Enslaved American Silversmiths?

portrait of paul revere holding a silver teapot he has made

The use of slaves in making has attracted careful attention from scholars of North American material culture, for example Catherine Bishir’s Crafting Lives (2013), and Glenn Adamson’s Craft: An American History (2021). We also have decades of fine scholarship on the use of enslaved West African ironworkers in colonial North America. The importance of enslaved blacksmiths is well established and reflected in major museum collections. The brutal lives and deaths of slaves at iron foundries and iron ore mines have been documented, including their exposure to heavy metal toxins. However, there is comparatively little written about workers of non-ferrous metals.[1]

In Bishir’s detailed study of New Bern, NC, the silversmiths were all free, including the literally named Freeman Woods. Adamson paints on a far broader canvas. He introduces us to Native American silversmiths, such as Slender Maker of Silver, and reminds us that “When we are faced with an 18th-century teapot or high chest in a museum, it is usually impossible to know whether or not it was made partly with enslaved labor.” Adamson is certainly referring to a silver teapot: He begins his book with a portrait of Paul Revere (Boston MFA 30.781), painted in 1768 holding in his left hand a silver teapot that he has crafted, not unlike Agatho. Like Agatho, too, Revere is shown with the tools of his trade, with which he is about to decorate and engrave the teapot.[2]

A coffeepot crafted by Revere just a year after Copley painted his portrait is in the Yale University Art Gallery (2016.158.1).[3] Paul Revere learnt his craft from his father, Apollos Rivoire (later Paul Revere Sr.), who had been an indentured servant as an apprentice to John Coney. The Reveres owned no slaves. This also appears to be the case with other silversmiths of the period, for example Richard van Dyck (1717-70) and Myers Myers (1723-95), who worked in New York City. The 1703 census is the only record that silversmiths in New York owned slaves. Three of thirteen silversmiths at that time each owned a single female slave, almost certainly a housekeeper. Otherwise, there is no evidence that any New York silversmith ever used slaves in their workshops.[4]

Many silversmiths owned slaves. For example, the probate inventory of Charleston silversmith Thomas You (d. 1786) lists seventeen slaves, but none is said to have been a smith.[5] I am aware only very few instances where it is explicitly stated that slaves were trained silversmiths or goldsmiths (the terms are used interchangeably). One is Abraham, who was owned and trained by the Charleston silversmith Alexander Petrie (d. 1768).[6] It is possible that further information may be found in the account book of Austen and Laurens, slave traders in Charleston, now at Yale.[7] Newport, a goldsmith from Newport, RI, owned and trained by Isaac Anthony, was reported as a runaway in 1749. Four years later, another Newport smith, advertised in a Boston newspaper that he wishes to sell an unnamed goldsmith, possibly the same Newport, but probably not.[8]

[1] K. W. Bruwelheide et al., “Restoring identity to people and place: Reanalysis of human skeletal remains from a cemetery at Catoctin Furnace, Maryland,” Historical Archaeology 54 (2020), 110-37.

[2] C. W. Bishir, Crafting Lives. African American artisans in North Bern, North Carolina (Chapel Hill, NC: UNC Press, 2013); G. Adamson, Craft: An American History (London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2021). For the portrait of Revere, by John Singleton Copley, see: https://collections.mfa.org/objects/32401

[3] Yale Art Gallery has many pieces of silver fashioned by Revere, including a silver teapot made in 1795 (1930-959).

[4] K. Hillen McKinsey, New York City Silversmiths and their Patrons, 1687-1750, Unpublished dissertation, University of Delaware 1984. We cannot be so certain that they did not have indentured servants – workers who were contracted to provide unpaid labor for a period of time, usually five to seven years, in payment of a debt – since this form of servitude was so very common among early immigrants. Debt bondage was usually related to the cost of their passage to North America.

[5] H. Nowell Brazier, “The most elegant and general assortment of plate:” The market for imported and locally-made sterling silver, consumer activism, and national identity in Charleston, 1760–1790, Unpublished dissertation, University of South Carolina, 2009, 31-2.

[6] B. S. Culp, “Mr. Petrie’s ‘Shop on the Bay’,” Antiques and Fine Art (2007), 250-5.

