Akis Goumas: in search of the prehistoric craftsman

Published: 29.01.2018
Akis Goumas Akis Goumas
Marietta Kontogianni
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The reconstitution of a Mycenaean goldsmithing technique in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, Greece.
National Archaeological Museum of Athens
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He tames the fire with love, dedication and patience.
He melts the metal slowly and methodically.
He creates contemporary artworks, jewelry and objects, of excellent craftsmanship, which reflect his deep knowledge of the ancient jewelry techniques.  
He has been acquiring this knowledge through his multi-annual research and his collaboration with archaeologists and museums in a constant search of the prehistoric jeweler .
He is now sharing this knowledge to the new generation of jewelers through training courses and workshops.   

Ελληνική έκδοση - Greek version      View / hide description

Akis Goumas is a very skillful contemporary jewelry artist based in Athens and a teacher at the Chalkis Jewellery School-Eric Robbert in Chalkida, Greece.
I had the chance to interview him while a short “stop” in his long journey through time from prehistoric era to present. He talked to me about his work, he revealed me the secrets of his art and he opened me the door of the Mycenaean jewelry workshops to meet his prehistoric colleague.

Modular culture. Necklace, leather silver, steel, bone wood tortoise shell, pigments. Photo by V. Xenias.

You are a jeweler and researcher of the prehistoric jeweler. When and how did you get involved with this research in the first place?
Since late ‘70s to ‘80s, I have resolved that my interest lies in studying and creating jewelry. I felt the need to move forward but at that time I was still searching for the “how to”. I was fortunate to meet important people who showed me the way. My theoretical and technical knowledge was complemented by art history studies, readings in the museum libraries and exploring their showcases.
Since that time the museums of “Benaki”, “Cycladic art” and the “National Archaeological Museum” became not only familiar but also intimate and creative spaces for me. In 2000 I had my first contact with excavation material at the National Archaeological Museum when the archaeologist Elena Stamatatou instructed me to study a small collection of Mycenaean seal-stones for her diplomatic work.

What is the chronological period your research is concentrated on?
I am interested mainly in the prehistoric period. It is the time when silver and gold appear for the use on jewelry and goldsmithing techniques in the Aegean region and the Greek mainland. I am interested in understanding how this knowledge has spread from the East, Egypt, and Crete and how it has been utilized in the various regions by different craft unions and craftsmen.

What is your research methodology?
I participate in a small research group of archaeologists who share the same vision with me. The members of this group are Eleni Konstantinidis, the curator of the prehistoric collection of the National Archaeological Museum of Greece, and Nikos Papadimitriou the curator of the Museum of Cycladic Art in Greece. The methodology is defined by them. The stages we follow are: study, observation with lenses and stereomicroscopes, experimentations and laboratory testings in the laboratories of Demokritos (Greek National Center of Scientific Research).
I'm studying the scientific publications that the archaeologists give me, I'm experimenting a lot and I think even more. There are small details that may require months of study and experimentation, like the simple act of cutting a sheet of metal with a bronze tool, up to complex soldering and deposition techniques.

Inner. Pendant / Object, Brass, glass (by Marion Fillancq) pigments, leather. Photo by V. Xenias

I remember the lecture you gave during the 1st Athens Jewelry Week entitled “Searching for the prehistoric craftsman”. Why is more important to you to find the man behind the techniques rather than to simply understand the ancient jewelry techniques?
A technique is not developed by itself; it arises from the craftsman’s need to express himself and to solve technical problems while expressing the essence of his time (although he probably was not aware of that). It is a form of language for him.
When visiting a museum with ancient works of art, we usually admire all these important works but we don’t get any information about their creator. All these artworks were made by craftsmen, unknown artists who are not even mentioned. We admire the works as if they were made by themselves. This thought resulted in the need to know as much as I could for those unknown creators, to discover the knowledge they possessed, their tools and possibly the ways they thought, worked and lived. When I met N. Papadimitriou at the Museum of Cycladic Art, what I dreamed became a reality. He gave me the opportunity to start this study systematically.

