The Ram’s Head

An intricate ram's head butt cap tipped me off that this was not an ordinary knife.

An intricate ram’s head butt cap tipped me off that this was not an ordinary knife.

Our cabin on the Sauk River has a functioning firwood floor, a used wood stove in one corner, resting on a pad of ceramic tiles, gaps in the logs where the light shines through, and around twenty lights of glass shattered by gunfire in a vandal’s rampage. There’s a bit more work to do to restore it to a comfortable condition, but it’s come a long way from the way it looked at this time last year. Then it was supported by rotting logs on irregular concrete shards. It had been infested by rats and bats and mice for several years.

I have to admit that I was unsure that we would ever make it habitable again, but when my wife asked me where I wanted to go in our trailer that summer, I opined that we really ought to fix up the cabin and make it our own private campground. She jumped at the opportunity.

The cabin early in the restoration process slopes on its gaping supports, aging log sections that were rotting in place.

The cabin early in the restoration process slopes on its gaping supports, aging log sections that were rotting in place.

We tore down counters, cupboards and flimsy walls. We dragged out the old rusty stove, the metal cabinets, the metal barstools bolted to the old sagging floor. We hired help to drag the old Monarch cookstove outside where we dumped out the rat’s nests that packed its interior. We hired others to cart away a huge pile of metal debris someone had dumped in the ferns across the driveway. We figured out how to support the upright log walls while we removed the rotten old foundations, if you could call them that. We had forms built to support portions of the wall as we poured new concrete beneath the logs, proceeding in steps to create a running concrete foundation under all four walls. By the end of the summer, the foundation was complete.

The work continues, as it will for months ahead. But recently we’ve begun planning the interior layout. My wife spearheads the operation, planning and measuring and plotting out the usefulness of what we salvaged. The old army bunk beds will once again stand in the back corner, this time without the wall that screened them and pinioned them to their two yards of floor space. Then  came the question of the kitchen cabinets. These would be metal, an attempt to thwart rodent invasion. A couple were saved from the old kitchen, and added to these would be several similar cabinets purchased from the Re-Store in Bellingham. All would need to be fixed, sanded, primed and painted before we will be ready to mount them on the walls and floors of our cabin.

We kept several old metal cabinets in an unused stall in our barn, a place where we originally planned to store hay. But a constant trickle of water from the hillside arena above rotted out the plywood floor and mildewed hay in that storage area. So we have stored things that are less likely to suffer water damage there: stacks of surplus tiles, an old horse cart, stacks of metal siding with lumber piled on top, old windows.

I plunged into the gloom of that dusty, muddy, cobwebbed room to retrieve three cabinets. The floor sagged under my steps. I avoided places where I had previously broken through the plywood, stepping on piles of moldy hay, damp tiles. I cleared a passage to the back, where I could see two of the cabinets resting at odd angles on stacks of old hay. I started moving things off of them: boards, panels, the poles to the horse cart, an iron rack you would mount on the wall of a stall to hold hay for the horse. I brushed out the spiders and their egg sacs and dragged or rolled the two cabinets to the front, where I could inspect them. They had peeling paint, patches of rust and a few dents, but so had the cupboards that we used in our own kitchen. After some careful restoration and a professional paint job in an auto shop, those cupboards have become admired features in our retro kitchen.

I noticed a rusty knife in the top drawer of one of the cabinets and I pulled it out, idly scraping off dust and loose rust with my leather gloves. I remembered seeing this knife before, but I couldn’t place where it had come from. Was this from my wife’s family? Had we used it in our early days of camping? Was it from junk someone had abandoned when they moved?

It was very well balanced, wavering on my finger just where the ferrule met the blade. The blade was a curious shape, like a Turkish scimitar. But it was too thin to be a weapon; instead it looked like an elegant carving knife. As I studied the ferrule, an inch of brass or bronze, I found a stag’s head and the head of an ox, separated from each other by two decorative flowers with eight delicate petals. A handle of thick stag’s horn, tapered at either end to meet the metal work, arched subtly into the grip of my hand. But the  most remarkable feature was the ram’s head.

