A Hand in Humanity

Eva Lynch. 2022.  MA Design for Body & Environment, NCAD.


I develop objects that reimagine ancient techniques and technologies such as those in an Iron Age ribbon torc. While many skills are passed down by hand others are rediscovered through objects that have travelled through history. In resurrecting these artefacts from the soil we become connected to humans living at other times, connected to their culture, their way of life, their hands.

Our survival as a species historically depended on our ability to craft the things we required for everyday life and while the development of hand-skills preserved and enhanced human life it also connected us directly to the natural world through the materials. By the end of the 21st-century we will have moved as much rock and sediment in 150 years, through mining, construction, and road building, as humans moved in the preceding five millennia to satisfy the demand for goods and technology (Farrier, 2020).

As we move away from the everyday pursuits that require the use of our hands we are outsourcing our inherent human behaviours, losing our connection to self and the natural world. Through my research (Dolan, 2012) including practicing the techniques of ancient smiths, I believe that aside from creating objects that were simply functional or beautiful pieces, the inherent therapeutic qualities in the physical act of making were important in prehistory. My conversations with Caroline Gardner (Lynch, 2021), founder of social enterprise We Make Good, explore the phenomenon of the Flow State, and the idea of craft as a vehicle for personal and social transformation (Adamson, 2007).

While the era to which a ribbon torc is assigned is not widely understood (Warner, 2018), academics like Brian Dolan have made incredible contributions to our understanding of metalworking at this time through his meticulous critique of all available research related to blacksmithing activities in prehistory (Dolan 2012).

We have a responsibility now more than ever as designers, makers, and citizens to shape the future of material culture. From the research on prehistoric Ireland (Becker, 2021) proposing evidence to suggest the importance of sustainable practices and a circular economy in Iron Age Ireland, it would appear that we can look to our ancestors for some guidance.

Writing through design I explore the themes of extraction from the earth, and connection to the earth, with two fictional pieces written from the perspectives of a metalsmith in prehistory and the future. The stories are set in the environs of The Sperrin Mountains in Co. Tyrone, a landscape rich in ancient heritage and very rich in natural reserves of gold. A piece of poetry bridges the two stories, with the suggestion that the preservation of hand skills is central to the preservation of humanity.


“All that you touch you change. All that you change changes you”

(Octavia Butler, 1998)

422 BCE


I found the bone sharpener that prepares the axe for my last job of the morning as a child, alongside several gold objects, whilst digging in the middens that disfigured the foothills of The Sperrin Mountains. It bears the physical scars of the tools of generations past and I’m sure it is for this connection that I favour its use above that of the new sandstone sharpener gifted to my father by one of the tent dwellers. “You chop a log first and foremost with your mind”, my grand-father told my father. “To connect the axe to the perfect spot on the wood you must connect your heart fully to the tree ”. I’m not sure I know what he means but I know that the community will soon replant the clearing that’s making the oak-covered mountain-side look like God has opened the curtains slightly to remind us he’s watching. I also know that if my mind continues to wander like this, the axe will miss. Sometimes you hit a sweet spot on the wood, shattering the log in one go into all of the pieces you would have wasted many more swings on, and the euphoria of this coupled with the anticipation of another golden strike carries you easily through the task at hand, in another dimension.

My father’s preference for the sandstone sharpener is less to do with the novelty of a new technology but rather its association with the tent dweller who also gifted him the kinds of knowledge that even his own grandfather couldn’t have imagined. This itinerant man had worked with the soft golden metal before, and using a stone bowl furnace (Dolan, 2012) he helped my father to melt the ancestral gifts into billets before forging them back into workable sheets. Ours was the only gold that ever passed through our community, and we continue to rework one remaining piece for the evening rituals at the Beaghmore standing stones. The recent discovery of a metal, as precious as this last nugget, is transforming our lives and our landscapes, and some say the egos of the smiths who are carving up the bog and forests to fuel their work.