How do you try to meet the prehistoric jeweler, how close to him have you got so far and what are the most important things you have learned about him up to now?
We are living in an era of easy access to information and communication technology, where everything happens with just the touch of a button. Our basic needs are covered and we often invent other needs to keep us busy.
We are so far away from the living and working conditions of the prehistoric craftsmen, we know so little for them and it is difficult to make comparisons.
So, in order to say that I start to comprehend some of their aspects, I don’t just need a lot of studying. I need to let go of my own modern criteria and to see their works putting on a set of fresh eyes and a fresh mind. Sometimes I feel that somehow I approach the way that something was made and I start to understand it, but I always rely on speculations and personal views which in the future could be overturned by other scholars. Our knowledge is based on assumptions.
I constantly learn about how different their life was but I realize how many puzzle pieces we miss to comprehend how their life was. For example, one of the things we do learn is that the technicians were working collectively, every artisan of the team was good at some aspect of the craft and through repetition, he improved his technique. But in general, I feel my knowledge is truly limited. In our society, we tend to acquire knowledge from reading and not so much through observation and experience, which for them were the main sources of knowledge.

Based on the ancient techniques how easy or how difficult is to make the exact same ancient jewelry and why? And how long does it take to reproduce an ancient piece?
We cannot copy an artifact precisely, as we know very little about the ancient craftsman, the ways he worked and the environment he was working in. If we just aim to reproduce it, we will create the pieces in our own way but then we will not understand anything about the history and we will not comprehend the ancient process.
I will give you an example: The basic act of utilizing the fire to solder a piece of jewelry is something that we do not know the exact “how to”. If we will use the contemporary technology of the torch for the soldering, then the process and the result will be similar to the ancient one, but the essence of it will be completely different. In my studies, I do not try to imitate the ancient craftsman, I do not want to, I just want to know him and learn from him. And as I approach him, I sense a knowledge and experience that is centuries old and that he possesses, merged with his own experience. When I try to recreate some specific artifacts or parts of them, it is through the process of several attempts that I understand something about the ancient craftsman and his abilities.
As far as construction time is concerned, it is very difficult to identify it. To learn something that he did, I have to experiment a lot, to make comparative studies and then to proceed to the final implementation. For example, to learn how to build the Mycenaean button (a research that was part of the international traveling exhibition “The Greeks: Agamemnon to Alexander the Great” that was held in the US (2014-2016), I needed months of experimentation and testing with tools and materials.

Primal Beauty. Bracelet, Brass, glass (by Marion Fillancq), pigments.

How has the knowledge you have acquired so far about the ancient jewelry techniques affected your creative process and the materials you use? How did you use to work before and how do you use to work after your research?
My work has been greatly influenced. My classic jewelry perception as well as aiming for the technical excellence slowly changed to a different approach, I started appreciating the memory of the materials, of the techniques, of the emotions. Now I am interested in expressing time, in giving importance to the trace, to the feeling, even to what is called “mistake”.

What are your favorite materials to work with?
Metals are interesting materials, their properties are stimulating, (like the difficulty of forming and shaping that they have), but I also work with many other materials, both natural and artificial. I avoid materials that harm us and the environment. Every material has its own character and it is important for me to learn from its characteristics and respect them.

Is it true that you are making yourself the jewelry tools you’re using based on those of the prehistoric jeweler?
To be able to understand the prehistoric craftsman, I need to know about his tools, how he made them, their materials and their shape (which was formed through necessity). I believe tools were made in a simple but effective way, so I try to have the same approach.  I am so influenced by this process that I started making tools for my personal, contemporary work because they serve my needs better and more efficiently.

Organic Symmetry. Necklace, Silver, copper,  PVC, steel, silk thread, pigments.

You take the knowledge from the past to create contemporary jewelry. Going from past to present is a long journey. How do you elapse time and what is the biggest challenge you have to face?
It is probably the most difficult part of this study. What do you do with all this acquired information, how do you handle it, how do you manage it since the way of comprehending things in the times that we live in, is so totally different from the past. It is a great challenge to make the old knowledge understood and try to utilize it in the modern jewelry today.
Studying the past influences the essence of the present things, it happens so slowly but it is evident in the contemporary jewelry, in my present work.
And I am even more interested and focused on spreading the knowledge we acquire from all this study, to share it, to make it understood and useful. The teaching and the seminars we are doing are part of this effort.

I know that with the archaeologists you work with, you are planning to build a website dedicated to your research. Is that true and when is expected to be online?
What our group desires is to make this knowledge open to everyone. We do not own what we discover, we learn so we can share. Of course, we need time and the right structure to be able to do this, to have the result that we want.

In your work, significant and supplementary role plays the draw. You always show your jewelry pieces alongside your draws that are literally works of art. Did you ever take drawing lessons or are you self-taught?
Drawing is like a language to me, I feel that I learned it the same way I learned to speak and to communicate. I have been drawing since I was a toddler. It making me capable to describe something that I would otherwise need a lot of words to explain. Drawing creates images that help us understand; help us be part of something else. These images are part of my jewelry, they can show my path, and they are reflecting thoughts and ideas.

