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Lost gold of the dark ages

Remember a while back, an ordinary guy with a metal detector found
the largest Anglo Saxon gold hoard ever discovered?

The program depicting that whole story is now out on Nat Geo
channel. There are hundreds of pieces of
history/gold/art/artifacts… they’re all of that.

The find contained some 11 pounds of gold and 1 pound of silver.

Quite a bit of eye candy, really. Many close up shots showing
amazing gold work, inlay, etc.

steve. Oklahoma… where the wind comes sweeping down the plain… and
finally we’ve ditched the 100 degree weather.

King John…I think the guy who was alive when the Magna Carta was
signed…traveled with the national treasures. He ignored someones
advice and crossed a river mouth when a tidal bore was coming in.
People made it out but the heavy treasure cart did not. I wonder if
anybody has ever located that stuff.

Rose Alene

I’ve watched this show twice and something puzzles me. At one point
in the program the narrator says that it’s a complete mystery how the
goldsmiths inlayed slices of garnet into a piece (I think a pommel
from a sword). The show goes on to say that it is unknown how the
goldsmiths put a very, very thin piece of foil behind each of the the
stones. My reaction was that although this technique may be advanced,
is it really an unknown process? Surely most of the professional
jewelers on this forum would be able to do this!

Look here,

and if interested buy this, I found it a good read and it’s nice to
muse over the images sitting outside under the shade of a tree :wink:


Regards Charles A.

certianly reproduction swordsmiths who duplicate Anglo-Saxon garnet
work can do it.

I noticed this same thing. Perhaps they were succumbing to the
notion that because it was in the past, their techniques could not
include such an advanced concept, when really quite the opposite
could be true, especially with hand techniques?

certianly reproduction swordsmiths who duplicate Anglo-Saxon
garnet work can do it. 

Or they use an unsupported modern technique, that gives the same

Look into needle making, a traditional approach to the modern

The traditional approach will take you two weeks to make a needle,
and costs a lot of money to make.

The modern approach will give you exactly the same result, you can
have the needle on the day it’s made, and it will cost you less than
a cent to make.

Regards Charles A.

BTW, if you want to see an example of gold and garnet work by a
modern swordsmith, check out Patrick Barta’s page, starting here Although it
doesn’t show it on this page, I know that he uses foil backing
behind the garnets.

Yes, they are for sale and yes they are expensive.


I’d say it’s true more often than not that craftsmen of the past had
more advanced hand techniques than we do today. We’ve got power
tools and it’s not economical to use labor intensive methods.

(Which does not mean I’m about to give up my flat lap!)


Hi Rick,

I’ve seen this work before, and it never ceases to amaze, the level
of skill and attention to detail are exceptional (imo).

For the work that goes into them, those prices are a bargain.
Multiply by at least three to get a reasonable price.

Regards Charles A.

When I studied metals at the U of O my professor Max Nixon gave us a
slide show of ancient inlaid garnet jewelry. One student commented
on how well it was done and the fact that it had survived the
centuries. He asked “How’d they do it with such crude tools?” Max
replied “Fear.” Fear? Yup. Max explained that if you were a metal
smith you worked for the Chieftain or King. If you screwed up or made
lousy stuff you got your head chopped off. End of bad craftsman gene
pool. Have fun and make lots of jewelry.

Jo Haemer

If you’re talking about the Staffordshire Hoard, the collection’s
website has really large high-def pictures - good enough to see
toolmarks and tiny imperfections:


I’ve watched this show twice and something puzzles me. At one point
in the program the narrator says that it’s a complete mystery how
the goldsmiths inlayed slices of garnet into a piece (I think a
pommel from a sword). The show goes on to say that it is unknown how
the goldsmiths put a very, very thin piece of foil behind each of
the the stones. My reaction was that although this technique may be
advanced, is it really an unknown process? Surely most of the
professional jewelers on this forum would be able to do this!

The process certainly isn’t unknown. I’ve got various bo= oks,
papers, PDFs…etc that talk about the process. An inlayer will
probably know proper technical terms for this, but basically, the
item will be cast solid or made from sheet and strip. Once the sizes
of the gaps are known, the garnets are cut (I don’t know the method,
but it would have been on afairly large scale, because so much work
from this period uses these garnet slices) which takes a really,
really long time, because garnet was (I think) the hardest material
they had access to.

