The work begins.
Otzi was carrying two birch bark containers when he died, one of which had a burning ember and freshly picked maple leaves. From what I've heard, this is a practice widely held across the world. In South Africa, Khoi San drill a hole halfway through a huge elephant turd - basically a boulder of dried grass - and place an ember inside. The ember can burn for days and days until finally plopped into a fresh bundle of kindling.
The issue with Otzi's containers is that all the important bits are rotted. From what I've read, the containers were entirely made from birch bark - sides and bottom - and stitched with basswood. Here at North House, birch bark containers are a big thing, but the bottoms are made from softwood. This keeps the shape of the container solid and, of course, wood is much tougher than birch bark. The wood bottom is usually stuck on with wooden pegs. So, looking at Otzi's birch bark, I don't have much of an idea where to begin. The seams on the sides and the bottoms are rotted, so not even the stitching holes remain.
Not that I'm complaining, of course. It is breathtaking how much detail can still be seen on this container. How much wood bark do you wanna bet is still around from 5,000 years ago? But the fact remains: we just don't know how this container came together.
This picture was taken by Don Hitchcock of a traveling Otzi the Iceman exhibit. It looks to me like a simple whip-stitch was used here, with maybe some pine or birch sap as a gluey substance around the stitch. A good start, but still, the original stitching is a mystery.
So, I've been experimenting. First things first, I learned that if you don't oil up your bark, the whole thing cracks to pieces and that's the end of that. I've been using a 50/50 mix of walnut oil and beeswax (thank you, thank you, Birch Bark Beth). We harvested loads of birch bark this summer, so I grabbed a leather punch, some twine, and got to work.
This one ended up very loose. As you can see, I only did a single running stitch along the side, so we've got this goofy flap. The bottom is also unstable - it is too big and I couldn't pull the string tight enough to be snug without cracking the bark. Also ugly. 0/10.
Though I like the sharp blue color on this one, the whip stitch along the bottom didn't feel quite right. Again, the bottom is too wide, and I wouldn't trust it to stay together if I threw it in a backpack like Otzi did. I used a fatter piece of bark for the bottom, and a very thin piece for the sides, which makes this container weirdly squishy when held but solid when set down. 1/10 for good color.
These ones I like much more - the x stitch on the sides keep the flappy ends closed and feel very strong. However, these bottoms are way too wide and would definitely catch and crack on anything nearby. Good for holding carving tools on the workbench. 4/10.
Again we see a gorgeous x stitch and - oh my - a nice thick bottom that fits snug inside the container. Wowee! Now we're cooking. An issue that is coming up is that using a leather punch to make these holes acts sort of like a wedge, pushing the bark apart and cracking along the edges. All in all... pretty cool. 5/10.
Oh mama. This one feels great. A strong bottom and smooth x stitch. Still, I wouldn't entirely trust this container bouncing around in a backpack - which raises the question, did Otzi's canisters have lids? If he was carrying around a live ember, I think it's likely. Though perhaps a lid would snuff out the ember? Maybe some field testing is in order. 6/10. We're getting close.