Baskets from the mountain: an ethnobotanical approach to the Balkandjii tradition
Balkandjii means the people from the Balkan and they are the inhabitants or the people who have their origin in the northern slopes of Stara Planina (The Balkan, in Ottoman Turkish language) in Bulgaria. According to the Ethnography discipline, the Balkandjii ethnic group was never determined as forming an ethnographic region, because they never settled permanently and exclusively in the Balkan region (Map. 1). Instead, mainly due to economic struggles as a result of the arduous mountain conditions, this ethnic group scattered within different geographic and ethnographic areas of Bulgaria. Regardless of whether the Balkadjii settled in another mountainous or in a plain region, there is one particular thing they always brought with them: the knowledge of how to make their living from the mountain (Ilieva, 2012). For the Balkadjii, the mountain is synonymous with the forest, which governs their unbreakable relationship with wood-based crafts, even when they are about to settle in a lowland fertile region, where woodland vegetation is scarce.
The slopes of the Stara Planina are characterised by their vertical forest zonality, where up to 800 AMSL deciduous forests dominate (Assyov et al., 2006). Above this level, in some locations, coniferous forests are situated. The deciduous forests of Stara Planina are formed of lower and higher zones, according to altitude: different climbers such as the old man’s beard (Clematis vitalba) often co-form the lower layer with some tree species such as the ash (Fraxinus excelsior), while oaks (Qercus sp.), hornbeam (Carpinus betulus) and maple (Acer sp.) are to be seen higher (ibid.). The upper zone is formed of beech trees (Fagus sylvatica): this layer of the forest is very often the highest border of the forest itself, and above it are the green pastures and meadows populated with shrub species, such as the Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas).
Almost all the aforementioned members of the Balkan forest were to be employed in various wood-related crafts, either as a part of the household inventory or as a tool aiding agricultural activities (Ilieva, 2012). It would be no exaggeration to assume that the whole household was wooden: starting from the exterior of the traditional Balkadjii house composed of limestone blocks and wood and travelling inside to the interior, where all types of furniture and small items were mainly wood-crafted (Fig. 1). But the selection of the best wood for each item (as large as the beams meant to support the roof and as small as the table spoons), was not a straightforward activity, even if the forest itself was present in immediate proximity to the settlements. Sometimes, carpenters and wood-craftsmen attempted summer expeditions in the mountains, where they stayed for several months – identifying and harvesting the wood needed for multiple purposes (ibid.). This way they often inhabited temporary camps, consisting of wood-made huts. While resting between various activities or awaiting the passing of a summer storm, these craftsmen often made baskets: small and large containers for various purposes (Lilova, 2011). If among the campers there was a skilful basket-maker, he or she collected plant material suitable for basketry, which could be transported down to the permanent towns and villages and woven into baskets during the long winter evenings, when livestock breeding and agricultural tasks were limited.
Baskets were made using diverse techniques, in diverse shapes and sizes, and their utility was closely related to these physical properties (Ilieva, 2012, 2012a; Lilova, 2011). For example, baskets a few metres tall were employed as grain storage containers; other slightly smaller ones (still up to a metre tall) were designated as transporting devices, meant to contain hay or fodder and to be carried on the shoulders or as a donkey load (Fig.3.4-5, Fig. 4.1). As the basket shapes become smaller, a great variety of weaving techniques and plant material combinations was employed. Many baskets were designed to contain fresh or dry fruits, nuts and bread, eggs, dry freshly washed linen clothes, or to store small kitchen items such as wooden spoons. Other basketry items were related to animal food supply activities such as fishing, fox hunting or bee keeping: numerous types of fish and fox-traps, along with beehives, were woven with basketry material and techniques. Some peculiar items were also basket-made, such as baby swings, baskets for hatching chickens, and baskets for loom weights or spindles (op. cit.).
Gradually at the beginning of the 20th century, the traditional Balkan livelihoods were to be replaced with a new profession – trade. The harsh mountainous region was successfully connected to the lowland towns and the rest of the country by the first railway line opened in 1912, which enabled the boom of the textile – amongst others – industry in the towns at the foot of the Balkan. This way, basket-making found a new niche – weaving baskets to be fabric-storing containers and facilitating their shipping. After the Balkandjii men returned from World War I (1919), new machine-oriented skills were brought to the region (Ilieva, 2012). An illustrative example of this is the introduction of the machine lathe and the progressive neglection of manual wood work. This did apply to basket-weaving too, as machine-produced wooden straps (as by-products of the furniture industry) were preferred instead of the wood splints split by hand, and in this way accelerated the commercialisation of this craft (Semerdjieva, 2014).
