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Baskets are another storage and transport medium that were used extensively in our period. Part of the reason behind this is the speed with which a basket can be constructed using nothing more than branches cut from low growing hedgerow bushes and low trees, or else from waste straw from grain production. A well trained basket maker will be able to make a decent size willow basket in less than 4 hours.

For the transport of dry goods larger than the hole size in the basket weave this type of storage vessel was probably the most prolific of all within the period. The fragility of baskets and the ease with which they can be replaced does however suggest that they were almost a disposable item. Broken baskets of course would make ideal fire starting kindling, being small dried out twigs.

Design of baskets

Baskets can be made from any fibrous material, although the rigidity and size depends on the material, and the weight a vessel can carry depends on the size of the fibres used. In the dark age period baskets were made from straw, reeds, bulrushes, willow wands, and hazel wands.

Heavier baskets were made using the latter two of these, some with solid timber bases, which have been found in York and other period sites. These solid bases were probably reused when the basketry frame wore out. Solid bases makes a basket much quicker to produce (once you have the base) and allows it to carry heavier goods.

Bases have been found with varying shapes and sizes, some round and some oval. Some finds suggest that some baskets were woven on a square base, probably with solid timber pegs in the corners as stiffening formers.

Specialist baskets

Specialist baskets have been found and some forms of these are still used to present day. The fish trap basket is an ideal example, which was used pegged into place in a stream and left unattended. The fisherman would come back at regular intervals to check the trap. These were sometimes used with wattle weirs to guide the fish into the trap, and in Alfred¹s time documents suggest that some rivers were so extensively fished in this way that navigation of the river was becoming difficult.

The Oseberg ship finds from Norway also sport a very different type of basket. With a solid wooden base and top lid, there is a rucksack or backpack made from basketry, with leather straps to carry it by. This is similar to modern basket made fishing creels, although the Oseberg bag shape is more like a modern rucksack.

Constructing baskets

When choosing a basket be careful to check what it is actually made from. Many modern baskets are made from cane and bamboo, neither of which are acceptable. Similarly you should not use any basket which has been painted or varnished. Lighter weight baskets can be synthetic materials and again these are not allowed.

Basket weaves from our period also tend to be single wands woven one over then one under. Modern baskets are machine woven and have two or three wands woven in unison. These should be avoided. Unfortunately the most prolific modern basket is the ubiquitous washing basket, and 90% of these are no use are they are the wrong weave, or shape, or materials.

Avoid willow and hazel that has had the bark stripped off. This is less of an authenticity issue but in our period stripping bark from small twigs would have significantly increased the time needed to make a basket and was from the archaeological evidence considered unnecessary.

Some baskets have patterns woven into them, and any intricate or obviously modern patterns must be avoided. There is essentially nothing wrong with plain patterns, and as our period is awash with decoration, it can be argued that patterned baskets would have been made, however none have been found. Patterns can be introduced by using wands with different coloured bark, and there are several different shades of willow and hazel bark.

Credits: with thanks to Steve Lines.