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Immaterial: Metals, Part One Transcript

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Edward Hunter: If you were to walk outside the Museum right now, the first thing made out of iron you would probably see would either be a car or a bus, right? Or a manhole cover. But there’d be a lot more of it around that you weren’t seeing.

Camille Dungy: Edward Hunter is a conservator and armorer in the Arms and Armor department at The Met. That’s right: The Met has an armorer on staff. And we’re not outside looking at manhole covers or steel girders. We’re deep in the basement of the Museum, in a space that reminds me of Belle’s father’s laboratory in Beauty and the Beast.

Hunter: Right now, you’re in the Arms and Armor lab. Ooh, that’s hot. Let’s not get close to that.

View of tools on display in The Met’s armory

Dungy: Ted’s doing some show and tell for us. Right now, he’s hammering a steel rod into a very hypothetical wall mount for a piece of armor.

Hunter: This is probably not the piece of metal I would necessarily use for that. But I thought it’d be fun to hit this one with a hammer, and you could watch. So–

[Sound of hammer clanging on metal]

Dungy: When we were bouncing materials around for the show—iron, mercury, silver—one theme that kept coming up was alchemy. The word conjures up mental images of alchemists hunched over workbenches by candlelight, trying to turn lead into gold. Unlike paper, or even concrete, metal is not democratic. It’s usually tightly controlled by a ruling elite. Because of that, it’s a raw material that’s often out of reach to the average person, or else its toxins are all too close. But for those who work with it, there’s also a way that metal allows you to dream things into being.

Marco Leona: When you can make a blade out of metal in the shape that you want… Because you think of the shape, you make a mold that has that shape, and then you fill it with the metal that, like water, takes the form that you have thought, that you have conceived.

Dungy: That’s Marco Leona, who leads The Met’s Scientific Research department. He’s got a great title: “Scientist in Charge.” He’ll be our guide through the periodic table. The seven metals of alchemy are lead, tin, iron, copper, mercury, silver, and gold.

Dungy: Some of these play well together: Copper and tin create bronze. Others, like mercury, attack most of what they touch. But there’s magic in metal’s bonds and corrosions. And the stories of how each metal’s magic works in our world are interrelated. For The Metropolitan Museum of Art, I’m Camille Dungy. This is Immaterial.

This episode we’ll talk about iron, tin, lead, and copper: the more sociable metals. When we asked Marco to pick his favorite metal, he named one that combines easily with others.

Leona: Iron is an equalizer. Every technology can be mastered by the oppressed and turned against the oppressor very quickly. The nomads of northern and central Europe were able to overtake the Roman empire chiefly because of two tools that the Romans had used to first colonize them. Iron: iron technology that allowed every soldier to have a very high performing weapon, because iron is cheap. And two: roads, which allow a large number of soldiers to move and be resupplied after long marches.

Dungy: Those concrete roads carried iron weapons and silver coins in the pockets of Roman soldiers. And all those things were made somewhere. Many of them started life in a forge.

[Sound effects: metal machinery]

Dungy: Back in the basement armory, there’s metal everywhere: cabinets full of different size scraps, drawers with labels like “Tools of Unusual Purpose,” or “Science!” There are rows of hammers, and some gigantic, functional, antique shears hanging on the wall.

Hunter: They’re not decorative, no. They’re sharp, too. And surprisingly fine control for such a humongous shear. I’ve actually just, as a demonstration for like school kids when they come in here, I’ll, I’ll use the tiny one to just trim my fingernail, and they’re all like, ‘ah, don’t cut off your finger!’ I’m like, ‘no, no, no worri–Snip!’

Dungy: Ted is clearly having a fantastic time in the lab.

Hunter: There’s 14,000 objects made from all kinds of different materials. Iron, steel, bronze, brass, copper, gold, silver, bone, horn, leather, shell, wood, ivory, feathers, glass, ceramics, stone.

Hunter: We’ve got paper, we have five paintings in our collection. You know, we’ve got a little bit of everything. And I have to take care of all of it.

Dungy: Understandably when working on centuries-old helmets and shields, you have to be really excited about detail. Ted opened some of those clearly labeled drawers.

Hunter: …We left behind all of this. And we also have then here, like just a huge collection of rivets, different sizes. Here, I like… these are my favorites.

[Sound: metal rivets shuffled in a drawer] 

Dungy: Right now Ted’s working on portions of a stunning sixteenth century armor for a show at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria.

Hunter: I think the title of which is Iron Men. But not like Tony Stark Iron Man. It’s…

Dungy: Though, honestly, the armor in Ted’s lab is as marvelous as any of Tony Stark’s inventions. A lot of the time—like when Ted mentioned cars and buses earlier—we’re not just talking about iron, but one of its alloys: steel. That’s true of a lot of the pieces in the Vienna exhibit, which showcases armor from the European Renaissance. You might call it fashion armor, it’s so elaborate. The piece Ted’s holding up is a disembodied silver and gold arm that mimics the gathering and ballooning of a male courtier’s sleeve.

