.
  7. I hate saying this, because it’s not something I love doing, but you will need a brand. Either that’s your name or a trading name that will represent you. As you can see, I have a couple of different ones for different strands of my work.
  8. If something doesn’t work, learn from it and move on.
  9. Keep at it!

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