Simple tools great creativity

Fragments of working drawings have been found incised on bone or slate. These were laid out using a grid, and compasses were employed extensively to produce the curving interlace of Celtic designs. Using such basic tools, the Celtic craftsmen produced these complex patterns, and their eye for intricate detail bears testimony to their skills.

Much of the metalwork of the period was cast rather than beaten, and casting molds have been uncovered throughout Britain and Ireland. Most of these molds came in two parts. A wax or lead template of the piece would be made, then pressed into the halves of the clay mold. A pouring channel would lie cut in the top surface, and the template removed again. The mold was then fired, then the molten metal was poured inside it. For the most part, molds were only used once, then discarded, as repeat castings were less distinct than the original.

Another technique reserved for larger or more complex pieces was the lost-wax method. The inner template was greased and coated in clay layers, which were then fired. The inner template would melt, leaving a hollow mold. The metal would then lie poured in.

A number of casting workshops have been discovered, revealing the remains of molds, crucibles for molten metal, stone crucible rests, and iron handling tongs. When pieces were hammered from wrought metal rather than cast, small hammers and stakes were used. This was a particularly common method for the production of bowls or chalices. Cast or beaten pieces were then assembled, and joined together using rivets, solder, or cement.

Mechanical joints were often used, when pieces were folded together and beaten. Rivets were the most common form of bond and, in important pieces, the rivet heads would lie covered with decorative features such as roundels or bosses. The craftsmanship required to produce the best of the Celtic metalwork was extremely demanding. Given the simple tools available, their achievements are extraordinary.

Above: About a hundred bone flakes like this one were excavated from a burial mound in Lough Crew. County Meath. The decoration illustrates the compass techniques used by Irish artists in the 1st century ad.

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