Natural Wonder. Brooch, Steel, leather, wood, glass (by Marion Fillanq), pigments.

Showing alongside jewelry and drawings is like a story narration. And your book “Paths of knowledge and techniques in Jewelryland”/ «Μονοπάτια γνώσεων και τεχνικών στην Κοσμηματοχώρα» 2012 editions LULU (available only in Greek) is written like a tale. Why is the narration so important to you?
I'm interested in having a story and a narrative behind my work. It is the basis where I develop it and I can observe it from different points of view.  It also forms a basis for the observer to develop his own narrative, which can be different from mine.

In 2016 I attended your workshop at the Museum of Cycladic Art in Athens (Greece) about the prehistoric jewelry techniques and in 2017 the same workshop at the British Archaeological School in Athens (Greece). I will always remember the moment the lights were turned off, nobody was talking or moving and all eyes were on you. It was the moment you had a blow pipe in your mouth and you had been trying to tame the flame of the fire through your breath so as to melt the gold and make a granule. You were totally concentrated on that process as if there were only you and the fire in the world.
It was a moment of pure mystagogy!
Please describe me your feelings at that moment and tell me:
Is the taming of fire the most crucial, the fundamental stage of the creative process for a jeweler and why?
Since ancient times to the present day fire has always been man’s most important tool. Fire is life. For the craftsman, it is both a tool and a soul. When I work the fire with the blowpipe, I learn how to control it, in order to have the desired result. If I don’t concentrate then I cannot understand it and use it. In many ways, it's like learning a wind instrument. One understands the right technique by the perception of the sound.

What are your next plans regarding your work?
I think that 2018 will be an important year.
I'm preparing a new body of jewelry work which I plan to show in 2019 and I will also take part in some group exhibitions.
At the same time, I am working on an exhibition about Hellenistic jewelry that will take place at the Benaki Museum, at about the end of 2018. I collaborate with Dr. E. Papageorgiou, an archaeologist, and curator of the museum, and with the Benaki preservation team, to show the public how some of the Hellenistic jewelry was made. We will have videos, drawings and will also exhibit the tools that I used for constructing these jewels. For this exhibition, I have been working for about two years.
Furthermore, my “prehistoric team” of the two archaeologists and I, we are now completing a study of a rare Mycenaean technique, called the "gold - embroidery". A small number of objects were created with this technique, mainly sword handles. We believe that the technique was used in special workshops and by master craftsmen. We plan to make a video too, to document this study and the application of the technique.

About the Interviewee

Akis Goumas is born in Greece and lives in a suburb near Athens, were he has his workshop. After his diploma in economics he was trained as a jeweler and silversmith ( Koilourgos-This word describes in the Mycenaean Linear B script, the craftsman who creates hollow forms by hammering). He is a member of the Greek Chamber of Fine Arts. Since 1989 and for more than 15 years he was the designer for ONAR S.A. (jewelry and object company). Since 2000 he has been teaching creative jewelry in Chalkis jewelry school, which is a department of Chalkis Art School. In the last 15 years he has participated in more than 25 exhibitions in Greece and European countries. Since 2006 he is a member of a team of archaeologists studying and researching prehistoric metal technologies of the Aegean region, collaborating with the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, the Benaki Museum and the Museum of Cycladic Art. His late works are very much influenced by this research and some of them belong to private or museum collections.


About the author

Marietta Kontogianni is a Greek journalist based in Athens.
In April 2016 she founded JEWELRYbox Magazine on Facebook that aims to network with the people involved in the jewelry world. She has been working as a journalist for more than 20 years in newspapers, magazines and TV channels. Meanwhile, she had been creating fashion beaded jewelry herself. When the newspaper she was working for since 1995 bankrupted, she decided to found the bilingual (Greek-English) FB magazine
JEWELRYbox to keep on working as a journalist and to express her passion for jewelry.
Up to now, she interviewed almost all of the prominent artists that showed their works in Athens and attended all the lectures given by the renowned artists/ gallerists, curators in Athens since 2016.
Moreover, her
JEWELRYbox Magazine was a media sponsor of both Greek jewelry platforms: A Jewel Made in Greece 2017 and Athens Jewelry Week 2017. Her future plan is to have a website built dedicated mainly to the Greek jewelry world.