On some peculiarities in the artistic blacksmith craft in Pliska and Preslav in 9th-10th century


Stoyan Vitljanov


The present survey focuses on the works of the artistic blacksmith craft, based on the archaeological excavations and research in the capital centres of the First Bulgarian Kingdom, Pliska and Preslav. (1) Our interest does not only concentrate on the particular archaeological material, frequently ignored, since it was regarded as inefficient and of no scientific value. This paper aims to present the place of the artistic blacksmith craft in the old Bulgarian applied art, the artistic peculiarities of its decoration and the way of making and applying the ready-to-use products. Regarding the limitations of the size of the article, the archaeological material is not to be discussed in this paper. The problem of blacksmith art is still a large and unexplored topic in Bulgarian historiography and deserves a special place and attention. Its overall study will be further researched.
The products of the old Bulgarian blacksmiths have not been explored and have long been ignored since iron, has been regarded mostly as a kind of material of no artistic value. However, the artistically wrought iron along with the colour metals, pottery, textile and wood, takes an important part in the repertoire of the old Bulgarian arts and crafts.
All kinds of agricultural tools and other specific craft tools were made of iron. Iron was used in making various things and objects characteristic of people’s everyday life: things
used for fireplace (trivets, zoomorph easels for firewood, chains and fire-irons), candlesticks, censers, breast crosses and crosses used in processions; padlocks, gorgeous facings for church interior and splendid lithurgic church plate and other objects connected with civil and monastery building. Obviously, the beliefs in the magic power of the blacksmith art and everything else connected with blacksmith anvil and hammer, have strongly penetrated the routine work of Bulgarian people. Thus, for example, in the Bulgarian traditional wedding, there is a custom, typical of some parts of the country, connected with the blacksmith’s family who were to present the newly-married couple with blacksmith tools and who received plenty of gifts in return.
Discussing the variety of the artistically wrought blacksmith products, we must point out that the number of objects known to this day, is quite limited, though such objects come second in place after pottery objects and are most frequently to be found. The natural and weather conditions, in particular, have greatly affected a large number of splendid blacksmith objects and tools which have not kept their initial form. In that respect, the artistically wrought works of iron, found during the archaeological excavations, are of great importance in studying and exploring the old Bulgarian applied arts and crafts.
The complicated processes of forming the old Bulgarian art, as a symbiosis of native working traditions and oriental tastes and likes, and predominantly, Byzantine influence, provide a possibility of establishing Bulgarian production centres in 9th-10th century. Written documents and data of archaeological research, mostly, show that main centres of blacksmith production were the existing towns and mainly the capitals of the First Bulgarian Kingdom, Pliska and Preslav. (2) The rapid work of the archaeological research in recent years in both capital centres provided the museum funds with a considerable number of artistically wrought works of iron. Most of them follow the tendency of modelling the ready-to-use object like the colour metal objects. The most frequently used ornaments are connected mainly with the working traditions in goldsmith’s trade, moulding, coppersmith’s trade and a number of other jewellery techniques practiced in Bulgarian lands. In this respect the old Bulgarian blacksmiths used as an example the splendid ornaments and effigies of the old Bulgarian toreutics, for example, the gold-ware treasure from Nagi saint Miklos,(3) Sevin’s cup from Great Preslav, (4) or the jewellery works of the belt ornaments from Madara (5) the splendid goleen ornaments found recently around Preslav (6) and a number of monuments of old Bulgarian art. In fact, the master-blacksmiths had used various forms and kinds of decoration taking in mind the specific characteristics of the material and the technological capacity of the blacksmith craft.
Objects of everyday life were mainly used in the artistically blacksmith work: knives, hinges, locks, keys, door facings and facings of wooden chests; flint and steel, spatulas, fireplace tools, various kinds of chains, pens, scale arms, parts of different types of tools and instruments, facings of wooden bowls, decorative nail-heads and hooks, decorative bars, etc. When mediaeval Bulgaria adopted Christianity as an official religion, new conditions and possibilities gave rise to different branches of handicraft art,
connected with church building and making of different cult objects, which were often appropriately decorated. A special attention and love were given in decorating different parts of the horse attributes: bridles, straps, stirrups, spurs, buckles, horse-trapping as well as other objects connected with the equipment and armaments of the Bulgarian soldier. (7)
In decorating master-blacksmiths used stylised, geometrical, vegetation, animal and other motives. The geometrical decoration was the preferable one. It focuses more directly and efficiently onto the needed detail in the form, which is to be underlined; it is easy to make and is more prominent. There are even cases when vegetation motives are so simple and stylized that they are treated as pure geometrical forms. These decorations followed the object form and had utilitarian functions. The form had an artistic value and effect in the handicraft objects if it explicitly presented the function of the object. This was a common practice since the main purpose of the blacksmith art was to provide the necessary means of production and the objects of everyday use.
