Editors’ Introduction: Putting Work into Metal

This Introduction for the Special Issue on Metalwork appears in the Vol. 28 No. 2 / Fall-Winter 2021 of West 86th.

A copper ingot found in Cyprus signifies both the beginning and the end of life for many items of metalwork. The ingot (fig. 1) either was made from smelted copper unearthed from the Cypriot copper mines and formed into its shape or represents the afterlife of a broken, dysfunctional vessel or other object, melted down only to be shaped again into an ingot in an endless cycle of material and form. The ingot has the potentiality to mutate into a near-limitless variety of objects, through either simple hammering techniques or more complex ones involving casting. As a resource for artisans, the ingot could also serve as commodity money in an exchange. In its amorphic presence, the humble object thus offers a springboard for pondering all that metalwork is and can be, while elaborating on ideas of its design, making, use, and reception.

Metalwork has been a pivotal product historically, accompanying the rise of world civilizations and the first empires. Its study plays a central role in archaeology, art history, material culture, object conservation, and the history of technology. Even a cursory library search will yield a multitude of titles on different facets of metalwork (methods of production and restoration, different regional types or styles, associated modes of exchange, consumption, regimes of value, etc.). Yet, to the best of our knowledge, no book focuses on the term’s implicit claim of “working with metals” as a cross-cultural phenomenon. If compound words fuse morphemes to forge new meaning, how does “metalwork” exceed the sum of its parts?

Obviously, the term implies some kind of transformation of natural elements into cultural goods. But how does this material transformation come about and, more importantly, what does it entail for the future of the people and materials that partake in it? As it turns out, the word that we casually use to designate metal objects as useful or beautiful things fails to make sense of the processes by which they come in and out of existence. As it so often does, the conceptual work conducted with words moves too quickly to pay proper attention to the work done by hands and materials.

For this special issue, we invited a diverse roster of twenty-six conservators, curators, practitioners, and researchers to help us grapple with metalwork as a material and analytical category. The contributors were asked to write short texts structured around their own research on metalwork; debates relating to its interpretation, circulation, or representation; or innovations in scientific procedure. The multivocal format was intended to highlight a broad range of approaches, elicit speculation, and offer a home to orphaned ideas. We also hoped that writing a “think piece” might provide some reprieve from the unpredictable conditions of the coronavirus pandemic. At the time that the authors developed their contributions, countries around the world wavered between different degrees of lockdown and reopening and scrambled to enforce social-distancing measures. Libraries were closed or imposed strict capacity limits. Offices and laboratories were chain-locked. Research projects were suspended. Teaching migrated to online platforms, accompanied by all the frustrations such forced transitions involve. In such uncertain times, we are all the more grateful for the generous response that our call has garnered. We especially acknowledge our colleague and friend Frederick Asher. The incalculably sad news of his passing reached us while we were editing the revised versions of our authors’ submissions. We are deeply grateful to his wife, Cathy, and to Janice Leoshko for approving the final version of his typescript and its illustrations.

The contributions herein discuss some of the many ways in which work can be put into metals in order to make them work for us. To name but a few examples, we come across solid-cast objects made to withstand the tensile stresses of ancient agricultural labor and warfare (Lothar von Falkenhausen) or modern industrial applications (Amy F. Ogata), items that embody value on account of the metals’ solidity and potential reusability (Maikel Kuijpers and David Fontijn), and those that magnify figural messages through scaled replication and dissemination (Megan R. Luke). Elsewhere, we read accounts of how metals are hammered or forged to create containers (Edward S. Cooke Jr.), protective wrappings for bodies (Jonathan Tavares), or radiant skins applied to objects to evoke the possibility of (even) more magnanimous ones (Kenneth Lapatin). In each example, the work invested into the metal’s transformation corresponds to certain infrastructures, systems of exchange, social hierarchies, and deep reservoirs of artisanal knowledge (Michael Cole). And in each case, work can be understood in relation to the product that it aims to manufacture. Indeed, the contributions can be read as a series of closely observed micro portraits of trades that have been fine-tuned—over generations, in many cases—to turn out products that enable a highly specialist purpose, be it ritual, representational, utilitarian, or a mix thereof. The preeminent importance attached to a metal’s purpose is consistent with the ancient view of banausic work as a relationship of service, connecting the maker with the user through the intermediary of the crafted object. According to Aristotle, the artisan’s skill is subservient to the product and, by implication, to the user’s requirements.1Unpalatably, Aristotle considered this relationship also a sign of the artisan’s servitude, but under different social conditions his particularist definition of craft can equally be taken to signal its autonomy.

