I’ve been following the Irish Times series ‘A history of Ireland in 100 Objects‘
Every Saturday Fintan O’ Toole writes about an object, giving an insight into different periods of Irish history.
He adopts three main rules when selecting each item.
An “object” is defined as a single man-made entity, a definition that excludes buildings. The objects are generally presented chronologically. And unless there is an overwhelming reason to the contrary, the objects themselves are accessible to readers in public institutions or spaces’.
The series started in February with a Mesolithic fish trap and brought us up to iconic pieces such as the Tara Brooch and Ardagh chalice in Spetember.
While there have been many great objects discussed I chose to write about this silver cone. Firstly because it is so beautifully made and also to give me the opportunity to pick apart the techniques used to make such an intricate piece.
By now you will know that when I look at an item of silver (or any metal really) I analyse the way it was made and dissect each process and technique. I’m hoping it’s something most makers do and not just a weird trait that I’ve developed!. I love trying to figure out how an item was made and seeing how the techniques used affect the aesthetic. Some of my favourite pieces are the ones which still baffle me.
This silver cone dates from the 10th century and is made from woven silver thread. O’ Toole describes it beautifully when he says
It sits in the palm of the hand as lightly as a confection of spun sugar
It gives a sense of the delicacy of the piece. The cone is woven from three separate strands of silver each of which is made up of between 15 -18 extremely fine wires. The effect is amazing with hundreds of wires appearing to seamlessly make up this three dimensional form. Researchers in the National Museum found a residue of some sort of organic material inside the cone which they believe to be a wax. This wax would have acted as a support on which the woven design would have been created.
When you consider the hours it would have taken to create such an item it comes as a surprise to find it was one of 18. The hoard was found in a cave in Dunmore just north of Kilkenny city. A length of silver wire was also found which seems to have been attached to the cones. They also discovered a tiny piece of fine silk which suggests that this was a very ornate dress with a silver wire border and the silver cones acted as tassels or perhaps buttons. The silk was one of the most exciting finds as it was more valuable than all the silver ornaments put together. It was dyed either red or purple (making it even more expensive) and most probably came from the Byzantine empire or the Arab world.
When I read about the hoard and the function of the silver cone it not only made me appreciate fully the beauty of the object but also made me question the wearer. As O’ Toole puts it
Who this woman was is as mysterious as the presence of this extraordinary example of Viking power-dressing in Co Kilkenny. All we know is that someone had a dress worth a king’s ransom, shoved it in a crack in a cave in a moment of panic and never got to come back for it.