The artistic effect of that kind of blacksmith work has no aesthetic value of ‘its own’. Every object should be extremely solid and functional and cannot be used beyond its utility. The artistic effect aims to underline its utilitarian function. The beauty of the perfect objects, provided the blacksmith clearly understood their particular function and use; the right measure of the available constructive and technical capacities, the profound awareness of the specific features of the particular material.
Since the subject matter are the artistic elements of the blacksmith works of the old Bulgarian blacksmiths we must point out some of the specific characteristics of this production. First, we must say that the Bulgarian blacksmith strictly follows the principle of functionality in form. Second – the blacksmith strictly follows the functionality in decoration, thus realising a link between decoration and applied function of the form with the way of using the object. The third place among the artistic characteristics of the Bulgarian blacksmith art takes, as a decorative element, the natural existence of the so called “undecorated spots”. Generally in art the visible sides of the object are to be decorated. This leads to the natural existence of undecorated spots on those parts of the objects which do not require such decoration. These spots always create the effect of a primitive work of art, very simple and very effective as if incomplete. We can point out some other characteristics to the above-mentioned concerning old Bulgarian blacksmith art, but they are more or less of productive nature. For example, the distinction of the ornaments and the simplicity of the object form result from the fact that the master strictly follows its functionality and utility.
The artistically wrought blacksmith objects, found in the excavations, show that they were made in two ways. In the first case the artistic decoration was achieved by plastic modelling of the iron object; by forging the object gets a specific volumetric shape. In the second case, the ornaments were decorated on the surface of the heated object filling the visible undecorated spot with various heads, fullers, circles, openings, slits, diagonal cuts, zigzag lines, decorative winding of body and handle parts, open-work decoration and other ornament elements. A greater part of that decoration was not preserved as the narrow slits of the separate elements in most objects had entirely lost their surface due to the corrosive effect characteristic of black metals. Thus, it is rather difficult to follow the traditions and tendencies in iron decoration.
Adopting Christianity, Bulgaria found new ways of strengthening the position of the ruling class, a new ideological environment was established to structure the feudal hierarchy. The temple where the lithurgy was performed, the same way as in Byzantium, concentrated art in general. Numberless architects, stonemasons, jewellers, goldsmiths, blacksmiths, coppersmiths, icon-painters, artists and orators synthesized their work in the temple. Although under the auspices of the church various artistic activities went together, there was a number of other iron-making technologies, which went beyond church boundaries; they did not make works of art, but formed the production background of other handicraft activities. Obviously, there was a big difference between the objects made of metal which were designed to serve church needs and those objects designed to serve the needs of urban society; there was a grat difference not only in their form and decoration, but also in their overall use. The first objects were officially monumental, the second ones – common and easily available, closely connected with everyday life. Along with the church attributes made of metal, which were first imported from Byzantium, the high society in Bulgaria adopted many forms of the Byzantine court ceremonial etiquette connected with the use of social handicraft works. In many respects the Bulgarian church, for a period of three centuries, and the social aristocracy became an important client to Byzantine handicraft works. In 9th-10th century the Bulgarian rulers On Some Peculiarities in the Artistic Blacksmith Craft in Pliska and Preslav in 9th-10th Century considered themselves equal to Byzantine emperors and tried to provide themselves, their court and close associates with the same splendour. With regard to church and monastery building masters from Byzantium came to Bulgaria: masters of murals, architects, icon-painters, craftsman-painters, who made different objects for church cult and social use. Many works of art were imported from Byzantium, which entended to satisfy the tastes and likes of the Bulgarian aristocracy. Not only separate artistically made handicraft works were imported to Bulgaria, but also entire cultural layers, which underwent new development in the new historical environment, were transformed, adapted to the new conditions, and gained a new meaning. That import of luxurious objects, however, was not available for the greater part of the urban society for two reasons: these people could not afford them and were foreign to the modern tendencies in clothing and jewelleries.
