It Probably Didn’t Look Like That, part 2: Intaglio Gem Carving Through the Middle Ages

This is a picture of my bestest friend, Minos, he's the King.
This is a picture of my bestest friend, Minos, he’s the King.

So, now we know that even during Intaglio Fancytimes ™ the carvings weren’t usually all that fabulous, or easy to see, and that for all that we love the Getty’s amazing collection on display, we also know that they and other museums are hiding hundreds of truly special pieces of the art away so that 5-year-olds everywhere don’t get the idea that they, too, are ready to carve innocent pieces of semiprecious stone.

Now, let’s move past the first Intaglio Fancytimes I ™, aka the ancient Greek/Etruscan/Roman period of At Least Some Mastery, and start looking into the long dark teatime of the art, before Intaglio Fancytimes II ™: The Renaissance Goes Nuts (especially those Medicis) and Intaglio Fancytimes III ™: The Victorians Try To Do One Better. Worth noting: intaglio was already an old art by the time Fancytimes ™ happened at all; intaglio seals were made and used by ancient Egyptians, Harappans, and Mesopotamians, so it’s really no surprise that it was a very fancy art with specialized equipment and trade secrets.

Intaglio carving didn’t die out. It was adopted by various cultural groups, and remained a lively and valuable art throughout the intervening centuries. Remember, this was a means of identity protection during a time when you couldn’t be sure who wrote what, and certainly couldn’t call anyone up to check. In addition, intaglio carvings continued to have sacred significance.

The stone is under 8 mm in diameter. Does it really matter what kind of bird it is?
The stone is under 8 mm in diameter. Does it really matter what kind of bird it is?

The sixth century seems to me like a good place to start looking for an intaglio tradition beyond the Roman, and I was not disappointed. In Persia, the Sasanian tradition included extremely tiny carvings (on stones less than 1 cm in diameter), generally of animals. The carving is on the left, with an impression from it to the right, blown up. Yep, that’s definitely some sort of bird. The stone is carnelian. Medieval people loved carnelian. This piece, by the way, is one of the gems hidden away on paper in the Getty catalogue, titled Ancient Gems and Finger Rings.

The easiest way for me to figure out what shape bits were used is by trying to duplicate the carving myself, which I did. Simple though the carving is, I used four bit shapes to duplicate it: a medium pellet (ball-ended bit) for the breast and body, a small pellet for the head and some work on the neck, a small barrel (cylindrical bit) for the neck and legs, and a tiny wheel for the feather-lines, feet, and beak. These bits all needed to be used wet to prevent chipping, but that was a given, as diamond-encrusted bits hadn’t yet been created. Instead, the bits were used to push a slurry of sapphire or emery powder in oil against the stone (for more detail, look at my posts on The Machine). The images here are all the originals, by the way.

A 10th-11th c Kufic inscribed jasper with geometric interlaced design
A 10th-11th c Kufic inscribed jasper with geometric interlaced design

Recently, a 9th century Viking grave find from Birka was all over the news. While it had been dutifully catalogued and put away, the original analysis left out a few important points and got another one wrong entirely, and this was great news for us, because it meant more attention was being paid to Medieval intaglio. The medieval Islamic tradition of intaglio carving follows the religious injunction against creating likenesses of living things. Typical of this tradition, the Birka intaglio contains only a line of writing with a religious message. To the right is a more intricate design of the same tradition. In my effort to replicate this piece, I used three bits: a tiny pellet (most of the carving), a tiny wheel (outlines), and a point which I had little luck with. What I really needed was an even smaller pellet.

