The 3D printing table was a little different than other tables. Our recreations could be moved, touched, etc. but we did not have hands-on activities apart from object handling. We featured a few items at the table, including the metal spearhead modeled by Henry, the bone comb modeled by McClain, funerary urns modeled by Austin, and a portion of the Sheffield Cross Shaft modeled by Mary Chester-Kadwell, working for the British Museum.
This class focused very closely on material engagement as a way of understanding the culture and people of the past. Individually, we each chose a specific artifact to reconstruct either physically or digitally with the intent that focusing closely on a specific object and performing the steps of making a model would teach us about the process that the original makers of the objects would have experienced. I chose the 6th-century bronze girdle-hangers from the Eriswell cemetery in Suffolk for my reconstruction project. Through the process of researching and recreating the artifact, I learned not only details about how it was originally made but also how it served a wider culture of displaying one’s status and identity on their body in a visible manner.
Beginning in the 5th-century, Anglo-Saxons buried their women with accessories and ornamentation to indicate who they were while alive. The growing inequality between the rich graves and poor graves throughout the 6th-century indicated changing power dynamics in society as individual families grew more powerful and wealthier than others. Styles of dress became an important vehicle through which to display one’s status, and regional styles of dress began to develop across Early Medieval England. A shared elite style of dress began to spread as well as contact between the powerful Anglo-Saxon families increased. Girdle-hangers were a part of this growing shared elite culture.
Girdle-hangers were a symbol of status that powerful women would have worn. The distinctive shape of these specific girdle-hangers was meant to resemble that of keys, signifying that the woman who wore them was the keeper of her household. These objects were discovered across England, from Little Eriswell on the eastern side to Cowdery’s Down in the west. It becomes evident through burial archaeology that the women, many of whom wore brooches and other jewelry in death, likely served as walking cultural symbols. Their regional-style dress made it instantly recognizable where they came from, and their level of finery indicated their place within society.
My reconstruction of the Eriswell girdle-hangers led me on an adventure in which I encountered many of the problems, complications, and limitations that the makers of the original girdle-hangers would have faced. When I began my reconstruction, I had planned to make a digital model with Agisoft Photoscan, but the program was unfortunately unable to orient the photos of the artifacts correctly. Lacking the technological prowess to fix this problem, I decided to make a physical model. Lacking the knowledge and ability to cast things out of bronze, I decided to make my models out of wood. Already I encountered some common problems with which any maker must contend: the limitations of my own set of skills and availability of my materials. These limitations would shape the form that my finished girdle-hangers would take.
During my initial design process, I attempted to sketch out the exact dimensions of the girdle-hangers when I realized how little this would have mattered to the original makers. Exact measurements did not matter when it came to these objects. What really mattered was their distinctive key shape, since they had no actual functional purpose at all beyond sending a visible message. The designs I had made turned into a rough guide for the creation process, but by no means were they a step-by-step manual. I knew that when I began the process of making the models, I would need to mostly just think on my feet and, as before, allow my particular skill set and the materials available drive the project, which they did indeed. While making the models, I found myself constantly running into problems and reacting to them, adapting always to what my materials and tools would allow me to do.
One of the best insights I gained when making the girdle-hangers was the fact that each key must have been made either from two different pieces or had a transition cast in the metal. Halfway down the shaft of each key, they turn 90-degrees to fit onto the crossbar that holds the two keys together. This transition, either a twist or a seam, occurs on a part of the key that appears to be wrapped with bronze wire. It was my conclusion that the bronze wire served to hide the 90-degree transition from view. I came to this conclusion when attempting to recreate this part of the models; I chose the two-pieces approach, attaching an eye bolt 90-degrees to the broad side of the wooden key and wrapping them with string to strengthen the seam.
While my process and the end results of my project were not perfect – from the materials and tools used to the processes that I created in my mind – creating these girdle-hangers helped me engage with the objects made centuries ago and allowed me to step into the shoes of the original makers to experience the limitations and complications that they experienced.
Kevin Leahy, Anglo-Saxon Crafts (Stroud: The History Press, 2010).
Robin Fleming, Britain After Rome (New York: Penguin Group, 2011).
Gale R. Owen-Crocker, “Dress and Identity,” in The Oxford Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Archaeology, ed. David A. Hinton, Sally Crawford, Helena Hamerow (Oxford University Press, 2011).
Christopher Scull, “Social Transactions, Gift Exchange, and Power in the Archaeology of the Fifth to Seventh Centuries,” in Hinton, Oxford Handbook.
Patricia Hutchinson, The Anglo-Saxon Cemetery at Little Eriswell, Suffolk (Proceedings of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society, 1966).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I instead did the impressions on a small, fresh piece of clay to at least get the feel for the technique.
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.