In view of the emphasis on handmade crafts, it is worth noting that the term “metalwork” is of relatively recent coinage and, to some extent, peculiar to the English language. As Amy F. Ogata points out, French tends to be more specific in naming different types of metal products and distinguishing between decorative and utilitarian ones. The German term Metallarbeit is similarly broad as “metalwork,” but less commonly used in academic discussions of handcrafted items. The fact that the term’s English usage became drastically more frequent with the Industrial Revolution invites us to ponder metalwork as a strategic umbrella that leaves unsaid its definitional opposite—the making of metal objects conceived as labor. Subsuming work under the concept of labor threatens to convert all the varied modes of working with metals that our essays delineate into an abstract and quantifiable activity and all products into commodities of comparable value.

Several contributions indicate that this other aspect of metal production must also be part of our debate, that art and craft cannot exist as conceptual domains without the notion of labor. Megan R. Luke and Robert Slifkin show how modern metal sculpture has toyed with, undermined, and reaffirmed the frontiers between art and industry. David Fontijn and Maikel Kuijpers explore how sacrificing metal valuables in Bronze Age Europe actualized similarly cosmic boundaries between commodity exchange and common good. In a related vein, the coins of early Greece discussed by Peter van Alfen can be considered as works of craft as much as money—a perspective that brings into focus the inadequacy of reductive economic models. In Jeffrey Moser’s discussion of eleventh-century Chinese catalogues of ancient bronzes, we get a glimpse of the antiquarian’s role in defining the intellectual capital of connoisseurship in the face of the potential fungibility of the collected objects and of the metal’s growing importance as a medium of exchange. As Alicia Boswell and Allison Stielau emphasize, leaving the early modern “flows” of metals as a commodity unexamined has allowed art historians to ignore the systems of colonial requisition by which bullion was (and still is) brought to Europe and the hidden rites of passage through which art’s tainted “raw” material is purified. While the bullion metal shipped to Europe has remained conveniently invisible in most art histories, Yaelle Biro’s look at the reception of its visible counterparts—African bronzes in Western collections—foregrounds how art history’s evolutionist frameworks have been enlisted to legitimize colonial rule.

In each example we can recognize how metalwork has come to present a juncture between moral and material worlds, perceived as calculable commodities in one instance and inexhaustible signifiers in the next. With origins spanning disparate geographies and civilizations, the processing of metals puts complex demands on individuals and communities, connecting the toil of laborers and craftspeople with global exchange, state bureaucracies, ritual systems, specialist design, and elite value. At the heart of the mediatory power of metals is their endless mutability and renewability through the input of work.

Exploring metalwork from multiple viewpoints also calls for closer attention to the transformative acts of the work that it embodies. Today, this transformation is carried out on an industrial scale. Draglines and scrapers rip open vast opencast mines. Shafts and tunnels are driven into the earth so deep that the heat inside becomes unbearable for the workers. The human and environmental costs are colossal. Ancestral homes and animal habitats are turned into wastelands, rivers and soils contaminated with acid from heavy metals. The impact of exploitative practices on mining-dependent communities is exceedingly difficult to isolate from sustainable operations, owing to the global sourcing and mixing of metals in the commodity trade. Global steel manufacturing alone produces more CO2 emissions than the whole annual footprint of Germany or Japan. Although unprecedented in its current scale, the devastation caused by mining and metal processing is nothing new. In parts of West Asia and Europe the paleo-environmental soil degradation caused by copper metallurgy can be traced back to the earliest stages of the Chalcolithic. 2 Around two thousand years ago, the concurrence of well-organized state societies (Han China, the middle kingdoms in India, Olmec Mexico, pre-Chavín Peru, and Roman Europe) engaged in landscape clearing, slavery, and mining for heavy metals, all of which left global anthropogenic signatures in soils and Arctic ice.3

