Friday, 6 September 2019

The best mystery for years


You know how I love little mysteries, well this is a beauty.

I was leaving the flat yesterday and as I got to the bottom of the stairs I looked through the window and saw this little thing lying on the flat roof of the adjacent building on the other side of the medieval lane which used to follow the line of the city wall down to the river.

At first glance it looked like a dead leaf from an exotic plant, but then I looked closer and saw it was the rusting iron blade of some sort of reaping-hook. I went back upstairs and confirmed this with a pair of binoculars.

I stared at it for quite a while, formulating a plan to retrieve it from the roof. It was about 25 feet away from our building and about 20 feet up from the medieval lane. I began to think of ladders or trying to persuade the clothes shop at the far end to allow me access to the roof via their window, but then the simplest solution dawned on me.

I bought a powerful little magnet and went to the workshop where I picked up my 25 foot extending decorator's pole. When I got home I let myself out onto downstairs' small balcony and began fishing. The blade popped onto the end of the pole and I hauled it in.

That evening I pondered the two most important aspects of the mystery - what is it and how did it get there? As to what it is, that is self evident. It is a very small reaping hook for a crop such as herbs, the sort of tool an apothecary would have used in his herb garden. The pointed shaft would have had a wooden handle and it is 7 inches long including the blade.

Next question, how old is it? It looks quite old if it had not been buried in earth. Its condition is consistent with it having been lying on a shelf in an outhouse for anything between 300 and 100 years. Iron is notoriously difficult to date without sophisticated tests.

How did it get there? It could have been dropped by a gull. They often pick up objects such as loose bits of gutter fixtures or bones and drop them on the flat roof, but I think it is more likely to have been thrown up there from the narrow lane by someone from the restaurant under the flat roof. It was close to their fire door exit.

But why would you throw a beautiful object such as this out of reach? It is not as if the owner could have been trying to dispose of an offensive weapon during a police raid. You can buy much more efficient weapons in a kitchen shop.

I will spend this Autumn occasionally picking it up and reading it like a closed book.

Update/s:

I am beginning to think it could be a grape-harvesting knife, which means it could be French. I I get any more ideas (even from you) I will put them up here too, including theories on how it got there. Feel free to use your imagination.

46 comments:

  1. Note from editor: Too much use of the word, 'little'. Cut by half.

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  2. I like the intrigue of why has it suddenly appeared. The blade is quite an unusual shape as reap hooks go around here.

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    1. Yes, I love it that it was suddenly there. Bear in mind that the hook part is only three inches long.

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  3. At 7 ins long, it makes the cutting end only a tad more than 3 ins. Could it have been used for grafting? Or Pruning? Or Mushrooming (it's not dissimilar to my Mushrooming knives)?

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    1. Yes, all of those but I tend toward things other than mushrooms.

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    2. I do think it may be a grape-cutter for a vineyard.

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  4. I thought it might be a thatchers knife? And maybe did normal slates also? fell out his bag? and eaves hook https://thatchinginfo.com/thatching-tools-equipment/

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  5. Köhler's apes would be impressed. It now demands you make a wooden handle for it.

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    1. I would make a handle for it if I were going to use it. I have chisels which I use that are over 250 years old.

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    2. I doubt anything you can buy from Wickes or Screwfix will last that long.

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    3. Even if it doesn't get stolen.

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  6. It's not old enough to be this but what did they call those Roman things that scraped the wet dirt off their skin in the bathhouse?

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    1. Specula? No, it was not one of those but the Romans had very similar tools to this in any case. The shape has been around for thousands of years.

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  7. I was thinking along the lines of Sol (above). Could it have been used for any kind of roof work? Regardless of its original use, it looks like a handy tool for scratching out old grout lines. But that does not explain why it is so corroded. It could have been on the roof for quite a while. Any recent heavy rains that could have dislodged it and brought it into your view? Ohhh, this is going to drive me crazy as we will never know for certain its story.

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    1. The day before it was not there. It is not a modern roofing tool. I should have photographed it in situ then you would see the incongruity.

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    2. So I just googled ‘grape harvesting billhooks’ and Came up with many images that look just like it. But, somehow, I also came upon a roof cutting tool that looks just like it. The company called RIDGID makes a modern, powered version, but the blade looks the same. Yours could be one from the days before electricity.

