Lies My Docent Told Me: Part 2

Last time I mentioned a “docent fumble” and then promised some insights into looking at museum exhibits.

While I am picking on the Victoria and Albert Museum, let me bring up an issue that all museums deal with. Your labels and information about artifacts are only as good as the people who make those labels. At one visit to the V&A I was scrounging through the old Bronze gallery (the gallery has since been redone). The labels in the gallery had been typed on a typewriter, heaven only knows in what year. (This is a giant “red flag”.) The label on one of the large bronze jugs stated. “There are letters on the jug, but we don’t know what they mean”. The letters? “A M G P”. Probably one of the most common magical incantations of Medieval times – Ave Maria, Gracia Plena (Hail Mary Full of Grace). And to make it worse, some of the other jugs correctly identified what “AMGP” stood for. Consistency folks, consistency. Here is one of my old pictures from the Bronze Gallery – note the wrinkly old typed card.

V&A Jug

If I go to a digital online museum collection, almost all of them now have a “let us know that there is a problem with this record” link. Several years ago I started noticing some very serious clerical mistakes at the British Museum website. What I mean by “clerical” is that there might be six pictures associated with a specific artifact, and five are correct, but picture number six is a picture of a different artifact. Sometimes it is super obvious, the item in the picture has a different number on it than the artifact number in the record, or the artifact record is for a piece of pottery and one picture is a piece of jewelry. But sometimes both of the artifacts are of the same type. I remember discovering several clerical mistakes and trying to figure out how to contact someone. Sometimes I found some sort of contact person and sent them an email, and sometimes I finally gave up in frustration. I never received a single reply to any of my emails, not even an auto-responder message.

It really bugged me to see mistakes, so I kept sending messages. My one and only reply came from the Metropolitan Museum Of Art. I was looking at Middle Eastern beads online and I discovered a record for a “necklace”. One look told me that it was a Subha – a prayer bead strand. I found a random contact name and wrote a polite note about the piece. And about a week later I received a very nice email back, thanking me for pointing out the information and assuring me that I was correct, and that the museum was in the process of updating a bunch of records and that this one would be updated to reflect the additional information. It felt so good to know that I had actually reached a person and that the record would be updated!

It was not long afterwards that I started noticing what I think of as “Ooops” buttons, on a lot of museum sites. Links that let you report mistakes to museum staff. I am sure that I was not the only one out there to notice mistakes. I like to think of these buttons as “crowd sourcing corrections”. The more eyes that see a piece the more likely mistakes, or additional information is likely to be discovered.

Next time: Tuning in to Your Museum’s Listings

Carrying Coals to Newcastle!

“Carrying Coals to Newcastle.” Exactly what do I mean by that? Well, it may be a slightly obscure reference for many, but Newcastle was a major coal producing area of England. Therefore trying to import and sell coal there would have been a futile effort. But back to that in a moment.

For those who have known me for a while, my interest in the accurate reproduction of pieces of period jewelry and accessories comes as no great surprise. I have always been interested in history, and with a Masters in Anthropology with a specialization in Archaeology, accuracy seemed like a natural thing. I know that my art teachers were often confounded by my unusual questions and projects. Fortunately for me they were mostly concerned with me learning specific techniques and not with what I actually made. And many years later I am still working on adding new, and very interesting, items to my shop collection.

Since I actually make my living making historically accurate items that people want, I obviously listen to my customers about what they would like to see in my shop. Sometimes that feedback is very direct, emails, and people who actually walk into my shop and make requests. Other times people “vote” with their wallets, and I have to admit some of those “votes” over the years have really made me smile.

And some of that “voting with their wallets” is why hubby and I have discussed “Carrying Coals to Newcastle”. It would never have occurred to either of us that the items that I sell might not be available in the countries in which they were originally made. One of the first of those sales was the lady from Sweden who purchased my reproduction of a key from the Swedish National Museum. As a reenactor she wanted a key that was as close as possible to the original one in the museum. All she could find in Sweden was “charm” sized keys. Mine is within a millimeter of the size of the original.