Hunter: And so, um, if you come over here, you can hear what it sounds like when I pick it up. This is the movement of the armor. It’s uh, let’s see. 1, 2, 3, 4–

Dungy: Eleven segmented steel plates on each arm—and that’s before you get into the backplate, or down to the molded piece called the rump defense… which protects what it sounds like. It’s unlikely that this highly decorative armor would have been worn in battle. This gorgeous hunk of metal was made to be seen. Clothing style at the time used a wide array of textures and designs and fabrics, so a lot of variety could be shown off in one garment. And the same is true for this metal armor.

Costume armor awaiting conservation. Kolman Helmschmid (German, 1471–1532). Portions of a Costume Armor, ca. 1525. Steel, copper alloy, gold, H. 27 in. (68.6 cm); W. 18 in. (45.7 cm); Wt. 24 lb. 3.24 oz. (10.978 kg).The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Backplate and rump: Gift of Bashford Dean, 1924; vambraces: Mrs. Stephen V. Harkness Fund, 1926; top lames of vambraces: Bashford Dean Memorial Collection, Funds from various donors, 1929 (24.179; 26.188.1, .2; 29.158.363a, b)

Hunter: You see how it sort of billows and drapes, but that’s all just separate pieces of steel. And then in the fabric what you’d have done is, it’d have been made out of multiple layers and then they would cut through the outer layer to reveal… the slashes would reveal the inner layer. So in this case, what they’ve done is they’ve embossed the steel and… to be a slight recess, and gilt that recess to look like that inner layer of fabric.

Dungy: In the same way you would use a mannequin to show off a suit of clothes today, Ted is building a custom form that will stand in for the man who wore this lavish armor in 1525. Every single piece in the Arms and Armor collection requires this kind of individual attention.

Hunter: No offense to my colleagues in the paintings department, right? But hanging a painting on the wall is more or less the same wherever you go. You hang it on the wall. Hanging a pistol on the wall is unique for every pistol. Hanging a helmet, mounting an armor: it’s different every time.

Dungy: Another difference is that you might expect to see paintings at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. But why does the Museum have an Arms and Armor department at all?

Hunter: People think of art as a painting, a sculpture, things like that. But I think they wouldn’t even think twice about walking through a gallery that was full of beautiful furniture and ceramics. But you don’t need to carve a chair to be able to sit in it. Right? You don’t need to paint the picture of Aphrodite at the well on the side of an amphora to keep oil in it, right? It’s a natural desire of people, of craftsmen, of artists to want to take common, everyday, ordinary things and make them beautiful in some way. Right? So the same thing is true of most of our collection. It becomes an expression of style, an expression of power, of wealth, of rank. And between that wearer and the raw ore? There’s an artist who’s making something. You don’t need to put gold inlay or, you know, etch the Virgin Mary on the chest of your armor to protect you from a sword blow. But when you’re Emperor Ferdinand, you want fancy armor.

Dungy: But in this instance, is the desire for style and the expression of power inextricably linked to the brutality of war?

Hunter: I think it is fair to say that there have been a lot of technological advances that come around as a result of conflict. It’s true. I want to say, that’s not the only thing that generates technological advancements. Striving for something, I think, is what generates change.

Dungy: Metals themselves are about making change, creating something new. Sometimes almost magically, in the way that adding just a tiny bit of carbon turns iron into shiny, silver-colored steel. The material is capable of some striking transformations: not just swords into plowshares, but metal plates into fabric light as air. It’s a conjuring trick Renaissance alchemists might have recognized just as easily as those armorers did: a way to bend reality, and reshape the world in our own image.

Ted says that when he hears a bus rattling along above the subway platform, he thinks about the iron that holds New York City together. A piece of that New York City history lives inside The Met… not on display behind glass, but in the form of an anvil Ted uses to shape steel.

The armory’s early-twentieth-century anvil, which is still in use today

Hunter: This was made in Brooklyn. I think it was 1908. At a time when there were still a lot of horses in the city, and all kinds of manufacturing. At one point, New York City was the number one manufacturing center of the world. You know: all those people needed tools. So tools were made in New York City, including big humongous anvils like this one, which is like a 350 pound anvil mounted on a, on a block of wood that’s at least as old as this anvil. Might be older; I don’t know. But the tree itself had, had to have been a hundred years old when it was cut. So I’m looking at like, you know, two hundred years of wood here. With this 350 pound iron solid steel anvil on top. Made here in New York City. And it’s been sitting here in this room, now, close to seventy years. And, uh, [Sound of a hammer striking an anvil] I hit it with a hammer all the time.

Dungy: Metal can be magical, dangerous, violent, artistic, and a source of satisfaction.