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    3. I found your Ridgid roofing tool and there is really no way that my blade could be used for that purpose unless you could move your wrist back and forth at 10 times per second. This blade has nothing to do with roofing or slate, believe me.

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  8. The knowledge that I have about sythes and sickles is nil so I am no help whatsoever but I love the story of how you found it. I did like watching Aidan Turner when he used his sythe in Poldark. XXXX

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    1. I watched that and came to the positive conclusion that he did not know how to use a scythe, but you probably weren't looking at his level of skill.

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    2. A gym in my area put out flyers with AT "scything" so deliciously with the caption, "Get in shape for summer, now!"

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    3. Get in shape for 19th century Cornwall.

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  9. I'm not going to postulate how it got on the roof!
    Is it a spoke scraper (cart wheels etc)?
    Don't forget that a lot of people would have made their own tools for a particular task.
    HTH

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    1. Good idea but no, it is not a spoke-shave. It is a blade for cutting in the same way a sickle cuts. Irish masons used to make their own tools and the itinerant ones would travel with a small forge for the purpose. In times of want they would make sets of chisels from inferior metal and pretend to sell their choice chisels to unwary pawnbrokers. I own one. It will never keep a good edge no matter how many times it is tempered.

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  10. It is the sickle blade from the scythe of the Death or Rats. Hence it being small.

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  11. Replies
    1. Unfortunately no, Catherine. A slate splitter is called a 'Zax' and is a high-scorer in any Scrabble game.

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    2. No, not a slate splitter but a tool used to even out the edges of slates.

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    3. No, this blade has nothing to do with roofing slates.

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  12. We need to know more about where you found it. Can you take a picture? I'm thinking it loosened itself from somewhere on the roof. If a bird dropped it, could it have landed somewhere else and slid down? I have no idea, and none of your knowledge of those tools. But thinking is always good.

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    1. It is a flat roof with nothing above it. As much as I would like to believe it was dropped by a bird, the most likely explanation is that it was thrown up by a human. Boring eh?

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    1. It looks like a lot of tools, but is only 3 inches long which, to my mind, rules out thatching.

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  14. Ask Getafix the Druid, he has been looking for his small herb sickle for ages.

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  15. were there any killing attempts thereabouts? was the killing tool thrown onto the roof to escape being caught with it??? or maybe someone stole it from a museum and feared getting caught with it? just jesting, of course♥

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    1. The theft theory is one that I have been considering, except that the metal has not been too well conserved. I am thinking that it was found in a farmyard or similar. Oh, and there are no bloodstains on it...

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  16. ohh another thought is could it be one of a pair of the knives that you use to lift out the frame from a bee hive? My BIL has some old fashioned tools he inherited and he has used them on the hive. I wonder if it is one of those as you said 3 inches? They have a wooden handle that the knife is set into. How intriguing. I have no idea how it got there though...

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    1. Sorry, but definitely not. This is a cutting tool.

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  17. There's a stained glass window in Notre Dame of man pruning vine. He has a small billhook like this one. I think it is Aries Zodiac window West.

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  18. About three months after the poppy seeds are planted, brightly-colored flowers bloom at the tips of greenish, tubular stems. As the petals fall away, they expose an egg-shaped seed pod. Inside the pod is an opaque, milky sap. This is opium in its crudest form.


    The sap is extracted
    The sap is extracted by slitting the pod vertically in parallel strokes with a special curved knife. As the sap oozes out, it turns darker and thicker, forming a brownish-black gum. A farmer collects the gum with a scraping knife, bundles it into bricks, cakes or balls and wraps them in a simple material such as plastic or leaves.

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  19. The above is from a Google search. I saw the process years ago inNorthern Thailand. The gum was collected on the blade as the men went from poppy to poppy. I actually tried smoking from an opium pipe, but as I had never smoked a cigarette in my life I had no idea how to inhale!

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    1. Interesting Margaret, thank you. When they scratch the poppy heads so that they bleed the sap, they use a little tool with three or four blades in parallel to save time scratching. It leaves little rows of parallel scars on both sides of the head which you used to see when the old dried heads were sold for flower arranging. The curve of the tool used to collect the semi-dried sap a few days later would have a much tighter curve than my blade. You may not have had any experience of opium smoking, but I bet you knew - as did Bill Clinton - how to inhale!

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