The Radpod seal, reverse (carved side up), late 9th-early 10th c
The Radpod seal, reverse (carved side up), late 9th-early 10th c

At the same time, a very different intaglio tradition was rising in the Carolingian empire. With a special fondness for rock crystal (clear quartz, to the geology folks), the Carolingian intaglio carvers could bring the stones down onto the rotating bit as they carved while looking through them, seeing immediately the effect of every single tool-mark. They didn’t need to reverse everything they carved, as long as they used clear quartz; they merely had to look at the top face of the quartz and mark it as their vision dictated. They also had a fondness for really big pieces of stone, which makes sense when you realize that these large pieces are not personal seals, but parts of processional crosses and other ritual items. These were meant to impress from a distance.

When I recreated Radpod’s likeness, I used four bits: small and large pellets, a small barrel, and a thin wheel. The wheel was for writing, hair, eyelids, and folds in the cloth. The large pellet made the curves of his head, face, neck, and shoulder; the small, his chin, ear, lips, and eye. The barrel made his brow, moustache, and most of the drapery. The setting is open on both sides, as this is a seal.

14th century, St. Theodore Teron slays the dragon. Dragons get no love.
14th century, St. Theodore Teron slays the dragon. Dragons get no love.

Finally, in the Byzantine tradition, figurative seals return to opaque stones, with saints a particular favorite subject. Alongside the image, text names the subject, much as it does on icons. Everything is in reverse again. I used only three bits for this: medium pellet for dragon body, torso, head, and limbs, small wheel for all lines, and small pellet for all small curves and dots.

The next distinct carving tradition is the Renaissance Neo-Classical, or Intaglio Fancytimes II ™, which starts just as the Middle Ages are winding down, back in Italy once again. First as collectors, then as patrons of the art, the Medici family brought intaglio back to the skill level they had come to expect, in the fifteenth century.

Still precious, still rare, intaglio was produced throughout the medieval era in a variety of styles. Even as ancient gems were reused, new ones were carved, and the skill, already thousands of years old, lived on.

It Probably Didn’t Look Like That, part 1: Intaglio Gem Carving Through the Middle Ages

Like this, right?
Like this, right?

Most people who even know what intaglio gems are have a pretty clear mental picture of what they looked like. They were stunning, tiny portraits of Classically draped people, perhaps athletes or deities, executed with skill unmatched by modern machinery by people with microscopic eyesight and, probably, no social lives. The best pieces were signed, in Greek, and were carved in stone that was either plain in color, or had layers which were used to make the tiny carvings easier to see, like cameos.

Everybody knows that’s what intaglios are, except, of course, people who don’t know what intaglios are at all. And they’re right, for certain, specific times and places. But if you’re interested in the period from the fall of Rome to the Renaissance, loosely called ‘the Middle Ages’, this isn’t what they looked like, unless they were pried out of older jewelry (which they frequently were, by the way).

Just look at those muscles! And the stripes!
Just look at those muscles! And the stripes!

First of all, it’s really easy to find evidence that patterned stones were considered fair game for intaglio carving, even at what art historians might call the ‘height of the art’. The J. Paul Getty Museum, where I love to go and dream of being an Incredible Intaglio Carver ™, is just full of these suckers. Gorgeous stripy stone, completely obscuring the details of the carving from more than a foot away… except, folks, please remember that these carvings weren’t made to be seen from more than a foot away. This lovely Etruscan piece measures less than 1.5 cm tall. It is highly intimate art, to be seen only by people who could actually touch you, and used to seal documents and prove the identity of the sealer without being easy to copy. From further away, the stone was beautiful because stones are beautiful, not because it has a tiny little dude carved in it. Nobody you didn’t allow near you could tell what, if anything, was carved in your ringstone. It simply wasn’t their business. So, don’t let some patterns keep you from carving a beautiful rock.

It's a person, ok?
It’s a person, ok?

