Ancient Warrior Hearts

Etruscan Votive Head, 500 BC.
Etruscan Votive Head, 500 BC.
Victorian Etruscan Revival Set, found on Pinterest.
Victorian Etruscan Revival Set, found on Pinterest.

Long before there was Rome and the Romans, there was Etruria and the Etruscans, though the name they called themselves was the Rasenna, from the region which is now, roughly, Tuscany. They were famed for their jewellery making skills, employing innovative techniques with gold wire filigree and granulation, or making motifs with tiny granules of gold. The people adorned themselves with layers of necklaces, earrings and headpieces.

Advances in Victorian archeology brought the works of these ancient smiths into the popular imagination.

Here is my humble take on the Etruscan revival.  I made it in honour of the recently discovered Warrior Princess, buried holding a spear. She was initially mistaken to be a prince, until bone analysis revealed her to be a middle-aged woman. The body buried with her, almost entirely cremated, was that of a man. Archeologists now conjecture that the jewellery found with the cremated body belonged to the man. But the tiny bronze box with five needles and thread, also found in the tomb, keeps its secrets.

Ancient Hearts. Etruscan inspired design by Feral Strumpet
Ancient Hearts. Etruscan inspired design by Feral Strumpet

They are wearable for every day, simple and lightweight but filled with ancient mystery!

Very Pink Knitting Tutorial Feature

It’s Thanksgiving and this year I’m really thankful to the rush of new customers who have found me through Staci Perry’s lovely knitting tutorial which features my Anglo Saxon Pennanular Brooch. I’m also thankful to Staci herself– who has been professional and inspiring to work with. She’s using her talents and skills not only to make us all better knitters but also to support small makers and independent businesses like myself.

This cardigan pattern pairs well with the brooch, and it’s exactly the kind of design I had in mind when I forged these brooches.  I love to wear cardigans but don’t like the fuss of buttons or belts so I’m always wearing my hand-knitted cardigans with these pins.  Staci’s pattern is the perfect weight for the Yorkshire winter, too!

The Anglo-Saxon Pennanular Brooch
The Anglo-Saxon Pennanular Brooch

A simple, endless circle inspired by the moon, ouroboros and archeological finds. This penannular brooch is based on an Anglo Saxon design discovered in North Yorkshire. My version is cold-forged in copper. Cold-forging means no heat is used to form the metal– just hammering and sheer force of will! The bottom edge of the ring has been hammer-finished, the small facets giving the piece an ancient, earthy feel. The pin comes in two sizes– the larger one for bulkier knitted garments and the other for finer, lace-weight shawls and scarves. – See more at: http://feralstrumpet.indiemade.com/product/anglo-saxon-penannular-brooch#sthash.Y9xN339u.dpuf

Of Beauty, Currency and Ballast

Sarah models the graduated, antique blue chevron bead necklace.

When making jewellery from vintage fragments, I often have to guess at a piece’s age and the fascinating history they have had before they found their way to me. Recently, I was lucky enough to acquire a small hoard of antique and ancient African beads from an estate sale of a someone who had traveled extensively through Africa, but the person selling them on behalf of the estate clearly thought they were junk. I bought them on a hunch, as you do, not really seeing the whole lot. But when I saw what a treasure they were, it prompted me to research them. I found this fascinating history of beads in timeline form.

Many in the lot are possibly ancient, rough stone wheels of jasper and quartz, with what seem to be bow-drilled holes, similar to those unearthed in Mali. But along with these came other glass beads, some very likely hundreds of years old. Some were tin beads resembling those made from melted-down cooking pots.

Chevron Trade Bead Card from the Vaccari Collection, circa 1900I made the necklace above from all the blue chevron beads that came in the hoard, graduated like traditional pearls. I have wired them, rosary style, so that the decorative layers, essential in dating the beads, are visible. These are perhaps the youngest beads from the lot, and date from the early 20th century. This style of bead was originally used by Dutch merchants in the late 15th century. Large quantities of the beads were used as ballast on trading ships, including those used in the slave trade. Sometimes African trade beads are called “slave beads” because of this. Manufactured in Venice until the 1950s, this style of bead is still highly prized by collectors.

