Craft Fair: Metalworking

Metalwork during the European medieval times was generally considered to be crude and warlike. Much of media portrays medieval times as violent and barbaric by focusing on weapons and warrior culture. However, these works do not accurately represent the breadth of Anglo-Saxon metallurgy and artistry, and the significant degree of advancement Anglo-Saxon metalsmith possessed. That is why, when constructing stations for the Early Medieval Crafts Fair, we felt it important to try to portray a variety of metalworkings, despite the limitations of appropriate resources. Many of the metalworkings presented give insight on Anglo-Saxon culture and domestic life.  We can better understand their history by examining why their knives are so well built, or why brooches came in such a variety. Metalworking leave a trail of clues that help piece together a history that is not well documented through texts.

Our first idea was to attempt to procure some more authentic materials for people to feel and view; we understood that due to the nature of our station it would be difficult to make an interactive station. We approached both Carleton’s geology department as well as Carleton’s local metalworking staff in the art department to ask about getting a sample of bog iron, the rock used by Anglo-Saxons for most of their iron ore, and a sample piece of jewelry like a brooch or a knife, respectively. The geology department unfortunately did not have a sample of the rock that we needed, and due to safety requirements surrounding the metalworking studio, we were unable to recreate any objects.

So we fell back on an approach that was more functional and didactic in nature. Namely, we created “ingots” from playdough and provided instructions to “hammer” them into shape (See Further Reading, Leahy). The playdough was created by the ceramics group. 

Making the playdough “ingot”

Demonstrating pinching the sides of the playdough to create a sharper shape

A final ingot

Our job was mostly to figure out how to use the playdough that we had and make sure it was ready for each visitor. Each block of playdough would be pounded into a rectangle and pinched into a sharper, squarer shape, to give a better tactile feeling to the substance more like metal as opposed to a non-Newtonian fluid. We then found and printed out a few diagrams of Anglo-Saxon metalworking, and fairgoers could follow along with them while we would talk about various misconceptions and practices in early Medieval smithing.

The diagram given to fairgoers for spearhead making.

Unfortunately, we only could find good visual instructions for the making of a spearhead in this manner, which could have enforced the aforementioned stereotype of early medieval times and Anglo-Saxon metalworking. However, images of various finished metalworkings, such as brooches and other non-ferrous items, were presented so that participants could recreate their general shapes.

To aid in our teaching, we undertook the creation of a piece of “bog iron”, which was a rock repainted to give the orange/red appearance of actual bog iron. We took a rock, spray painted it with the appropriate color, and then to give it the appearance that it had been set in a bog, we tossed it in a garbage bag with some dirt. While its impact may have been small, it certainly helped as both a visual tool for describing the nature of Anglo-Saxon metalworking.

The rock before being spraypainted.

Spraypainting the rock

The rock, now tossed in dirt to give that out-of-the-ground feeling

The goal of our station was to educate people on Anglo-Saxon metalworking.  Although we were limited with playdough to use as our “ingots” we were able to get visitors to process the idea of molding things against their nature and facing resistance.  Additionally, our station was heavily supplemented with substantial lecture as well as various models of metalworking for participants to use as a visual aid. The most important part of the station was the background provided to the audience on Anglo-Saxon metalworking, which provided a better sense of history that unfortunately could not have been provided through craft, like it had in other stations. 

ORP: Double-Sided Comb

About Object 1402

A double-sided bone comb found at the West Stow Settlement.

Object 1402 was described in the archeological records as a “double-sided bone comb in very fine condition.” The comb was found during the archeological excavations at the West Stow settlement that were undertaken by the British Department of the Environment beginning in 1965. During the excavation process, the department uncovered the remains of around 75 buildings and thousands of artifacts that served to add greatly to the known material culture of these people. The comb was found in Sunken Feature Building 51 (SFB 51), one of the most northern structures present at West Stow. This small building, about thirteen feet by seven feet, had a pit dug into the ground (it was estimated to have originally been about two feet deep) over which the building was situated. SFB 51 had two central support posts, as was fairly typical of the other buildings found on site, with straight walls and rounded corners. Interestingly, despite the comb being considered one of the better examples found at West Stow, there was very little else discovered in this building, only a single hook, and a few broken pieces of pottery. The small size of the building and the artifacts that were found suggest that SFB 51 was originally a domestic area that probably housed relatively few people, as would be expected in a single-family settlement.