The commercialisation of basket-making in the region, but also the intensive presence of basketry objects in the traditional Balkandjii households and livelihoods, led to an abundance of these items in the ethnographic collections dedicated to the area. The Ethnographic Museum of Etar (EME, Gabrovo district) has proved a key institution for the region, contributing to the preservation of the local material and non-material culture of the last two centuries. For the purposes of this study, basketry samples were obtained from the collections of the EME in order to represent the choice of plants for weaving baskets within the Balkandjii group (Map 1). The samples (1x1cm) were sectioned and analysed with the GSL–1 microtome in the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Avalanches (WSL) in Klösters–Davos, Switzerland. A procedure of sample preparation, sectioning, staining and permanent mounting was followed, as demonstrated by Gärtner & Schweingruber (2013). As the specimens were in a herbarised condition, an impregnation was performed with distilled water and corn starch water solution (ibid., Fig. 2). The samples were microtome sectioned and transversal, tangential and radial (where necessary) sections of c. 10 μ were obtained for each of them. The sections were further red-blue stained with ®Safranin, (staining red the xylem and the lignified tissues) and ®Astrablue (staining blue the phloem and the non-lignified tissues). ®Safranin powder (0.8g) and ®Astrablue (0.5g) – each dispensed in distilled water (100ml) with a drop of acetic acid (2ml) – were mixed and applied with settling time of 3 – 5 min (ibid.). Then the process of sample dehydration followed, rinsing the stain from the section with 75% and then 96% Ethanol and afterwards a second rinsing with a few drops of ®Xylol. Permanent mounting or embedding of plant sections was attempted next and was done with ®Canada balsam, as a microscopic medium. Afterwards the microscopic slides were placed in a furnace with temperature of 60◦ for 12 hours, which ensured their stabilizing for the purposes of the subsequent analysis.
Several plant species related to the Balkandjii basketry have been referred to in the existing literature (Ilieva 2012, 2012a, Lilova 2011, Nedelcheva et al. 2011): old man’s beard, hazel, Cornelian cherry, poplar (Populus nigra), willow species (Salix alba and S. viminalis), lime (Tilia cordada). Several of them were confirmed during the botanical analysis carried out and grouped into two categories of items made of climbers (Fig. 3) and wood species (Fig. 4). In the group of climbers, baskets made of old man’s beard (Fig. 3. 1-6; 3.7a-b) and vine rods (Vitis vinifera ssp. vinifera/sylvestris, Fig. 3.6, 8a-b) were identified, while in the group of wood taxa, hazel (Fig. 4. 1-3, 4.7a-b) and maple wood (Acer sp., cf. A. campestre, A. monspessalanum or A. tataricum; Fig. 4. 4-6, 4.8a-b) were determined. Cornelian cherry was not identified, as per the existing literature, but vine rods and maple shoots were added to the already suggested plants in the bibliography.
The climber plants were mainly utilised in smaller objects, such as semi-spherical baskets, conical beehives and walnut “traps”, but a few cases of weaving bigger containers with large diameters using old man’s beard or vine rods were also registered. In the majority of cases, the climber plants were used for weaving the object in combination with wood taxa, such as hazel wood or willow, and for the construction of the rigid elements such as the axes of the semi-spherical baskets, or the “suns” – the joining elements between the body weave and the handle(s) of a basket (Fig. 5). The wood species were employed in making larger and sturdier containers, such as big baskets, hay containers, kitchen boxes and fish traps.
The variety of shapes, sizes, techniques and plant material demonstrated in the Balkadjii basketry of EME once again highlights the important role of the mountain forest, peculiar to this ethnic group. The choice of plant taxa, which are less accessible and not in immediate proximity, contrasts the basket-makers from the plain lowland ethnographic zones, who did choose predominantly willow species – highly abundant in this regions. The choice of the right diameter of hazel wood, suitable for splint work, the harvest of larger old man’s beard for weaving skeps, or the identification of red-coloured maple shoots for baskets’ decoration, involved knowledge, skills and craftsmanship, directed by the centuries-old relationship between the people from the Balkan, the forest and the mountain.
This work is part of my PhD research, which is supported by the Vice Chancellor’s Scholarship for Research Excellence of the University of Nottingham. I am grateful to the director and staff members of the Ethnographic Museum of Etar: Dr Svetla Dimitrova, Mrs Rumyana Dencheva, Miss Maria Kovacheva, for the kind permition and assistance while obtaining samples for the purposes of this study. I am also thankful to the WSL Wood Anatomy Course convenors: Prof. Fritz Schweingruber, Dr Holger Gärtner and Dr Alan Crivellaro, for the training and support provided during the laboratory analysis.
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Mila Andonova est doctorante à l’Université de Nottingham (UK). Son sujet de thèse sur les paniers et les vanniers dans le sud-est de l’Europe préhistorique (« The Baskets and the Basket-makers of Prehistoric South-east Europe. A Palaeoethnobotanical Approach ») associe des études archéobotanique, ethnographique et archéologique des ouvrages de vannerie. Elle fait également partie du département de paléobotanique et palynologie de l’ Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Research (Bulgarian Academy of Sciences).