Age-Old techniques of the goldsmith

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From The Canadian Rockhound, February 1980

By Kenneth Blakemore

When Michael Ayrton, the painter, and the goldsmith, John Donald, succeeded in reproducing the legendary golden honey-comb of Dedalus, they were asserting a truth about the past which was new to many people. Most of us are inclined, when we come face to face with one of those great examples of the art of the goldsmith, wrought in ancient times, to wonder how such things could possible have been accomplished by primitive smiths, using primitive tools and labouring in primitive workshops. Those who challenged Michael Ayrton’s statement in his biography of Dedalus, that a golden honeycomb ‘was a far less miraculous achievement to a metal worker than to an historian’, were guilty of just this sort of misapprehension. They were completely underestimating the inherited skills, resourcefulness and technological know-how, of the ancient craftsmen, in particular, the goldsmiths.

Ancient legends have been proved time and again by the discoveries of archaeology to have at least some factual basis. For instance, it is known that gold was recovered in early times from the rivers of central Asia on the greasy fleece of a sheep or a goat, and so the mythological gold spangled fleece which Jason and his Argonauts sought turns out to be a symbol of real wealth to be gained by conquest. Similarly Dedalus may not have been an insubstantial character from mythology, but an actual master craftsman in the employ of the Cretan King Minos. And some at least of the accomplishments attributed to him may also have been real enough. The ancient Egyptian goldsmiths had evolved the technique of lost wax castings long before the middle Minoan period. Crete and Egypt were in commercial contract because, among other resources no doubt, the wealthy Egyptians had developed a taste for Minoean pottery. Therefore a Minoan court goldsmith would have learnt that by enclosing a wax model in clay and then heating the invested model so that the wax ran, a hollow mould would be formed, into which gold might be poured. The ingenious Dedalus would readilyhave grasped that a honeycomb provided him with a ready-made wax model, and that he could have obtained satisfactory gold casting from it, as Messrs Ayrton and Donald were to demonstrate nearly 4000 years later.

photo of a honeycomb with hornets nearby

The legendary ingenuity with which Dedalus is credited was by no means unique. The golden splendours which are among the chief attractions of the museums of the world today suggest that skill and ingenuity were commonplace in the palace workshops which half a dozen civilizations supported. Of course, not all the craftsmanship of the past was impeccable. There were bad periods, and even at times when craftsmanship of a high order was being produced at the centre of a great empire, there were provincial botchers at work in the outposts. Much of the treasure of the Oxus consists of such provincial work, poor in conception and weak in execution, made at the same time as the Medean smiths were producing their glorious doe-eyed animal heads, and expatriate smiths from Egypt, working in the great new capital city of Persepolis, were raising sophisticated golden lotus cups to adorn the royal banqueting tables. The Oxus treasure includes a large number of plaques, miniature repousse reliefs illustrating fail life of the period, delineated with a blunt graver on gold sheet. One can produce the same effect with the wrong end of a water-colour brush on a sheet of tin foil, and these little plaques called for no more skill in goldsmithing and no more metallurgical know-how than the ancient Britons brought to the production of their lunulae, those simple golden collars shaped like a sickle moon. We associate such flat sheet work with the earliest attempts of various civilizations at various periods to fashion gold, yet the ability of a smith to product gold sheet at all implied the overcoming of a problem comparable in its significance to the invention of the wheel. Early man could not have realized that by hammering metal he changed its atomic lattice. All he would have known was that when he hammered a gold nugget, which he had found in alluvial gravel it became recalcitrant and inclined to fracture. Somehow, perhaps as early as 5000 BC, he stumbled, by accident or by trial and error, upon the fact that not with hammer along, but only with hammer and fire together could gold be worked. Having learnt how to restore to gold its unique malleability and ductility, by raising it to a cherry red heat on an annealing hearth in the darkest corner of his workshops, and then quenching it in water, the goldsmith had taken the first vital forward step in the conquest of his craft.

hammered gold death mask of egyptian king tutankhamen

Once the smith could hammer out sheet and wire from a golden ingot, the great barrier had been surmounted. Anything was now possible. The death mask of Tutankhamen, perhaps the finest example of goldsmithing to survive from ancient Egypt, and incedentially an outstanding example of portrate sculpture, was made from sheet gold. So too was that golden helmet which Leonard Woolley found at Ur, which is even more revered by craftsmen than by antiquarians and lovers of art. They represent, these two magnificent works, a great step forward artistically from those earliest of all at Abydos. But the men who made the mask and the helmet had only sophisticated the skills which the bead maker had possessed long before.

Already by 3000 BC the basic technology of goldsmithing had been evolved. Any additions which have been made to that technology since then have been relatively minor innovations.