Second, I’d like to call attention to the carving to my right. Set in gold, this carnelian carving looks like the work of a first-timer in a hurry. However, it is almost certainly not. It is a Roman intaglio twice the size of our stripy friend above, and clearly valued highly (look at the gold!). Not every intaglio carver was Epimenes, or even remotely close. Carved gems were also valuable simply because they were carved. For every one gorgeous microsculpture on display in a museum, there are literally hundreds of stick-figures, once set in gold and lovingly worn in devotion to a deity, a household, or just for the bling factor. Again, unless they’re really close to you, they can’t tell how good it is. It can be harder to find these online, as museums tend to upload images of the ‘best and brightest’ of their collections from an art-historical point of view, but full catalogues, printed on paper (what?!) often have a much more representative sampling.

Next, on to look at some Medieval-period carvings.

Adaptive Tools for a Pewterer

Among other things I do in the SCA, I am a pewterer. Pewtercasting in the Middle Ages was done in molds of stone or plaster, although less durable wooden and cuttlebone molds were used as well. Like many pewterers, I use soft, smooth-grained stone, like soapstone, for my molds, and carve them by hand. Like medieval pewterers, I use simple hand tools: a saw, hand-drill, and carving tools.

My dominant wrist has a ganglion cyst pressing on nerves and blood vessels, so ease of work is more than usually important to me. Holding narrow items, like needles and pencils, causes numbness and pain rapidly (within seconds), and soon after, loss of grip strength and control. A work injury to the shoulder on that side and the early stages of arthritis have taken a further toll on my ability to use hand tools. Many pewterers use dental tools as a convenient, relatively easy to get set of stoneworking tools; so did I, but these have become almost completely useless to me except as class tools when I teach. My ability to carve fine details in my molds was rapidly disappearing, and with it, my desire to make things.

Closeup, drilling center hole into the tool handle
Closeup, drilling center hole into the tool handle

I had to find a way to adapt my tools for use with my increasingly recalcitrant hand. I’d noticed that I could hold large tools (like ‘chunky’ screwdrivers) for much longer than small ones. If I could make big handles, I would be able to use fine tools. And of course, if I was going to make the handles, I might as well make the tools as well.

I visited my friend Roger Wells and made large birch-wood handles (turned on his lathe) which are easy for me to hold and work with. They also have a slight taper and flare at the base, allowing me to grip and control them with great precision. I also cut grip grooves in each handle (I made three), grouped so that each has its own numerical and nerdy pattern (integers, odd numbers, and the first four digits of pi, in case you were wondering). I put each handle in my bench vise and drilled the holes by hand, using an old-fashioned drill. I finished them by rubbing with bayberry wax… I know it’s not European, but I grew up in New England and love the stuff, and at least it isn’t polyurethane 🙂

Micro-blacksmithing setup; the forge is hiding behind my anvil on the left
Micro-blacksmithing setup; the forge is hiding behind my anvil on the left

For the next step, I needed to set up my micro-blacksmithing rig. I am not a Real Blacksmith ™, no matter what the t-shirt ads on Facebook say, but I do have a tiny, tiny forge that sits on top of a propane torch. I used this, a hammer, large pliers, and a small anvil, made from a length of rail. I didn’t end up needing the jeweler’s anvil, but added the end-nippers and a file, as well as fine sandpaper and a piece of granite counter. I’ll explain in a minute. There’s also a can of water, for cooling and hardening the tools.

Two of the tool ends are based on the shapes of the tools I used most often, each combining several tools in one. These two points have replaced a dozen or more tools, and I only rarely think I might need a different shape for most applications… and then, I turn one of them, and there’s the shape I needed, after all! I heated and hammered each of these into the rough shape I wanted, bending one to get an angle seen in many of the dental tools I frequently used. I then used the fine sandpaper on the granite as a flat sanding surface to sharpen the cutting edges. Finally, I reheated the tips to glowing, and dropped them into the water to cool and harden them.

