Wire Making in the Staffordshire Hoard
October 2, 2012
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).
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!).
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
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!
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.
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 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.
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 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