Well, that explains things…

I’ve been silent for a while, because I haven’t been in the workshop. There wasn’t any point. However, things are on their way to changing…

After about a year and a half of sore hands that had lost their dexterity, I started to feel like my hands were covered in cactus needles, too. I finally got my doctor to run tests, and my diagnosis was severe bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome. I’ve had the first surgery (my right hand), and so far, I am healing well. I see the surgeon tomorrow, but typing doesn’t hurt, feeding myself doesn’t hurt, and I’m pretty sure that soon, I’ll be able to do other things, including making stuff again!

I’m also very happily teaching at a STEAM-focused middle school, where I’ve been teaching my students about archaeology, ancient civilizations, and English. My students have been making things while I couldn’t. But that’s another post…

Pewter for the (SCA) Vikings

I was asked to make site tokens for a Coronation/12th Night/Queen’s Champion weekend. The Royals stepping down had held a Viking-era court; the Royals stepping up also planned a Viking reign. Because of this, I decided to go with the time period and make Viking site tokens. I wanted to make distinctive, separate tokens for each event: the coronation, the feast, and the championships. I have found occasional evidence for Viking age pewter, but it is rarely preserved well enough to tell what the artifact was. However, I cast pewter, and it is an affordable material for making site tokens by the hundreds.

For Coronation, I decided to make a pewter version of the dragon’s-head dress pin from Birka. Although the mold and the only cast piece from it ever found are both broken off, the dragon’s head is the iconic part, so I decided to simply end the piece with a simple, wide pin usable as a letter opener, nail cleaner, or similar implement. I also decided to alter the small tab at the dragon’s ‘collar’ to be a loop, so it could be attached with a safety pin temporarily. I only carved detail in one side of my mold, using poplar wood for the back. I used simple hand tools (most of which I made myself) and carved in soapstone.

dragon carving 0First steps carving the mold; photo of the original beside it.

dragon test cast 2Test cast of the mold after a few rounds of test casting and mold improvements. At this point, you can see spillage (also called ‘flashing’) around the lower half of the mold. I thought it was due to a problem with the registry pins at the time. As I don’t often cast in wood, and I live in Southern California, the weather hadn’t occurred to me… but it was just starting to rain. As the rain grew heavier, the wood warped further, and I ended up making a soapstone back after all.

Why was I using wood? This design has a number of tiny fiddly bits, and a wood back accommodates that sort of thing easily. Wood’s porosity lets out the escaping air without allowing pewter to follow it, it insulates the molten pewter, keeping it flowing for just a bit longer, and it is far less expensive and hard to get than good soapstone. Because this piece was larger than I usually work, and had an unusual pour spout, I was originally planning to use wood for the back. In a different winter, that would have worked, but the weather had other plans.

In the end, all went well, and 300 dragon-headed toothpicks were (temporarily) mine.

For the 12th Night Feast, I wanted to make a pewter and glass version of one of the Visby lenses. However, high-domed lenses like the ones in those pieces are not so easy to acquire on a site token budget. I did what I could, and found round glass cabochons that were of a good enough quality to use as small magnifiers. I carved a flat mold that could be bent around the lenses to mimic the originals, and used a poplar wood back just to see how it would work on a smaller piece. It worked fine, as it turned out.

setting a lensThe steps of setting a lens in the pewter setting.

lensesA pile of lenses, set and ready to go.

For Queen’s Champion, I decided to make something colorful, but still Viking. I wanted to make small wire hoop ornaments with two glass beads and a Thor’s hammer. The hammer, I based somewhat loosely on the only known runic Thor’s hammer, whose text reads (translated) “This is a hammer.” It made me laugh when I read about it, and I thought passing the fun along would be good. The hoop is roughly based on a fairly vast number of finds, including a 9th century one from Birka.

box of hammersThe hammer mold, I carved in a fine white soapstone sold as welders’ chalk, and though I didn’t need to, I used the poplar back again. I used chain-nose pliers to curl down the end to make the bail. 200 of them did not fill this tiny box.

Viking dangle w picI made small wire loops, using pliers and a couple of round forms to make the curves I needed, stringing on the paired glass beads, matched for size and shape but not color as appears to be period practice.  The beads are not necessarily all Viking-accurate, but I did make an effort to select ones that looked at least plausible from a few feet away.   The image below the single hoop shows several tiny Thor’s hammers on a similar hoop, and was one of many I encountered showing tiny hammers, some of which had curled-down ends like mine.

dangles with hammersA few of the final tokens, with a Hershey’s kiss for scale.

In the end, I had fun, and Viking bling was spread far and wide.


Intaglio bibliography for the Middle Ages (and beyond)

For those interested in finding out more using actual books, journals, and other paper resources (sometimes available in digital format), here is my ‘short list’ of most useful texts:

Boardman, John. Intaglios and Rings. Thames & Hudson Ltd. 1975.

Gennaioli, Riccardo, et al. Gems of the Medici. Contemporanea Progetti, 2012.

Kornbluth, Genevra. Engraved Gems of the Carolingian Empire. Penn State Press, 1995.

Sax, Margaret, et al. The Early Development of the Lapidary Engraving Wheel in Mesopotamia. Iraq, Vol. 62, pp. 157-176. British Institute for the Study of Iraq, 2000.

Spier, Jeffrey. Ancient Gems and Finger Rings: Catalogue of the Collections. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 1992.

Theophilus. On Divers Arts. Trans. Hawthorne, John G., and Smith, Cyril Stanley. Dover, 1979.

Theophilus is especially fun in his section ‘On Carving Rock Crystal’. Seriously, it’s worth a read.

Hi, honey, I’m home!

Just a quick note to apologize for taking such a long vacation from posting. Life happened, and I got busy, and was doing things instead of talking about them… and when I wasn’t doing things, I really didn’t feel like talking about them. I’m starting to feel a bit more like I have a spare moment and a bit of spare energy here and there, so I am going to resume talking now 🙂