Hunter: Yeah, yeah. Down here in the basement. It’s, on a Friday, it’s me and the anvil.

Dungy: The story of metals—how we find them, how we forge them, and what happens next— is the story of human striving. Sometimes metals show up in armor and anvils, the heavy tools of industry and empire. But metal can also help us forge a path to the divine.


Dungy: Tin is a social butterfly that likes to pull a disappearing act. It’s almost never found alone in nature, because it loves to form alloys. And perhaps its most famous collaboration is with copper. Together, tin and copper enabled a two thousand year period called the Bronze Age. Different amounts of tin in the mix would determine the use of the alloy. Low-tin bronze was easy to cast and made great tools and weapons. Bulk up its presence and make high-tin bronze? Now you could start to make music.

Leona: You can imagine that people would see that as… we’d say an art, but also a little bit of magic, right? You, you are infusing life to something that could be otherwise lifeless. Being able to put the right amount of tin in the alloy so that the bell that you create with that metal has a clear ring.

Dungy: There was a time when bronze was the primary metal used in ancient China. As scientist Marco Leona suggested, the addition of tin poured life into many objects. Bronze was used to make mirrors, masks, and vessels. And it was used to make bells.

Jason Sun: These bells, in terms of its significance, in terms of its importance, it was not any less than the Terracotta Army, even though it may not have been as well known. This one tells us so much about the music in ancient China.

Dungy: That’s Jason Sun, Curator of Chinese Art at The Met, and he’s talking about a secret buried in a long-forgotten tomb.

Sun: These bells were very different from the bells that we usually see, you know, here around us. These bells have a very different shape. The cross section of the bells are in the shape of an almond or like an eye. And it’s because it’s a very peculiar feature. These bells, each one of them can play two tones instead of one. So if you strike on the center of that curving side of the bell, it produces one sound. And if you strike on the side of the bell: then it will be a different tone. Usually it’s about a minor second or minor third higher.

Dungy: The Terracotta Army, as you may know, is a group of thousands of clay soldiers buried with the first emperor of China. As far back as the Zhou dynasty in the tenth century B.C.E., bells like the ones Jason describes had been placed in the tombs of rulers too. By the fifth century B.C.E., the bells in each tomb numbered in the teens. Since you could get two tones out of each bell, you didn’t need many to make a small orchestra. But then one day, archeologists discovered that someone had built a symphony.

Sun: Many tombs were looted not long after they were buried. The amazing thing about this discovery is that this king, he had sixty-five bells in a set. It was and still is an extremely elaborative set of bells. And I think according to the report of the discovery, it can produce like five octaves. Uh, yeah… unfortunately we don’t have any recordings surviving from that period of time.

Dungy: So we can’t play you any chamber music from 433 B.C.E. But the wild thing about this orchestra is that it existed at all. The set of bells Jason is describing is called a bianzhong. Four figures hold up three levels of perpendicular, sturdy, carved wooden beams that reach toward the sky. Remember that metal in this period of time is expensive. It’s prestigious. Collectively, this is still the single heaviest musical instrument in the world. And it all belonged to a guy who hadn’t seemed particularly important to historians or scholars.

Sun: His name was Marquis Yi of the Zeng state. We knew very little about this king before the discovery, and the name of the state was not even quite recorded in China’s historical documents. It was a very small state at a time when China was ruled by many different kingdoms. But so far as archeology is concerned, there isn’t anything found from other states about musical instruments as large, or as sophisticated and as extensive as his… I will say his treasure.

Dungy: There was an unreal amount of technology that went into creating these objects. For example: to tune them after they were cast, bellmakers would file away at the bronze on the inside until they were the perfect pitch. The discovery in the Marquis’ tomb has helped researchers understand how the knowledge of bellmaking morphed as it traveled through China. Early examples were found in both northern and southern China, but over time, bell-craft became more developed and complex in the south.

Sun: And the, the bells in that area along the Yangtze River started to grow bigger in size. I think the largest one I remember when I was visiting the museum in Hunan Province, that’s about four feet tall. It’s quite… quite a hefty piece. And that one—well, I didn’t try to raise it, because it’s totally impossible—I think that one is about 500 pounds? That’s a lot of metal.

Dungy: The Met has several bells similar to the Marquis’ collection; they’re called zhong. These are tall, broad bells with beautifully carved designs and thirty-six studs placed around the body in four groups of nine. The studs help shape the bell’s distinctive tone.

Two zhongs from The Met collection ready to be rung for the first time in one hundred years

Sun: Primary tone.

[A bell sound rings]

Here’s the secondary tone.

[A higher pitched-bell sound rings]

Dungy: You’re hearing a bell that hasn’t been rung in one hundred years. And no one was sure how that would go. Even in the armory, museums don’t make a habit of hitting two-thousand-year-old objects with a mallet. There was a possibility that the bells could crack from micro-fractures, and no guarantees on how they would sound after all this time.

