I am a self-employed archaeologist and researcher, working with Museum Replica Maker, Roland Williamson. I am also Membership Secretary of the Prehistoric Society and a Young Archaeologist Club leader.

When not doing all that, I also make copies of archaeological artefacts in chocolate!

Talking torcs…two years on!

Almost to the day two years ago, we blogged here about a day spent at the National Civil War Centre looking at the Newark torc. What started out as a replica commission has, over the last two years, turned into a wider investigation into the technology and method of manufacture of later Iron Age gold torus torcs and which has produced results that no-one, least of all us, expected to find. It seems fitting to share a summary of these results here, two years after our quest began.

The Newark torc

When asked to replicate something, one of the first things you have to do is to try to understand how it was made – the accepted theory for these types of torcs is that wires were hammered and twisted into a neck ring, before having the hollow terminals cast on to the wires, using a process called lost wax casting.

However, having looked at the Newark torc, we both felt that the cast-on terminal construction method was unlikely as a fault in the process – common in such a difficult manufacturing method – would potentially force the entire procedure to be re-started. In such a precious and rare metal as a high-content gold alloy, this would clearly be undesirable. So our initial thought was that the terminals were cast separately, before being soldered to the neck ring. But it would only be by looking at torcs that we would find out what was really happening.

The Newark torc is complete which, although making it very beautiful, means it is very difficult to see inside and we could not test whether our ‘terminals cast separately’ theory was borne out in the evidence. What we needed was a torc of a similar type….but broken! A quick search soon provided such a thing, in the shape of the Netherurd torc terminal. Found in Peebles in 1806, and housed in the National Museum of Scotland this lone terminal had been removed from the neck ring in antiquity and offered the chance to look inside it. So, off to Scotland we went!

The Netherurd Torc terminal

We expected to see dendrites, dribbles and other signs of casting. What we did not expect to see was evidence of repoussé- many indentations on the interior showing the opposite of the relief decoration on the exterior! The Netherurd terminal was not cast, or cast on: it was made from gold sheet, hammered into shape with the decoration added from the rear before being finished and chased on the surface of the torc. In addition, there was evidence of seams marking the joining of several metal sheets, which appeared to show that it had been constructed from a donut shaped piece of sheet gold which then had a central ‘apple core’ (we do like our food metaphors!) of material added to create the central hole. Only after this was the collar fixed to the terminal, and the complete terminal then soldered to the wire neck ring.

A working model of the opened Netherurd terminal, showing its method of manufacture.

This was not at all as we expected. Furthermore, if Netherurd was made of sheet, were any of the others? Newark we could not be sure of but it soon became apparent we needed to look at more torcs! So it was back to London and to The British Museum to look first at Sedgeford, and then at the Snettisham Grotesque Torc.

The Sedgeford terminal

Examination of Sedgeford made clear that this torc was cast and it looked as if the terminals were cast on. However, recent x-ray work by Dan O’Flynn of the British Museum Science Department has shown that in fact the Sedgeford torc was manufactured using separately cast terminals, attached using a very precise fixing method of snuggly fitting cast sections secured by rods and possibly, although this has yet to be confirmed, without the use of solder.

The Grotesque torc from Snettisham

The Grotesque torc, although known to be sheet is assumed to be much earlier than the other hollow torus torcs. However, it too showed evidence of a donut construction method, with a centrally added ‘apple core’ as seen in Netherurd. So we now had Netherurd and the Grotesque showing the same technique, Sedgeford as cast, and Newark as still uncertain.

At this point, we were offered help by the Materials group at The National Physical Laboratory, who subjected the Newark Torc to X-ray Computed Tomography (XCT). Although the results, due to the difficulties of working with such a dense material as gold, were not as clear as we’d hoped, there was enough evidence to show that the Newark torc was also constructed in sheet, with 3D microscopy showing evidence of metal smearing over the area where we would expect the ‘apple core’ join to be.

Detail of the Snettisham Great Torc

The list of sheet work torcs kept growing: Netherurd, the Grotesque and now Newark. Where next? The next obvious torc target was one of the grandest gold torcs in the world: The Snettisham Great Torc. Weighing it at 1084g of 22kt gold, this torc was found by farmhand, Tom Rout, on the Ken Hill estate in Snettisham in 1950. Having recently installed new x-ray equipment at the British Museum, it was agreed that the Great Torc would be examined.

And this brings us bang up to date with this year’s Day of Archaeology. Yesterday, we went to the British Museum to see the Great Torc x-ray results and they were better than we could ever imagine: The Great Torc terminals are definitely made from sheet gold, with repoussé decoration, and were also constructed using the same ‘apple core’ and donut method predicted by Roland and I in 2016.

The Snettisham Great Torc. (Image courtesy of Jody Joy and The British Museum).

This brings the total to three previously unrecognised sheet work gold torcs (Netherurd, Newark and the Great Torc), a fourth whose sheet construction method is now understood (the Grotesque) and a fifth torc (Sedgeford) whose cast terminals seem to be more cleverly achieved than was previously assumed. So where now?

For us, what started as a simple question with an apparently simple answer has turned into an ever increasing list of questions with research implications far beyond the Newark torc. The answers to these questions are likely to have knock on effects on the current thinking regarding Iron Age metalworking technology, trade/exchange and dating. In addition to the technological aspects we have also been investigating the decoration and tooling on the torcs and have found further intriguing results which would appear to suggest that the Netherurd and Newark torcs were made – not just in the same workshop – but also by the same craftsperson! In torcs found some 200 miles apart in Nottinghamshire and Scotland, this is unexpected and very exciting.

