August brings out some of the best artisans in the state, and I always look forward to milling among the vendors’ stalls at local craft fairs and art shows. If money were no object, I’d need a bigger house to display all the beautiful things I’d take home. But I usually limit myself to a small piece in silver or glasswork, not unlike the nobles of ancient Ireland. Lughnasadh (early August) was the time for regional or tribal gatherings known as óenacha. They offered the best opportunity for craftsmen to barter for their wares. But probably most of what was on display at their early fairs were things of a more practical nature. The really fine objects were likely all commissioned by king or church.
The golden age of Irish metal craftsmanship occurred in the late seventh century to the mid ninth century AD. It’s during this period that the Tara Brooch and the Ardagh Chalice were made. Other fine examples include the Londesborough Brooch and the Derrynaflan Chalice. In the sixth and seventh centuries, metalwork was confined to bronze. A few artifacts may have been made of repurposed Roman silver. Tin was sometimes added to the alloy in greater quantities to give the appearance of silver. Although there were silver deposits in Ireland, they don’t appear to have been exploited until the thirteenth century. Tin was available too but also tended to be imported at this time. What was exploited in Ireland during this period was copper and iron. It wasn’t until the Vikings established their trade routes in the ninth century that silver and gold from the Orient became more available.
The techniques Irish craftsmen used to create these examples included die-stamping, gilding, and casting – either using two-piece clay molds for smaller objects or the lost wax method for more complicated work. Both the Tara Brooch and the stem of the Ardagh Chalice feature cast ornamentation. “Die-stamping was used to create copies of patterns. Thin sheets of silver, gold or copper were stamped in dies that had the pattern cast or engraved in reverse within….The gold foils on the side of the Derrynaflan Paten are so evenly struck throughout their length that a mechanical press may have been used to produce them….Silver and copper were sometimes combined in interesting ways. On both the Ardagh Chalice and the Derrynaflan Paten a knitted wire mesh of both metals is employed” (Ryan, 1993, pp. 8-9).
Gold filigree comprised of soldered wires is also a feature on the Tara Brooch and the Ardagh Chalice. The stud at the bottom of the escutcheon plate of a handle of the Ardagh Chalice is comprised of gold granules. “In granulation, small spherical beads of gold were created in a number of ways, for example by heating pieces of gold on a bed of charcoal by means of a blow-pipe carrying hot gases from a furnace, so that they melted and danced like water droplets on a hot stone” (Ryan, 1993, p. 11).
One other thing Ryan points out that I find interesting is that some objects have letters used as assembly codes on them – something similar to our modern Insert A into slot B — implying that some smiths were literate and were either clerics or craftsmen attached to monasteries.
At least back then the instructions weren’t written in Chinese. 🙂
Ryan, M. (1993). Metal craftsmanship in early Ireland. Dublin: Country House.