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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On Cavities and Carvings

bow drill masons' marks from Montfort Castle
Bow drills appearing as Masons' marks from Montfort

As I was exceptionally fond of sugar in all its forms, I spent a fair amount of time in my childhood visiting the dentist. Appointments to our dentist (known by us as Doctor Drillsmore, a slight but appropriate twist to his real name) were never much of a delight and became even less so when he came into possession of what was referred to as the “new” drill. Until then he had only possessed the “old” drill, an ancient piece of machinery that had probably once been used on convicts and early settlers and perhaps had originally been dredged up from a shipwreck in the Aegean. It was of iron, but black with age and it rose up high above the patient, a long, bent arm with winding cords that made a low grinding sound as the nasty-looking drill-bit spun at a moderate but steady speed. It didn’t drill so much as wear away at your teeth. One could imagine it finding a place of pride among the torture implements used in the Spanish Inquisition, up there alongside the Rack and the Iron Chair. But it was a mere toy when compared with the “new” drill that appeared in Doctor Drillsmore’s office one fateful day, taking its place below the dark hovering old machine that it was largely to replace. This was Space Age technology, sleek, shiny silver and polished pale blue enamel, and when turned on it let out a hideous high-pitched whine and sprayed water in your face as the doctor stuffed it into a mouth already full of cotton swabs, a suction tube and various dental probes.

Medieval dental care probably did not involve the use of a drill, but the bow drill was used in certain medical practices such as drilling holes into the skull, known as trepanning, aimed at curing certain ailments such as seizures and fractures of the skull. Less morbidly and perhaps more successfully, bow drills were used in various crafts such as woodwork, manufacturing objects of bone, and in sculpting intricate designs in stone.

Romanesque sculpture in the traditions of central and southern Italy and west-central France was carried out in workshops at numerous building projects in the kingdom of Jerusalem and elsewhere in the Latin East. Among the finest works are those that have survived from the Church of Annunciation in Nazareth and the sculptures produced to decorate buildings in Jerusalem: the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Templar buildings constructed on the Temple Mount and a number of other churches. In these works, drill marks can be observed on many unfinished and even completed sculptures. The bow drill was applied to create patterns or to cut channels by drilling rows of adjoining holes and breaking the stone separations between them. On figurative pieces, holes were drilled to form nostrils, curly hair or pupils of eyes, to achieve the appearance of surfaces of cloth or chain mail and in the forming of various running patterns. Other than surface decoration, in order to achieve depth when working in parts of a carving where precision and delicacy were required and where the use of a chisel might cause damage, the drill enabled the sculptor to remove small sections of stone to a considerable depth and this made it possible to produce exquisitely fine, deeply carved pieces that appear almost lifelike and delicate, such as the capital on the Church of Ascension in Jerusalem illustrated below.

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