[7] Yale University, Beinecke Library: GEN MSS VOL 184 (folio)

[8] Yale University databases: https://slavery.yale.edu/links/subscription-databases

Making a Silver Pot

Seuso silver situla or finger pot known as Hippolytus situla B, photo by Judit Andras-Kardos, Magyar Nemzeti Múzeum

In our last post, we were introduced by St. Augustine to the practices of fourth- and fifth-century Roman silversmiths. Augustine compares argentarii to pagan gods, who are all great at one thing. He would have preferred a single perfect artisan, competent in all areas. Let us now consider the production of a single object, created by many artisans during Augustine’s lifetime (CE 350-430).[1]

The object we have chosen is a situla, literally a bucket, in this case a small pale, surely a finger pot for washing hands at the dinner table. It is around nine inches (23cm) high. We have chosen it because there has been an excellent recent analysis of it, and objects with which it was found. It is part of a large hoard of silver, the Seuso Treasure – mainly highly decorated plates, jugs, and dishes – now displayed at the Hungarian National Museum, Budapest. This analysis allows us to make the observations that follow.

There are, in fact, two situlae showing complementary scenes from the story of Hippolytus and Phaedra. The situla we have chosen, Hippolytus situla B, comprises several elements, all of which required expert smithing.

Let us posit the following process of production: Silver was melted down, either from ingots or, far more likely, existing objects and coins were recycled; two silver sheets was formed by pouring the molten silver into a mould; a smooth inner liner, and the outer shell of the piece were formed from these sheets of silver by a vascularius. The inner liner was set aside, and the outer shell was then given its exquisite chasing, the scenes of Hippolytus and Phaedra, by a caelator. A flaturarius formed the lower and upper framing bands, the base, and perhaps the beaded rim. However, the beaded rim may have been made elsewhere since, as we shall see, it has a somewhat different silver content. In any event, it was formed with a punch. A crustarius formed the three feet in the form of gryphons, the two decorative handle ornaments, which are busts of emperors, and probably also the lozenged handle. This was done using the lost wax casting technique. The various elements – inner liner, outer shell, handle, feet, etc. – were soldered together. An inaurator then added gilding, including the golden sheen on the figures’ clothes, hair, and other features of the landscape, the bands at the base and upper rim. Finally a tritor buffed it to a high sheen.[2]

Each of these silver-workers worked in an atelier that was, let us imagine – excavations suggest we would not be far not wrong – hot, full of fumes, and had poor ventilation. The melting of metals released various toxins into this workshop, while other escaped through chimneys, spreading across the broader city, its hinterland, and many miles beyond. Silver itself is relatively benign. Repeated exposure to silver particles causes the skin and body tissues to turn grey or blue-grey, a condition known as “argyria.” Ingesting high levels of silver may cause the heart to enlarge and stomach irritation, and breathing in silver particles causes throat and lung irritation. Copper was added to a great deal of Roman silver plate, to improve its mechanical properties. That is, adding copper makes the silver harder, more durable, and easier to work mechanically (i.e. with a hammer, rather than casting). Today we know the silver-copper alloy as sterling silver (typically 92.5% silver, 7.5% copper).

XRF analysis of the Seuso situla shows that the body, handle and feet all contains between 2% and 3% copper, compared to around 95% silver. However, the upper beaded rim, has much less copper, no more than 0.5%, with 99% silver. This tells us that molten copper was added to the silver after it was refined to ensure it was better able to withstand hammering, shaping and chasing. Exposure to copper fumes “causes upper respiratory tract irritation, metallic taste, nausea, and metal fume fever.”[3]

The same XRF analysis shows that each piece of the situla contains very small amounts of lead, between 0.2 and 0.5%. All Roman silver contains lead, usually between 0.5 and 1%. It took a little effort to refine silver to that standard, by a process known as cupellation. It took a great deal more to refine it still further. Evidently, the silver in this situla was refined again to produce very high quality silver before the right amount of copper was added. This may have been done using a process known as liquation, whereby silver is melted together with lead, forming a lead-silver alloy that separates from other metals, including copper. This alloy is then subjected to further cupellation. Roman silver production, including recycling, always involved a great deal of lead. Melting lead releases lead aerosols that are highly toxic.[4]