These two great works of art, the mask of Tutankhamen and the Ur helmet, produced in two separate valley cultures, represent the ultimate in gold sheet work. No smith has subsequently surpassed them. Their making also involved the use of decorative techniques which are still in use to this day, and no craftsman alive today could use them more effectively.

gold helmet found at ur

The death mask of the 21-year-old king of the 18th dynasty was preserved because the tomb robbers who penetrated Tutankhamen’s tomb had been disturbed before they could pillage its treasures, as the treasures of virtually every other royal Egyptian tomb were pillaged in ancient times. The bust was discovered because of the persistence and thoroughness of one of the great pioneer archaeologists, Howard Carter, who refused to give up searching in the Valley of the Kings where his fellow archaeologists were convinced there was nothing left to find.

The sarcophagus of Tutankhamen turned out to consist of three coffins, one within another like those little sets of nesting wooden doll figures made in Russia. The inner one as of gold, and so heavy that it took four men to lift it, a fantastic piece of goldsmithing on the mammoth scale.  Inside this was the mummy, the face covered with the golden mask that you can now see in its glass case in the Cairo Museum. Dr. Denny who performed the autopsy on the mummy was, not surprisingly, impressed by this mask. “The effigy of Tutankhamen on the gold mask exhibits him”, he wrote, “as a gentle and sensitive young man/ Those who were privileged to see the actual face when finally exposed can bear testimony to the ability and the accuracy of the 18th dynasty artist who has so faithfully represented the features and left for all time, in imperishable metal, a beautiful portrait of the young king.”

It is possible only to guess at exactly how this regal bust was made. The tools and equipment that its creator used have disappeared long ago. A mural from a tomb at Sakkara hints, however, at the complex organization and technological sophistication of a royal goldsmith’s workshop in Egypt as early as the third millennium BC. The gold to be weighed as it would be in a modern workshop, and in a work master or royal scribe is standing by to check it. A group of men blow through blow-pipes into what is certainly a chaff furnace, a furnace used perhaps to smelt out the base metals, or perhaps for annealing. Most of the representations of the workmen are symbolic rather than factual, but one scene is clearly intended to show hammer men at work, while another depicts chasers. Such a well organized workshop could, one feels, have tackled anything a king might require –a gold sheathed bed, like that which belonged to Queen Hetep-heres –a complex necklace or a golden coffin – and it would have been in such a workshop late in the 18th dynasty that the mask was made for the internment of the young king.

gold jug from the Oxus treasure with horizontal fluting detail that has been hammered in

A clue to the way in which the ancient smiths of Egypt might have set about producing this portrait bust comes from South America. In his book The Sweat of the Sun and the Tears of the Moon, Andre Emmerich reproduces a wooden former used by a Chimu smith to make one of the cups in the form of a human head. He suggests that first of all the smith cupped a circle of gold sheet in exactly the same way that a smith would do the job today, by hammering it in courses, working from the rim towards the centre, over a depression in a slide of tree trunk. The next stage of production would again have been identical to that employed by a modern smith. The Chimu smith would now have converted his golden saucer into a golden cup, hammering it over a raising stake held in a vice-hammering round and round, working this time from the centre towards the rim, squeezing the metal with skilful blows in the direction he wanted it to take as a potter squeezes the spinning clay with his thumbs. All this hammering would have had to be interspersed with annealing to restore the metal’s workability, and the whole job would have taken a day at least. Next Emmerich suggests that the smith would have forced it to accept the plains and curves of a human face. A skilful repousse chaser could have dispensed with the wooden former, and whether the man who reproduced the sensitive features of Tutankhamen used one is anybody’s guess, but it is a distinct possibility.

In the third millennium BC in the valley of Tigris and the Ruphrates a goldsmith who served the king of the city state of Ur had used comparable skills to make the helmet of Mes Kalam-dug. This helmet, which is now in the Baghdad museum, was raised from a single sheet of gold, a raising job which has never been bettered in the history of the craft. Equally remarkable is the quality of the chasing. The chaser was almost certainly even at so early a date, about 2700 BC, a specialist craftsman. The complex coiffure which he delineated on this helmet must have taken him hundreds of hours. Each line of the stylised hair was imprinted into the gold with deft blows from a hammer and punch, the punch pushing aside the gold surface a fraction of an inch at a time, gradually tracing an even furrow as a plough turns beck the earth as it traverses a field.

This helmet, superlative as it is, was not untypical, one would imagine, of the work produced at this time at Ur. One cannot believe that the skills of the men who made it were not employed time and again to dignify the royal house they served, or that they did not pass on these skills to apprentices. If nothing else in quite this class was found in the death pits, the cups and bowls that were buried with Queen Pu-abi, for instance, are well enough wrought to confirm that standards generally were very high in ancient Sumeria.

