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Containing precious metals: hallmarking, minting and the materiality of gold and silver in medieval and modern England.

Mobility, Meaning and Transformations of Things: shifting contexts of material culture through time and space

This book chapter extends the argument presented in the conference paper ‘Containing gold: Institutional attempts to define and constrict the values of precious metal objects’ given by Oakley at ‘Itineraries of the Material’, a conference held at Goethe Universitaet, Frankfurt am Main in 2011.

Oakley’s chapter investigates the social forces that define the identities, social pathways and physical movement of objects made of precious metal. It presents a case study in which constitutive substance rather than the conceptual object is the key driver behind the social trajectories of numerous artefacts and their reception by contemporary audiences. This supports the main contention of the book as a whole: the need to reconsider, and when necessary challenge, the dominance of the social biography of objects in the study of material culture.

Oakley’s research used historical and ethnographic approaches, including three years’ of ethnographic field research in the jewellery industry. This included training as a precious metal assayer at the Birmingham Assay Office and observing the industry and public response to government proposals to abolish the hallmarking legislation. This fieldwork was augmented by archive, library and object collection research on the histories of assaying and goldsmithing. Oakley presents an analysis of the historical development and contemporary social relevance of hallmarking, a technological process that has never previously been subject to ethnographic study, yet is fundamental to one of the UK’s creative industries.

Material from the chapter was presented in public workshops and conferences, including ‘Tested by fire: The social impact of technological changes in assaying’ (Department of History and Philosophy of Science, Cambridge University, 2011), ‘Agency and the XRF’ (Anthropology in the World conference, British Museum, 2012) and ‘Managing a stream of gold: The UK assay office in the 20th century’ (Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry AGM, Science Museum, 2012).