Transoxiana Journal

Transoxiana 13
Agosto 2008
Index 13
ISSN 1666-7050

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Jewelry of Central Asia:

Technical Aspects in Ancient time (4BC-4 AD)

Chapter from new book by Elena Neva, Boston, 2008

Elena Neva

Independent scholar, Guest Lecturer at Columbia and Harvard Universities

The surviving jewelry fragments, casting molds and models testify that most of the jewelry was produced by casting method. For instance, differently shaped rings (see Treasures of Oxus, Tajikistan Tillya-tepe, Afghanistan) could be created in casting forms made of sepia shells or fine-grained sand[1].

When larger objects or multiple copies were required, casting molds made out of sand were used (and are still used to this day). Sepia molds are disposable, since sepia shells burn out after a single use. We can only guess that jewelers did in fact employ the ancient method of sepia molds. Sepia shells are still used traditionally by jewelers and silversmiths as molds for casting rings and other small objects. Sepia shell, also known as cuttlebone, is an internal structure of a cuttlefish, generally between 8x4 centimeters and 15x6 centimeters in size. Cuttlefish live in all seas surrounding Europe, but are most often found in the Adriatic Sea. Cuttlebone is porous and composed of calcium carbonate, to provide the cuttlefish with buoyancy.

For jewelry-making purposes, a cuttlebone is cut length-wise in two or three parts, depending on the ring model and the size of the cast, or crown. The calcium carbonate is then removed with a knife, the separate parts are smoothed over with sandpaper or a file, and then the parts are rubbed together until a tight fit is achieved. The third part is fitted underneath. The ring model is pressed head down in the middle until the long axis is reached half-way, etc.[2]

Before a piece of jewelry was created, the masters must have made preliminary sketches, which allowed them to think through the design of the piece and to plan its details. Only once the sketch was completed, a cast mold was prepared: a wax model, or a template, as described above. A wax model was used to iron out all the intricate details of the piece. Once cast, the jewelry was polished and �dressed� with precious or semi-precious stones. In some cases, the jewelry was finished with a chisel, or a repouss� tool. (Note: the terminology used in this paper to describe methods, means and devices of artistic treatment of metals has been borrowed from the later historical periods, since no written affidavits of jewelry making business from IV century B.C. until IV century A.D. have survived).

The master would select an exact amount of stones of necessary shape and prepare placeholders in the casting mold for the stones, such as in the fastenings of Tillya-tepe. For a more pronounced artistic effect, pieces of jewelry were embossed on the outer surface. It is well known that precious metals yield to embossing quite easily. Usually, embossing is used for large sculptures, since embossing is based on careful sculptural process of the outer surface of the jewelry. A 0.40 mm thick sheet metal is normally used; its entire surface is secured by mastic adhesive on the embossing hemisphere. Massive cast objects were secured by clamps. Perhaps that is exactly how the Tsarina temple pendants of Tillya-tepe were made.[3]

The temple pendants were cast from two halves -the seams are visible, although they are partially covered by moldings and disks- and were then finished with light embossing. In this process, the master holds and leads the chisel with his left hand, and with the right hand, he uses the chiseling hammer to fix the mold according to the drawing, striking it with varying strength.[4]

Many sewn-on adornments are made using a stamp technique. Stamps for jewelry or separate parts are made using special instruments. For stamping a design, convex or concave chiseled stamps are used (see sewn-on disks of Tillya-tepe).

Considering the size and weight of the Anakhita temple pendants (for instance, those of Tillya-tepe), we can assume that they were made by pressing. A thin sheet of metal was placed on top of a wooden base with a chiseled design; then the metal was forced into the base under pressure. This method of processing gave the resulting object a matte finish and slightly blurred outlines.

For additional sophisticated flare, granulation process was used. The granulation technique has been known for a very long time to many peoples, who dealt with metal processing in general and the art of jewelry in particular. In IV century B.C., granulation was known in Olvia and used by Mediterranean jewelers; in VI-IV century A.D., it is found in the art of Saks, and later-Wusun. At a later date, granulation was used in Syria (VI-VII century A.D.) and Byzantium (X century A.D.).[5] On the territory of Central Asia, granulation is still used -it is one of the distinctive methods of jewelry decorating in the southern parts of Central Asia, for instance Tajikistan (Kulyab).

