Understanding processes.

I grew up in a household with not much money. This inevitably resulted in a lot of making, repurposing and repairing. We barely ever employed people to fix things and instead my dad repaired cars and rooves, painted rooms and windows and fixed electrical things. My mum baked, cooked, bottled and darned and created worlds on paper with words: an activist and freelance journalist. Rarely were things wasted and almost anything could be turned into something else. My dad was also an incredible woodworker who made everything from guitars to console tables from scraps of old and scavenged wood. I didn’t think about it at the time, but increasingly it has dawned on me that I grew up in a creative house. 

And in amongst all this, I absorbed – sponge like – how to do, and how not to do, certain things. It made me independent and practical and it taught me a set of what often feel like ‘common sense’ rules as to how things work and the processes behind them, but which were actually the result of accrued knowledge throughout my childhood.

And so, when it came to research, these rules seemed obvious, as they were in all other areas of my life. And I absorbed the learning of others too: Roland and his replica making, the Torc Collective and their goldsmithing experience. But yes, it all made sense because, although a lot was new to me, it fitted my understanding of how you go about making and mending. The processes involved. But this time in gold. And this is where the torcs come in…it gave me an ability to see the process and the order of parts put together.

The Snettisham Great torc (Image © The Trustees of the British Museum)

The Snettisham Great torc, even in its glass case in the British Museum, clearly told us things, the signs of its making process: it was dented, it was hammered in places that would be tricky to hammer, it had cracks caused by overworking. But the Sedgeford torc was different: more solid, heavier cracks, little hammering. In the first case, all the tell tale signs of gold sheet work, in the second, of casting. The processes were logical and left tell tale signs.

But then there are other physical signs which suggest one thing, and that an understanding of gold working process can show are entirely another. If you work in gold research you soon get to see certain things given as markers of one process or another: in the case of casting, dendrites (little fern like formations caused by the trapping of gases or impurities) are a standard means of identifying a cast object. And yes, dendrites are evidence of casting, and in large quantities along with other casting evidence, do suggest an item was cast. But we have seen an archaeological identification of casting being given on the basis of a single, tiny, dendritic structure which is patently, and provably, an incorrect identification. And an understanding of the goldsmithing process shows why.

If you find just one, or only a couple, of dendritic structures, on an artefact with multiple other evidence of sheet working, then an understanding of process is essential. So how could dendrites be found in sheet gold? Well the answer to that, obvious to goldworkers and yet not to archaeologists, is that sheet gold does not suddenly materialise as sheet gold. It is created. And the first stage of that creation process is as an ingot. A cast ingot.

Cast ingots sometimes have faults, for example, tiny dendritic structures. These tiny little holes are often removed from the surface of ingots, or beaten out during the hammering process. But sometimes they survive, hidden deep in the gold, and ready to emerge only in the final creation: as one goldsmith said to us : ‘I bloody hate it when that happens. You’ve got two choices, burnish the thing out or hope no-one notices’.

One of these tiny little features can be seen on one torc in particular. The Snettisham Great torc. But its presence does not change the fact that this torc is clearly, classically, a sheet made torc. The evidence of sheet working process is mighty: thin-walled sheets seen in x-ray, dents, hollow relief, hammering in areas that could have only been reached prior to compiling, multiple component sheet joins, sheet edge cracking etc, etc…..and one teeny dendritic structure does not change that.

The one thing it does do is make you feel for the torc maker who got so far with such a perfect creation, only to have it turn on them at this critical stage: clearly an attempt at burnishing it out and hoping no-one noticed was the only solution.

I wonder if anyone ever did!




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