When the garnets are all cut, very thin gold foil is hammered out,
and then a pattern (in this case, a very fine grid) is applied to the
foil by punches or by “pressblech”; the foil is then cut into tiny
pieces to match the garnets. A paste is applied to the setting, the
foil is placed onto that, then the garnets, which are rubover set, or
possibly set by glue or just tension in some cases.=0

A This is foil-setting, which remained in use right up to the
Victorian period- I’m sure some people still use it now. All of this
is obviously incredibly skilled work, particularly the garnet
cutting, but there doesn’t seem to be anything mysterious about it. I
thought the Nat Geo stuff I’ve seen about the hoard is pretty badly
made, TBH.

If anyone is really interested in this, I can put together a blog
post with a description and some links to resources. It would also be
good if a stonecutter could chime in with suggestions about how the
garnets would be made - Kevin Leahy suggests that there may have
been a centralised workshop producing the garnet sheets - they are
apparently very consistent in thickness across Europe.

Jamie - who has seen the hoard with his own eyes, and can testify to
just how tiny the items are.

Jo, I would love to ask Prof. Nixon for his evidence for the “head
chopped off” assertion. It reminds me of the number of times I have
read that metalsmiths in ancient Mesopotamia (my field of Ph.D.
specialization) were feared and avoided because they were believed
to possess a special magic which metalworking required. I have looked
for 40 years for textual (cuneiform) evidence for this, and there is

But ancient jewelry is impressive. I hope you’ve seen the examples
from the so-called Royal Tombs of Ur (ca. 2500 BC).

Judy Bjorkman

The use of garnets for jewellery in the so-called dark ages is
prevalent in northern europe. The Vikings and Saxons had access to
vast quantities of them in Norway and northern Scotland. Cutting and
polishing will have been done using emery, an iron-aluminium oxide
which is also found in metamorphic rocks in Scandinavia and the
mediterranean. Trade between northern europe and the med was
widespread, glass from Syria is found here and most of the gold
around the med of the time will have come from here as the arabs seem
to have lost most of the extraction metallurgy expertise the Romans
had. Evidence of the trade is found in grave goods and sunken ships.
Where the stones were cut is another matter, it certainly appears
there were large workshops producing the goods rather than
individuals here and there, probably the Rhine valley where a
continuous gemstone output has again been going on since Roman times.

To make the thin garnet sheets is a fairly simple process, you mount
lots of small garnets in pitch on a hard backing and grind down the
surface. Turn them over and do the same again. Then shape your
stones using abrasive mounted on wooden points. Slow by modern
standards but when I started doing lapidary 35 years ago there were
people who were still familiar with having to use such methods for
production work and you can still buy mud saws brand new in China.
Archaeologists tend to invesnt theories about things they dont know
the answer to, cultural or religious reasons are placed upon many
unknown things whereas the reality is probably much more mundane.

Nick Royall

Actually, I’d think cutting the garnets would be the easy part of
the job. The variety of garnet they used tends to fracture along
tabular lines. That is, you get a lot of small more-or-less flat
pieces with the top and bottom roughly parallel. (I’ve got a couple
of pounds of it sitting in my work area). It would be a simple matter
to grind it flat and to thickness. (Although I don’t know how they
would have gotten the material consistently thick,) Then each piece
would have been ground to shape to fit the cell.

Garnet is not that hard, although it is somewhat brittle and tends
to chip

–RC (who intends to take up garnet inlay Real Soon Now)

Hi Jamie,

who has seen the hoard with his own eyes, and can testify to just
how tiny the items are. 

I’m so envious, I just have to rely on the available images, and
fortunately they come with a size reference (thank you historical

Tiny absolutely, this make the find more valuable for research, as
there are a lot of pieces.

Regards Charles A.

Hi Judy,

Went to an exhibition today at the University of Sydney, and it had
some nice pieces, mostly ancient.

