The Art of Engraving: A Brief History

Just a short hop across the moors from our engraving studio workshop here in central Manchester lies the Peak District – Britain’s very first National Park. These northern reaches of the park are known as the Dark Peak, a wild and rugged landscape of gritstone outcrops and boulders.

And it’s within this landscape, aided by a keen eye, that you may stumble across gritstone boulders decorated with mysterious carvings. Amazingly they were carved by our prehistoric ancestors and are some of Britain’s earliest examples of engraving. Dating from the Neolithic and Bronze Age periods, some are thought to be around 6,000 years old.

In the Peak District, Burbage brook cascades over gritstone boulders surrounded by the golden autumnal colours of Yarncliff Wood within Padley Gorge

The waters of Burbage Brook flowing among large gritstone boulders within Padley Gorge on the edge of the Dark Peak within the Peak District National Park.

From Zigzags to Fertility Symbols

The carvings range from simple circular hollow ‘cups’ to more complex patterns such as zigzags, intertwining grooves, spirals and rings. What these patterns and symbols mean has long been lost through time, but theories abound. Fertility symbols, boundary or route markers and even hieroglyphic messages are all possibilities.

Many of the pieces we are asked to hand engrave, such as watches, glassware and jewellery, are treasured items that can be held and admired. But these ancient boulders cannot be moved, let alone carried in your hand. Which only adds to the mystery of why they were carved and what they mean.

The Peak District’s stone engravings may be several thousand years old. But they’re not the oldest examples in the world. That accolade goes to a fossilised shell that was engraved around half a million years ago.

The Java Shell

The shell in question was found during an archaeological dig on the Indonesian island of Java at the end of the 19th-Century. As well as an ancient human skeleton, fossilised freshwater mussel shells were also unearthed. But it wasn’t until more than a century later – in 2014 – that archaeologist Stephen Munro took a much closer look at the shell collection. And to his amazement found that one had traces of engraving on it. His excitement increased further on realising that, at 500,000 years old, this was the earliest example of human engraving ever recorded.

It’s thought that something like a shark’s tooth was used to finely engrave a simple zigzag pattern into the palm-sized shell. Scientists also believe the mussel shell was fresh at the time the geometric pattern was carved on it. This meant that when the design was cut into the mussel’s dark outer shell, it revealed a brighter white layer beneath.

This perhaps shows that a white design set against black was as striking to early humans as it is to us today.

Mere youngsters compared to the Java Shell are several ostrich eggshells discovered in South Africa. Used as water containers and dating from around 60,000 BC, each is simply engraved with hatched banding. Decorative engravings from this period and later have also been found on bone and ivory.

Engraving in the Ancient World

By the 1st Millennium BC, metal jewellery was starting to be engraved using simple tools to create shallow grooves. Gradually the engraving of semi-precious gemstones followed, gaining increased popularity throughout the ancient world.

For the Ancient Egyptians, stone was perhaps a more popular medium for engraving.

In southern Egypt, over 160 cave engravings have been discovered. Dating back to around 15,000 years ago, the biggest piece of engraved stone cave art archaeologists have found depicts a bull and measures almost 6 feet wide. But Egypt’s most famous form of engraving are its hieroglyphics. Found in all their main temples and pyramids as well as on sandstone tablets, they are the written language of Ancient Egypt. Skilfully engraved into stone, this complex formal writing system is made up of a mix of over 1000 distinct symbols.

Amulets were a more personal and ornate item engraved with hieroglyphics. Fashioned in the shape of Scarab Beetles, they were highly prized jewels throughout Ancient Egypt as a symbol of the sun God Re.

Roman Era Engraving

Throughout the Roman Empire, the art and craft of engraving flourished. Many elaborately ornate and sometimes awe-inspiring engravings were applied to all kinds of object. Examples of which continue to be unearthed in archaeological digs across what was once their vast empire. Discoveries that reveal just how innovative and skilled they were for the time.

The Romans also engraved bronze and iron dies in which to cast their coins. Beautifully intricate designs were created and molten gold or silver then poured into the die to produce their coins. Currency that lasted many centuries and saw many changes in form and denomination.

By the first century AD, glass engraving was being widely practised. Often by using an engraving wheel, decorative scenes and figures were cut into various glass objects. With many of the designs imitating those used in the engraving of semi-precious stones.

