Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 11, 2004
Elizabeth Coatsworth and Michael Pinder The Art of the Anglo-Saxon Goldsmith: Fine Metalwork in Anglo-Saxon England, it's Practice and Practitioners Rochester, NY: Boydell Press, 2002. 293 pp.; 8 color ills.; 66 b/w ills. Cloth $145.00 (0851158838)

As anyone who has ever lectured on early medieval metalwork knows, two of the most frequently questions put to the speaker are “How was it made?” and “What do we know about the lives of the smiths?” The two authors, the archaeologist and art-historian Elizabeth Coatsworth and the silversmith Michael Pinder, address these issues in this book. Its scope is precisely outlined in the subtitle: Fine Metalwork in Anglo-Saxon England: its Practice and Practitioners. There is also some discussion of style and iconography, but these are not the volume’s chief topics.

Nevertheless, this book is ambitious and wide-ranging. It covers Anglo-Saxon metalwork in its entirety, from the early Anglo-Saxon period (fifth to early eighth centuries), through the Middle Saxon period (eighth to early tenth centuries), to the Late Saxon period (tenth and eleventh centuries). Moreover, it considers more than just the working of gold, which was in short supply in Western Europe after the Arab invasions. The book also takes account of silver, always the province of the “goldsmith,” and copper-alloy, which was often gilded to look like gold.

The last three to four decades have seen tremendous advances in the study of Anglo-Saxon metalwork. Archaeological excavations have uncovered increasing amounts of evidence for tools and workshop debris. They have also produced a large number of new finds, some of superb quality, most recently at Prittlewell, Essex (discovered after this book was published). In recent years, the corpus of Anglo-Saxon jewelry has also been increased by the activities of metal detectorists. Other advances have been made in the laboratory, where the latest scientific techniques have provided information about the precise constituents of alloys and inlays as well as evidence for particular manufacturing processes.

All this work has resulted in numerous publications on Anglo-Saxon jewelry, mostly located in specialist reports. A general overview was provided by two major exhibitions at the British Museum in London, The Golden Age of Anglo-Saxon Art, 966–1066 (1984) and The Making of England: Anglo-Saxon Art and Culture AD 600–900 (1991) But in both catalogues the sections dealing with jewelry are, of necessity, brief, and neither exhibition is very recent. Moreover, it has been over half a century since Ronald Jessup’s Anglo-Saxon Jewellery (London: Faber and Faber, 1950) appeared; apart from the shorter version published in 1974, it was the last and indeed only book devoted exclusively to the subject of Anglo-Saxon goldsmithing. There has been a pressing need for a new summary of the latest research. In The Art of Anglo-Saxon Goldsmith, the two authors have provided a much-needed synthesis of a fast-moving field.

The book starts by discussing the various types of evidence available. There is very little documentation for the making—as opposed to the owning or using—of Anglo-Saxon jewelry. But ancient craftsmen’s manuals, although they are only found in manuscripts from outside Anglo-Saxon England, can provide some pointers. Objects themselves also retain clues as to how they were made, and scrutiny of manufacturing marks can reveal the identity of particular tools and techniques, with evidence from partially made, damaged, or repaired objects being particularly helpful. More information is provided by archaeological evidence of processes and surviving tools used for exceptionally fine work.

Archaeologists badly need advice from practitioners when interpreting evidence of this type, and one strength of the book is that Pinder is a working silversmith. This practical know-how informs all observations made by the authors about goldsmithing. Part 1, which contains six chapters, is devoted to “The Goldsmith in Archaeology and His Art,” where the manufacturing process is followed from start to finish. It starts with a review of the archaeological evidence for goldsmithing. While there are no truly specialized fine-metalworking sites, with the possible exception of Coppergate, York, there are many signs of metalworking. Numerous processes involve the use of intense heat, so hearths and fragments of bellows provide evidence of workshops, as do utensils for refining precious metals. Excavations have also uncovered various tools that may have been used by the Anglo-Saxon goldsmith. Many pieces of Anglo-Saxon jewelry were cast, and this process has left traces in the form of molds or mold fragments, crucibles, and small ingot molds. Study of the objects themselves can identify fabrication techniques, such as the formation of sheet metal, rods, and wire, as well as joining techniques such as soldering and riveting.

The many different procedures employed to add interest to the surface of precious objects are then reviewed. Some methods, such as carving, engraving, punching, repoussé, and pressblech, simply altered the surface. Gold filigree was applied to the most luxurious pieces, and color was added by gilding or by inlaying niello, garnet, glass, or enamel.

The final chapter in this section considers broader questions of construction and design, the taste of the metalworkers and their clients for color and contrast, iconography, and the relationships between metalwork and both textiles and sculpture. It also discusses the role of preliminary sketches, the use of geometry, and the influence of construction methods and techniques on design.

As befitting authors from Manchester, Part 2 continues the work of C. R. Dodwell by gathering together many references to smiths and their work in visual, epigraphic, and documentary sources. The aim is to accumulate many small details and so far as is possible to provide a picture of Anglo-Saxon goldsmithing in the period. Here the book succeeds within the limitations of the evidence. It is the most thorough account to date of Anglo-Saxon attitudes to smiths, their works, and their working practices.

