The Quest for Volume

Prehistoric goldworkers of any period exploited a variety of techniques to create torcs. There are a number of torcs which are in their rawest form just a torc – a generally round-section rod bent to make a neck ring and fitted out with the simplest of terminals. These range in type from the bar torcs of the Bronze Age, such as Talwrn Farm, Llanwrthwl to the Iron Age simple ‘trumpet’ terminal torcs from Leekfrith hoard and are an honest and uncomplicated solution to creating a torc.

However, at some stage it dawned on the creators of these items of jewellery that a degree of sleight of hand could – with the same volume of gold – yield a much bigger object that had far more drama instilled within it.

For the neck ring, this can be done by the expedient method of coiling (which better describes winding to my mind), hand beaten wires around something. It may well be a void now but clearly when the object was actually constructed, the wire or wires were wound around a mandrel.

This would help maintain the evenness of the individual coils especially when being wound up and increasingly so as the number of the wires in the individual coil grew – the South West Norfolk torc for instance has six wires coiled up in sequence to form each separate ‘spring (for that’s what they are).

Detail of the tinned copper wires at their cut end on the mandrel.
The coiled wires of one neck ring spring (Image © R. Williamson)

Whatever the mandrel was made from, it had to be slid out of the centre as it couldn’t remain inside the coiled spring. When I made my replica of the South West Norfolk torc, I wound a section about 3 inches long and then slid it out most of the way allowing me more room to coil again until I had the desired length of c.550mm. We have wondered whether a slender piece of wood or twig could be used in a similar fashion – perhaps it was left in situ and then roasted out before the spring was installed in a fully functioning torc.

However, I have never tried this as the winding force is quite vigorous, and I have to say that I fully expect that the coiling would break the twig (less than your average kebab stick in thickness) – as they are very small gaps of less than 5mm on the interior and could only ever be left inside the coiling. There is evidence from Snettisham that coiling around wooden mandrels did occur in some bronze torcs, however, we have thought that this practice might be associated with keeping the metal at the correct temperature for mercury gilding, although this is currently only a possibility.

The upshot of all the winding is both a fairly flexible spring, that also possesses some measure of tautness down its length, but more importantly for this article, the cable or spring has gained nearly double its girth! What it hasn’t added is extra weight.


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

In some torcs, for example in the Snettisham Great and Newark torcs, this clever strategy is further employed in the creation of the neck ring, by winding the individual coiled springs around another invisible core. In addition, the bending of the neck ring would also require a mandrel to be present, that was then probably withdrawn.

Now I freely admit here that without making a replica of this final neck ring, I cannot say with any certainty how this bending was done. Today, unless you use a plumbers’ pipe bender (you’ll have to look them up), any copper plumbing pipe length can still be bent with the use of a stiff spring inside the pipe to prevent the pipe collapsing during bending. The spring is then withdrawn leaving the pipe still tube like with no sign of collapse, as it would do if it were bent without it.

This then begs a question of how they bent the neck ring to shape and kept it pristine. My one personal experience was via the South West Norfolk torc, but that was twisted as a group of coils around themselves and completed before it was bent to form a true torc. It worked just fine, hand bending it to shape, by the way.

My gut feeling – before I ever get to use ¾ kg of gold to try it out for real – is that a hollow neck ring would require something to prevent the neck ring from collapsing on the interior arc of the bend. Equally, the outside of the bend needs to remain in formation. This can only achieved by the existence of a mandrel, which is plainly not there today, and wasn’t there at the point the torc was finally assembled with its terminals or during wear.

Perhaps it was a hoop of wood around which the individual cables were wound. Perhaps it was a cloth or thin leather tube which was packed with dry fine sand that acted as a supportive core to assist in the bending of the neck ring. This tube was then, post the bend, pierced and drained of the sand and the sleeve fished out or indeed possibly burnt free in a similar manner.

What we do know from the Newark Torc is that the complete and finished item has, even after 2000 years, a lot of free movement left in the structure of the neck ring and shows no apparent issues with cracking or ageing in any way – even via x-ray – not that we ought not to be careful with them!!

[As an aside, what we ought not to be surprised about are the bronze wire torcs – these will be very compromised due to the bronze ageing and denaturing in the soil over the millennia and will lose all their mobility – as they too must have been highly mobile or they would have never acted as torcs from the outset! I can see that a replica of one of these types deserves to be made and tested to prove the point.]

This combination and use of voids, especially when you then add the hollow sheet worked terminals, means that, for example, the Great torc if compared to the Ipswich torcs – although weight for weight equivalent – is so much bigger: a far bigger torc altogether.