Adwoa Gyimah-Brempong: Okay. Tell me about this one.

Sun: This is a fifth century B.C. original. And the…

Dungy: With a conservator watching nervously and a curatorial colleague who came along for the occasion, Jason walked my producer Adwoa through what she was looking at… and hearing.

Sun: Yeah. This one is a smaller version so it will be a different pitch. So, the primary tone:

[A bell sound rings]

The primary tone. The secondary tone:

[A higher-pitched bell sound rings]

So you can see the interval is a little off, a little louder. And because the size of the bell is smaller than…

Gyimah-Brempong: Oh yeah… can you…

Sun: That one was supposed to be suspended from a loop. It has a loop or a ring on the handle, and that one would be hung on the rack. They always come in a set.

Dungy: The tomb of the Marquis was flooded sometime after he was buried, which helped preserve it almost like a shipwreck. So that symphony orchestra of bells was in amazing condition. When archaeologists opened it up, the bells were still hanging patiently on their lacquered wooden frame. There were thousands of objects in his tomb, including many other musical instruments. But let’s be real.

Sun: He probably had the most bells. He was the bell man. [Laughs]

Dungy: In the Marquis’ day, these were not bells that would have been played for the likes of podcast producers, or even museum curators.

Sun: The bells were not used for entertainment. It was really a demonstration of your power. When you performed all the rituals, you were not talking to the ordinary people. In a way, I think these elites were communicating with the deities in heaven, with the spirit of their ancestors in heaven.

Dungy: So you’ve heard some of this music now, music that was originally reserved for elites who could talk to the gods. But the bell you heard at the start of the segment? That one is a fake.

Sun: The nineteenth-century forgery that came into the Museum collection... I don’t know, I think at that time it was probably acquired as a real piece. That one came in 1913. That’s a hundred years before now, and that was before modern archeology ever took place in China. Modern archeology started in China in the late 1920s and early thirties.

Dungy: Museums and forgeries are a touchy subject, to say the least. This bell is cute: it’s small and green, like its authentic neighbors, although what looks like patina is actually paint. It has a nice tone; it doesn’t look that out of place with the other bells in the study room. But after it was exposed as a fraud, why has the Museum held onto it? Jason says that instead of being an embarrassment, the forgery simply shows us how much we still have to learn.

Sun: Archaeology in China is developing rapidly. It moves really very fast. I wouldn’t say it updates our knowledge on a daily basis, but probably on a weekly basis. There were so many things that we did not know before. There are many things that we never thought would have existed in China. But now with archeology, it keeps just amazing us, if not shocking us. For example, before the Terracotta Army was discovered, we had no knowledge of the Terracotta Army. I think there were maybe seven or eight thousand of them, but we never knew, because they were never recorded in historical documents. No one even talked about it.

Dungy: That floored me. Eight thousand terracotta soldiers, each one full sized. Horses, chariots, and other nonmilitary figures, including officials and even acrobats. And just... nobody mentioned it? Anywhere? So I love to think about this music aficionado: the bell man. Sitting quietly in his kingdom in an obscure part of ancient China with this enormous collection of bronze bells. Bells that wouldn’t be discovered again for centuries. Picture the Marquis, dreaming of music that could speak to the gods, never knowing that thousands of years later, his bells would make him something of an immortal himself. When we get back, we’ll hear more about how metals can immortalize us after we’re gone.

Dungy: We just learned you can use tin to give a bell a voice. And tin is not working alone.

Sun: Of course it also has a little lead. And the lead, in this case, it not only helps the metal to flow when you pour the molten metal into the mold. According to their research, this lead also dampens the unwanted overtones. For these bells, you don’t want the bell to have a very long-lasting sound. When you play a tune, you want that that note would stop at a certain time, otherwise you would get a very muddy music. So the lead would help it to dampen the, uh, the overtone. So the sound wouldn’t extend for too long.

Leona: Lead is heavy.

Dungy: Marco Leona again.

Leona: So heavy as an atom that it will stop most radiation. X-rays don’t go through lead, which makes it very useful.

Dungy: Useful to a chemist; and useful to a bell-maker, to dampen sound. But you can hear in our language what we think of lead. If something is "leaden," it is dull, slow, mournful. A dark sky.

Leona: The aspect of gloom. In Italian, coming from the Latin, the word for a gloomy sky is cielo plumbeo, a sky made of lead (plumbeo is the Latin of lead). But lead, too, has a vitality that is often not recognized and a nobility that is often not recognized. It’s easy to form. It’s easy to cast. It’s used for making conduits for water. When it’s oxidized, it gives a red pigment. It can also give you a yellow pigment and eventually it also gives you a white pigment, which has been the most important white for painting ever since. So you have this material which is plumbeo, dull, gray. But it also gives you the beautiful white in the lace collars of Rembrandt paintings.