While my body is somewhat exhausted from the essential morning rituals of gathering, chopping, planting and weaving, my mind and soul feel relaxed and invigorated as I make for the hilltop.

Yesterday’s harvest celebrations have provided us with enough charcoal to fuel the rest of the week’s work and I carefully extract the fruits of the hearth, before bringing the fire back to life. As the community begins to gather, I prepare the outdoor workshop, firmly planting the deer antler, my stake, into the earth alongside the ancient stone anvil that was carried up here by my grand-father’s grand-father. The twirl of gold that we work and rework everyday for the public spectacle, using the techniques shown to us by the tent-dweller, has become so tightly coiled it resembles a three dimensional ancient spiral, which my father now bends into a torc before rising it above his head towards the sun. In gratitude for the arrival of a new precious metal commodity it is time to offer this object back to the earth. As it sinks back down into the bog it leaves behind the knowledge that we will pass to the next generations through our hands.




I make things in metal.

I make spoons. I make jewellery. I make vessels.

I make precious objects and objects precious

Making things makes me want to make more things.

I make tools to make more things.

My hands remember

The hands of my father

To make requires the thoughts that arrive from not thinking

I think about how I’m going to make thoughts metal.

My hands remember

The hands of my teachers

I make from the earth

I think about how I can make things that make more time

My hands remember

The hands of the ancient smith.



Aldrian, Co Tyrone

One good thing about the temporary ‘one car per household limit’, is that I dedicate the daily 40 minute bus commute to the business stuff I hate devoting precious studio time to. Issues with supply and demand to the electric car industry mean the wait time for a new car is approximately 6 months, but the outlawing of ‘inbuilt obsolescence’ means that the average person will buy a car at most twice in their lifetime. Today my freed-up hands and head are taking advantage of this twice-in-a-lifetime opportunity to clear a mountain of administrative work. Since 2037 every metal order must be accompanied by government ID, maker’s license, purpose of use and practically what you ate for breakfast. All sales of precious metal goods must also include a Certificate of Ownership (Oireachtais, 2013). People scoffed that they might as well wear security collars around their necks at the introduction of licenses for not only jewellery but any item using materials listed on the Endangered Resources Appendix (ERA) but the measures gained support as burglaries and other crimes have fallen drastically due to the difficulty in trading anything without an ERA license.

When my new car arrives, despite it being self-drive, I’ll return to savouring the dawn-drenched mountains, my soul-fuel, on the daily commute to my studio, imagining the ancient smiths at Beaghmore standing stones about to also begin their daily rituals. Just a handful of cottages and farms dot the ancient landscape until the perfectly unsymmetrical symmetry of nature, is rudely interrupted by the silhouette of a newly grassed hill that looks like a child drew it with a ruler. This strange anomaly prepares the eye, somewhat, for the square-mile concrete forest of semi-detached and dormer bungalows alongside acres of giant galvanised-roofed warehouses that are allegedly, according to the planning proposals “in keeping with the style of rural buildings in the area” (Dalradian, 2021). They are certainly indicative of rural buildings in their emptiness and want of a lick of paint! The town of Aldrian, renamed after the mining corporation who finally began extracting gold here in 2035 following years of controversy, was abandoned in 2039 when the corporations claim to being completely “net zero” was challenged in the high court with evidence of water contamination and soil deterioration in neighbouring farms. Having invested millions, in the years prior to being granted a license, funding all kinds of community programs and clubs, and ensuring a steady workforce for the mines with the establishment of a technical college (Dalradian, 2021), Aldrian Corp weren’t about to scarper off into the sunset. With new local support in the form of their now unemployed workers, and testimonies from respected scientists in support of their endeavours, Aldrian might well be back in business sooner than the mounds of tailings redefining the topography of The Sperrins are pathetically ‘landscaped’.

The hypocrisy of my opposition to the extraction of gold, as a goldsmith, is not for a second lost on me. My work aside, the deposit for our house was paid for from my husbands 5 years working in The Wheatstone Gas Project in northern Australia (Kenny, 2017).