There was, however, something even worse than lead in the workshop, and its immediate vicinity: Mercury. The XRF analysis has identified mercury in the thin layer of gold applied by the gilder. This proves he used a method known as fire gilding, whereby liquid mercury is mixed with gold and then heated, releasing the mercury into the atmosphere and adhering the gold. Mercury is a powerful neurotoxin, ultimately deadly to the fire-gilder. It is “toxic to the central and peripheral nervous systems. The inhalation of mercury vapour can produce harmful effects on the nervous, digestive and immune systems, lungs and kidneys, and may be fatal.”[5] Like lead aerosols, mercury was carried away by the wind and deposited by rain, contaminating the soil and vegetation many miles from its source. A recent study of Roman age skeletons in Spain, over a 70-year period, consistently had more than twice as much mercury and lead as bones of those who lived in the same place afterwards.[6] There is no indication that these were metalworkers. Rather, abundant evidence makes it clear that Roman-age metallurgy had a massive deleterious effect on human health and the environment.[7]

[1] The choice of the Seuso situla was entirely due to the excellent new publication: V. Mozgai et al., “Non-destructive handheld XRF study of archaeological composite silver objects – the case study of the late Roman Seuso Treasure,” Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences 13:83 (2021), 20 pages.

[2] D. E. Strong, Greek and Roman Gold and Silver Plate (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1966), 7, 14-16. On silver beaded rims see Richard Hobbs and Laura Perucchetti, “Beaded rims on silver plate vessels in late Roman Britain and beyond,” Britannia 53 (2022), 385-401.

For an instructive video on the creation of a Roman silver cup:

[3] CDC: https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/idlh/1317380.html

[4] Very generally, see Paul Stephenson, “Ancient Roman Pollution,” Lapham’s Quarterly, February 23, 2022.

[5] The approach to this sad fact to date is captured in a sentence by a scholar of silver-smithing: “[Fire-gilding] is a durable and economical use of gold, and the health hazards of mercury were not given the consideration that they are today.” See The Hoxne Late Roman Treasure: Gold Jewellery and Silver Plate, ed. Catherine Johns (London: British Museum Press, 2010), 186.

[6] O. López-Costas et al., “Human bones tell the story of atmospheric mercury and lead exposure at the edge of the Roman world,” Science of the Total Environment 710 (2020), 136319 (7 pages). Here bones from two adjacent cemeteries at A Lanzada in northwestern Spain showed that Romans (first to fifth centuries CE) absorbed twice as much lead and mercury as those who came later (fifth to seventh centuries). Isotopic analysis suggests that 70- 80% of this came from atmospheric lead pollution (and the remainder from local geogenic lead sources).

[7] J. Montgomery et al., ‘“Gleaming white and deadly”: using lead to track human exposure and geographic origins in the Roman period in Britain’, Journal of Roman Archaeology, supplementary series, 78 (2010), 199-226, at 209: “From the 1st c. A.D., some individuals exhibit enamel lead concentrations of up to 30 mg kg-1. These individuals have a level of lead that is 10,000 times higher than that of the least polluted individual in this study: the Early Bronze Age skeleton from Gristhorpe (Yorkshire) (3 μg kg-1; Table 11.3). According to the ratio above, an enamel lead concentration of 30 mg kg-1 would arise from a blood lead level of c.300 μg dL-1, which is far higher than the ~100 μg dL-1 associated with “very severe poisonings”. J. Moore et al., ‘Death Metal: Evidence for the impact of lead poisoning on childhood health within the Roman empire’, International Journal of Osteoarchaeology 31 (2021), 846-56: “This study includes 173 individuals (66 adults and 107 non-adults) from five sites, AD 1st–4th centuries, located throughout the Roman Empire. Results show a negative correlation between age-at-death and core tooth enamel lead concentrations.

This is the third and last of three posts that formed part of a short lunchtime lecture delivered at the Humanities Institute, Pennsylavania State University, in February 2023.

