by Maureen Dexter.
(Berkeley Springs, West Virginia USA)
Not long ago, I browsed images of the grave goods found at the Sutton Hoo burial site. I was particularly interested in the jewelry found at the site. I love ancient jewelry, not simply because it is old, but primarily because I am always astonished at the intricate pieces created by artisans who used tools, that, by today’s standards would barely be considered rudimentary.
As a rule, I work organically, allowing the metal to tell me what it wants to be. I don’t sketch designs, rather, I just look at what I’ve chosen to work with and an image will begin to form in my mind’s eye. This image flows through several iterations of itself before any piece is completed. For me, this approach to jewelry-making is magical, as I rarely know how a piece will finish itself.
Last week, I decided to get back to basics and to attempt to enter the mind of an ancient metalsmith. I chose to work in bronze and used no power tools, a contained fire instead of a torch, lots of hand files, and 12 grits of abrasive for buffing and polishing. This is a very simple bronze cuff bracelet, forged and given a beveled edge. There is nothing fancy about it. It’s barely a step above basic. Seven hours later, with two fingernails filed off, new callouses created on my fingers, and abraded knuckles on my left hand where one ill-placed stroke with a heavy crosscut file landed, and I had a finished bronze cuff.
This piece would have taken about an hour, or less, start to finish, using power tools. This exercise caused me to form an even deeper respect for the jewelry makers of the ancient world. I have seen thousand year old Celtic and Viking jewelry that incorporates chasing, engraving, intricate soldering, repousse, and stone settings that were all made without the tools and chemicals we have today, and these pieces have lasted a millennium.
The men (women rarely made jewelry) who made these pieces practiced the art form at its highest level. My small foray into ancient smithing left me with aching, shoulders, arms and wrists and my hands hurt for two days after. I’m getting ready to do it again, because I’ve received an order for two bronze cuffs, “just like that one!” that are both two inches wide instead of an inch and a quarter like this one. I’m in awe of ancient artisans. How on earth did they do it?