My studio is a crumbling, patched up cabin on the estate of a rundown country manor. There is an old forge at the other side of the yard and I like to imagine the neighbours I might have had centuries ago. I also like to imagine the studio I would build in that forge, the ghosts of hands-past lingering in the ether whispering ideas to me.

Caroline Gardner is already in the yard and I apologise profusely for my lateness. Caroline works with a social enterprise called We Make Good, who for over 2 decades have transformed the lives of rehabilitated drug-offenders, ex-prisoners, migrants and others facing social challenges. They collaborate with makers and designers to create meaningful employment for their clients. The items they produce for sale carry the belief that the things around us should reflect who we want to be as a society. She is here to collect a commissioned piece that incorporates the treasured gold jewellery of many generations of her family. She is genuinely fascinated by the tools and materials that permeate every shelf, crack, and corner of the cabin, and I am delighted at any opportunity to discuss my most prized possessions; including an antler bearing the imprint of years of hammer work, found in the old forge, and a spoon and hammer from the workshop of 18th century silversmith Hester Bateman gifted to me by my first tutor and dear friend master silversmith Peter Donovan. I inform her that her torc bracelet is a descendant of an iron age ribbon torc, that the tools used to make it descended from antlers, and that the excess gold added to her piece was recycled in Ireland, so maybe even more of her ancestors are having a reunion in there! I have the skills to produce this work authentically, thanks to a master craftsman named Brian Clarke, who was asked to replicate a ribbon torc for The National Museum of Ireland at the turn of the century, provoking a decades long enquiry into this visitor from another world. We talk at length about the hand skills that are vital to our existence and that have the ability to rehabilitate and redefine people.

As she recounts the history of each piece of jewellery in her bracelet, including one anonymous gold ring that emerged from her grandmother’s vegetable patch, we talk about the ideas, skills and stories that can be lost with the passing of generations, sometimes forever, but sometimes to be reborn after an eventful journey through soil and time. As she attempts to leave, upon realising that an hour has evaporated with the flow of conversation, I remind her that if she doesn’t complete her ERA form, her beautiful torc might be confiscated to the Assay Recycling Centre, probably destined for a circuit board. We joke about her entire family’s history that permeates the gold, and the millennia of skill and knowledge that passed through my very hands, being lost forever in a giant burning crucible, maybe to be reborn as a computer chip that houses all of the information we have just discussed.



I was reading Octavia Butlers Parable of The Talents while I wrote my fictional pieces and the sentiment “all that you touch you change, all that you change changes you” resonated. The suggestion that our humanity is preserved through the practice of hand-skills can be critiqued in its simplest sense using Octavia’s words, by considering the actual shaping of a material into something new, and in doing so, changing its essence, the ground it came from and the world in which it now carries a function or an ideal. Both the therapeutic effects experienced through the act of making, and the effects that the object you have created has on society, can be seen to change you.



All That You Touch You Change

Researchers of Iron Age Ireland suggest that the human relationship to technology and objects in prehistory co-existed with their reverence for nature (Warner, 2018). Middens, or ancient rubbish dumps, contain evidence of recycling and reuse (Fears, 2021), fuelling the theory that prehistoric societies operated within a circular economy (Becker, 2021). There is also evidence for woodland regeneration and the closing in of intensively cleared Late Bronze Age landscapes (Dolan, 2012, cites Molloy 2005).

Contemporary society will be defined by its relentless extraction of the earth’s resources and in particular gold. Two-thirds of our entire extraction of 197500 tonnes of gold has happened since the 1950s (Nijman, 2019). The romantic notion of a golden torc appearing from the ground from thousands of years ago is foreshadowed by the reality that the earth’s crust carries the scars.