Beads were manufactured Czechoslovakia, Murano and Venice for trade in Africa.  This is an example of a trade bead card. Similar bead cards were produced by bead makers in Venice for European traders in palm oil, gold, ivory and slaves.

Chevron beads are part of African royal treasuries and are highly prized, buried with the dead.

As I researched these beads, I realized that while they were not part of the slave trade, being from the early 20th century, they still had a complex history I had not originally known. I had to consider what it meant to create with these fragments of a colonial history, and it was not without some ambivalence. Their beauty seduced me in the end, and I realized it was an honor to work with them, a humbling experience to realize they found their way to me, and I have perhaps saved them the dustbin.

Antique African Trade Bead Necklace: https://www.etsy.com/listing/109099273/antique-african-blue-chevron-trade-beads

The Ivory Bangle Woman

The Ivory Bangle Woman of York, reconstructed from her remains.

The Ivory Bangle Woman, so called because of the jewelry she was buried with, was seemingly one of the wealthiest women in Eboracum, or Roman York.  Archaeologists have recently proved that she was African.

Glass jug from Cologne, buried with the Ivory Bangle Woman of York.

Where Rome was, so was the world.  (The Mediterranean, North Africa and Europe, at least.) In Roman York, one did not have to be from one tribe or another– one could be Roman despite being born elsewhere.  It is difficult to imagine this in modern Yorkshire,  where ideas of what is British can often seem quite narrow.  But these ancient streets were once full of people from many different places– and they were not just slaves or men hired to be laborers or soldiers.  The modern tourist trade here may give us a glimpse of this diversity, but a migrant is not a tourist. (Though I’m often mistaken for the later, despite living in England for over seven years now, but I digress.)

As an immigrant, you become a paradox, of two places at once, and none but another  such stranger can understand this way of being.

I wonder at this woman, far from her first home in the sun.  What did she make of this green island, her new home?  She died here, accumulated wealth and was loved. Her grave goods on display in the Yorkshire Museum have fascinated me.  The beautiful objects, 16 centuries old, are simple, elegant and evoke the mixture of who she was. A perfect blue glass bottle from the workshops in Cologne and two bangles: one of African ivory– the other, Whitby Jet.

Eboracum: Glass earrings inspired by the grave goods of the Ivory Bangle Woman.

An antiquarian for the people

On the island of South Ronaldsay, Orkney, there is a passage mound called the Tomb of the Eagles. It’s called this because several sea eagle talons were found inside along with the remains of over 300 people.

What makes this site distinct is the fact that it was excavated by a farmer who had waited 18 years for the officials to do it, and, after finding a passage in the law that allowed him to legally do it himself, he took matters into his own hands, seeking the advice of archaeologists who were excavating a nearby site.

What this means is that the visitors center is staffed with people who are personally involved with education, actively reading the newest research on Mesolithic people and sites. It is a labor of love for the farmer, Ronnie Simison and the guides in the center. They have done their best to make the cairn accessible– even providing wellies and waterproof coats and trousers if the weather is proving to be dismal, which it was when we visited. Also at the site of the tomb itself a skateboard and rope are provided for those who can’t or won’t crawl in.

tomb of the eagles

What I liked most about this place wasn’t just the ‘tomb’ itself, which was as breathtaking in its construction as the others we’d seen, but the trust put into the visitors to value and respect the site.

Me in the ‘tomb’ in rain gear provided (free) by the visitor centre.

While we were at the tomb there were a handful of other visitors, but no official tour guides. You get to experience the place without any official narrative, and you must make your way inside on your own terms. There were a few people who refused to go in (women who were dressed in high-heeled boots and expensive coats). When I crawled in I heard others behind me say, “She’s just crawling in there!” and not long after, others followed. There was something humbling and empowering about the site– situated on the wild, windy cliffs of the island– I felt a little of the eagle-character of those ancients rub off on me.