We are currently in the process of writing up our findings for peer reviewed publication, are preparing conference papers and are continuing to investigate various other aspects of these fabulous torcs. We suspect, if we post here again in two years time, we will have much more to tell – but we also suspect that these enigmatic objects will be posing yet more questions for us for many years to come.

And who knows, one day we may even get to do what we originally planned…and replicate the Newark torc!

Tess Machling & Roland Williamson

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Entirely self funded, we have benefited hugely from the generosity and kindness of many people over the past two years: the curators of the various torcs – Glyn Hughes, Fraser Hunter, Julia Farley, Jody Joy, Tim Pestell and John Davies are greatly thanked. In addition, we are extremely grateful for the kind and generous help given by the Materials team at NPL -Rob Brooks, Tony Fry, Hannah Corcoran, Stephen Brown and Eric Bennett. Dan O’Flynn and members of the Science Department at the British Museum have offered great assistance in carrying out the x-rays of the Sedgeford and Great Torc and are thanked for their help.

 

Making things….

So what do archaeologists get up to on a typical day? Report writing? Site recording? Excavation? Finds analysis?

Well, yes, I’ve done all those things in my time but often nowadays when I’m not working for the Prehistoric Society, I can be found in the kitchen….melting chocolate!

That’s what comes of working with a replica maker: in this case, Roland Williamson of Bodgit & Bendit. Roland makes marvellous replicas of all manner of objects from swords to delicate bone combs. If it’s a replica that needs casting he has to make a model of the object so that it can be moulded and then cast. And this is where the fun comes in….

If you’ve got a model, you can then make many more moulds from it…and if you do it in food grade silicon you can cast an exact copy. In chocolate.

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The Netherurd Terminal

Roland and I spend a lot of our time looking at torcs and trying to work out how they are made. The answers are not always obvious and the very special Netherurd terminal held in the National Museum of Scotland has become a bit of an obsession. This exquisite 1st century BC terminal was found, as part of a hoard, in Peebles in 1806. Having been found so far to the North of the core East Anglian area, it is an oddity, which however shows many of the decorative traits seen on many of the Snettisham torcs etc. It is our belief that, if complete, it would easily rival the Snettisham Great Torc in craftsmanship and beauty. So obviously it was prime candidate for a chocolate copy…..

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Chocolate (left) and wax (right)

First, I made a wax model, which I then silicon moulded. Miraculously after cutting the silicon encasing in two I actually had something which looked like it might work. So the mould was put back together and held with plasters (funnily enough non-stick silicon is, guess what? Yup, non-stick), a small hole made in the top and I poured melted chocolate into it and left it in the fridge! Some hours later, the mould was removed and there it was….a chocolate torc terminal! Hehe! But it wasn’t the right colour and I couldn’t very well spray it with metallic paint! So a trip to the craft shop was needed.

Now, to you fancy cake makers out there, the array of cake decorating possibilities will be familiar. However, to this archaeologist, the fact that you can buy not just edible paint, but sprayable edible paint in a wide range of colours was a revelation. The fact that this spray paint came in silver, bronze…and gold….was a real find.

Sprayed and finished I was quite proud of my work….allowing for my slightly poor wax copy, it was a faithful copy of the model. And good enough to eat.

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Choccy (left) and wax (right)

So what next? Hmmmmm….I clearly needed better models. Luckily James Dilley of Ancient Craft had recently made me a rather nice glass handaxe…..which certainly deserved a try!

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From there, I wanted to have a go at something a bit more intricate. Knowing Roland had recently completed a model of the huge Anglo Saxon, Mrs Getty’s brooch from the Butler’s Filed excavations (now on display in Corinium Museum), I borrowed the model and set to work…

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The difficulty with this one was getting the 6 inch long, thin, chocolate out of the mould without snapping it but, after a couple of attempts, and painted up I was pretty impressed with the result. It even made it into the pages of Current Archaeology in the Edible Archaeology section!

From that day on, the chocolate replicas have kind of got a bit out of control. From chocolate Bronze Age Sussex Loops (well…it was a 3D challenge…had to be done! And I could wear it too!) to a chocolate Prehistoric Society presidential medal, bitten into by our President Alex Gibson, in front of a shocked conference audience the list is endless….

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My next challenge? Well Roland has just made a beautiful replica of the magnificent Oxborough Dirk, now held in the British Museum. But at 70cm long and weighing in at around 2.5kg that’s one heck of a lot of chocolate…..

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Talking torcs in Newark

Our day of archaeology was spent at Newark English Civil War Museum examining the Iron Age Newark torc. This torc, which was discovered by a metal detectorist in 2005, has recently been bought by the museum and has rightly returned to the town where it was found.

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With an eye to replicating the torc, we had the very great pleasure of being able to examine the torc up close and even to hold it. It is a truly beautiful thing. Apparently showing signs of wear on one side (the silver in the electrum has become prominent), it is unexpectedly heavy and…even more surprising…very springy. It would clearly have been easy to get onto your neck although I’m not sure I’d have fancied wearing it for too long as I fear it would have caused neck ache!

The photos show Roland William examining the torc…..and demonstrating the ancient art of torc manufacture through the medium of fruit!

A truly memorable day… 🙂

Tess Machling & Roll Williamson