Agatho the Silversmith

Funeral portrait carved for Agatho in around 25 CE,

In an earlier post we drew attention to the exhibition Hear Me Now! which has recently closed at the Met. There is no known Roman equivalent of David Drake, known as Dave. Although we know so little about him, still the details of Dave’s life can be contested. All we know for certain about Agatho the silversmith is what he had carved into his funeral portrait (c. 25 CE), which is now in the Getty Villa.[1] An inscription below his bust reads “Publius Curtilius Agatho, freedman of Publius, silversmith,” reminding us that Agatho lived and died with his former master’s name preceding his own, but also that he was proud of his trade. Agatho is shown holding a smith’s mallet and chisel, and also a small silver cup, presumably one he made himself. We can just make up a raised design of a figure, which may be a dancing satyr, not unlike the design on a silver wine cup, the Vicarello Goblet, made at exactly this time and now displayed in the Cleveland Museum of Art.[2]

The number of Roman slaves who could be granted freedom – manumitted – in any year was restricted in Agatho’s lifetime. After 4 CE (Lex Aelia Sentia), according to the wish of the emperor Augustus (d. 14 CE), the master must be at least twenty, and the slave at least thirty years old, at the time of manumission. By the age of thirty, we might guess that Agatho had been a silversmith for two decades. We can also guess that part of the price of his freedom was a legally-binding commitment to providing Publius Curtilius with a proportion of his skilled labor for free for the rest of his life (operae libertorum); by “his life,” I mean Agatho’s life, for the gift of free labor might be inherited by Publius’ heir if that was specified in the contract that Agatho signed. In other words, skilled freedmen like Agatho might be offered the opportunity to purchase their freedom for credit rather than cash; and although legally they were freedmen, only death would free them of their debt of work.

Agatho would have owed only part of his time to Publius. If Agatho earned enough money from other work, then he may have been able to delegate his operae libertorum to a silversmith of equal skill, perhaps one he trained himself, whom he paid. That skilled worker could not have been another of Publius Curtilius’s slaves, of course. This may have included Agatho’s own children, if they were before Agatho’s manumission. Any child Agatho fathered after his manumission would be freeborn, although not without some restrictions to what he might achieve as a citizen. Finally, if Agatho made enough money, as a freedman he would be permitted to own his own and train his own slaves. There are 197 references in Justinian’s Digest of Roman law concerning operae libertorum that address these various scenarios.[3]

[1] Grave Relief of a Silversmith, Getty Villa: https://www.getty.edu/art/collection/object/104034

[2] John D. Cooney. “The Vicarello Goblet”, The Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art 54/ii (1967), 36-41, which notes traces the history of the goblet since its discovery in 1862 and notes that basic analysis of the silver was undertaken in 1966/7.

[3] Cameron Hawkins, Roman Artisans and the Urban Economy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 130-91.

This is the first of three posts that formed part of a short lunchtime lecture delivered at the Humanities Institute, Pennsylavania State University, in February 2023.

Pewter in Late Roman Britain

Pewter jug in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Pewter in Late Roman Britain       

Tin was less abundant and more expensive than lead in late Roman Britain, but it was still mined and widely available. Objects manufactured in tin-lead alloys, called pewter in English, were increasingly common. Of the more than 400 pewter vessels known from Roman Britain, most have been dated to the fourth century. Moreover, the high tin alloys are dated earliest, with increasingly leaded alloys predominating in the late third and fourth centuries. A higher proportion of lead than tin made pewter vessels both more durable and less expensive, but also to most purchasers less desirable. Pewter ingots were made and circulated. However, there is clear evidence for conscious choices made by pewter smiths, with different alloys employed in the casting of parts of vessels, for example the base of a dish having a higher lead content, whether for hardness and support or because the upper part with higher tin content would be more apparent to a viewer. The distribution of pewter finds suggests an active industry in the east of England, near Cambridge, where there are no tin or lead mines, but also activity in and near Bath, the Mendips, and further southwest, where there are both.[i]