That no more has survived is not all that surprising. Gold itself may be impervious to decay, but golden treasures have proved the most transitory of all art. Down the centuries gold has represented wealth in its most easily realizable form, and treasuries, temples and tombs have been systematically pillaged of their golden contents. As a result, what we have left of ancient goldsmithing is only a tantalizing fraction of what once must have existed, and one suspects that what is left is poor stuff compared to what went into the melting pots to be converted into bullion to pay an army or purchase transitory pleasures. What would one not give for a chance to study the skills of those smiths who produced the golden vessels for the temple of Jerusalem, which Nebuchadnezzar took from them and which Belshazzar had brought from his treasury, so ‘his princes, his wives and his concubines, might drink therein...’ on the eve of the conquest of Babylon by the insurgent Persians.; What would one give for the change to see how the fifth century B.C. Phedias solved the problems of producing the golden clothing for his two great statues. For his Athena was only 10 ½  metres high and her golden robes and adornments weighed, it is reported, no less than 455 kilograms. His Zeus, was on a similar scale, we gather, and sat on a golden throne, wrapped in a golden robe with golden sandals on his feet. Of such legendary achievements we at least have some account, but of so many other treasures which must have graced the palaces and temples of the ancient world not even the memory has been left behind. But even what has survived dispels on inspection any illusions we might cling to about the limitations of those who smithed in gold 5000, 4000 or 3000 years ago.

ceremonial cape made of gold from wales draped on a bust

The achievements of the goldsmiths working on the large scale are more dramatic, but not necessarily more remarkable than the subtle miniatures that the ancient jewellers concocted out of gold. A 12th dynasty pectoral of Senwosret III, which J. De Morgan unearthed in 1894, represents for example a considerable technical achievement as well as being a jewel of great beauty. The jeweller who devised it cut out painstakingly from the gold sheet with hammer and chisel the forms of the strange falcon-faced creatures that symbolized the king, and the figures of his conquered enemies the Nubians and Libyans. He worked his way round the pinions of the protective vulture goddess Nekhabet and the fronds of the swaying lotus blooms. Then on this pierced pattern he erected a web of golden galleries, made by soldering on lengths of gold strip. The cloisons so formed were then set with the carefully cut little tesserae of lapis lazuli, turquoise and cornelian.

The Greek jewellers were famed for their skills throughout the ancient world. What seems in retrospect to have been their greatest achievement was their virtuosity with filigree. It is again hard to accept that making and layering wire so fine in patterns of such complexity was not much more miraculous in that disadvantage than it would be in our times. Today to produce such wire we would begin by passing a gold bar back and forth between grooved rollers to produce a long rod. The resulting rod we would then draw through die after die, each die smaller than the last, the smallest set with diamond eyes, until we reduced the wire to the required diameter. The Greeks could have achieved the same result, though more laboriously, by hammering gold rod into grooves in a bench. They would then have drawn their rod as we do, setting agate rings perhaps in their bronze or iron draw plates for the final passes of the wire. They may well even have winched the wire through the plate by employing that same creaking device, the long draw bench with its spoked wheel, which can still be seen in the workshops today, looking like a survival from the torture chambers of the Tudors.

As to the layering of the wire and the fixing of it, this was probably achieved by patience and hard colloidal soldering. Even a grasp of such complexities of metallurgy as are implied by hard soldering pre-date out technological age by thousands of years.

Some things the ancients could do even better than we can. It used to be said that no one had ever solved the riddle of the granular technique of the Etruscans. This was not true, of course. Granular decoration had been used by many jewellers working at many different periods. There was even a short lived revival lead by the Castellanis in the last century. The granules were almost certainly formed by melting gold in a pot of charcoal (not as has been also suggested by dripping molten gold on to a marble slab) and to adhere them to a gold surface is by no means an insoluble problem, but one which most students of goldsmithing learn to solve at art school. What the Etruscans did was to master the technique and achieve a delicacy that has never been approached since. They could lay as many as 180 granules to the liner inch, and the silken sheen which this mass of grains, some no more than 1/100th of an inch in diameter, imparted to a gold surface is what gives, for example, a little Etruscan cup, now in the Jewel Room at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, its unique charm.

