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Engraving is associated with adding names to trophies, commemorative plaques, and jewellery.  It is also associated with the verbatim copying of musical scores and printmaking.  It is also one of the oldest art forms in human civilisation, stretching back over half a million years ago.

In 2014, curators at the National Museum of Australia were looking at the fossil collection of Eugene Dubois.  Dating from the 19th century, the depth of Mr. Dubois’s fossil collection surprised biological anthropologist, Dr. Stephen Munro.  Dubois’ 298th object from Trinil, in Java, Indonesia attracted the most interested.

On closer examination, they found what was early evidence of engraving.  Man made engraving, dating back from 540,000 years ago.  This predated the arrival of the modern day homo sapiens human beings.  Therefore, the world’s first engravings came from homo erectus human beings.  The specimen from Dubois’ collection includes a hole, which an homo erectus human may have drilled for easier opening.

Dating from 60,000 BC (the Middle Stone Age), early examples of hatched engraving work was spotted on ostrich eggs used as water containers.  These were found in Diepkloof Rock Shelter, South Africa.  From then on, engraving was used more and more as a form of self expression.  Ivory tusk and bone were their favoured choice of canvas.

By 1000 BC, metals and gemstones became another popular material, taking us towards modern day engraving methods over 3,000 years on.  There is also biblical references, in the Old Testament book of Exodus.  In Chapter 28, Verse 36, it states (from the King James Bible): 

“And thou shalt make a plate of pure gold, and grave upon it, like the engravings of a signet, HOLINESS TO THE LORD.”

Also, in Chapter 35, Verse 33:

“And in the cutting of stones, to set them, and in carving of wood, to make any manner of cunning work."

By the Roman times, metal and glass engraving rose in popularity with scenes from Greek mythology most popular subject areas.  For the most part of the previous millennium, engraving has been used for decorative purposes.  By the 18th century, this would change. 

18th Century Engraving

Come the 18th century, engraving as a medium really came of age.  Firstly, the introduction of burins in the 16th century to the engraver’s tool kit transformed techniques.  Then, in the 17th century, another technique gained popularity: mezzotint.  Mezzotinting entails the engraving of a metal plate, then filling the holes in with ink.  This technique is also known as Black Matter.  Copper was a popular material, though its limitations would be noticed in the early 19th century.

By the 18th century, a common use of engraving was print reproduction.  The mezzotinting process was used to reproduce illustrations and musical manuscripts.  Alongside the Caxton press’ invention in the Middle Ages, engraving would form a vital part in Britain’s nascent publishing industry.  Prior to the invention of the camera, engraving was the most effective way of reproducing pictorial content.  For many publishers, well into the early 20th century, this was a cheaper alternative to photography.

During this century, engraving was a favoured form of embellishment for silver, zinc, and pewterware.  For example, tankards and firearms.  Though the engraving of firearms dates back to the sixteenth century, the 18th and the 19th centuries would be its most popular periods.  Especially in the second half of the 19th century for ceremonial purposes.  At that time, each gun was handmade and embellished with images on the metal.

With the Industrial Revolution gathering momentum, this meant an expansion in the role of universities, the rise of mass media, and a boost for the printing industries.  We would also see the rise of engraving in its more industrial form.

Towards the 20th century

By the Victorian times, engraving was almost everywhere.  Since its introduction in 1792 by Jacob Perkins, steel engraving became a more preferable media than copper.  Steel plate, being harder than copper, was suited to more demanding roles.  This included the reproduction of banknotes, illustrations for the fledgling newspaper industry, and postcard views.  Later, handmade steel engraving gave way to machines.

Thanks to steel engraving, the reproduction of musical scores was easier.  With live entertainment rising in popularity, this couldn’t have come at a better time.  Manuscripts were drafted in pencil prior to the final engraving.  This technique is known as Intaglio, which is the very point where engraving meets up with printmaking - ultimately leading us to lithographic and photogravure printing methods.

By the turn of the 19th century, we would see engraved plaques, die cutting techniques, and the mechanisation of an art form which started out 450,000 years ago.  Every steam train had an engraved plaque, either in the cab or on the cylinder.  Stone engraving would be used for foundation stones as well as tombstones.  With increased wealth, the rise of shopping as a leisure pursuit would see its use on jewellery.  As a permanent reminder of any sports club’s success, their name would be captured for posterity on a gold or silver cup, or a shield. 

Into the 21st century

Since the early works of homo erectus man, we have come a long way since 540,000 BC.  Today, engraving is no longer used as a replacement for digital imagery in our newspapers.  The mechanisation of engraving techniques allows for the addition of popular typefaces.  With computer-aided design and manufacture, all we need to do is add our own text, and the CAD-CAM machine would do the rest.  

Adding greater precision are laser cutting and engraving machines.  With prices at affordable levels, they are within the budget of hobbyists.  You no longer need to etch your designs by hand - all you need to do is scan or upload your designs from the computer or digital tablet to your engraving machine.  Hand engraving techniques only see occasional use.  For limited run or one-off projects, this remains a popular option.

With the wonders of modern technology, photos and logos can be engraved onto anything from a commemorative plate to the side of a toaster.  At award ceremonies, adding the company’s or organisation’s logo to a silver cup or glass vase is considerably easier, and a more precise task every time.  Today, any material can be engraved, from copper to wood, steel, glass, and plastic.

Whatever technological developments arrive, there will always be a need for engraving.  How we’ll be making our mark in future years will vary.

References:

  1. Australian Geographic: World's Oldest Engraving Discovered (Sydney, 04 December 2014).
  2. The Holy Bible (King James Bible): Exodus 28:36 and 35:33.
  3. Encyclopaedia Britannica: entries on Engraving and Mezzotint (Chicago/Sydney/London/Tel Aviv, 2016).
  4. The Engraver’s Journal: R & I Industry Scrapbook: Part One: The History of Hand Engraving, Kristen Huff (Brighton, Miami, November 2003).
  5. The article was provided by Able Engraving & Design, an engraving company based in Surrey, UK.