            The increased number of metal objects, including those in lead and pewter, may indicate increasing wealth in Roman Britain in the fourth century, and perhaps even a wealthier middling sort, beneath those who built ever more and larger villas in that century, frequently with beautiful mosaics. However, it is most clearly an indication of the abundance of lead available, whether from new smelting or the recycling of existing materials. This lead, and pewter, made its way to northwestern Europe, where it has been identified in numerous contexts from the fourth century until the tenth, including pewter mounts from the Viking ship burial at Gokstad (dated CE 895-903).[ii]

[i] N. Beagrie, ‘The Romano-British pewter industry’, Britannia 20 (1989), 169-91; R. Poulton and E. Scott, ‘The hoarding, deposition and use of pewter in Roman Britain’, Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference 4 (1993), 115-32; J. Hall, ‘Public, personal or private? Roman lead-alloy ingots from Battersea’, in ‘Hidden histories and records of antiquity’: Essays on Saxon and Medieval London for John Clark (London, 2014), 116-21; Bayley, ‘Roman non-ferrous metalworking’, 332, 334, 336-7. A new study is promised based on the British Museum collection: L. Smith, Pewter in Roman Britain (London, forthcoming).

[ii] U. Pedersen et al., ‘Lead isotope analysis of pewter mounts from the Viking ship burial at Gokstad: On the origin and use of raw materials’, Archaeometry 58, suppl. 1 (2016), 148-63. For Roman-period finds in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, see Beagrie, ‘Romano-British pewter’, 179-81.

Slave Makers

inscribed pot made by enslaved potter dave (david drake)

Hear Me Now, an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, opened this month. A wonderful video allows us to hear the thoughts and reflections of the curators. More importantly, through the art they have curated we are able to hear the voices of the makers, enslaved potters of great skill, put to work at Edgefield in South Carolina. As slaveholders and their enablers tightened laws aimed at restricting literacy, these makers spoke eloquently in local clay, the same kaolin (porcelain clay) that they and their families had worked, or still worked, in West Africa. More than this, they wrote on the pots they threw. Dave, a potter of immense talent, also wrote poetry.

In highlighting the reliance on highly skilled slaves in artisan production, the exhibition reminds us that the antebellum South was far from unique. Slavery has been ubiquitous in human history and we have no way of knowing, in almost every case, whether a work of pre-modern art was produced by an enslaved person.

It was certainly the case in the Roman world that skilled slaves made almost everything, frequently alongside those who had been freed and those who were born free.[i] Private slaves and freedmen were also employed in countless artisanal contexts.[ii]

Enslaved artisans led hard lives, but typically did so in far better conditions than those endured by industrial and agricultural slaves. I highlight here metal communities, since they extracted and smelted the ores to produce metals worked in countless smithies and workshops by artisans. Miners and smelters were frequently imperial slaves, perhaps criminals or prisoners-of-war condemned to their profession, but also those who happened simply to born to miners, and therefore were bound to the mines. A section of the Theodosian Code (CTh.), a compilation of laws produced in the 430s, entitled De metallis et metallariis, addresses the regulation of mines and miners, metals and metal-workers, and stone quarries. A law of 424 (CTh. 10.19.15) ruled that “if any person should be born from a miner and from any other stock, he shall necessarily follow the ignoble birth status of a miner”. Moreover, if miners should “seek to migrate to foreign parts, they shall be recalled to the family stock and the household of their birth status”. There was by then an established body of law relating to the flight of indentured miners, starting with a ruling of 30 April 369, which instructed provincial judges to provide support in identifying and apprehending vagrants (CTh. 10.9.5).[iii]

[i] The vast bibliography can be entered via N. Lenski, ‘Violence and the Roman slave’, in The topography of violence in the Greco-Roman world, eds. W. Riess and G. Fagan (Ann Arbor, 2016), 275-98.

[ii] A related law, issued just a month or two later, suggests miners had absconded to Sardinia by ship, and that ships’ captains were liable for a fine of five solidi for each miner they helped to escaped. Evidently, the practice continued, and a further law of 378 returned to the matter of miners absconding to Sardinia, notably gold miners. There were certainly fewer slaves working the mines than in earlier centuries.

[iii] C. Hawkins, Roman artisans and the urban economy (Cambridge, 2016), passim, especially 84-5, 87, 89, 91-2, 97, 126-8, 130-91.