Saturday, September 20, 2008

Sand, Sanity, Beauty and Renewal

Long ago, soldiers polished their armour with sand. Stones tumbled by the water at the ocean's shore, smoothed and brought to glistening brilliance by the interplay of sand and water probably was the inspiration of jewelers, teaching the ancients how to transform dull rock and mineral to polished gem.

In the Victorian period, there were servants who main task was to polish the silver of the household. It probably was a task allotted to servants and slaves in ancient cultures as well.

Now there are chemical baths that polish metals but the age-old tradition of rubbing a metal to restore its shine and brilliance has another benefit apart from its action upon rust and dirt. I believe it to be a form of meditation.

As a child, I never minded being given the job of polishing the silver before guests arrived. (We did not have a servant designated for this task. My mother preferred that the servant who came to our house regularly cook special meals instead. The woman taught my mother an entirely new exotic cuisine.) I loved the way that dull, even blackened silver could be restored to brilliance by my efforts. The silky patina that developed over time was beautiful and that was the result both of use and regular polishing.

Even now, I find solace and peace in the simple act of polishing metals or wood. I made a few walking sticks in the past, shaving the bark from the wood with a knife, then polishing it with sandpaper. The grain of the wood would appear slowly as I worked, shaping the design to some extent. I am not a talented artisan, alas, but I find unique satisfaction in the work of my own hands, whether it is with metal, cloth or wood.

Recently, I acquired a couple of ancient Roman rings. They were extremely inexpensive and although the authenticity was guaranteed, I have no idea if they are clever reproductions, semi-ancient artifacts or true Roman artifacts. The means by which this could be determined categorically is quite expensive. One tends to rely on the reputation of the seller.

In fact, there is no dearth of original ancient Roman artifacts, particularly rings and pins. The Romans conquered half the world, colonised, fought and died there, leaving behind countless artifacts. On the other hand, 'modern' Afghani jewelry often is based on Roman prototypes. One can find the same designs and intaglios that were popular in ancient Rome in modern Afghanistan and Thailand. Eastern Europe is filled both with ancient Roman artifacts and copies made by the descendants of the Empire...

Nonetheless, ancient artifacts of any kind always held a fascination for me. I often wished I had become an archaeologist. This is beside the point, however.

The world is divided between those who would like to keep artifacts in the state in which they were discovered and those who would prefer to 'restore' them. There is merit on both sides. Where bronze in particular is concerned, the green patina of age has a beauty of its own. Dirt and encrustation of age, on the other hand, are not beautiful, whether or not they serve as evidence of the item's age.

With respect to an old bronze ring, should one leave it in the condition in which it was found or polish it to its former state of brilliance? Bronze when polished can shine more than gold. With that brilliance is a soft quality to it that is unique.
The green-brown patina of ancient bronze is beautiful but it does not shine. It has a matte quality and is the colour almost of seaweed.

I decided to polish one of the rings. It was not valuable, after all, and I wished to perform the restoration in my own fashion. As the ancients did use sand to polish metal, I did the same. It took hours and hours. I did not focus on it, but performed the polishing while engaged in watching films. Even so, a part of me was intent upon the task.

Polishing the ancient ring bound me to it emotionally and spiritually. Each stage of transformation was noted and became part of a journey that we took together. In tactile terms, the result is extremely attractive. It is as smooth as silk. In visual terms, it has achieved a soft brilliance that is very dramatic. Even so, it has not lost any of the glamour of its age. I do believe it to be an original artifact, but possibly inspired both by Celtic and Roman influences.

The photographs displayed here are of other Bronze and Silver rings, some polished, some left in their 'found' state. I have included two photographs of 'ring money'. One is polished bronze.

It was when I saw ring money for the first time in a museum that I understood the correlation with the 'brass ring' and carousels. I always felt that the gold ring on the carousel was one of the most powerful and magical objects, symbolically if not actually. There is the element of luck, but beyond that the very symbol of the ring itself, representing eternity and wealth. What I always regretted was the necessity to trade the ring back for another ticket. I would have liked to have kept the ring, even if I had been obliged to pay for it in 'real' money!

I mentioned that soldiers in ancient times polished their armour (and weapons) with sand. Filmmakers have exploited the visual drama of an army's appearance beneath the sun. Blazing armour, bright feathers and other colourful accoutrements added to the psychological effect on allies and enemies alike. It is interesting how policies have changed. Camouflage is more important apparently than drama where contemporary weapons, armour and general appearance are concerned. There is something to be said for the ancient attitude of brazen heroics. 'Here I stand. I make no attempt to conceal who and what I am.'

