The making of a masterpiece – archaeological illustration at its finest!

The observant amongst you may have noticed that our website now has a shop, selling a print of our Pictish Smithy, produced from an original reconstruction drawing by our very own multi-talented Alan Braby, a professional archaeological illustrator – if you’ve read any book on Scottish archaeology in the last 30 years you can pretty much guarantee that you’re seen some of his illustrations.

Alan started with a pencil drawing based on the excavated archaeological evidence, which went to they-who-must-be-obeyed aka site directors Steve & Julie for their comments, here's the first draft:


This first drawing then went back to Alan along with some further input from Dr Gerry McDonnell (our archaeometallurgist), and Alan duly sharpened his pencils and got to work again, resulting in an altered version heading off for comment:


The observant amongst you will notice that the biggest difference between the first two versions is that the second version has a female smith as well as the two men and quite right too! There's no reason why smith crafting couldn't be done by women –there's some circumstantial evidence in support of this from the Iron Age smithy at Mine Howe in Tankerness, also in Orkney, where there was a young woman buried with some care under the flagged floor of the smithy whilst it was still in use – could well have been one of the smiths.

Anyway, back to the print – after a few more pencil drafts went back and forth it was time for Alan to produce an inked in version by laying permatrace (very expensive archaeological drawing film, as used for all on-site plans and sections) over the pencil drawing and carefully inking in the reconstruction to provide a permanent copy:


This was then carefully rolled up and posted special delivery to Swandro HQ here in Orkney, ready to be turned into a genuine art print.

Now here is where it all get a bit complicated. When the idea of a reconstruction drawing was first mooted, he-who-must-be obeyed (Steve) said 'wouldn't it be great to get some prints made and sell them to raise a bit of money to help pay for next year's dig' and I automatically agreed with him (old habits die hard!), so it was down to yours truly who knows nothing at all about art to arrange this.

'Print' (at least to me!) conjures up a vision of engraved copper plates, vats of ink and a huge printing press but it turns out I'm a bit behind the times - the starting point these days is a high-resolution scan of the original, which by the wonders of modern technology can be turned into a giclée print ( a good-quality digital print on acid-free archival paper with archival pigment based inks, rather than the more usual dye-based inks - supposedly good for at least 200 years before any fading occurs).This technique is how pretty much all fine art prints are now produced, and I think it turned out rather well:



The smith in the foreground is shown working away on the anvil that was found lying next to the smelting hearth in the smithy, here it is after excavation, with Alan the artist on the right:



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Swandro - Orkney Coastal Archaeology Trust 

Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisation No: SC047002 

Patron: His Royal Highness The Prince Charles, the Duke of Rothesay

Registered office: Bayview Birsay Orkney KW17 2LR   email: info@swandro.co.uk