The discussion in this part is conveniently divided into three chapters. The first considers the representation of smiths in Anglo-Saxon literature and art. The technical expertise of the authors allows them to assess the accuracy of depictions of goldsmiths at work on a range of artefacts spanning the eighth to the eleventh centuries. Among the topics discussed in this first chapter are various treatments of the legend of Weland the smith; references to the smith in secular poetry, colloquies, glossaries, and grammars; and illustrations of smiths in tenth- and eleventh-century manuscripts.

The second chapter looks at the historical evidence for goldsmiths in chronicles, wills and charters, laws, place-names, and inscriptions. There is no Anglo-Saxon equivalent of Eligius, the seventh-century Frankish moneyer and goldsmith known from historical sources and from an object attributed to him, but a number of individual Anglo-Saxon goldsmiths can be named. There is also evidence that some goldsmiths were skilled in other fields: one who worked in Canterbury in the eleventh century was also known for calligraphy and painting; another was “outstanding in painting, gold-engraving and goldsmithing” (209). Wills, most of which date to the tenth and eleventh centuries, identify various types of jewelry that still survive: a neck ring, a pectoral cross, and a filigree-decorated brooch. They also suggest that the bullion itself was more valuable than the finished product: some items were cut up and divided among a number of legatees. Wills also show that goldsmiths were attached to wealthy households in the tenth century. The legal codes, however, offer very little help on the question of their status.

The third chapter in this section considers goldsmithing in the context of the changing economy of Anglo-Saxon England. As one would expect, goldsmiths were generally found in centers of wealth and power. They were associated with the rise of the powerful royal and noble elite, in wics (or prototowns), in great estates, and in the craft centers of later, fully developed towns. The book concludes with two useful appendices, one on the vocabulary of metalworking in Old English, the other a select catalogue of objects referred to in the text.

The Art of the Anglo-Saxon Goldsmith is written in a pleasant, accessible style and is well structured for easy reference. The illustrations include very useful drawings (some derived from published sources). The photographs, which are better reproduced in color than in black and white, are adequate, although more details of works would have been helpful. The bibliography is comprehensive, although given the scope of the book, there are inevitably omissions. The following spring to mind: a study of black rivets on two Anglo-Saxon strap-ends previously thought to be niello but that have been identified as patination by the technique known as shakudo in Japan;1 one on touchstones;2 and one discussing the possibility that the lost-wax technique may have been used in conjunction with two-piece molds.3

The huge scope of the book can lead to other problems, and some sections are more authoritative than others. Those on garnet and filigree, for instance, would have been written differently by specialists in these particular fields. The broader European background of many elements could have been stressed more than it is. Moreover, while the fact that one of the authors is a silversmith lends authority when manufacturing techniques are discussed, one can disagree with conclusions that depend on close scrutiny of the objects. For instance, I doubt that reeded strips were manufactured by a draw-swage, the method favored in the book, because when the reeding is unfinished, as it is on the back of some suspension loops on seventh-century pendants in the British Museum, the individual grooves and ridges can be seen to be different lengths—something unlikely to have happened if the strips were drawn.

Additional caveats are that a few minor mistakes appear in the dating of jewelry from the earlier period. The Mucking molds are firmly dated to the sixth century (not the sixth or seventh centuries, 70), while saucer brooches were made in the late fifth and sixth centuries (not fifth to early eighth centuries, 77). A few errors also escaped the proofreader’s eye. For example, the eleventh-century Hammersmith plaque is included in the catalogue for The Golden Age of Anglo-Saxon Art (not The Making of England), and the caption for fig. 25 transposes the Wilton and the Ixworth crosses.

There are, however, plentiful references that enable the reader to investigate for themselves all the issues raised, and the book is to be welcomed for making so much information accessible to a wide audience. It should also be consulted as a first step by anyone with a serious interest in Anglo-Saxon metalwork, particularly from the point of view of manufacturing techniques or documentary sources.

Niamh Whitfield

1 C. Stapleton et al., “Corthium Aes and Black Bronze in the Early Medieval Period,” The Antiquaries Journal 75 (1995): 383–90.

2 A. Oddy, “The Assaying of Gold by Touchstone in Antiquity and the Medieval World,” Outils et Ateliers d’Orfèvres des Temps Anciens, ed. C. Eluère (Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France: Société des Amis du Musée et du Château de Saint-Germain-en-Laye, 1993), 93–100.

3 A. Söderberg, “Scandinavian Iron Age and Early Medieval Ceramic Moulds – Lost Wax or Not or Both?”, in Proceedings of the 1st International Workshop: Experimental and Educational Aspects of Bronze Metallurgy. Wilhelminaoord 18–22 October 1999, ed. C. Tulp, N. Meeks, and R. Paardekooper (Leiden, the Netherlands: Vereniging voor Archeologische Experimenten en Educatie, 1999), 15–24.

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