Pictured: Re-enactor wearing a Vendel helm.
It’s been mentioned on a number of blogs, (e.g. A Corner of Tenth century Europe), much has been written about it in the news , the exhibition has been visited by thousands in the past weeks and it’s been commented on by expert and lay-person alike.
The quality of the craftsmanship is so intricate, neat and precise. Some of the work is exceedingly small and delicate, and one wonders how it was created, and by whom – Athelstan the Myopic? The zoomorphic ornament of intertwining lacertines is sixth to seventh century Salin’s style II, from the so-calledDark Ages!
Much has been said and speculated and once the hoard is properly cleaned, conserved and analysed, more information should come to light, but I’d like to dash off a few notes here regarding some of the materials and some of the techniques available to the craftsmen of this time. This is in haste -I’ll probably add snippets to this post as I think of them.
Dr Niamh Whitfield has done quite a study of filigree, particularly of the Irish examples.
The craftsmen were aware of methods of soldering very fine wire and granules without leaving traces of ‘flooding’. There is a method, which dates back to 2000 BC, using a copper compound, blobs of low-melting point, gold-copper solder, where the copper diffuses completely, when heated in a charcoal fire, so as to leave no trace.
Some techniques are described by *Theophilus’, eleventh/twelfth-century, On Divers Arts, the earliest documentation of craftsmen’s methods.
There are many techniques involved in the process of filigree and, the closely related, gold grain or granulation work.
Soft wires and threads of gold can be drawn to the desired thickness, or hammered and rolled. Beaded wire, imitating the effect of rows of beads, was formed out of plain wire, probably hand rolled between corrugated dies or beading files. When hammered flat, beaded wire formed scalloped ribbons. S- and z-twist wired laid alternately can produce a herringbone pattern of a pseudoplait.
Twisted flat ribbons, made by twisting flat taut strips of gold, are considered to denote a Merovingian influence, other techniques from Scandinavia are typical of late 6th – 7th century.
So much gold! Some gold was probably mined in Britain in the Anglo-Saxon period, but most likely in small quantities, so it would need to be augmented by imports and re-use of the metal. Gold was used more for jewellery in the late 6th to early 7th centuries, increasingly being replaced by silver by the end of the 8th century.
There has been some analysis of gold from Anglo-Saxon jewellery which has shown a relationship to the composition and degeneration of Merovingian gold coins, suggesting that the coins could have been a source of some gold objects.
The source of the garnets used could be from as far away as Sri Lanka, and the supply, wherever it was from, would have relied on trade routes. Arrhenius covers the minutiae concerning garnets, definitions, chemical composition and mineralogical analysis etc. in the first chapter of Merovingian Garnet Jewellery, for those desperate to know more.
Tiny flat garnets were cut to shape and set in a mass of cloisonné cells, each with a waffle-patterned, stamped, gold-foil backing to enhance the brilliance.
There are a variety of cell forms, each requiring a garnet cut and shaped to fit it, such as mushroom– and step-patterns, all fitting to each other.
Brown, P. D. C. and Schweizer, F., 1973, ‘X-Ray Fluorescent Analysis of Anglo-Saxon Jewellery’, Archaeometry, 15,2 :175-92.
East, K.,1985, ‘A study of the cross-hatched gold foils from Sutton Hoo’, in Hawkes, J.C., Campbell, J., & Brown, D., (eds), Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History 4 : 129-142
*Hawthorne, J.G. and C.S. Smith, C.S., 1963, Theophilus: On Divers Arts. University of Chicago Press, reprinted New York: Dover Publications 1979
Kent, J. P. C., 1972 ‘Gold standards of the Merovingian coinage A.D. 580-700’, in E. T. Hall and D. M. Metcalf
(eds.), Methods of Chemical and Metallurgical Investigation of Ancient Coinage, Royal Numismatic Society Special
Middleton, A. et al, 2004, ‘Treasure!’, Geology Today, Vol. 20 (5) : 185-88
Tamla, Ü & Varkki, H., 2009, ‘Learning the technologies of making beaded wire’, Estonian Journal of Archaeology, 13 (1) : 36-52
A few pieces from the hoard were on display at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery until today – lovely Edwardian Tea Rooms!