 

Combs in Anglo-Saxon England

Bone and antler combs are by no means rare finds in excavations of Anglo-Saxon settlements, and at West Stow, they were one of the most commonly uncovered items. These included single- sided, double-sided, and triangular combs that were found scattered throughout many of the roughly 75 buildings uncovered on the site. While it is clear that these items were prevalent throughout England during this time, it remains uncertain of their cultural significance as they do not appear in textual sources from the era. Object 1402, for instance, though it is an unusually good specimen, but it still leaves many questions about its uses and those of many combs found throughout Britain. Were the broken teeth the result of the last 1,500 years underground, or were they teeth that snapped off before it was discarded? Who would have used it? Were combs primarily used by women, or would they have been seen as ungendered during the period? What does this comb tell us about the values of the Anglo-Saxons, does the level of detail put into the comb suggest vanity or merely a concern for hygiene?  Many of these questions will never be answered, and certainly will not be will not be derived from a single artifact, but if observing an object will not bring us to understand the lives of the people who owned it centuries ago, attempting to recreate its production and use will at least serve to bring us closer to the headspace of those who produced these objects and interacted with them years ago.

 

Recreation Process

I attempted to make a 3D model of the comb using the process of photogrammetry. Much of the process did involve mind-numbing struggles with the computer program or merely setting the computer system to run while I sat and read a book, but I also found that some of the process did give me a greater insight into the original making process. Through the process I had the ability to look at the object from many angles greatly improved my understanding of how the comb was put together, and allowed me to view the sides of the comb in much greater detail than I would have seen in a side-view photograph of so thin an object.

Top of the comb during the photogrammetry process.

Bottom of comb during the photogrammetry process.

In addition to this, I believe that part of the photogrammetry process gave me a taste of the actual process of cutting the teeth of the comb. I spent many hours laboriously cutting away the excess material that the computer had produced from the background, carefully shaving it away from the teeth of the comb.

Cutting excess material away from the teeth of the comb.

This long and intricate process (one that would have been made infinitely harder in the Anglo-Saxon period by the absence of an undo button) gave me an appreciation for the delicacy of the work. A bone worker would almost certainly have failed many times before he was able to create a comb so intricate with nearly uniform teeth. It would assuredly have been an arduous and often frustrating process, which led me to wonder, how these combs could have been so common throughout the West Stow settlement.

 

Insight Gained

While a digital recreation of the comb found at West Stow did not necessarily shed great insight into the physical process of bone carving during the early medieval period, it did add give a greater appreciation for the time and energy that would have gone in to such a creation and the delicacy of much of the work involved. I discovered this in the process of cutting the excess material from the model, as described above but also through time spent examining the object and trying to place it within its larger context. This is one of the benefits of the field of digital humanities and the possibilities it presents for the wider exploration of history. It certainly should not replace physical models or other forms of recreation, but as an added tool, it offers the chance to produce a greater number of models of items and helps us to integrate interdisciplinary fields to better our understanding of archeological sights such as West Stow. Through the process of photogrammetry, I was able to take pictures of an item on the other side of the Atlantic and produce a physical, printed model that gives us a good idea of the original. It may not be an exact replica, but I have a much better idea of the complexity involved in the original object, and it can now be seen by a wider audience.

A 3-D reproduction of the West Stow comb.

As is often the case, the greater understanding of the piece does not necessarily offer a greater simplicity to its historical narrative, but it does serve to enrich it and to give a more wholistic view of its place in history. Perhaps the recreation and reclamation of ancient objects and crafting techniques will not serve to answer all our outstanding historical questions, but it will, without a doubt serve to enrich our historical understanding. It is a journey of self-discovery that may vastly complicate our ideas, but it will also, overtime, allow for a greater exploration of Anglo-Saxon Britain through personal experience and immersion in many different avenues of historical exploration.

 

Further Reading

Ingold, Tim. Making. New York: Routledge, 2013.

Leahy, Kevin. Anglo-Saxon Crafts. Brimscombe Port Stroud, UK: The History Press, 2003.

West, Stanley. West Stow: The Anglo-Saxon Village. Ipswich, UK: Suffolk County Council, 1985.

ORP: West Stow Cemetery Bowl

Ancient Anglo-Saxons often buried their dead with grave-goods, which could range from simple beads to highly-decorated metal brooches. Pottery pieces were common throughout Anglo-Saxon graves and could usually be classified as highly decorated funerary urns or plain domestic pots. The piece pictured in Figure 1 was a bowl found in the cemetery of West Stow, an old Anglo-Saxon village that was active around the fifth to seventh century CE.