The Sperrin Mountains in Co Tyrone are home to an estimated three billion worth of gold reserves (Carrell & Carroll, 2020). During their exploratory surveys, the Dalradian group funnelled over one million euros into local initiatives and conservation projects (Dalradian, 2021) yet the level of support for the mine can be extrapolated from the greatest number of oppositions to a planning application ever on the island of Ireland (Fowles, 2021). Dalradian plans to be the first net zero mine in Europe, and their website outlines all of the ways in which they will achieve ecological harmony, yet many of the 40000 objections cited environmental concerns (Wiley, 2021). Senator, and environmental activist, Alice Mary Higgins suggests that placing resources such as gold under the Treasure Trove law will prevent further extraction and ecological damage (Lynch, 2021), and ideas such as blockchain have been proffered to make supply chains more transparent, but in a society that functions with technologies that require gold and other minerals, the question as to whether this resource is worth more to society in the ground is widely debated. Resource experts say the current supply of various metals and minerals cannot support a global economy producing net zero carbon emissions. Prof Richard Herrington, head of Earth Sciences at London’s Natural History Museum, suggests that a spike in mining is inevitable if we are to meet carbon targets, and that a realistic timing for a potential circular economy, in terms of having enough materials to recycle, would be 2050 (Amos, 2021). At present society is only 8.8% circular, a figure that needs to double if we are to prevent further climate deterioration (Circularity Gap report, 2021). Buying gold from precious metal recycling facilities with high technological standards and a reliable origin of the recycling material is about 300 times better, ecologically, than primary production (Fritz et al., 2020). Currently only one fifth of electronic waste is recycled, yet tonne for tonne, the gold content in tech waste is about 100 times more than in ore (Nijman, 2019). The mining of tech waste could be part of the solution to keeping ore in the ground.

All That You Change, Changes You

There are machines that can replicate most of the things we make with our hands, but there is much more involved in the crafting of an object than simply applying skills to produce an end product. The formation of the idea, the application of the skill and the physical action of doing grounds us to our environment and to all of humanity in many obvious and many subtle ways. The experience of Flow, “when consciousness is harmoniously ordered” (Csikzentmihalyi, 1991, p.6) can be a somewhat elusive creative methodology mentioned by makers like Junko Mori and Hiroshi Suzuki (Shroder, 2010) whose works evoke a sense of connection to the natural world. When discussing We make Good, a social Enterprise connecting designers and makers with reformed addicts, prisoners and other socially disadvantaged groups, Caroline Gardner links the inherent mindfulness and meditation in the practice of hand-skills to her clients’ sense of self-worth and rehabilitation (Lynch, 2021). Sustainable practices underpin their commercial products. Their beliefs that “Beauty lies in the story of how a product is made, as well as its design”, and, “the things around us should reflect who we are and what we want the world to be” bring to life the ideals of people like Laszlo Moholy-Nagy with “art as a vehicle for social transformation” (Guggenheim, 2021).

As a maker working predominantly in precious metals I often consider my part in the destruction of nature for my primary materials. I consider the ethics in the current climate crisis of creating works that are essentially luxury goods.

As designers and makers we are required more than ever to be driven by a sense of moral purpose, to arrive at what design writer Deyan Sudjic presents as a kind of inner truth or meaning in our works (Sudjic, 2009). Objects have a biography (Ó’Maoldúin, 2014, citing Appadurai, 1986), as can be examined on a macro scale with an ancient artefact like the ribbon torc,. As designers we get to write the entire story of the works we create, from the materials we use to its place in society. As Sudjic suggests, objects can be understood as “fragments of a genetic code” and this code can grow into any manmade artefact (Sudjic, 2009, p.35).

It is clear that the objects we give shape to, shape the landscape, shape behaviours, shape us. How we shape each of these realities is in our hands.


Reference List


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Wiley, C. (2021) Residents against Tyrone gold mine take their protest to London. Available at: https://www.breakingnews.ie/ireland/residents-against-tyrone-gold-mine-take-protest-to-london-1222819.html (Accessed 10 Dec 2021)





MA Design For Body & Environment/ A Hand in Humanity. Eva Lynch