The tips of my three mold-carving pewterer's tools
The tips of my three mold-carving pewterer’s tools

The third (center in this shot) is a specific, purpose-built tool, in use in the header photo to do the one thing it does best: making dots with circles around them. To do that, it needed to have two points, one of which was close to the center of the tool as a whole, and the other, off-center slightly. I heated and hammered down the nail’s point, then flattened out the tip and cut just the very end of it slightly off-center, let it cool, and filed the gap a bit. The points were too far apart, though, for the size of dots-and-circles that I wanted, so I heated it again, and hammered the two points closer, very, very carefully. I should be clearer: I did not actually hammer the points at all. I hammered on the wide point below the points, making it fold together. I had to repeat the process about three times before it was the size I wanted. Then I heated and hardened this point, too.

Before setting the tips into the handles, I sawed grooves into the bases of the tips to give the epoxy something to hold onto. I put epoxy on the bases of the tips and pushed them into place, then let them set for 24 hours.

I really can’t say enough how much making these tools has changed for me. I thought I might never make another pewter thing I could feel good about. My depression was all too enthusiastic about jumping on that bandwagon. Instead, my very next project was one about which I am actually quite happy, and whose making will be the subject of another entry.

PS: The micro-forge is awesome, but I can’t find them for sale anymore. For people interested, here is an excellent site with a couple of DIY designs, safely made, and links to the materials you’ll need.

Backed pewter site tokens for the Palio event at Calafia-Gyldenholt Friendship Tourney, 2015
Backed pewter site tokens for the Palio event at Calafia-Gyldenholt Friendship Tourney, 2015

The Machine, part 2: Re-creating a Late-Medieval Lapidary Lathe

Sub-subtitle: in which I am so very much not in my element.

Well, now that I knew what it should look like, I had only a couple of problems. I’m not much of a woodworker. I’m also an ornamental metalworker, not a machinist. So basically, I was going to need to either pick up two more skills, or enlist help. I considered the first, but in the end, did the second, in the hope that I might thereby preserve some small amount of my remaining sanity for later use.

The main part of the mechanism should look familiar to many people interested in old ways of doing everyday things. It certainly did to me. It is, essentially, a spinning wheel. As it happens, I bought a spinning wheel at a swap-meet some years ago. Not being a string person, I decided to cannibalize the spinning wheel and mount it to a simple table, so I could bring the machine to SCA events and demonstrate intaglio carving, and possibly even teach it to interested people.

From Wikimedia Commons image at http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fotothek_df_tg_0002107_St%C3%A4ndebuch_%5E_Handwerk_%5E_Steinschneider.jpg
From Wikimedia Commons image at http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fotothek_df_tg_0002107_St%C3%A4ndebuch_%5E_Handwerk_%5E_Steinschneider.jpg

All I needed, really, was a detail the picture did not give me: how the different bits were mounted and changed. I know for certain they used a variety of bits throughout the Middle Ages, using between three and five different shapes for most pieces (details of how I know this will be a subject of another post). You can see a giant rack of them on the workbench in the woodcut, as well. Nowadays, we have a chuck that can be opened and closed around the bases of interchangeable bits, but I couldn’t see what they were using in the woodcut. So, having recently discovered that the bounty of JSTOR was available for me to paw through, I headed there and searched. I found an older article with truly abysmal photographs (one of which was almost entirely black) of a Renaissance lapidary lathe belonging to the Medici family and dating to the very end of SCA period, held apparently by a European museum. The drive wheel was hidden in the back wall of the workbench, but otherwise, it greatly resembled the machine from my new favorite woodcut. It even had a picture showing where the bits were mounted. I was pretty excited.

The picture showed a lovely little statue of Atlas which entirely obscured the means of attaching the bits. There was a second, closer shot, but it wasn’t any better. The entirely black picture might have held a clue, but it was, as I said, entirely black. It might have been of anything.

