Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Traditional Woodowork in the Balkans

In Northern Greece there is a large peninsula that has served as the home to spiritual aspirants for over a millennium. Life on Mt. Athos (named for the peak at the eastern end of the peninsula) has remained largely unchanged since its founding in the 10th century. Greek Orthodox monks live a life of prayer and fasting, and when not engaged in prayer or worship, occupy themselves with everything from incense-making and sewing, to carving and turning wood. These items are sold in order to buy the necessities of life that can't be produced by the monks themselves. Since many of us woodworkers tend to spend large amounts of time in solitude in our shops, I'm reminded of the disciplined life of these monks whenever I'm alone in the shop. Their accomplishments go largely unnoticed though (and rightly so), as their works are left unsigned and thus anonymous. When works are signed, they are prefaced with the phrase "by the hand of..." thus showing that the work is accomplished by the grace of God, through the hand of the worker.

The following video which shows one such shop on Athos. Much like many of the pre-electric European and American shops, this is one is powered by a water wheel and leather belting. Later in the video we see a monk who specialized in miniature carving. Some of these ornate crosses take years to finish. We also see a human-powered olive oil mill.

Although not a monastic setting, the ethnographic museum "Etar" in Gabrovo, Bulgaria shares some similarities with the small shops of Athos. I visited this working museum in 2000. It's much like Colonial Williamsburg. The entire village runs off water power, harnessing that resource to drive lathes, mills and various other machines, as well as provide places for washing clothes. The shops along the main street of the village offer everything from carved spoons and boxes to fine metalware, glassware and jewelry, all executed using 18th-century methods. The artisans are not simply reenacting life two hundred years ago, they are actual craftsman producing quality work that you can purchase.