The closer I looked, the more details I found. The curve of the nose is deceptively simple and lifelike, right down to the slotted nostrils. But the eyebrows sloped down on vacant oblong, rimmed eyes. It had a baleful, almost angry expression. Crisply incised semi-circular horns swept back from a decorated crown, overlapped by ears that slipped out from behind the tips of the horns. Tufts of wool covered the entire head from the face to the place where the stag’s horn met the ornament.

One of many representations of a ram's head on ancient Greek objects. This one is a cup from the William Randolph Hearst Collection at the LA County Museum of Art (LACMA).

One of many representations of a ram’s head on ancient Greek objects. This one is a cup from the William Randolph Hearst Collection at the LA County Museum of Art (LACMA).

From my years of interest in archaeology and mythology, I thought the sculpting of the ram looked familiar. I did a little research on internet, discovering nearly identical rams that decorated ancient Greek knives, cups, coins and other items. The artist who created the decoration on this knife was clearly acquainted with the ram’s head tradition of ancient Greece. The ram’s head motif refers to the god Ammon, a guide and protector of man and his possessions. Perhaps a ram’s head on a carving knife protects the wielder from losing a finger.

I took the knife to my shop to try to clean the blade up. But how? Well, perhaps a little penetrating oil to start with, followed with a spritz of Goof Off and some gentle abrasive rubbing. As I work I noticed a faint trademark stamped on one side of the blade. It was a horizontal diamond motif with words along the edges: J. RUSSELL & CO on the top, GREEN RIVER WORKS on the bottom, and the date 1834 in the center of the diamond. Time for more internet research.

The trademark survived the surface rust that covered the blade when I found it in the barn.

The faint trademark survived the surface rust that covered the blade when I found it in the barn.

In 1832 Zachariah Allen published a travelogue of a journey through England during which he visited all manner of industrial enterprises. This was the blooming of the Industrial Age, and Allen’s descriptions of landscapes, castles and cities were bolstered with his descriptions of iron works, pottery factories and the cutlery industry at Sheffield. John Russell, a native of Greenfield, Massachusetts, had built his fortune speculating in Georgia cotton. By 1832 he had married and moved north from Georgia to Pennsylvania. That year he returned to Greenfield to visit family and friends, who convinced him that he should stay. Rather than becoming a goldsmith, like his father, Russell decided to recreate something like the Sheffield cutlery works that Allen had described.

Russell’s knives became popular amongst immigrants on the Oregon Trail and pioneers and mountain men. Between 1849 and 1860, he shipped something like 72,000 blades to the western market. His artisans designed all sorts of knives for all sorts of applications, from buffalo skinning to warfare or for carving meat at fancy tables.  My discovery was for the latter use. It features a thin and flexible ten-inch blade of fine steel. Alas, it is marred with rust spots now. The entire knife is sixteen and a half inches long, from nose of ram to tip of scimitar. I have never found a similar object.

J. Russell paid high wages for artisans. European masters often left their positions at home to help Russell create masterpieces like this one.

J. Russell paid high wages for artisans. European masters often left their positions at home to help Russell create masterpieces like this one.

When I reported my find to my wife, she looked confused. It hadn’t come from her family. Finally I fetched the knife from my shop and showed it to my wife. The light went on. She had purchased the blade at a yard sale because it hefted well, and she figured it would be a good tool for cutting the nylon cords binding her hay bales. She remembers paying less than five dollars for it. Later it went missing and she worried that she might step on it on a hay-covered floor. Hearing my description of it, my teenage son remembered playing with the knife in the barn as a young boy. Another parenting failure.

I still don’t have complete information on what this knife was, where it came from, how old it really is. I imagine that it came from a matched set of serving utensils and that it was long ago separated from its sister fork and perhaps their step-sister tongs. I will continue to try to identify its features, but for now, it represents another story in the resurrection of a cabin on the Sauk River.

 

Advertisements

One response to “The Ram’s Head

  1. Dear sir,

    Somehow I have developed an interest in ramsheads after buying à ramshead vase in New York. Turned put to be an unique example. I have never found à picture of à second one. But from that search I know there is a Dutch website called marktplaats.nl and if you search for ” bronzen Ramskop heft” you will find an 2000 Year old roman example of a knive head. It is very similar to yours. Only much older and less detailed.

    Kind regards Jos Motzheim

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s