It is, however, not always the most complex designs which present the craftsman with the biggest problems. Perhaps only another craftsman could fully appreciate what was involved in the making of those, at first glance, simple Ipswich torcs in the British Museum, and I was fortunate enough recently to be given a copy of an analysis of these torcs compiled by a practicing silversmith with a very considerable knowledge of ancient metal working. To Reginald Hill, who made an exhaustive examination of the torcs with the intriguing thing was to see how the iron age jewellers solved the problem with which they were faced. Even Reginald Hill, who has studied a great deal of ancient goldsmithing, was surprised by the sophisticated solutions these Iron Age workers arrived at in translating a design into gold. For it must be remembered here that these jewellers were not working within the complex traditions of an advanced civilization like that of Ancient Egypt, but in England at a period between 75 BC and 25 BC, when life was pretty rude and rural.

The seven torcs were found on a building site in the course of some excavation work a few years ago. They are penanular neck ornaments, of a type popular in Northern Europe during the first century BC, but probably derived from the penanular bracelets and necklaces of the Medes. The Ipswich examples consist of open hoops made of twisted rods and fitted with horse collar terminals, some of which are plain and some decorated. When Reginald Hill inspected these torcs four questions seemed to him to demand answers. How were the horse collar terminals made? How were the fluted rods produced? How were they twisted? How were the terminals attached to the rods?

gold helmet from the fifth century B.C.

He is virtually certain that the terminals, which are hollow, were lost wax cast, like Dedalus’ honeycomb, and that a core was supported inside the mould by pushing gold wires through the wax model. He believes the rods, which he is convinced are of gold tube supported by a copper core, were drawn. The interesting fluting along them was, he thinks, scoured into the metal by a key protruding from the face of the drawing die. By turning the rod each face in turn would have received a similar flute. The final twisting of the rods one round the other, was probably done by inserting them in a vice and applying pressure, but even this straight-forward operation would have called for considerable finesse. Finally he believes the terminals may have been cast on, again a technique calling for considerable knowledge and experience.

This brief summary of a lengthy technical document makes it all sound rather too easy, but to read the whole document is to obtain a new insight into the past. Just as easy archaeological dig increase increases our respect for our forbears’ material achievements, so this sort of minute investigation of their achievements reveals both the breadth of their knowledge and their resourcefulness.

One could go on endlessly citing the achievements as those Bronze Age helmets recently discovered in Rumania, or the Minoan bull hinting cups found at Vaphio in Southern Greece. One could illustrate how the skills of the goldsmith were not restricted to one area by describing the skill of the Mixtecs who produced that haunting mask of the patron god of the craft Xipe-Totec the face covered with a flayed human skin drawn tight across the features, or of the Nordic craftsman who produced that extraordinary gold collar, now in the National Museum of Antiquities in Stockholm by turning up gold tubes on a lathe and decorating them with a riot of filigree. Indeed the more one looks at ancient goldsmithing the more likely one is to be driven to the conclusion that all we in modern times have brought that is new to the craft of goldsmithing and to the jewellers’ art are the dubious benefits of mass production. But even the mass production of gold wares has been shown not to be the prerogative of modern times. The most famous examples of mass produced fold ornaments are the relief beads which were made by the Mycenaean’s by hammering gold sheet over bronze dies. These beads were obviously produced in large numbers during that period of artistic sterility after the mysterious destruction of Knossos. And there is enough evidence to show that mass-production by the Mycenaean’s was by no means a unique occurrence. Dies have been unearthed in Egypt and in Sumeria, as well as in Greece, while the laborious carving out of open stone casting moulds by the early Indian gold workers of Peru certainly implies that the designs were intended to be cast a number of times.

It seems to me that perhaps the point has been adequately made that ‘there is no new thing under the sun’ in the craft of goldsmithing, as in everything else. There is almost nothing we can do with gold that the smiths of Ancient Egypt, of Sumeria, of Babylon, of Persepolis, or of Ancient Athens could not have done. And there are things which they did which the goldsmiths of today are unlikely to do because they do not receive the sort of royal patronage which makes it possible for a craftsman to be completely prodigal both of time and material.

There is, however, one technique which has been developed since ancient times and that is electroforming. This technique was evolved following the invention, early in the 19th century, of a method of plating by electro-deposition. Electroforming is carried out in a plating bath, a relatively thick layer of metal being deposited on a model made of a stable non-metallic substance, such as epoxy resin. The technique has been used by museums since the latter part of the last century to produce reproductions of metal wares, interesting examples being the reproduction of the helmet found at Ur which is on show in the British Museum in London and the reproduction of the collection of nomadic goldsmithing from the State Hermitage at Leningrad which can be seen at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Such reproductions, usually of base metal, are invaluable to scholars who cannot see the originals, as electroforming faithfully records every detail of the original. Recently electroforming has also been used creatively and the outstanding example of a modern goldware design to be made of this technique was the crown which Louis Osman produced for the investiture of Charles, Prince of Wales. Hand forging in the traditional way would probably have resulted in the crown being about twice as heavy as it is.