I won’t lie and say I was undaunted. I was pretty daunted. I was also frustrated and a few other things. However, lacking the certainty I wanted, I went to what pictures I did have. One of them showed a bit that might possibly have been square near the base. That, I thought, might be the trick. If the axle of the smaller wheel had a square hole in it, bits with square bases could be made to fit it. The shape would ensure they turned along with the wheel, and the pressure of carving would keep them from wiggling loose. It could work. Was it the definite way it was done? No. But I was stuck with plausible at this point if I wanted to make something that could work, and my frustration level was significantly elevated.

This is the point at which I felt able to ask for help making the thing. A good family friend, known in the SCA as Roger Wells, has the knowledge and skills I lack. He also has a well-equipped workshop, where he often teaches armoring, leatherwork, and woodworking for the medievalist community. I printed out the photos and the woodcut, loaded up the sacrificial spinning wheel, and headed down to see him. I explained what I wanted to build, and brought out the spinning wheel, explaining that I planned to use it for spare parts.

Roger howled. I’d never heard him howl before. “That is an Ashford spinning wheel! You will not take it apart!”

I explained that it had never been properly introduced to me, but it had sat in the desert for several years and was surely in sacrificial shape. He rejected my plans and told me he could heal the thing, so I left it to him, to repair and share with a string person who won’t speak blasphemy about disassembling it. He also said we could make all the parts we’d need. We drew sketch plans for the machine based entirely on the German woodcut, which was by far the simpler design. Although in period, these tools were not meant to be moved, for SCA purposes, some design differences were necessary. Also, to be perfectly honest, my fiance and I were both unemployed at the time, so cost was a factor.

We headed out to the home improvement store for plywood (so it would be light and easy to carry to events), metal, stain, and sealant (so it could sit all day on wet grass at an event). Using his designs, I drew the cut-outs for the two upright sides to help further lighten the piece. He cut the vast majority of the pieces, though I helped a little and did the sanding and finishing.

The workbench lying on its top, with the uprights clamped and being glued in place.
The workbench lying on its top, with the uprights clamped and being glued in place.

A solid center upright and a bar across the back would help support the wheel and the treadle, once attached. We hit two snags along the way. One was that neither of us had the means to heat the steel axle for the great wheel to create the angled S-curve that the treadle would use to drive the wheel’s motion. For that, we took ourselves and our steel to Roger’s friend, known in the SCA as Master Luther Anshelm of Anshelm Arms. A master armorer, Luther made very quick work of the S-bend after giving us a tour of his workshop.

The second problem you might have seen coming. Circular holes are quite easy to make, even in steel, even quite narrow ones. Square holes, however, are tricky, at least in a home workshop. So we didn’t really make one. Roger drilled a circular hole as close as he could get to center. Then, once the entire machine was otherwise assembled, I fitted a piece of square brass tubing into the hole, shimming it until it was centered and well, outright cheating by using epoxy to set it in place.

Closeup of a bit fitted into the square hole
Closeup of a bit fitted into the square hole

I know my limitations, you see. By this point, I was so close to having this thing working, and I couldn’t stand to wait much longer. If I were a real tool-making, forge-working metalsmith, I would have done some metalworking magic and either drilled and chiseled an approximate square hole, or I would have used heat and appropriate tools to make it happen. But I carve pictures in rock, backwards, and all I wanted was the tool to do that without electricity, so I approximated on the part I have the least proof of anyway. Someday, I may find more information on interchangeable bits in the Middle Ages, but for now, I have a foot-powered lapidary lathe. Hear it whirr. (Really, it gets going pretty darned fast!)

The bits I made initially were made of brass rod. I beat the ends of the brass bits into squareness cold, on a small anvil, with a small and battered hammer I got for free from another SCA member years ago. What is surprising to me is that, for all the eyeball-measurement and hand-hammering and such, once they’re spinning, the blanks are every bit as consistent and centered as the commercial diamond bits I use with my Foredom.

Doing display duty at Pentathlon, here is the finished lapidary lathe, with the intaglio carving 600 CE-1400 CE survey pieces and documentation on top of it. More on that later.
Doing display duty at Pentathlon, here is the finished lapidary lathe, with the intaglio carving 600 CE-1400 CE survey pieces and documentation on top of it. More on that later.

