For my object reconstruction project, I focused on re-creating a pair of Anglo-Saxon wrist clasps, which were found in grave 28 at the Little Eriswell cemetery in Suffolk.
Wrist clasps were a fairly ubiquitous item in the kingdom of East Anglia and showed up in many of their inhumation cemeteries. They are often made of bronze, are rectangular, and have a hook and hole closure system that allowed them to be linked together. They would have been used to hold together the sleeves of a woman’s dress in a manner similar to that of modern cufflinks.
The clasps found in grave 28 were fairly nondescript compared to the the more embellished ones cast in silver or covered in intricate patterns found elsewhere, but when considered alongside the other items in the grave (such as a waist bag and girdle hangers) on can infer that the woman in the grave was of high status, or had relatives who wanted her to appear that way in death.
The metalworking needed to produce the clasps would have been accomplished by a trained craftsperson, who could have used one of two casting methods. The first would involve carving a mold out of clay block and then pouring the molten metal in. The second, known as lost wax casting, would involve making a wax blank of the clasps, forming a mold around it, melting out the wax while firing the clay mold, and then casting the piece. Irregardless of the methods used, the time, materials and expertise needed to make them meant that even the most basic wrist clasps conferred an image of material wealth.
Through the process of trying to make models of the clasps I encountered what Tim Ingold, a scholar of material objects, refers to as “material resistance” or what might colloquially be referred to as problems. Photoscan is an interesting program because while it does create something, the user inputs are almost the direct antithesis of making by hand. Ingold describes making as the process of “a correspondence between mindful attention and lively materials” and in the case of Photoscan, there is very little material to work with. Throughout the process of modeling the clasps, I didn’t feel like I was taking part in the process of creating, but rather I was troubleshooting the creations of the computer when something odd happened. I didn’t sequence the photos, find matching points, or generate polygons (all steps in the generation of a 3D model), the computer did all those things, and I was left to scratch my head and consult YouTube tutorials to find out why the model looked more like an angry swarm of bees than a wrist clasp.
Another interesting aspect of Photoscan is how it takes away time as a variable in the practice of making. Where metal cools and pottery dries, all the data in my model sat in perfect stasis until I had figured out what the next step in the process was.
Despite the issues I encountered, the process of modeling the wrist clasps yielded valuable insights about material correspondence and the analogous similarities between making by hand and making digitally.
Zooming in and out from the model the same way one would step back from the table when making a pot made me feel more connected to what I was making and I was able to view it as an object rather that a cloud of points that the computer spat out for me. Masking out the putty in the source images to keep the gray color out of the final texture also has elements of metalworking mixed in. When a cast piece of metalwork was removed from a mold, it would likely have some remnants of the mold attached to it, such as clay dust or sand, and I saw the process of masking out the gray color to be the same as cleaning up a cast to finish the making process.
Similarly, the time spent waiting to see if the last input create a workable model or a formless blob was similar to the process of waiting for the metal within a mold to cool. Every time I launched a new step, I felt similarly to how a metalsmith may have as they waited to see if their cast turned out correctly.
Even in the failures of the model, I saw mirror images of how physical making could have failed, further interlocking the physical and the digital as I worked through the modeling process. After creating blobs that followed the general contours of the wrist clasps, I was a little disheartened. But after a while, I noticed how the way that one end of a clasp looked like a description Kevin Leahy, a modern craftsperson, provided when explaning the danger of metal cooling and solidifying before it reached the bottom of the casting mold.The incomplete end of my model looked as if the same problem had occurred in the casting of my clasp.
While I was examining the class, I noticed one had extra texture that wasn’t on the clasps themselves. I understood that it existed because I hadn’t cut all of dark background points away from the clasps, but it also looked like what would happen if a ceramic mold cracked and metal had pooled outside of the shape the clasp was supposed to be in.
The idea that two completely different methods of creation could result in the same visual effect, even across hundreds of years, really shifted my opinion on digital model making.
In the end the result were not perfect, or frankly even that good, but through the process of making the clasps I learned more about the way Anglo-Saxon metalworkers may have felt and got a better sense of the benefits and limitations of making digitally compared to physically.
The finished models: a valiant effort, but not quite the genuine article.
Hutchinson, Patricia. “The Anglo-Saxon Cemetery at Little Eriswell, Suffolk,” Proceedings of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society 59 (1966): 1–32.
Ingold, Tim. Making: Anthropology, Archaeology, Art and Architecture. London:Routledge, 2013.
Leahy, Kevin. “Anglo-Saxon Crafts.” Gloucestershire: The History Press, 2010.
Owen-Crocker, Gale R. “Dress and Identity.” In The Oxford Handbook of Anglo Saxon Archaeology, edited by Helena Hamerow, David A. Hinton, and Sally Crawford. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.