Dungy: The metal is cheap, plentiful, versatile, and therefore tempting. Rembrandt aside, it can be a source of great human suffering when it’s too close to us: in the paint on our walls, or in our water. Lead poisoning can cause debilitating headaches, seizures, gastrointestinal problems, damage to the nervous system, pregnancy loss, and premature death. At high levels, it can wreak havoc on a community for generations. The quest to remove lead in modern times has been long and painful, as is evidenced by the years-long fights in Flint, Michigan and the Navajo Nation.

We’re afraid of lead. And it makes sense to be. But maybe what we fear isn’t the metal itself. Our quest to separate lead from silver spurred the birth of analytical chemistry, Marco says. And for centuries, we tried to turn lead into gold. Maybe what we should fear is the way that we use it. And we should be honest with ourselves about its power and its necessity.

Leona: Lead is… misunderstood.

Dungy: In addition to jade, feathers, and bone, in The Met’s Oceania collection you’ll find the head of a Sumatran puppet with large, soft leaden eyes. It’s made of a warm wood, with intricately carved ears shaped like the scroll of a violin, and gold earrings in a spiky, bisected hoop. Its lips are slightly parted, and its eyebrows give it an alert expression. It looks incredibly alive. This is the head of a si gale-gale. These life sized puppets are carved to look human and dressed in ceremonial robes: loose ones, to hide the strings. The one at The Met comes from Samosir, which is an island inside a lake inside the island of Sumatra.

Si gale-gale (puppet head), 19th–20th century. Toba Batak artist(s), Indonesia, Sumatra, Sumatra. Wood, copper alloy, lead alloy, water buffalo horn, paint, H. (without pull rope) 13 1/4 in. x W. 6 in. x D. 6 1/2 in. (33.7 x 15.2 x 16.5 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Fred and Rita Richman, 1987 (1987.453.6)

Defri Simatupang: Kenangan saya yang paling menakjubkan waktu masih kecil melihat bisa bergerak-gerak tanpa ada tenaga listrik. So, saya menduga itu adalah sebuah atraksi kesaktian karena tidak ada tali-tali yang kelihatan.

Kannia Rifatulzia: The most spectacular memory from my childhood was when I saw Si gale-gale being able to move without electricity. So I thought that it was a magical attraction, since there were no strings visible.

Dungy: You just heard the voices of Defri Simatupang and our translator, Kannia Rifatulzia. Defri is an archaeologist with the North Sumatra Archaeology Center, in Medan City. He grew up in Siantar, a small town in North Sumatra near Lake Toba. As a child, he’d go with his parents to Samosir and see the si gale-gale dance.

Simatupang: Dan tidak nampak manusia di belakangnya sehingga kita menduga dia bergerak sendiri. Dan orang tua mengatakan itu adalah sebuah kesaktian dari manusia di sana bisa menggerak-gerakkannya, begitu.

Rifatulzia: There was no one to be seen behind it. Therefore, we suspected that it moved on its own. The elders say it was animated by means of sorcery.

Dungy: The puppetmaster who controls a si gale-gale is responsible for moving its arms, head, and body. It can dance at a funeral to mourn a loved one. The si gale-gale at The Met has space behind those leaded eyes for balls of moss that can be soaked in water, allowing the puppet to cry. Defri’s research on the si gale-gale explores its meaning in a historical context, starting with the legends behind it. Here’s one of them:

Simatupang: Seorang raja, a big man, dia punya putra meninggal. Dia merindukannya. Lalu, dia meminta siapa yang bisa membantu dia untuk mencurahkan rindunya. Lalu ada dukun, as a master dia buat itu dari sebuah pohon di hutan, lalu dia masukkan itu roh. Jadi ada banyak versi, rohnya itu diyakini adalah roh si anaknya yang tadi, yang sudah meninggal, yang meninggal di medan perang. Dia seorang raja, begitu.

Rifatulzia: A king had a son who had passed away. He missed his son. Then, he asked if there was anyone who could help console him. There was a shaman. As a master, he created si gale-gale out of a tree in the forest and placed a spirit inside it. The spirit was believed to be the spirit of the king’s son who died on the battlefield.

Dungy: After the spirit had entered the puppet and it could move, the shaman gave it back to its father. The puppet looked just like his son, and the king was overjoyed to have his loved one back with him. But he couldn’t keep his son with him all the time. The father could call for the spirit to return occasionally, but between visits, it was vital that the king send the si gale-gale away to the forest, where it could protect the village.

Simatupang: Tinggal bersama dengan sebuah patung yang ada rohnya tentunya akan mempengaruhi kejiwaannya juga. Roh itu bisa masuk ke si ayah. Berbeda dengan ketika dia meminta dia siap bertemu, tetapi tidak akan terjadi kemasukan.

