Experiential archaeology: touching the past with a pair of tongs

Learning through experience

Early medieval artifacts only make sense when we understand how they were made, and the materials they’re made from. We humans have a lot of ways we try to make sense of our stuff–cultural norms, artifacts’ practical utility, our personal experiences of making, using, and parting with these things.

When we dig up artifacts, however, most of this is lost. Little writing survives from the period I study (5th and 6th century England). We don’t have records of what people thought about their stuff. But we do often have the things themselves. For historians and archaeologists, the challenge is convincing these things to talk to us in place of a human witness.

Things speak through experiences rather than words. Cultural norms change, and the value of a tool or other artifact isn’t always obvious to an outsider. We can however, learn a lot about what things meant to people in the past by looking at what the things did to the people who made them. I can heat wrought iron in a charcoal forge, hammer it into a shape, and through this embodied experience learn something about the materials I’ve just worked that early medieval persons also learned when they carried out the same procedures with the same tools. That knowledge gained from experience shaped the frameworks in which people in the past understood the handcrafted things in their world. By sharing in the experience, we can get a glimpse into that lost knowledge.

In a paper I published several years ago, I examine how blacksmiths made sense of their mistakes. I look at times when smiths thought they were using one kind of iron but had actually mistakenly grabbed a less suitable alloy. Smiths made a lot of these kinds of mistakes because early medieval wrought iron liked to misbehave. As a consequence, new-forged iron objects frequently failed to deliver on their makers’ guarantees.

The objects’ failures, smiths’ failures, shaped how people used and thought about iron. Every new piece of iron was suspect. Until it was proven, it might break. This fear of new iron, rooted in the inescapable uncertainties of early medieval metallurgy, changed how people used iron, thought about iron, traded it, and threw it away.

I based this argument on laboratory analyses of surviving artifacts, experimental recreations of early medieval iron smelting furnaces, hands-on examination of excavated artifacts, and medieval literary descriptions of iron’s fickle behavior.

For the past several months, I’ve been revisiting these ideas from a new perspective: recreating experiences of iron first-hand by forging, and using, reproductions of early medieval blacksmith tools.

Recreating the past?

Historians will object that no modern person can enter into the mind of a medieval artisan. We can, however, hold the same tools, hit the same alloys of iron, feel the same shocks running up and down our bones, and feel our own version of the same frustrations when the material refuses to do what we want it to. These frustrations mirror, imperfectly, the frustrations our medieval counterparts felt. Through these parallel experiences, we can participate in an unwritten, embodied praxis shared by ironworkers in the past and present. From this shared experience, we can begin to ask harder questions about what these experiences mean to us, and what they meant to the people who came before.

We can’t, of course, recreate the past. No modern human with a hammer can experience iron like a medieval artisan who had dedicated their life to the craft, and no modern experience of a material can bring back the stories–now lost–that smiths told about this magical metal. But of course, many medieval smiths were, like us, amateurs at their jobs. Most were farmers who spent more time ploughing dirt than forging iron. More fundamentally, even if we don’t know how medieval smiths talked about their work, we can still see what they did. Smiths’ choices, especially when things went wrong, reveal how they understood their metal to work, what they thought it to be. This understanding is especially easy to spot when smiths made consistent choices that we wouldn’t make today–choices that begin to make sense when we pick up their tools instead of our own, and get to know iron on their terms with hammer and anvil.

Iron is still iron, and cultures separated by time and space converge where the hammer strikes metal.

I’m at the start of this project right now. The first step is to make the right tools. I plan to post about my research and recreations here more over the coming months.

I started with a simple pair of tongs.

Tongs from the Tattershall Thorpe Smith

Tongs are a blacksmith’s least glamorous but most important tool. They let you hold the hot iron without burning your skin. Most smiths use a variety of tongs, and this variety is reflected in the archaeological record of the Early Middle Ages. As a starting point, I chose to reproduce a set of tongs from a seventh century grave, the oldest pair of tongs to survive from England’s early Anglo-Saxon period.


The tongs, found buried with a 'smith' at Tattershapp Thorpe, Lincs., England. From Hinton 2000.

These tongs are based on a pair found buried with in a seventh-century grave from Tattershall Thorpe (Lincs.) in the UK (Hinton 2000). They were part of a large collection of smithing tools that included three hammers, an anvil, snips, several chisels, punches, files, and a collection of scrap metal for recycling. Most of the tools look like they’re designed for non-ferrous metalworking (brass, gold, etc). The largest hammer and anvil, however, could have been used to forge iron–a job for which these tongs also seem well suited.

I forged these tongs in 2017, using wrought iron from a recycled nineteenth-century fence.

Looking back, I made a few mistakes in my reproduction. First, I thinned the jaws too much compared to the original (see the image below). This ended up having a practical consequence — it’s a little difficult to grip iron rods between the curve (next to the pin) without the metal twisting in the tongs. If I’d tapered the jaws less like the original, this would be less of an issue. I know for next time!

The other thing I noticed was that I overlapped my tong halves right over left, just like a modern pair of pliers. However, the originals actually overlapped left over right! That makes sense, as most modern pliers are meant to be used in the right hand, while these tongs are presumably built to be held in the left (while the right holds a hammer). I’ll make the next pair properly so I can see how much of a difference this mistake makes.

I have gotten much good use from these tongs in the year since I made them, and I’ve already learned a few things. One is that while they’re very short compared to modern blacksmith tongs, their length is enough to keep my hand comfortably cool when I forge in a charcoal hearth (whose heat tends to be localized, unlike modern gas forges which radiate heat outward and require longer tongs for comfortable use). Another is that they grip small projects like knives very well, but are not a good shape for gripping larger bars of iron which tend to jump about in the tongs’ smooth, flat jaws. This supports David Hinton’s suggestion that the assemblage from which they came represented the tools “appropriate to someone working in precious metals and copper alloys,” but also capable of working on small iron implements as well (Hinton 1998).

These tongs are the first step. Over the coming months I’ll keep filling my toolbox with hammers, anvils, and the other tools of the early medieval smiths whose products survive in the archaeological sites we dig. Early medieval smiths used these tools to shape and study iron. I will too.