From the Isle of Wight to the Yalu River: metalwork ‘waste’, migration and meaning

‘These objects are powerful, because the textures, content, information or the stories behind them are all immensely rich and complex…I found it difficult to transform these objects in my own way. I thought that working on the objects meant consuming or exploiting them, and felt uneasy when thinking about approaching them.’ – He Xiangyu, interviewed for Ocula 

In one of the formative texts of British Bronze Age studies, the archaeologist and geologist, Sir John Evans, divided metalwork deposits into three principal groups: ‘personal’, ‘merchant’ or ‘founder’ hoards. The last of these referred a person who makes or casts metal, ‘in which lumps of metal and the jets or waste pieces from castings were found’ (1881, 459). Since Evan’s day, the explanations for why ancient people buried their valuables have changed – sometimes dramatically – to include ideas of ritual, sacrifice and exotic goods assembled in the course of complex ceremonies. Still, it is a struggle to coax life from casting waste, those ‘lumps of metal’ without the outlines of a ‘real’ object. Turning them over, another meaning of ‘founder’ comes to mind, that which establishes, the prime mover, from the Latin fundare, from fundus ‘bottom, base’. But these are not ‘raw’ materials – they are objects with stories of their own.

Scrap bundles of copper used to barter for essentials by those crossing into China from North Korea, from He Xiangyu’s ‘Evidence’ at White Cube Bermondsey (Author’s own photo)

An exhibition at the White Cube Bermondsey helps to rethink how we view these unloved lumps of metal. Evidence by He Xiangyu (7 February – 8 April 2018) contains more elements and ideas than I can do justice to here. Most exciting – for the archaeologist or pre-historian – are the small bundles of copper, comprising many strands of different origin pressed together into small handfuls of sinewy metal. They are arranged in a line around a white walled room. Beneath each, in pencil, a weight in grams is written. Originally from Kuandian, in North East China, He Xiangyu was inspired by North Korean defectors who swam the Yalu River to reach Chinese soil. Risking their lives in the crossing, they brought their copper bundles, something to trade on their arrival. In order to engage with the powerful stories these bundles tell, He Xiangyu reproduces their production, a process that he filmed and that forms an integral part of Evidence.  Hands are shown pressing and distorting the copper to form a small bundle that fits in the palm. No great skill or dexterity is needed but the finished product is humanised. More than that, the finished product is somehow less than the Kuandian bundles, with their more eclectic and mixed assemblage of copper strands.

Rows of scrap bundles of copper used to barter for essentials positioned around the middle of the room, the artist’s replica pieces are positioned on the floor of the gallery, from He Xiangyu’s ‘Evidence’ at White Cube Bermondsey (Author’s own photo)

Through the Portable Antiquities Scheme and Treasure process, many Bronze Age ingots and metalworking waste found by metal detectorists have been recorded in recent years. They are often the quickest to describe and measure. But that doesn’t mean they are the least important. Sometimes there are clues about objects that were melted down in order to make them or about the object to which they were surplus. On the surface of an ingot from Isle of Wight we traced a ghost of a socketed axe skimming its surface. Effort was taken to make objects and to recycle them. As He Xiangyu says of Kuandian bundles, they ‘are powerful, because the textures, content, information or the stories behind them are all immensely rich and complex’ (interviewed for Ocula ).

A Late Bronze Age (c.1000 – 800 BC) ingot from the Isle of Wight. The shape of a partially melted socketed axe can just be made out on the surface of the once molten mass (PAS Unique ID: IOW-622CD9) (PAS/The British Museum)

There are, however, some important differences between the bundles from China and the ingots examined at the British Museum. One is their weight. The Kuandian bundles are light enough to press against the body and swim across the Yalu River. Heavy enough to help remake their bearers lives. The Bronze Age ingots – many from the last few centuries of the period (c. 1000 – 800 BC), are far heavier. They are more like anchors, reaching down into territory that was increasingly occupied, contested and segregated as the Bronze Age came to a close.

For the metalwork of the first metal migrants we have to go back, over one thousand five hundred years earlier. It may be no accident that their metalwork was worn lightly, in the hair or sewn to clothing, easy to bundle and to bring. These differences can be explained  in terms of commodities and access to raw materials. On the other hand, He Xiangyu’s work reminds us to consider the weight of their metal content alongside their potential for meaning.

Acknowledgements: Photos of He Xiangyu’s work were taken by the author on a visit to the White Cube gallery, Bermondsey in March 2018. The work by Evans (1881), cited above, is ‘The ancient bronze implements, weapons, and ornaments, of Great Britain and Ireland’ (London: Longmans, Green & Co). Thank you to Laura Purseglove.

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