Etsy 29

And then there was the gentleman from Norway who bought one of my plain cast silver Thor’s hammers. He wanted a plain, solid silver Thor’s hammer, and had not been able to find one.

And the lady from Greece who purchased a batch of my brass fibulae and was totally delighted when she received them – Carrying Fibulae to Athens?

And the dozens of batches of dress pins that I have shipped all over Europe, including to a British TV production studio. Really? No one there makes these?

At Potrero War, a gentleman that I see at several events every year informed me that he loves my stuff, but that he is always amazed at how little stock I have in my shop. Really? I will admit, it is not your typical crowded and cluttered shop, but that made me wonder. Just how many separate items do I usually have in my shop (not counting backstock)? And because it was a new shop layout, and I had taken good pictures, I was able to count! Over 523 separate items, with a pair counted as one, and ranging in size from individual bronze buttons to knights chains, and Viking swags to Medieval spindle whorls, and with absolutely no attempt made to count the hundreds of glass topped veil pins. That will just have to be good enough…for now.

Chains Part 7 – The Last Links

Chains. We have talked about a bunch of the basics. Cutting links correctly with modern tools so that they have nice flush joins. Round links. Cast links. Soldered links. Looped links. Squished figure eight links with extra spiral coils. Figure 8 shaped links. Twisted figure 8 links. 3 D links.

There are probably a ton of other link forms out there. But two more forms really stand out in my mind. I have seen the first one used several times, although I would not consider it to be super common. Most of the pieces that I have seen have been utilitarian, and in fact I am not sure that I have ever seen the form used in piece of historical jewelry, although I don’t see why it couldn’t be. We do see the form used in jewelry all of the time when a bead is added to the center of the link. This piece from the Museum of London collection is an excellent example. It is a steelyard – a type of scale used for weighting things, in this case, pounds and 1/2 pounds. This one is Roman, found in Great Britain. The links on the steel yard are created by taking a length of wire, forming a loop at each end and winding the end of the wire towards the center of the link. If you will click on the “enlarge image” link the site will provide a nice big picture that will allow you to see the details of how the links are made. The longest chain (only two links) is a perfect demonstration of this technique. On the right link, you can see how the two loops are formed, and then the ends are twisted towards the center of the link.

The second type of link, is one that I have seen a lot in Viking Age chains. This is an excellent example from the Swedish National Museum. The chain was found in Gotland and dates to the Viking Age. These links are simply spirals. In fact every single link is a spiral.

While I have seen spiral link chains extensively in Viking Age jewelry in Sweden and Finnish jewelry (Remember that the Finns are NOT Vikings. They speak a different language and have different mythology.) I have really NOT seen a lot of these spiral link chains outside of this area.

The Finns were always particularly fond of spirals in their clothing decorations and were famous for their elaborate Bronze Age dress spiral decorations. This reproduction of an Iron Age Mantle shows the same basic type of spiral decoration that we see in the Bronze Age.

This example of an early Medieval Finnish woman’s jewelry kit shows the use of spiral chains beautifully. Generally speaking the Finns used a lot more chains than they did strands of beads. Whether this was due to the availability of glass beads, or a cultural value that says that chains were better, we may never know, but for them it was the more chains the better.

I made up examples of these two links in 14 gauge brass wire so that you could hopefully see the forms a little more clearly. I purposefully made the top row extra big, so that the structure of the wire form really shows. In the case of the left column I also formed the link slightly differently in each example. In the original artifact one of the links was formed with both of the links started on one side, like the top example. The other link had one loop started on one side of the mid-line of the wire and the other is formed on the other, creating a mirror image. If you look at the bottom example on the left you can see the advantage to the mirror image arrangement. If the coils around the center of the link are lined up, and there was no gap in the center, at least one side of the link would look seamless. The twisted part of the link could be made to look like it was one piece of wire.

The right hand column is the spiral in spiral link chain. The form becomes very clear when you make them extra big. The top version shows the form, while the bottom version shows something closer to what the original chain would have looked like a very long time ago.

Last Two Links

I hope that this blog series inspires you to really look at all of the different types of chains that are out there!