Rifatulzia: Living with a puppet which held a spirit inside would have certainly affected his own psyche, his mental state. The spirit could enter the body of the father, unlike when he asked for them to meet, where he would not be possessed.

Dungy: It was important that humans control the spirit, rather than the other way around. The carved vessel became a safe way of interacting with a loved one who had passed on, serving as a kind of physical receptacle for grief: one that had to be put away from time to time. But some of those vessels ended up a bit too far from home. Defri says The Met’s si gale-gale is a beautiful specimen. And many similar specimens were removed from Indonesia by the colonial archaeology authorities. But now Defri’s job with the Indonesian archaeology office is to restore context to many objects which have been returned since the nation’s independence from the Dutch. He says the si gale-gale myth matters to him because, due in part to all those removals, its original Batak meaning has been lost.

Simatupang: Saya menekankan bukan soal horornya , tetapi bagaimana kerinduan atau hubungan interaksi antara manusia dengan dunia orang mati. Yak, itu tadi. saya selalu ingin menekankan di masa sekarang bagaimana manusia lampau itu tidak harus selalu ketakutan terhadap dunia roh. Saya suka nonton film horor, tapi bagi saya itu adalah sebuah keasyikan, hidup antara… saat ini kita hidup, besok kita mati, kan gitu. Jadi tidak selalu menjadikannya ketakutan. Ini sangat penting sekali buat generasi ke depan, bahwa leluhur kita punya cara yang baik untuk selalu bertemu… bagaimana kita rindu ketemu sama orang yang selama ini tidak muncul. Tetapi sesudah kita rindu, kita berpelukan, kan selalu kita akan goodbye kan. Ketemu lagi kan begitu.

Rifatulzia: I wish to emphasize not the horror of si gale-gale, but the longing for, or the relationship between, humans and the world of the dead. I always wish to highlight how people in the present should not be afraid of the spirit world all the time. I love watching horror movies. To me, it is a delight. Right now we are alive; tomorrow we are dead. We should not let it turn into fear. This is very important for the next generation, that our ancestors had a good means to cherish the loving relationship they had. How we long to meet those that we haven’t seen in a long time. After seeing each other, we hug and say goodbye, right? Then we meet again.

Dungy: When you remove the puppet from its Batak context, it’s easy to reduce si gale-gale to the Indonesian version of the… Annabelle doll. But in a way, the idea of an object holding a portion of our loved ones’ spirit asks us to examine our own relationship with the dead and see that it’s probably not so different.

Simatupang: Kalau saya secara pribadi, misalkan seperti saya, my father has died two years ago. I have many experience with him. Saya kumpulkan beberapa benda-benda yang dia suka yang pernah bersama saya, dan itu bukan berarti spirit rohnya yang mau saya panggil, tapi cerita dari benda itu akan selalu saya kenang. Itu dari versi saya karena saya dekat dengan dia. Artinya, pesan yang saya dapatkan di sini sebenarnya adalah, ini adalah media, carilah barang-barang yang punya memori tersendiri sama Anda secara pribadi dengan orang yang Anda sayangi yang sudah meninggalkan dunia ini, dan itu kenanglah sendiri karena tidak akan mungkin sama tingginya dengan orang yang akan Anda ceritakan. Mungkin bisa dapat dia kalau kita berhasil menceritakan dengan baik. Contohnya, “Ini adalah pakaian kakekmu begini, ini sepatunya, dia dulu begini begini…”

Rifatulzia: I collected several things he liked that I have with me. And it doesn’t mean that I wish to call upon his spirit, but I wish to always remember the memories I have with him through his belongings. That is my version of the story, since I was very close with my father. The message I receive here is: this is a medium. So find the things that you have special memories of together with your loved ones who have left this world. Reminisce about it by yourself, for it is impossible for others to feel it to the same extent that you do. Maybe they can understand if we succeed through telling it well enough.

Dungy: There’s a beautiful message in the si gale-gale. It creates a channel for us to turn towards our grief, feel it, and let it transform into something else. Maybe an experience of pain and loss looks different through those eyes of lead. Like death itself, the metal becomes less of a thing to fear and more of a conduit to understand the world differently: to find the fleeting brilliance in those gray skies.

Lead can hold our heaviest memories, tin helps make stories sing, and iron can be a place where stories start, as on that anvil in The Met’s basement. But this next metal has often been used to record the stories we tell. Let me reintroduce you to copper… as a pigment.

Yana Van Dyke: The first thing I think about with copper is its color, and its reddish pink glow. It is something like the star. When you see the star Venus in the sky, it has a coppery glow to it.

Dungy: Yana Van Dyke reminds us that copper has been associated with the planet and goddess Venus since antiquity. This is partially due to its lustrous beauty. On the periodic table, Copper is a transition metal, often in the process of becoming something else. Yana is a conservator of Islamic manuscripts in The Met’s paper department, and copper’s mutability keeps her busy.