The modern granulation methods are probably similar to the ancient ones. The simplest method is the following: wood charcoal is crushed into powder, mixed with small pieces of silver, and melted in a fireproof clay furnace. The melted substance is then tipped over onto a sheet of metal, or into a dish filled with cold water. The result is tiny gold and silver spheres that are used to trim the jewelry (see the Tillya-tepe necklace). The granules were soldered onto the jewelry in the shape of triangles, pyramids, and rhombuses, and then secured by natural resins. A forge was used in soldering, which guaranteed a tight adhesive fit.

Another granulation method involved a wire, 1-2 mm in diameter, which was pulled through a drawing block and cut into small pieces 1-2 mm long. The diameter of the wire and length of the pieces defined the quality and size of the granules. For high-quality granules, every granule was made separately. The master drilled large holes in a piece of wood charcoal; pieces of gold or silver, dipped into the sodium tetra borate solution, were placed in the holes. The charcoal was then placed into the fire-forge, where it was heated until pieces of metal began to melt. At this point, the master used tongs to remove the charcoal from the fire and shook the melted gold or silver into a dish of cold water, where they took shape of small granules. This highly labor-intensive process resulted in high quality, perfectly shaped granules. In our opinion, this is exactly how the granules for the Tillya-tepe jewelry were made. Very sophisticated professional skills were required to make high quality granules, and the ancient jewelers had those skills.

Another technique used in ancient jewelry-making and during the Middle Ages was embossing. It was done using a brass or copper piece, with a design carved in its bottom part. The metal sheet was then placed onto the anvil and embossed using a hammer. Embossing was used in making belt buckles. For instance, in the VII century layer of the ancient Pendjikent, a brass template for embossing belt parts with a drop-shaped end, slightly bent sides, and a relief nature ornament on its top surface was found.[6] Archeological excavation sites in ancient Penjikent showed that numerous metal studio shops existed in VII-VIII centuries. Twenty eight shops existed on the territory of one city, where metal and brass were processed, including shops where work was done on nonferrous metals, and where embossing was done on thin metal sheets from brass templates.[7] A Sogd craftsman acted as a small-scale manufacturer. He rented a shop or a studio from a rich city real estate owner, where his craft was produced and sold. Whole quarters of each city were dedicated to artisans, and jewelers were held in high esteem. Up to this day, names of city streets may reference the profession, such as Zargar (jeweler).

A brief analysis of the technical aspect of the art of jewelry of the researched period allows us to assume the following:

* Methods, devices, and techniques used in artistic processing of metals and art of jewelry making were highly developed;

* Masters possessed varied sophisticated techniques, such as stamping, casting, forging, granulation, bending, soldering, pressing, etc.

Analyzing how modern masters gain the knowledge and artistic skills, we can state that only about twenty years of experience would allow a jeweler to perfect the ability to combine flat surfaces with volume, as well as effectively use finishing and trimming (see the jewelry of Tillya-tepe). Practice has shown that the first three years jewelers learn to work with flat surfaces. Later, having mastered this first step, masters attempt to create three-dimensional objects � this is the second stage of gaining expertise. And only after a ten-year tenure, the master would combine flat surfaces with three dimensional aspects.

That is why only some remaining objects could be considered masterpieces. The jewelry pieces of the given period demonstrate the highest level of expertise in adding dimensions to a flat surface.

Jewelers� craft, just like any other ancient crafts, was closely knit with religion and rituals, which is reflected in the designs, plots, ornaments, the choice of certain stones, the number of inserts, etc. All these choices had a deep symbolic meaning, a system of certain signs, which reflected the master�s philosophy, his view of the world, and much more.

[1] Toybl, K. The Art of Jewelry. Translation from Czech - M.: Industrial and Food-processing industry, 1982, p. 54.

[2] Toybl, K. The Art of Jewelry. Translation from Czech - M.: Industrial and Food-processing industry, 1982, p. 55.

[3] Sarianidi V., Bactrian Gold. L., 1985 P. 254-259.

[4] Toybl, The Art of Jewelry. Translation from Czech - M.: Industrial and Food-processing industry, 1982, p. 81.

[5] Suleimanov, E. Traditional Kyrgyz Methods of Processing Metals. Frunze, 1982, p. 7.

[6] Raspopova, V. Byzantine Belt Buckles of Sogd. KSIA, 1968, issue 114.

[7] Raspopova, V. Metal objects of early medieval Sogd. L., Nauka, 1980, p. 108.

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