My first encounter with ox-hide ingots was on the cover of a specialist economic history text. Cyprus is home to the largest deposits of copper ore in the Mediterranean region, concentrated around the Trodoos mountains.
I came face-to-face with, and became attached to, my ox-hide ingot during an experiment in object-based brainstorming that I conducted in Room 72: Ancient Cyprus at the British Museum. The curatorial notes read:
‘Weighing about 37 kilograms, this large block of copper is known as an ox-hide ingot because the shape resembles an ox-skin stretched out to dry. This was the standard shape for the transportation of copper in the mediterranean region between round 1600 and 1200 BCE and is thought to have made the ingots easier to carry by hand or stack in the ships hold for transportation.’
As the contemporaneous tweet below indicates, my initial impression of the object was of a combination beauty and pragmatism. This encounter also prompted, thanks in part to the curatorial notes, more abstract thoughts of collaboration, cooperation, progress, mobility, fungibility and storage. The theme of transformation is also present in the previous and present shape of the copper, the impact of time and environment on its surface, and in its ever-rediness to be transformed into an infinite number of shapes in the future.
The curatorial notes also mention that ‘The ingot was part of a hoard of scrapped bronze buried for safe-keeping in a trading and manufacturing settlement near the village of Engomi around 1200 BCE.’ This raised a theme of memory.
On a visit to the Cyprus Museum in Nicosia I had found a range of mini ingots on display, but no large scale versions.
I decided to offer a commentary on the ox-hide ingot as part of the Kent Law School Legal Object Workshop at the British Museum on March 10 2017. Each participant was tasked with presenting a commentary in front of their chosen object and then distributing a trace of that commentary to the group.
Following the methodology suggested by Jules Prown (1982), I began by getting to know the object physically. I made a small version of the ingot in modelling clay, tracing images and considering the patterns that the shape might form.
I experimented by creating interactions between it and a set of objects that I had previously created to represent Cypriot economic actors, law and trust.
The model was so easy to make and enjoyable to hold, it would make an ideal trace to distribute to participants. The process of making the traces made me hold in mind those who made, carried and traded ox-hide ingots; and my fellow participants to whom I would be giving these traces. Seeing them laid out in patterns reminded me of the elaborate networked, architecture of markets. And when I noticed that the spaces between the clay models were as systematic and significant as the models themselves, my mind travelled to debates over the extent to which markets are naturally occurring or constructed by, among other things, law (Perry-Kessaris 2015). Which is more natural, more important: the trace or the space?
My ox-hide traces formed part of my display at the MA Graphic Media Design London College of Communication Work in Progress show 2017.