The Touchstones from the Cemetery in Ciepłe
The presented artefacts come from a unique necropolis in Ciepłe from the early Middle Ages. The cemetery is known mostly by its elite burials, dated to the beginning of the 11th century, equipped with elements of armaments, equestrian accessories and other luxury items.
Out of the nine impressive graves, two (42 and 43/2009), among many objects, contained stone artefacts described in accordance with their shape as “whetstones” – items used for sharpening metal tools. It is made out of dark grey fine-grained phyllite slate.
Chemical compound testing of these “whetstones”, conducted in the Centre for Nanotechnology at the Gdańsk Polytechnic, using a scanning electron microscope method called SEM-EDS, showed that the surface of the “whetstones” from grave 42 exhibited the presence of precious metals and other non-ferrous metals. By contrast, the artefact from grave 43 did not possess any similar marks. Its surface shows numerous remnants of iron, however, it is not in any way worn down, which is something expected of a whetstone. Therefore, these clues indicate these items to be touchstones, instead of whetstones.
Touchstones are objects used to assay hallmarks of precious metals, for the most part gold and silver. The surface of the touchstone is rubbed with the metal meant to be assayed – gold, silver or other metal alloys. The colour and shade itself is enough to precisely identify the composition of metals in the tested alloy. The touchstone testing of metal quality is the oldest chemical-metallurgical method, connected to jewellery-making. These means of quality testing of metals and their alloys was known in Antiquity and the Middle Ages.
The discovery of the new function of the “whetstones”, changing their meaning, also significantly indicates the high social status of the deceased buried in graves 42 and 43/2009. The touchstones are evidence of access to precious metals, as well as of partaking in trade (one of the graves contained a balance scale with a set of weights) as well as, most probably, fiscal actions for the authorities.
Curator: Sławomir Wadyl
Text: Sławomir Wadyl
Photography: Joanna Szmit
Graphic Design: Beata Müller
Translation: Paulina Markowska
The Ancient Object of the Month can be viewed in the lobby of the Naturalists’ House at Mariacka Street 25/26 in Gdańsk.