Most of the people crawling into the tomb that day were grey-haired women, and a few men they’d brought with them. How alien these women would have seemed to the people that built this place, most of whom would have been teenagers. I had this warm feeling for these hardy women who were willing to go into the darkness, and also for this archeological center, the vision of one generous farmer, where everyone is treated as a potential antiquarian.

On Your Knees, Pilgrim

Years ago I walked the labyrinth of Chartes. I didn’t go on my knees, which would have been the authentic way, but I wasn’t alone walking it. There was a woman on crutches behind me and I just thought that doing it on my knees would have been in bad taste. But before I belabor this too self-consciously, let me make my point– sometimes crawling is the only way to go.

The narrow passage of Wideford Hill.

Such is the case at the many portal “tombs” across the Orkneys, the most famous of which is the spectacular Maes Howe. Though archaeologists call these structures tombs, very few remains have been excavated from them– in some, none at all. The word “tomb” as been a reductive name for these structures that were more most probably sacred– perhaps calendar machines, astronomical observatories, or sites of shamanic seclusion. This argument has been put forth in the compelling and fantastical Uriel’s Machine. Like Robert Graves’ The White Goddess, it is more wish than fact, but with so much prehistory, this is what we have to go on, and it is enough.

Now that Skara Brae (a stone-age, subterranean village) and Maes Howe are World Heritage Sites, tourists are herded in and jokes are made about The Flintstones and Vikings, who used the tombs as hide-outs, having a “lads night in”. These distinctly spiritual places are reduced to fun-facts and family entertainment. The official line is that these were, basically, stone age mausoleums. To the predominantly Christian world-view that currently describes these sites, the lives of these people who built these places resemble our own lives in the most narrow way, and their ideas of the cosmos are reduced to naive superstition.

carved_stone_objects_skara_brae.jpg

For instance, these are “stone things” found at Skara Brae. These are in a display case at the site. The viewer is not reminded of essential ideas here– that these were made by people who we have considered to be cavemen. And they were made without stone tools. These powerful objects and indeed verything about these sites argues that they are more mysterious and alien than what the official Scottish Heritage line will let on.

The chambered cairns were designed to be entered via a “creep” or narrow passageway in the earth. The womb analogy is inevitable here, though in all the writings on the subject I have read, only Julian Cope seems to notice this. And, with all due respect for his tireless work on increasing awareness of Neolithic pagan heritage, he sees Mama in everything.

This is the moody and charming Wideford Hill cairn. Unlike the other cairns we visited, this creep was too narrow to crawl through. One must climb in from the top, where the cairn was busted open durning (Victorian era?) excavation.

But for those visitors who are not content to be merely bussed to the major sites and herded around the perimeter, there are myriad cairns that can be explored on their own terms. Using an OS map, M and I were able to locate several, each with its own kind of darkness. Outside each cairn there is a wooden box containing a torch whose batteries are either dead or dying.

But it’s the ritual of crawling that gives the place meaning– knowing that everyone who entered (save the brutal Victorian archaeologists or Viking raiders who came in through the top) had to do it on all fours.

Here I am in the Fairy Knowe, or “tomb of a dog cult”– 24 dog skulls were found inside, but only 7 human skulls. This cairn was on Cuween Hill, just up the road from our cottage. The stone-age masonry– like at Maes Howe– is amazing. You can see it behind me. The creep of Fairy Knowe is 18 feet long– I scampered in and found the darkness warm– the shadows ocher colored. Inside was a feeling of safety, and wild information there for the taking, if one were to crawl further into one of the rooms. But I didn’t. You really have to be ready to do that, and I wasn’t.

But tomorrow…what happens when a farmer excavates a tomb himself? And what does this have to do with pensioners on skateboards?