In craftsmen’s workshops and studios masters from Byzantium helped the masters from Bulgaria to train and master the blacksmith techniques and design the rich artistic repertoire. That’s how the splendid models of Bulgarian art were created which at first sight seemed to be made of Byzantine artistic elements, but in fact they were far from adopting Byzantine style of art. The complex process of making objects from Byzantine elements of no Byzantine nature is rather explicit not only in the blacksmith objects, but in a number of architectural branches, art of painting, sculpture, and in a number of works of applied art like bone carving, iced and painted pottery, cellular enamel and other models of old Bulgarian applied art. (8)
The newly built churches, all-out monastery and civil construction, as well as the newly forming church and social aristocracy, had still a great need of a larger number of clerical and civil production. The newly organised craft industry in the capital centresc of the First Bulgarian Kingdom along with the already existed boyar and monastery blacksmith’s shops were in lack of new masters and this somehow influenced the great number of urban craftsmen traditionally connected with folk art.
The works of urban craftsmen form the other, probably the widest layer in the artistic iron making in the early mediaeval Bulgaria. Their products, consisted mainly of various kinds of jewelleries and ornaments, or objects of everyday use, suited the tastes and preferences of a wide circle of urban population. These objects, closely connected with the urban mass culture underwent different stylistic transformations. Among the already known blacksmith works a third layer is clearly distinguished – works of rural craftsmen. The rural blacksmiths, jewellers and potters made products for a limited circle of people, who belonged to one and the same social group along with the craftsmen. According to the rate of development, some rural craftsmen started making objects not only for a particular circle of citizens, but also they run errands by boyars and people from the court, whose dependents they sometimes were. Curiously, after adopting Christianity, in all branches of craft trade works of splendid decoration and perfect technique of execution came to the market. A great part of the works imitate Byzantine or oriental motives transformed in the spirit of Bulgarian folk traditions. The imported objects were a kind of models to imitate by the native craftsmen, which they frequently copied but at the same time they freely and constructively interpreted, changed and transformed in accordance with the native artistic tendencies. (9)
The works of Byzantine craftsmen did not have a strong effect on the early mediaeval Bulgarian craft trade, which were sufficiently well developed and unique.
Bulgarian craftsmen, at the time when Bulgaria adopted Christianity, were quite familiar not only with the blacksmith art, but also they were familiar with moulding, inlaid work and many other craft techniques of metal working. Of course, the foundations of that craft trade could not be changed under the influence of the imported goods from Byzantium.
The artistic craftwork had been closely connected with pagan traditions till Bulgaria adopted Christianity. The prevailing symbols in ornaments were of pagan origin. Many customs and rituals went along with Christian ones and mixed with the new rites and celebrations. Duoteism turned into a firm tendency, determining many aspects of people’s life in that epoch, including the character and matter of fine art. The urban craftsmen, making common mass objects, were hardly willing to accept the new tendencies in the development of Byzantine artistic craft trade. Both layers – the layer of Byzantine objects and the layer of Bulgarian handicraft works, as the excavations show, existed in parallel.
The mediaeval Bulgarian blacksmiths did not form any schools for iron working, but in the years of creative work they designed and made splendid blacksmith works of art, testifying the eternal aspiration of the mediaeval man for splendour in art. Regardless of the fact that today there are very few unique models from that field of art, obviously it is possible to draw a rough but realistic picture of the modest artistic achievements in the iron working in the mediaeval capitals of the Bulgarian country in 9th and 10th century on the basis of the recently excavated materials from Pliska and Preslav.


(1) By artistic blacksmith craft the autor of the present survey jeans the artistic making of the black metal.
(2) Vitjanov 1989/1990, p. 145-170; 1980, p. 137-145; 2002, p. 713-719; 1988, p. 37-40; 2004, p. 25-75; Balabanov 1980, p. 27-36; Doncheva-Petkova 1984, p. 95-103; Henning 1987, p. 189-199.
(3) Mavrodinov 1943; Vaklinov, Vaklinova 1983; Lázló, Kácz 1973, p. 203.
(4) Totev 1964, p. 5-15; 1964, p. 56.
(5) Mavrodinov 1959, p. 205-221; 1936, p. 223 ff.; Mijatev 1926-1927, p. 14 ff.; Mikov 1934, p. 429 ff.
(6) Totev 1982, p. 101
(7) Vitljanov 1996, p. 119.
(8) Miyatev 1930, p. 73; Mavrodinov 1959; History … 1976; Totev 1993; 1982, p. 79-87.
(9) Darkevich 1976, p. 169-170


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