So, here it is, in all its approximated glory. Coming soon, the making of shaped bits, and the carving of actual intaglios on this lovely beast. Also, on a related topic, intaglios of the Middle Ages: what they were, weren’t, and how to make your own in their styles. Spoiler alert: it’s probably not what you’re picturing.

The Machine, part 1: Researching a Late-Medieval Lapidary Lathe

Sub-subtitle: And Why It’s Probably What They Used All Along

The secret of gem-carving was jealously guarded: when Theophilus sought the secrets of the intaglio carvers’ art, the masters of gem-carving in the early 12th century advised him to soften rock crystal in the warm heart of a newly-killed goat, though the secrets of polishing and drilling the stone were accurately recounted to him for his book On Divers Arts.

Period tools for doing this kind of work actually used abrasive powders such as emery, corundum, or even diamond powder, in an olive-oil slurry, on metal bits. For a beautiful video of this method being practiced almost the way it was in ancient Greece, visit the J. Paul Getty’s online exhibit Carvers and Collectors and watch the video in the upper right-hand corner.  You’ll notice the carver is using a handpiece on a flexible shaft, attached to a jeweler’s motor like the Foredom I use. It’s convenient, and it’s almost the way they did it. Almost.

The carving would have been done historically using a lathe-mounted drill, powered by a treadle.  Bow-drills are popularly cited as the tools used for this work, and are depicted in various places in ancient art including Egyptian tomb walls, sometimes being powered by the artist, sometimes by a second person. Bow-drills were certainly used for making holes in beads and other similar work. However, the use of single-directional rotary tools for intaglio carving has been dated to about 1750 BCE in Mesopotamia by Margaret Sax and her fellow researchers a decade and a half ago. Simply put, they microscopically examined the carvings of seal-stones and found that the carving marks were made from a tool which consistently rotated in a single direction, rather than going back and forth.

It is possible that this technology was rediscovered repeatedly; when it was unavailable, a bow-drill mechanism could have been used instead. The initial scratch-sketch was done using a fragment of diamond or other very hard stone set in a metal tool, but gemstones were not carved using hand-held tools the way soapstone, alabaster, or marble can be. Many gems are harder than steel tools, which is precisely why they are valued for jewelry. In various places and times through period, differing techniques and tools were used. Byzantine and Carolingian carvers used differently shaped bits, and got different results from each other, and from the earlier masters of the art in ancient Greece and Rome. For an excellent source on the Carolingian carving tradition, I recommend Genevra Kornbluth’s beautifully illustrated book cited below. However, looking at her gorgeous macrophotos, I can’t agree with her claim that bow-drills were used at the time; the grooves I see from the carving tools suggest they, like the Mesopotamian seal-stones, were carved by a single-direction rotary tool.

Infuriatingly enough, despite searching almost desperately for four years for anything that would show me what was used, I found nothing useful. Then, two things happened in rapid succession. First, a friend and arts enabler I know in the SCA as Cynthia de Wickersham invited me to the opening of the Gems of the Medici exhibit at the Bowers Museum. Second, I learned that JSTOR had started providing limited free access to their archives to the general public. At the museum bookstore, I purchased the exhibition catalogue. On the second-to-last page, about two inches high, I finally saw the picture that gave me what I needed.

Gem Carver, from a 1568 German woodcut by Jost Amman in Ständebuch

From Wikimedia Commons image at http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fotothek_df_tg_0002107_St%C3%A4ndebuch_%5E_Handwerk_%5E_Steinschneider.jpg
From Wikimedia Commons image at http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fotothek_df_tg_0002107_St%C3%A4ndebuch_%5E_Handwerk_%5E_Steinschneider.jpg

Next: Making the Machine, in which I am so very much not in my element

Works Cited

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.

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