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When I Entered Room 50 I Found Ancient Jewellery Magic and Spellbinding Craftsmanship

Room 50 at the British Museum is full of treasure. It’s where the European Iron Age Celtic treasure hordes are displayed and where you will make an extraordinary connection with the humans who lived so long ago.  There’s something about treasure, it has a real magic to it. You know what I mean, a really fascinating allure and it’s not just about all that gold and silver. Although our valuing of those precious metals over millennia does play a part.

It’s more about the objects themselves, the way they are made and imagining who might have worn them or made them. Jewellery can tell us so much about both makers and wearers from so many hundreds of years ago in a way that not many other objects can.

The precious materials particularly gold and sometimes silver survive almost perfectly. Bronze endures developing it’s characteristic green patina that offers the object some protection. But I know you are waiting to hear about the gold, the massive and spectacular gold torcs in Room 50 are awe-inspiring. Some so big as to be vulgar and ugly to modern eyes. Industrial cables of gold for enormous necks, stacked together with a chunky physicality that crosses centuries.

Enormous torcs at the British Museum
Enormous torcs at the British Museum

I mean, how big were these people? These massive gold torcs coupled with some bronze and enamel armbands that must be 25cm tall and weigh in kilos hint at truly huge biceps of the sort usually only seen in comics. That is unless they were made as offerings to the gods, perhaps they were never worn? Imagined as pieces fit for the gods to wear. Celtic people were well known for giving up their metalwork to the water, their best metal work too.

Gigantic bronze armlets
Gigantic bronze armlets

There are expressive, practical brooches. Fibulae are the oldest form of brooch, mostly bronze and used to hold clothes together before buttons and other fastenings were invented. Made from one piece of metal with a coiled safety pin like spring and bow top decoration fastening with a hook or loop at the other end. Often these had rings through the coil to attach chains to link them together.

Gold fibulae joined by a chain
Gold fibulae joined by a fine chain

The craftsmanship on these brooches and the gold work was complex and exquisite. Traces of burnt wood in the torcs showed that the layers of twisted wire had been formed on a flexible wooden stick and then burnt out once the shape complete.

Walking into Room 50 made me realise I want to make treasure, I love the visceral joy of working directly with precious metals and the freedom to sculpt them as people always have. It is not the gold that makes these pieces of jewellery precious (although it helps) it is the artistry of the makers and the curiosity about the lives of other people. Precious metals are a rare commodity and it is only the value we place on the skill of the maker that ensures a precious metal piece keeps its original form and is not melted down to make something else. One of the finest examples of the jeweller’s craft from any culture or time has to be the Snettisham Great Torc, an extraordinary piece of art that I feel priveleged to have seen.

The Snettisham Great Torc
The Snettisham Great Torc

I took inspiration from this visit to develop my Guitar Distortion Series of jewellery. I wanted to find out about the technical challenge of making fibulae. The pin end has to stay controlled and the decoration needs to be chaotic and cracked to reflect the sound of the electric guitar that inspired the jewellery.

From molten silver I make an ingot then hammer one end out into a pin, slowly drawing the metal down to a point. The spring is a coil in the centre and the bowed decoration a twisted and cracked sculpture down to the clasp. I love that these are one thought process and one piece of metal, it is enormously satisfying. I wonder will my craftsmanship be valued enough to hold its shape in the coming centuries?

Poppy Porter Guitar Distortion Brooch, silver fibulae photo: Thomas Lisle Brooker
Poppy Porter Guitar Distortion Brooch, silver fibulae photo: Thomas Lisle Brooker
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