Engraving and the Birth of the Hallmark

Medieval engravers of gold and silver were highly skilled craftsmen. But many were not overly worried about cheating their customers with the purity of the precious metals they worked with. For fraud was rife during this period, with many inferior wares being made and sold throughout England.
Henry III tried to regulate the standard of gold and silver in 1238, in an attempt to solve this increasing problem. However, he was only partially successful and it was left to Edward I to finally set a defined standard for both these precious metals.

In 1300, Edward passed this defined standard into law. As part of this, he required the ‘Guardians of the Craft’ to test and then mark each piece of gold or silver ware with the leopard’s head. This engraved design is thought to come from the royal arms and became known as the King’s mark.

It was the Goldsmiths’ Company who were responsible for ensuring that these newly defined standards were met by all Goldsmith’s. Not only in London but by those beyond the capital, too.

Edward III made the adding of a Makers mark law in 1363. Soon after, the Goldsmiths’ Company began employing a Common Assayer. For now they were also responsible for issuing fines to those whose wares didn’t meet the set standard. In 1478, a Date letter also had to be added. This final requirement created the standard complement of hallmarks we know today. It was also when Goldsmiths’ Hall became the permanent home of England’s assay office. And because of this it’s probably where we get the term ‘Hallmark’ from.

Evolving Innovations

By the middle of the 14th Century, the addition of ornately engraved decoration to swords and other arms had become well-established. Fast-forward to the 15th Century, and Goldsmiths throughout Europe were creating increasingly detailed engraving designs for their jewellery and other gold and silver wares.

They also began to print impressions of their intricate designs to record them. And from this, it’s thought, grew the art of engraving copper printing plates for producing artistic images on paper.

In the 16th Century the Burin hand tool was first introduced and is still used today. Also known as a Graver, it’s made from hardened steel and used to engrave a design into metal or wood. ‘Burin’ is the same name given to the flint tool that our prehistoric ancestors used for much the same purpose.

Another tool still in use today is the pantograph engraver invented in 1603 by German physicist Christoph Scheiner. While its design and complexity may have changed considerably over the centuries, the principle of how it works remains the same.

The Industrial Revolution and Beyond

The 18th Century saw the arrival of the Industrial Revolution. It brought with it a surge in the use of engraving within the printing industry. And was a period that changed the printing process forever. For what had once been done by hand could now be done by machine. The 1700s saw a transition from hand to mechanical stamping. And was quickly followed by steam-powered printing presses.

Change continued apace during the Victorian era. Steel replaced copper as a favoured engraving medium. Being a much harder metal, it was better suited to printing applications such as producing banknotes.

And as the 1800s slipped into the 1900s, the engraving of sporting cups, trophies and shields became increasingly popular. And not just for National sporting achievements, but for lesser, more personal victories too. In fact, no matter what the event or achievement, if it was worth celebrating, then it could be commemorated with an inscription engraved on something. Be it on silver, pewter, glassware, wood or stone.

In the years immediately after the Second World War, pantograph engraving enjoyed a bit of a revival. While hand engraving, or push engraving as it’s also known, faced a decline in its use. Although here at John Dearden Engravers, hand engraving is a tradition and craft that proudly lives on.

The Laser Revolution

Engraving technology took a giant leap forward in the early 1960s with the development of lasers. When Bell Laboratories introduced the CO2 Laser in 1964, it was clear the laser revolution had well and truly arrived.

Designs that would have once taken hours to create, can now be achieved in seconds. Size and complexity are no longer an obstacle. Engraving an intricate pattern in the centre of a sealed glass block would have once been thought impossible, but with modern lasers you can do just that.

From a sharks tooth used half-a-million years ago to the high-tech lasers of today, engraving is a craft that is forever evolving.

John Dearden Engraving – Our Place in Engraving History

So, where does John Dearden Engraving fit into this long and rich history? Well, we’ve been “Making it personal since 1978.” A history of craftsmanship spanning six decades.

Hand engraving is our speciality – especially for watches, jewellery and glassware – and has been from the very beginning. In more recent years, state-of-the-art computerised engraving machines have become an integral part of the business too. Making the perfect partnership.

But while innovations are beneficial, for us, it’s the memories created by the embellishments we craft that matter most.