Van Dyke: There’s an innate instability in copper. And that sort of, uh, unstable nature is what accounts for all of the transformations that we see in, in the works of art. Because it’s constantly affected–more than probably any other material–by the environment. By humidity, and water vapor in the air.

Dungy: Verdigris is the blueish-green patina that forms on copper and brass. And malachite is a bright-green mineral made of copper, hydrogen, and carbon. Once processed into pigment, these two metal-derived materials show up as an infinity of greens on the pages of the manuscripts Yana cares for.

Abu'l Qasim Firdausi (Iranian, ca. 940/41–1020), Painting attributed to Bashdan Qara (Iranian, active ca. 1525–1535). “The Feast of Sada”, Folio 22v from the Shahnama (Book of Kings) of Shah Tahmasp (detail), ca. 1525–30. Opaque watercolor, ink, silver, and gold on paper, H. 18 1/2 in. (47 cm), W.12 1/2 in. (31.8 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Arthur A. Houghton Jr., 1970 (1970.301.2)

Van Dyke: I think of it as very alive. I think of it as very alive. And even though it is considered an inorganic, it does have a very transmutable quality. It is something that can be polished, can corrode. And it is that corrosion product, actually, that is what’s employed in the making of paints and pigments.

Dungy: The metal is flexible and beautiful, found in nature in a form that looks like the fronds of a red fern, or the roots of a tree. The Greeks started mining copper on the island of Cyprus, which they called Kupros, as early as 4000 B.C.E. And Yana tells us that in ancient Islamic texts verdigris pigment is often used to draw copper-green lines around the margins of manuscripts. But the metal’s unsettled nature leaves its mark on the manuscripts she cares for, burning holes through the pages over centuries.

Van Dyke: What happens in the, um, degradation phases of copper green, is that it has destructive, corrosive, qualities on the paper. So quite often, uh, especially at the edge of the spine, the paper is completely broken. So at the worst case scenario, you’ve got a completely broken text block. The whole manuscript is collapsed, you know, inside these copper green ruled lines.

Dungy: But one manuscript Yana works on doesn’t have that problem. No expense was spared in its creation. It turns out that mixing the copper pigment with costly saffron produces a bright ink with the texture of wet sand. The vibrant green of the metal can be preserved, without any of the damage it usually inflicts. So this book, and its copper framework, survived intact.

Ali Olomi: It’s like the Persian version of the Iliad and the Odyssey. It is a great epic tale. A tale that starts in the mythic history, finally culminating in the collapse of the Sasanian empire and the rise of the Islamic caliphate. So it is a massive undertaking. It is a story of a people and how they imagine themselves throughout history.

Dungy: Ali Olomi is a professor of Middle East, Islamic, and Global Southern History at Penn State Abington. And he’s talking about the masterpiece of the Persian poet Ferdowsi. That manuscript whose copper hasn’t degraded is called the Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp, and copper was integral to its creation in more ways than one.

Olomi: Copper as a metal is malleable. It’s one of the more malleable metals. It’s one of the reasons why it’s in so much of the ornamentation of the ancient world. It’s in jewelry, it’s in rings and necklaces, and also in, um, all sorts of mirrors, right? Because you can shine it very beautifully. Long before they had mirrors, they were looking into copper and looking at themselves through copper. And so that malleability, the ability to integrate, the ability to take on new form, is really at the heart of what Ferdowsi is trying to do.

Dungy: Ali says that there is also a malleability to Islam and its goal is integration, beauty, and justice. Those values manifest in the calligraphy of ancient Islam and in the building of elaborate gardens. Shades of green were important, especially in ancient Islamic texts, because of green’s association with freshness, lushness, and new life. And in keeping with this love of beauty, the Shahnama at The Met is a feast for the eyes.

Van Dyke: It’s bedazzled and speckled with gold flakes around the margin. Every page—we’ve got columns of calligraphy, but for the most part, what we’re showing on display are these full scale illuminations. The detail in the, in the patterning of textiles is unimaginable. And this manuscript is the deepest, darkest blue of lapis lazuli in ultramarine form you’ll ever see in any work of art. Any manuscript, any panel painting. It is the finest, richest, deepest blue… your eyes are just bedazzled by this.

Dungy: This rich, epic, gorgeous object lives in The Met… or part of it does. More on that later. But it also lives in the hearts of folks of Persian descent around the world. Including Ali.

Olomi: I think my first earliest memory was probably around five years old or so. I remember very distinctly, my mom reading me stories from the Shahnama. But as I’ve asked my mom, she said she actually read the Shahnama to me even while she was pregnant. She did two things. She would read letters from her family sent from, uh, the home. So she would read them out loud so that I would be familiar with the family members, even though I hadn’t met them yet.