Casters and blacksmiths in the past in Europe were considered
Alchemists, and followed secret practices and later secret texts. It
was almost religious devotion.

Creating metal from what appears to be dirt can be awe inspiring to
those that are ignorant to that knowledge.

I watched a video on aquamanelia and it went through the process of
making the items, and a bit of the philosophical thinking of the

Regards Charles A.

Greetings all,

About a year ago, when this all first hit the news, a friend of mine
and I started doing some research into reproducing the inlay. (Tom,
if you’re reading this, please chime in.) Unfortunately, I got
sidetracked by moving, so I’m just now getting back to where I can
continue with reproducing it.

What we discovered is that there are a variety of very good, and
very obscure treatii on the subject. Saint Birgit the Unpronounceable
being foremost among them. (Birgit Arrhenius, Merovingian Garnet
being probably the best. ) There are a bunch of good
articles scattered around in various publications, including a couple
in Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History, vol. 4 dealing
with cutting the garnets, and making the foil for the inlay.

We got a bunch of garnet rough in various shapes, to try cleaving,
as it looks like it has nice, clean, obvious cleavage planes. No
dice. It may look like it’ll cleave nicely, but it doesn’t. (Or if
it does, please somebody tell me how!) (Tried knife blades, hot and
cold, thermal shock, every trick I could think of. Gravel every

That was about as far as we’d gotten, before I got sandbagged. I do
a lot of work with making gold foil for damascene work, so making the
gold foil presents no particular challenges. We were more worried
about cutting the rocks than what to do once we had them.

In looking at the period examples, it looks like there were a
variety of techniques in use, depending on the quality of the work.
First, the scholarly work makes a pretty convincing argument that
there were cutting centers in modern Germany and Bohemia that made a
majority of the ‘rough’ plates, which then were sold on as rough
preforms, to be finished to shape by whoever did the final work.
Equally, it seems like a good bit of the garnet used was Bohemian in
origin. (makes sense.)

The setting could be done in one of several ways, depending on skill
& quality. The Sutton-Hoo pieces are probably just friction fit, with
nothing behind them. (cut the stones to fit the cells-exactly-, and
then cut a bit of gold foil ever so slightly bigger. Place gold foil
under stone, and over cell opening. Put stone on top, press in. The
gold will wrap around the stone and add a bit of friction to hold it
in place. That’s it, and it’s held for 1400 years. The problem with
basing anything on the Sutton-Hoo pieces is that they’re so well
made, and in such good condition that it’s really hard to figure out
what’s going on. There may have been some paste behind the stones as
a backstop originally, but there’s no way to be suRe: most of the
stones are tight, so there’s no way to see what’s behind them. Also,
the soil at Sutton-Hoo is so acidic that it may well have dissolved
any organic paste originally present. (It did dissolve the body they
were buried with.) There are repair holes in some of the pieces,
showing where holes were drilled from the back, and the stones were
poked out, which probably wouldn’t have worked if there’d been any
paste there originally, but that’s a matter of opinion. (The paste
being more like pitch, than wax so it would act like a solid glue,
rather than a wax that you could push a pin through.) (Think
setter’s cement, or dopping wax, not beeswax.)

The ‘second rate’ settings seen in other garnet work did have
paste filling the cells as a backstop. Sometimes just the paste and a
friction fit with the gold foil as a ‘caulk’, were enough to hold
the pieces together.

The ‘third rate’ version was to have the cells filled with paste,
and the gold foil, and then burnish the top of the cell walls in a
sort of rubover setting. I say third rate (my term) because the
rubbed over type setting gives a much messier look. The walls are
wider (much) than the high quality settings, and they tend to wobble
visually. Straight lines ripple, and right angles aren’t. The stones
also tend not to be as tightly cut in that level of work.

I’m really looking forward to getting a better look at the
Staffordshire pieces once they’re conserved (or even just washed
off!), as there are pieces in a wide range of quality levels
represented. And while it stinks for the pieces themselves that
they’re as badly broken up as they are, it’s an invaluable glimpse
into the techniques of their manufacture that they’re not in nearly
perfect condition like the Sutton-Hoo pieces.

For whatever that all’s worth,