I probably should add that the method I describe is not suited to 'professional' restoration of an ancient artifact and I would not recommend it for any one who wishes to retain the market value of an ancient object. It is, however, the means by which the original owner would have cleaned and polished his/her possessions.

I therefore would not recommend it for any unique or valuable ancient artifact if the current owner intends to 'preserve' it for posterity. What I speak of is a method that allows the current owner to restore the item to its ancient brilliance, who becomes the true inheritor of the object to use and enjoy in his/her daily life.

There are different philosophies here as well where the position and significance of history is concerned. There are those who believe that no private individual has a right to 'own' historical artifacts, although the immensely rich always appear to be excluded from this rule! I personally am torn between a love of museums and a belief that they are a repository of the past that every one should be able to share and enjoy and a personal belief that the past should not be placed on a pedestal where it cannot be touched or connected directly to the present.

It is interesting to see how our culture's attitudes towards religion have affected our attitudes towards 'secular' aspects of life. As spiritual belief systems became less entrenched in our culture, other secular 'belief systems' have been elevated to the position of religion. It reminds me a little of the effects of the French Revolution, when 'Liberty' was elevated to the post of a god as a substitute for the God that had been pulled down from the heavens.

20th Century Communism appeared to ignore the public need for gods and suffered accordingly, until Communist leaders were installed in the place of gods, rather like the Roman Emperors who were elevated to the position of deities after their deaths.

For many, the past has become 'sacred' to the point where ordinary people are cordoned from it, not allowed to breathe the same air or walk on the same ground as the ancients. This may serve to 'preserve' the past longer but at what cost?

The ancient temples and churches throughout the world gained in power as generations worshipped there. To relegate them to the position of 'museums' diminishes their power to some extent. We need to be able to walk the same paths, to kneel on stones that have been smoothed and hollowed by the weight of thousands of years of prostration.

Yet, I do comprehend that the breath of a multitude over years can weaken the fabric of the very stones and create moisture that destroys frescoes and paintings. On the other hand, there has to be a happy medium somewhere.

Watching a video or walking through a reconstruction of a temple is no true substitute for the 'real thing'. It serves as entertainment and education but it gives us no direct link to the past.

This brings me back to a favourite subject: incubation. The ancients slept and dreamed in their sacred places. Our churches, temples and museums usually shut at sunset and are locked to prevent our access. Imagine what spiritual power would be at our disposal if we were allowed to practice incubation in these places as the ancients did!

Even graveyards are locked often at night to prevent access to the living. This effectively negates one of the primary purposes of a cemetary. Communion with the ancestors and with the dead in general was very much a part of ordinary existence in most ancient cultures. It is only in contemporary civilisation that death has been sanitised to the point where barriers are erected to make certain that we cannot touch or be touched by the deceased.

Returning again, however to the subject of metals...

Gold may be my favourite metal where jewelry is concerned, but every metal has its own magic. Silver is glorious but brass and copper have their own personality. Bronze can be gorgeous and as a metal that is not commonly used to create contemporary pieces in the West, it does speak eloquently of past civilisations.

Titanium is another interesting metal that achieved some measure of popularity in the 1990s as jewelers and knifemakers alike experimented with its properties. Lightweight but fairly strong, capable of achieving rainbow colours when treated, it is a magical metal in its own right. Titania was the queen of fairyland and I am reminded of her a little whenever I see titanium fashioned into the hilt of a dagger or made into a pair of earrings.

As a child in Nepal, I saw all manner of metalworking. Although gold was prized above all other metals, young girls often wore copper or brass jewelry. I still have a copper ring set with enamel work that is quite lovely.

In magical terms, each metal is associated with a different god and force. The metal associated with Venus in fact is Copper. Copper has achieved a measure of respect in contemporary Western culture for its power to combat arthritis. A few artisans have begun to work with it, but for the most part, its artistic potential in jewelry has been disregarded. Rather utilitarian bracelets proliferate for those who believe in its medical efficacy.

As usual, I ramble, but I wished to share my enduring delight in the simple task of polishing metals. Stones can be polished by hand in a similar fashion, but it cannot be accomplished as quickly.

A few years ago, I discovered that worry beads, tasbihs and rosaries sometimes were made from mammoth bone in Indonesia. They were shaped and polished only in a very basic way. The intent was for the owner to polish them through prayer. I found the concept very compelling. As one used the beads repeatedly, they would begin to shine and the grain in the bone would become apparent. Each bead was unique but it looked ordinary until the owner had bound his/her daily prayers to it. In a lesser way perhaps, the family silver acquires the weight of the history of its owners and grows in beauty through use and polish.

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