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Artifact of the Month: Vise

Terry describes one of our many tools - a vise

Author: Terry Williams, Conservator

Vise visible in x-ray
Vise visible in x-ray (lower right)

By definition, a tool is an instrument used for making changes to other objects – this can be by cutting, striking or any number of other processes. The history of tools goes back literally millions of years. In Kenya, in 2011 and 2012, hammers, anvils, and cutting tools were discovered in a dry riverbed in a layer of rock that dates back approximately 3.3 million years. This find predates the oldest confirmed specimens of Homo by almost a million years. Throughout the next three million years, tools would be fine-tuned and engineered to meet the growing needs of developing communities.

Fast forward to 1500 BCE, when “modern” hand tools were developed. In this category of tools, accessory tools such as vises, pliers, and the workbench are included.

No one is quite sure who came up with the idea of fixing items in such a way that they would not move under pressure. Early carpenters and wood workers used various clamping techniques with wedges and hammers. It would take the evolution of the screw to advance the vise. Even though there is archaeological evidence of the screw dating to the first century BC, they were larger wooden structures used in presses for olives and grapes. It was not until the 15th century, that they were being used as fasteners. Even then, screws were relatively small and were used in complex machinery, like early gun manufacturing. This screw technology would eventually be adapted for use in vises. Vises at their most basic consist of two parallel jaws, one fixed and the other movable.

Vise after cleaning

QAR1955.000 has been one of our most productive concretions, with over 82 discrete artifacts including tools, glass bottles, and cannonballs. One of the objects found in this huge conglomerate is a small wrought iron vise. According to the research of a recent graduate who wrote their thesis on hand tools from our site (Lawrence 2020): “Vises were used in a wide variety of woodworking and metal working trades, and in any situation where one might need to hold a piece of material steady while drilling, hammering, filing, or otherwise shaping a piece of work. The details of how the vise was mounted …(remain unclear). However, based on size it is likely to be a tabletop vise, which could have been moved and installed in different parts of the vessel as the situation merited. Small vises of this kind are best suited for relatively light work, like detailed projects or finer metal working as compared to the heavily built post vises of a blacksmith.” Although we have identified many tools, this is the only vise from the wreck, and further research is needed to clarify the particulars of its use.

-Brockhaus Heuer. 2022. History – Bench Vice. Accessed September 20, 2022.
-Encyclopedia Britannica. 2022. Tool. Accessed September 20, 2022.
-Lawrence, K. 2020. Tools of the Trade: A Material Culture Study of Hand Tools from Queen Anne’s Revenge. MA Thesis, East Carolina University, Department of History.

Vise visible in the x-ray for concretion 1955.000. Image by NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.
Vise after cleaning. Image by NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.

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