Monday, 26 November 2012

Iron Age Tweezers — Extraordinary Ordinary Things

It's rarely the case in detecting that one comes across something outstanding in the general run of things and even scarcer are those things that are outstanding examples of their ordinary type, but here's a pair of tweezers that go even further than that — they are simply an extraordinary ordinary thing.

I have plenty to compare them with. Roman, Saxon, Medieval, what have you — the plain ones we find so regularly are interchangeable for date and could be anything. Basic in construction, just a strip of folded metal with a small loop at one end and with the blade terminals turned down for pulling nasal hairs and splinters out of digits, they are one of the only items I can think of that any fool could make given ten minutes of training but without a scrap of metalworking experience. What is there to do? Fold over the terminals with a pair of pliers, bend the middle around a four inch nail, crimp the thing tight with the pliers and slide it off...

Viola! Tweezers.

They are so easy I'm surprised anyone had a trade in making them — these though, are not quite so simple. Why anyone would bother to go such extreme lengths to create such a technically advanced and beautiful object when the object does not require either to function as it should is anyones guess, but here someone has bothered to, and bothered to a great degree.

Firstly they are quite substantial and beautifully shaped with curvaceous feminine outlines and a large perfectly formed circular suspension loop. Secondly they are made of great metal and were carefully finished and polished. The almost black patina is superb where it hasn't pitted which tells you they were cast from a refined and unsullied pool of the best bronze available, not out of some slop mixed together from impure copper alloy scraps, which means the bronze was actually made on site from pure copper and tin, and though that may sound far-fetched when high grade scrap would have been readily available, there's a crucial thing that says this must be true, because...

They are made of a precision engineered bimetallic strip for which equally precise alloys would have been required.

There must be a very good reason for this but I can't think of one. Modern bimetallic strips are designed so that heat makes one side expand more than the other resulting an up curving movement of the strip that can be utilised to trip a switch. These are certainly Roman tweezers at least because they were found on an exclusively Roman and Iron Age site where nothing was ever found of any other ancient period. Neither culture had any need for electrical switches, so what the hell reason is there for making them of two fused sheets of slightly different alloy? Does it make them springier and less likely to deform out of shape?

Well, I'm not about to try to find that out because as you can see they've taken a clout from the plough and might break in pieces if I did. I'm kind of sad it happened because they would have been stunning without the damage, but then again, if it hadn't occurred I 'd never have seen the truth of their construction, so in a way, the accident that befell them was something of a blessing — and it's only once in a blue moon you can say that about modern farming machines and the disastrous effects they have on buried ancient artefacts.

As for date. That patina is Iron Age. If you're a detectorist you'll know exactly what I mean when I pronounce something this date or that date solely on the basis of the way the metal and its surface looks. We dig an awful lot of copper based alloys — often hundred of items per day,  and of all different surface colours and textures. In our own detecting backyards they are instantly recognisable for the date they were made even without form as a guide because the memory accumulates a vast list of variables down the years and with enough experience is able to compute an answer in a second. We develop a 'knack' with it just as an expert perfumier develops an infallible nose for the faintest of odours.

I went and looked at every pair of tweezers on the PAS database and UKDFD too. There was nothing remotely like them in form and certainly none made of bimetal strips in hundreds and hundreds of records for tweezers of all dates except Iron Age — for which there wasn't a single entry. Then I remembered a pair found in an Iron Age bucket burial at Alkham Kent and so I went off to the the British Museum website to look for them. They were found paired to a fancy nail cleaner, and though not of the same curvy high quality, they were the same large size and the only tweezers I'd ever found with a similar large and perfectly circular suspension loop, so perhaps my instinct was correct after all...

The last thing to mention is a curiosity. The tweezers are undecorated which allows their lovely form to speak for itself. There is however a single punched annulet at the end of one of the tweezer blades and that's very odd indeed. There's no reason to put it there all alone is there?

I wonder if it is the makers mark? Now that would make them the most extraordinary ordinary thing imaginable because there's no such thing as a makers mark on tweezers or indeed any metalwork of any kind at such an early date.

Blimey if I'd gone to such endless trouble creating a pair of tweezers when my customers could have bent a bit of scrap metal around a nail for the same result, then I'd have stamped my moniker on it, wouldn't you?


  1. Another fascinating and informative post.
    Keep up the good work, Jeff!

  2. Really informative post, enjoyed the read. Great find and research into it's background.

    HH, Max - Diggin' Scotland's Past.