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2 October 2012

Wire Making in the Staffordshire Hoard

Jamie Hall, Jeweller

Jamie Hall, Jeweller

As a jeweller, I was very excited by the discovery of the Staffordshire Hoard – alongside my contemporary work, I have a fascination for the history of the jewellery industry, and the early middle ages in particular. I wrote to the the conservation team, asking for permission to examine the Hoard, and contribute to the research effort, and I’ve very kindly been given access to this incredible collection of items.

One of the most exciting things about the Staffordshire Hoard is how elaborate the items are, often encrusted with garnet decoration and minute filigree patterns. This complex effect is achieved by combining much simpler components – polished slabs of garnet, embossed foils, cast sections, and decorative wires, and it’s the latter that interests me most of all (see image 1).

Image 1. K1034 a gold plate decorated with beaded and herring-bone wire

Image 1. K1034 is a gold plate decorated with beaded and herring-bone wire.

In the modern day, we’re used to wire being easily available – even in gold, it can be bought by the metre, and can be relied on to be perfectly smooth and round. It’s made using a “draw plate” (image 2). Using this method, wire is pulled through smaller and smaller holes, shaping it into thinner and thinner wire, until the desired size is reached. These plates were almost ubiquitous from 1000AD, and while it’s possible that the earlier Anglo-Saxon goldsmith had access to them, they would have been a very rare and expensive tool* (a modern plate will take the wire down in steps of 1/20th of a millimetre, so you can imagine how hard it is to make them without modern equipment!).

Image 2. Draw plates

Image 2. Draw plates

So, instead of “drawn wire”, as it’s called, what we often see in the Hoard are various strategies for making round wire. The end results are visually pleasing, and it’s only when you see the objects under magnification that you start to notice the tell-tale signs of these alternative methods.

The aim of my work is to develop an understanding of the different features and tool marks that are caused by processes like block-twisting – not just from the process itself, but also from later work, like twisting or beading the wire to produce decorative patterns. What starts out as a clear spiralling seam can quickly change when these things are done to it, and it’s only under high magnification that you notice them.

Below I explain about the different types of wire and show you an example image

Block twisted

The most common is called block-twisting, which starts off with a sheet of hammered metal. The sheet is cut into very thin strips, and those strips are then twisted along their length, and rolled between two blocks to compact them (image 3). This might sound simple enough, but when some of the wires made this way are as small as 0.1mm, it’s clear that this is the work of highly skilled artisans!

Image 3. Block Twisted wire

Image 3. Block Twisting

Beaded wire

The images show two types of wire decoration. Images 4 and 5 are pieces of beaded wire. The beading in image 4 was probably done with a tool called a rolling swage – I’ve made a replica swage which was used to make the copper sample in image 5.

Image 4. K1282 bead wire x20

Image 4. K1282 bead wire x20

 

Image 5. Beaded copper wire x100

Image 5. Beaded copper wire x100

Herringbone

The herringbone pattern is formed by twisting pairs of wires and laying them next to each other. Image 6 is a pristine example from the Hoard, showing a long seam which suggests that block-twisted wire was used.

Image 6. K561 x 75

Image 6. K561 x 75

Image 7 is an example which has been ground down, presumably by wear and tear – in the magnified image (8), you can see the pits in the wire which indicate that it’s block-twisted wire, rather than a properly solid drawn wire.

Image 7. K1323 herringbone and beading x20

Image 7. K1323 herringbone and beading x20

Image 8. K1323 herringbone and beading x100

Image 8. K1323 herringbone and beading x100

There is still a great deal to learn about the Staffordshire Hoard – it’s such a large find, and it will take the combined effort of many different people and organisations. My hope is that, through practical experimentation, I can shed some light on this incredible archaeological find.

Jamie Hall

Jamie has demonstrated wire making techniques at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery during Hoard Open Days: if you would like to see him in action and understand more about wire making, check the Events section for the date of our next open day (due in Autumn 2012).

 * Further information about the introduction of wire drawing can be found in Niamh Whitfield’s “Round Wire in the Early Middle Ages”, Jewellery Studies Volume 4 (1990), pp13-27

I am curious about the Rolling Swage mentioned, and would love to see it in enough detail to make one of my own.

Hi Chris, I’ll try and do that for the future articles – the problem is that the swage is very small, and hard to photograph. It’s worth looking up Dave Roper and Dennis Riley. My swages are based on their methods.

I will be casting and drawing down some 18ct to .5mm round wire for a hand made chain I am working on today and so I enjoyed your blog. Its amazing that skilled smiths that can work to the standards seen in the hoard had not come up with a drawplate but then they didn’t have the machines we take for granted. I have used the blocktwist technique to twist different coloured golds together to get coloured effect. Thank you for you post.
Steve

I visited the collection in the summer with a friend who was a clock repairer and we discussed how on earth the Saxon jewelers could see what they were doing. I thought laterally about this and wondered about the big differences in life in Saxon times and present day. They were much more in touch with nature and presumably far less squeamish about dealing with dead animals and I wondered whether the craftsmen then used the eyes of birds and/or animals to get the degree of magnification necessary. Zoologists have shown that birds eyes have high levels of magnification so that they can see prey from a great distance. This may be a stupid suggestion, but there again it may not!! Here’s hoping that it will be useful.

really interested to see your analysis of the wire techniques in the hoard. Good to see that detail exists to show how the wire was made.

Went to see the pieces in Birmingham today and was stunned by the scale of the detail. I think they must have had some form of magnification to achieve this…. the animal eye idea is intriguing… any experimenters out there with access to humane eye resources 😉

As to a draw plate, I think we get a little hung up on how accurate each hole needs to be, grading in mm etc. Surely they were not so concerned with producing a wire of xmm diameter, as being able to reproduce the same diameter over and over. So creating a drawplate that has holes of differences sufficiently small to allow the draw (what is the largest stepp between draw diameters possible in different metals, I wonder?) down to a useable size should be possible

Were these twisted wires of a short length or were any substantial wire wraps found. I’m curious to know about the difference in the making of twisted gold wire in lengths produced by the Anglo Saxons because of the inherent weakness of the gold itself and the uniformity of the twist when rolled. A gold wire binding (though probably copper gilt) found on the hilt of the funerary sword of Edward the Black Prince’s effigy in Canterbury Cathedral would have amounted to some 20 meters of wire to manufacture 10 meters of twist. I guess that the use of a draw-plate would have been common in the 14th century and the method of twisting would have been more mechanical.

Phil,

Niamh Whitfield is the person to look up on the subject of drawplates, but I think it’s safe to say that drawplates became common after 1000AD, and there are drawings in the Mendel Hausbuch showing wire being drawn, then and gathered in coils, so it wouldn’t surprise me if very long lengths were manufactured in the 14th century.

It’s also fairly safe to say that archaic methods wouldn’t have yielded that kind of length!