Now this describes the circumstances for the torcs which most easily come to mind – the boldest and heaviest. But there is a large corpus of torcs from the Bronze and Iron Ages that are made from a single ribbon or strip of gold. They are unimaginatively called Ribbon Torcs.

Ribbon torcs, originally thought to be Middle Bronze Age, now appear (although it is by no means certain which fit into which categories) to have two periods of manufacture: one in the Middle Bronze Age and one later in the Iron age. Possible examples from the Bronze Age can be seen in the Welsh Heyope hoard and from the Iron Age at Law Farm and Blair Drummond, but there are many more from across the UK and Ireland.

The description though really falls into two main groups. The pure strip ribbon torc and (this is a bit of a mouthful), the anti-clastically raised ribbon torc. The strip torcs, thought to be Bronze Age, are no more than their description: a simply twisted ribbon of gold.  The Heyope ribbon torcs are typical of this type and to a degree, help to volumise (as the hair industry might vocalise it), what would otherwise be just a flat band. Both types of ribbon torc are then finished often with simple hooked tabs or interlocking buttons at either end.

The anti-clastic types, thought to be Iron Age, are to my mind, more inspired again by a wide margin. The one person to whom we must credit the understanding this type of torc is Brian Clarke. His work has shown the precise method of of manufacture.

The process starts with a strip of gold with slightly tapered ends. This thin strip was then worked extensively along its whole length by a method which encourages the metal to spiral physically, outwards and away from the natural centre, on its one edge, along the whole length – rather in the vein of an auger drill bit – for you woodworking types – or a true helix.

That one edge respects the centre line but is never truly part of it. The windings, for want of a better word, rotate and encompass the centre line and the whole region which is largely void. This utterly maximises the gold; which in many cases, for example at Law Farm, is the same weight (c.13g) as a single wire from the neck ring of the Great Torc! If these two items were laid side by side, what you will see is surely the epitome of questing for volume.

One is a well made and accomplished, a constant thickness wire of gold – but the other is on another level altogether. This is utterly subjective – a delicate, and unnaturally natural form that almost defies touch. It flairs outwards and is visually captivating in both its frailty and ability – the transverse hammer marks sat at 90 degrees to the strip to scatter the light from the thousands of facets.


One other one large group of gold twisted torcs also made from a single bar deserve mention. These are Bronze Age and deserve an additional entry even though we mainly address Iron Age forms.

They are made from a uniformly hammered bar of gold with slight tapering ends formed eventually into long trumpet terminals. The surprisingly long bar (sometimes as long as 1265mm in the case of the Ely torc) has then been fashioned into a cruciform section. The find from Grunty Fen is a classic example.

This is itself a demanding task for the gold worker. At present it is not fully understood how they were made even though there are many examples. And as a complicating factor, for many torcs it is uncertain if it is truly cruciform, or has three ‘blades’ and is more like the pasta or Triskele in section. But what we can see is a good deal of hammering to realise the final cruciform. The final act of the manufacture of such torcs (or as it was termed in one article – elaborate gold ornament…..made by twisting a composite bar of gold strips…), was to then twist the whole piece in the way that Fusilli pasta is made.

Whilst these are all beautifully done, I suppose I would give this fewer stars because it doesn’t ‘inflate’ the gold a great deal – rather like the plainly twisted ribbon torcs in that sense.

All of these methods of expansion though are, in effect, knocked into a cocked hat by the sheet work tubular torcs. Hardly a name that conveys the brilliance used to craft these gems. I would have personally called them ‘bendy Zeppelin torcs’ to give you hint at their size and their lightness. Balloon art rendered in gold…

A tubular torc from Snettisham (Image © The Trustees of the British Museum)

Complete, they weigh in at only c.110g (or the weight of a small lemon!) and yet are the same volume of the Great torc. There are only a handful known in the UK and Ireland – from Snettisham and Essendon in England – with the Irish Broighter torc being the finest example. Their method of construction is as yet not fully described with any accuracy which I suppose is both mystical and mythical at the same time – but artisans did indeed make these. They will have a lot more to give us when probed for answers.

To try and wax lyrical about them is a waste of print even in the digital age.
They are huge, thin, and uniquely intangible and – in their present form – weigh next to nothing, and yet make such a big statement with so little.

We have often derided the idea that these goldsmiths were seen as magical – and I’m sure that everyday people would have occasionally witnessed what they did – however unskilled onlookers, as today, would still have been no closer to being able to do it themselves and would have wondered at their skill. What those goldsmiths could do was truly miraculous. They took small amounts of gold and, for whatever reason, made it impossibly bigger.

And that is the magic of gold for you…

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