Figure 1

This is unfortunate in the fact that there wasn’t proper documentation of the items found in the cemetery, specifically the context in which they were found so it cannot be said for certain what the bowl was used for or with whom it was buried with. However, based on its shape, design, and size, it was more likely a food bowl. Domestic pots were repurposed as funeral urns, but in West Stow, there is only one unearthed pot that has been confirmed as a funeral urn. It is also less likely that this bowl was used as a cremation urn or storage vessel because of its large mouth opening unless there was some sort of lid, though there was never one confirmed in the records.

I used earthenware clay to make the reconstructed bowl. To start, I created a cylindrical base the size of my palm and then rolled out long snakes of clay. Building up the bowl is similar to a coil-pot, where you wrap the snakes around the top part of the previous layers, but then you must blend the layers together to eventually make one smooth wall. When I wrapped each coil in a circle, I first melded both ends of the clay snake together by smearing it with my thumb and some extra small pieces of clay. Once I had a smooth, uninterrupted circle, I used my thumb to smear the clay downwards to connect the clay with the base, as shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2

I continued this process around the base until the outside of the clay was smooth without any signs of folds. Once I was satisfied with the outside, I repeated this process on the inside of the coil, pushing my thumb downwards on the coil to connect it with the base. As I worked my thumb against the inner wall of the bowl, I cupped my hand on the outside wall so that I could control the formation of the overall shape of the bowl.

As I progressed with every layer, I placed the coil slightly outside of the last one so that the bowl would widen even more. As I reached the top, I purposely left the lip of the bowl uneven, as it was in the reference photos. I don’t believe this was a result of it being broken, as the color of the rim was as aged as the rest of the piece. The lip was also rounded, not jagged. However, my reconstructed bowl’s lip was much more exaggerated than the original.

West Stow Bowl’s Uneven Lip

Reconstructed Bowl’s Uneven Lip

At this point, I started to focus on smoothing out the outside wall, as it was riddled with my thumbprint indentations. I used some water to help smooth the rim and other areas of the bowl that were cracking. Any areas that were too thick I fixed with my thumb pushing on the inside wall and my palm on the outside wall, helping keep the shape of the bowl. Doing this, however, created some holes, which I easily remediated by covering with thin scraps of clay and smoothing out with the help of water.

West Stow Bowl Walls

Reconstructed Bowl’s Walls

Initially, I wasn’t sure what tool I should use to make the impressions in the bowl. I wasn’t sure if I should make a clay stamp or find an object with a similar shape to create the indentations. I found a file one of my peers was using for her bone-stamp carving that was similar enough, although the Anglo-Saxons probably did not use a steel file for this bowl. Upon further research, I found that it had a technique applied to it called rustication, and the indentations, which are spaced apart, were made with single impressions of the forefinger, the depression caused by the finger-tip. However, I made the mistake of letting the bowl dry for too long, and by the time I came back for indentations, the clay was too hard for me to modify. I tried to recreate the look of the Type 5 rustication by using a chisel, but I couldn’t quite replicate the work.

Failed attempt at replicating the rustication

I instead did the impressions on a small, fresh piece of clay to at least get the feel for the technique.

Rustication on a piece of clay

My re-creation of the bowl was created with as many of the same techniques the Anglo-Saxons used as I had knowledge of. It is by no means a perfect reproduction; the base of the bowl is supposed to be a wide, flat bottom that curves up immediately, whereas my bowl has a clear, circular base with walls that go out then up. The indentations are not exactly how I would have liked them to turn out, either. It was difficult interpreting the written text explaining how the indentation was made; also, my fingers are not as large as the ceramicist who made the original bowl were. Due to time constraints, I could not double fire my bowl, although I don’t think this is too important to the authentic process. Firing is done in an electric kiln, something the Anglo-Saxons didn’t have in their arsenal. There was no evidence of firings done at West Stow, so it is more likely that they were instead done in large, bonfire-like conditions.

Old Anglo-Saxon pots are often described as crude and unrefined, which is something I and the rest of the class though initially when looking at Anglo-Saxon pottery. However, the model-making process has taught me that everything is harder to make than it looks, especially when considering that people in the past didn’t have the same tools and technology as we do in modern times. My first ever attempt at an Anglo-Saxon pot was a complete, massless disaster. The next two pieces I made (this included a pot and the bowl) were better, but it still was nowhere near the level of many of these Anglo-Saxon ceramic works. There were so many factors to consider: clay dryness, workspace temperature, the amount of clay used, checking wall thickness wasn’t thin enough to tear or thick enough to explode when fired, etc. It is easy to look down on “crudely-made” objects and attribute it to the lack of aestheticism, skill, and intelligence in a culture, but once one takes time to sit down and try to recreate the object, one will realize that perhaps they’re the ones who are lacking in aestheticism, skill, and intelligence.