When I reflect on how knowledge for artistic production is transmitted, I consider not only how artists taught their followers but also how we as art historians learn about their working methods. Art historians seeking to understand how artists of recent periods pass on knowledge to following generations may fairly easily track which artists went to art and design schools and which were self-taught. Before the existence of formal art schools, most artists learned their trade either as apprentices through a guild-type system or directly from family members as part of the family economic unit. For periods lacking historical documents, we use archaeological methods to trace how artists acquired their craft.
In this presentation, I will cite examples from the time that I study, which is a proto-historic period with very few textual documents that shed light on how artists and crafts-workers learned from the previous generations. I am trained as an art historian and an archaeologist, and I study the specific part of material culture that we call art. The sources I depend upon are more archaeological than historical. I will present examples from my research on fifth and sixth-century objects called bracteates, thin coin-like pendants of gold that are found in graves and hoards in Scandinavia. These bracteates were originally modeled after Late Roman and Byzantine medallions. However, their iconography soon shifts from the Roman emperor’s image to display typically Nordic animal ornamentation, and the inscriptions change from imitations of Latin to short, usually enigmatic runic messages.
Various sources provide information about metalworking during the early medieval period in Scandinavia. A few Continental texts are relevant. For instance, the movements of the seventh century St. Eligius, the patron saint of goldsmiths, as described in his vita, provide an example of an itinerant goldsmith, and the early twelfth-century treatise On Diverse Arts by Theophilus informs us about precious metal workshop organization and working methods. In the absence of Scandinavian historical documents of this period, I have found that ethnographic studies and experimental archaeology help me understand how goldsmiths worked. My analysis of workshop organization of early medieval goldsmiths owes a great deal to what I have learned from hands-on experiments with contemporary jewelers. However, on the whole, our best and most plentiful sources of information about the goldsmiths in fact are the objects that they made.
By examining bracteates under a microscope, I have been able trace the use of identical tools, which has led to fruitful discussions about the sharing and inheritance of tools with contemporary goldsmiths. What I have learned about bracteate production is comparable to technical studies of tool marks on other objects, such as Trecento Italian tempera paintings that exhibit the impressions of stamps punched into their surfaces. Also visible under magnification are apparent mistakes that were made during the production of some bracteates. Such errors are often very informative about working methods and, in many cases, may have been made by apprentices who were just learning their craft. However, these learners may also have introduced useful innovations in bracteate technology. In yet other instances, deviations from standard bracteate techniques may reflect variable ways of working, such as when itinerant smiths worked for diverse audiences or when immigrant smiths worked for a new clientele.
Rather than focus only on technical aspects of working methods, I examine questions of agency. Sometimes by extrapolating from later history, I have tried to “people” the early medieval period to counteract the overwhelming emphasis on anonymity. Besides examining the goldsmiths who made the objects, I also consider who commissioned the bracteates and who wore them because the production of an artist is constrained by the desires of the consumers of the work. We should not discount the significance of the women who displayed bracteates. By analogy with later medieval jewelry-making, it is possible that women were involved in the production of metalwork as part of the family economic unit. Women’s roles in deciding how bracteates were made, choosing which ones to wear, and passing these ornaments down to later generations are uncertain but must be crucial since art is reciprocally shaped by its intended audience.
My examples of early medieval Scandinavian bracteates are small-scale and proto-historic, yet some of what I have discovered may be extrapolated by art historians who study later periods and large-scale work. Although my focus differs somewhat from historic periods, it is worth keeping in mind how much we can learn from detailed examination of the work of any period. I advise art historians that to truly know the artists whom they study, they must first thoroughly understand the material aspects of the works of art.