Premodern operations were incomparably smaller and less damaging, at least for the nonhuman environment. But for those who came into contact with metalwork in its different stages of existence, the psychological impact was no less momentous. The transformation of rocks found in the earth into brilliant, near-imperishable metal objects is profoundly fascinating and for centuries generated speculations about the primitive origins of pyrotechnology and its Promethean compounding through metalcraft with greed, inequality, and war.

Several contributors explore what working with metals entails from the maker’s perception. Andrew Lacey and Pamela H. Smith’s reconstruction of early modern casting methods offers a glimpse of what it means for artists-theorists to come to terms with unseen processes hidden inside bodies, machines, and casting molds. Wendy Yothers offers a personal account of the lifelong practical experience through which knowledge of metals is sedimented into the maker’s body and how the process of attaining that knowledge takes on new forms in the age of digital distance learning. Tonny Beentjes shows how conservators investigate this tacit knowledge from mute objects, reverse engineering “obsolete” processes in research labs.

Together these think pieces demonstrate what it means for makers to participate in the entangled worlds of metal and work. From the mining and smelting of the raw materials through alloying and fabricating metal objects, all the way to their use, breakdown, and eventual rebirth as something else, a perpetual cycle of generation and decay links people, places, and things into a complex web of ever-changing sensory flows and relationships. The cycle also links the stages in an object’s trajectory in ways that point to the fragility of our own existence and the need—more urgent than ever—to rethink our insatiable desire for things.

  1. 1 See Aristotle’s definition of craft products in terms of use value (as opposed to commodity value) in book five of his Nicomachean Ethics, and the discussions of the passage in Karl Marx, Das Kapital: Kritik der politischen Oekonomie (Hamburg: Otto Meissner, 1867), vol. 1, pt. 1, chap. 1.3, and in Jean-Pierre Vernant, “Some Psychological Aspects of Work in Ancient Greece,” in Myth and Thought among the Greeks, trans. Janet Loyd with Jeff Fort (New York: Zone Books, 2006), 293–98.
  2. 2 Kyle A. Knabb et al., “Environmental Impacts of Ancient Copper Mining and Metallurgy: Multi-Proxy Investigation of Human-Landscape Dynamics in the Faynan Valley, Southern Jordan,” Journal of Archaeological Science 74 (2016): 85–101, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jas.2016.09.003; Antonio Martínez Cortizas et al., “Early Atmospheric Metal Pollution Provides Evidence for Chalcolithic/Bronze Age Mining and Metallurgy in Southwestern Europe,” Science of the Total Environment 545–46 (2016): 398–406, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2015.12.078.
  3. 3 Yadvinder Malhi, “The Concept of the Anthropocene,” Annual Review of Environment and Resources 42 (2017): 91–92, https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-environ-102016-060854; Joseph R. McConnell et al., “Lead Pollution Recorded in Greenland Ice Indicates European Emissions Tracked Plagues, Wars, and Imperial Expansion during Antiquity,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 115, no. 22 (2018): 5726–31, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1721818115. Trace metal pollution from Roman mining sites can be measured in wildlife to this day; see Estelle Camizuli et al., “Trace Metals from Historical Mining Sites and Past Metallurgical Activity Remain Bioavailable to Wildlife Today,” Scientific Reports 8 (2018): 3436, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-018-20983-0.
Fig. 1.  Cypriot ingot, ca. 1450–1050 BCE. Copper, 14⅜ × 17½ in. (36.5 × 44.5 cm), 63 lb. (28.6 kg). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 1911, 11.140.7.

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