Rare jewelry mold, medieval artisan district found

A salvage archaeology excavation in Chur, the capital of the Swiss canton of Grisons, have unearthed a stone jewelry mold and other evidence of a busy medieval artisan district. The molds was used to produce jewelry and religious objects. It is an extremely rare find, the first of its kind in the canton. The only comparable examples ever found in Switzerland were discovered far to the north and northwest of Grisons in Bern, Basel, and Winterthur.

The uneven square measures 9 x 8.3 x 3 centimeters (3.5 x 3.3 x 1.2 inches). One side has two stamp matrices with Christian iconography — a crucifix and a circle with a cross in the center — that would have been used to make pendants, buckles, medallions. There is also a cavity that would have made a small hoop, likely for earrings. The other side of has another circle with a cross in the center, plus templates for an eagle and an annular brooch. It dates to between the 9th and 11th centuries.

Archaeologists have been excavating the area near the former Sennhof penitentiary since March in advanced of a renovation. Two previous excavations in 1984 and 1990 discovered the remains of settlements and tombs that confirm the area was continuously inhabited from the late Bronze Age through the present. This year’s excavation has shed light on the medieval city.

Currently an excavation team of the SAG is examining a south-east part of the built surface, where inconspicuous structures have been brought to light in the form of postholes, pits and tombs, as well as a significant use of stone paving. Particularly noteworthy are the high number and type of finds found. It is a large quantity of animal bones (mostly horses) and semi-finished products and carvers’ production waste. Among the objects there are also bars in non-ferrous metals, spindles, glass slag and similar fragments. From the combination of simple wooden constructions and finds in specific material, it can be assumed that the area served as a laboratory for various craft activities during the High and Low Middle Ages.

One of the oldest settlements in Switzerland, Chur prospered in the second half of the 10th century thanks to its location at the confluence of several Alpine trade routes and the Rhine. The local producers of highly portable jewelry, trinkets and other crafts had access to those markets.

The jewelry mold is now undergoing thorough study and analysis for scientific publication. The objects discovered in the excavation are tentatively scheduled to go on public display in an exhibition, Commerce and Artisanship between the Lake of Constance and the Alpine Rhine, at the Chur museum in 2023.

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Comment by George M.
2020-07-22 13:27:43

The mold appears to be made of limestone or perhaps a piece of reused Roman concrete since the tag on the photo of the reverse says “concrete.” I believe it would have been used for low temperature metals such as lead or pewter. Further microscopic analysis may reveal a few bits of metal remaining in the mold.

This is actually one half of the complete mold. There would have been another piece with the rest of the funnels for pouring the molten metal into the designs. It may have been flat or there may have been additional designs. The holes in the lower left would have been for index pins or pegs to make sure the two halves lined up correctly.

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Comment by scott Glen Young
2020-07-22 17:15:49

Great information. Would there not have been two more backing molds rather than one? So this would actually be one third of the complete mold.

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Comment by Mary
2020-07-23 03:22:47

That –even by medieval standards– looks rater crude. In the said period between the 9th and the 10th century, the Hungarians invaded Europe –and particularly in 926 Chur in Switzerland.

This mold looks as if they hastily made mediocre “precious” items in order to get them stolen by the Hungarians. Moreover, it even appears as if there are false letters on them.

The Hersfeld hagiography on Saint Wigbert reports in 936 on what happened just a decade earlier:

“Nuper dirae calamtitatis flagello super nos paganis concesso, regali consensu regaliumque principium decreto sancitum est et iussum, honestorum virorum feminarumque conventiculis loca privata munitionibus firmis murisque circundari”.

What also comes to mind, are simple grave goods and votive offering. Thus, maybe some of the cast plates may indeed turn up in Chur in the near future. The created pieces also seem to be rather small, so maybe this was just some sort of experiment.

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Comment by George M.
2020-07-23 17:28:53

Scott: The easiest way to use the mold would be to clamp a flat slab, probably of stone across the back of each particular piece and then pour the metal down the “funnel” for that particular piece. that would give you a plain back. Alternatively you could have a decorated back piece for each area of the mold. Or you could have all 3 items in a mirror image of the found mold.

BTW, I suspect that the items on the back of this mold, particularly the neck piece are practice carvings because if you poured them there is no place for the air in the mold to go to and you would get an incomplete piece because the metal did not penetrate to all parts of the mold. this would be particularly true of the thin parts of the neck piece. You would need channels cut to get the air out and the metal in those thin areas. The metal in the channels would then be cut off when the piece is removed. These extra pieces are known as “sprue.”

Mary: In this decadent age few folk are literate in Latin. I have a little hedge Latin but not enough to make sense of your quote. could you please post, at least, the English translation of your emphasized words.

Also, it was not uncommon in the middle ages to use letters or letter like shapes as decoration. See, e.g., Scandinavian coins with garbled Arabic inscriptions. When illiteracy was common letters only had to look letter like, not make sense.

There was a market for down market items. Not everything had to be made of precious metals. See, e.g., the many lead pilgrim badges of the later Middle Ages. There is always a market for cheap tourist tat.

Unless your Latin quote contradicts this I question that you could decoy the Magyars with base metal jewelry. They knew perfectly well what gold and silver was and how it looked and felt and weighed.

I’m also skeptical about the idea of grave goods. Christian, as opposed to pagan, burials are notoriously bereft of grave goods because of the Christian belief of “naked we came into this world and naked we go out of it.” There are certainly exceptions but that is the general rule.

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Comment by Peter McClelland
2021-04-26 03:12:15

I agree with George M I think they were pilgrims mementos,lead given free and pewter if you made a small donation.
As for no grooves fo air to escape I would say they were open cast and sometimes a smaller flat stone pushed on top as it was solidifying this method pushes the metal into the finner detail of the mould and also pushes out the excess metal.

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Comment by Marianne Hansen
2021-08-01 15:14:22

Will the exhibition be at the B√ľndner Kunstmuseum? Or some other institution?

And can you say what organization is responsible for this mold – and where I might find someone to answer a question about it? Many thanks!

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