Olomi: Uh, and she would read the Shahnama because it was one of her favorite stories.

Dungy: Now that Ali is a professor, he gets to bring the Shahnama into the classroom.

Olomi: So my favorite story and the one that I actually also still teach to this very day would have to be Rostam and his son. Mostly because as a kid, I thought it was just like the most tragic thing in the world. But you kind of like those stories as a kid, right?

Dungy: Ali starts telling the tale, full of flourishes. Rostam is an ancient hero who’s traveling around when he meets a princess named Tahmina, who kidnaps his horse.

Two folios from the Shahnema featuring stories of Rostam. Left: Abu'l Qasim Firdausi (Iranian, ca. 940/41–1020), Painting attributed to Bashdan Qara (Iranian, active ca. 1525–1535). “The Combat of Rustam and Ashkabus”, Folio 268v from the Shahnama (Book of Kings) of Shah Tahmasp, ca. 1525–30. Opaque watercolor, ink, silver, and gold on paper, H. 18 5/8 in. (47.3 cm), W. 12 5/8 in. (32.1 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Arthur A. Houghton Jr., 1970 (1970.301.40). Right: “Rustam Avenges His Own Impending Death”, Folio 472r from the Shahnama (Book of Kings) of Shah Tahmasp, ca. 1525–30. Opaque watercolor, ink, silver, and gold on paper, H. 18 5/8 in. (47.5 cm), W. 12 5/8 in. (32.1 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Arthur A. Houghton Jr., 1970 (1970.301.56)

Olomi: And she tells him–Tahmina tells him–that “I’ll give you back your horse, but you have to give me a child.” And being the ancient world that it was, it seemed like a perfectly fair deal.

Dungy: When Rostam leaves, he gives Tahmina a talisman she can pass along to the child she conceives—a son, who Tahmina names Sohrab. Eventually Sohrab grows up and becomes the champion of his kingdom. Then his kingdom and Rostam’s kingdom go to war and Sohrab is living under the weight of a prophecy.

Olomi: He will know his father’s name, even know that it’s Rostam, but he doesn’t know who he is. And so father and son, not knowing the other, will fight. And they will wrestle in a great, epic wrestle that will make WWE go to shame. For days on end, these two grown men will strive against one another, until Rostam finally throws down the young boy and defeats him. The young boy says “My name is Sohrab, and my father Rostam will avenge me.

Dungy: Rostam realizes he’s killed his own son.

Olomi: And in confirmation, the young boy reaches into his arm and pulls out the very amulet that Rostam had given his mother years and years earlier.

Dungy: Ali says that’s how the Shahnama works: it’s the story of kings, but also the story of people, and their mistakes. These stories didn’t come from nowhere. They began as folktales. Ferdowsi was one in a line of people who collected the stories from many sources and turned them into verse. According to Ali and others, Ferdowsi’s Shahnama was “a linguistic turning point in later Iranian nationalist projects.” It served as a major influence on the Persian literary tradition. The cultural and political context of this work cannot be disentangled. 

Olomi: The Shahnama, like many works of history during this time period, is explicitly written for the purposes of imperial propaganda. “We are an empire over all other people. How do we know this? Because all of history has led up to this exact moment.” Who gets to say what is true and what is not true is always an exercise in power.

Dungy: This exercise in power shows up in today’s art as well.

Olomi: I think it’s a very modern sensibility for us to imagine art as devoid of politics—when in much of world history, art always has a political context, right? Whether it’s in the case of legitimizing some type of dynasty: “Behold the wealth that I have! Behold, the might that I have! Look at this statue where I happen to look very handsome in!” Right? If there’s one common thread, from ancient history to modern history, is that all history is myth-making. It’s about creating narratives. It’s about telling the story of us.

Dungy: And who gets to tell that story? Who stewards it for the future?

Olomi: I do remember distinctly seeing one Shahnama in a museum with my mother and there was, you could see it. There was this very weird experience. She’s like, “Oh, this is a story we tell; do they want our copy?” She couldn’t, she didn’t quite understand why it was in this glass case. And so she was like, “Give them our copy. Why are they, why do they have that?” Um, and so there’s a very bizarre… there is a tension there. And I don’t know, have an answer on how to resolve that tension, but it’s there.

Dungy: You could argue that ownership of art is an exercise in power that’s just as political as Ferdowsi’s writing. In that way, the tension Ali speaks of is about this physical copy of the Shahnama—and about who’s been in charge of its story. The Shahnama at The Met is one of the most elaborate and ornate versions ever created. It was made for Shah Tahmasp, who ruled Iran during the fifteen hundreds. It was eventually gifted to the Ottoman Emperor Selim II. It disappeared at the end of the 1800s and resurfaced in Paris in 1903. It stayed in the Rothschild family until 1959. That’s when the Museum’s future president, Arthur A. Houghton Jr., purchased it for a reported four hundred thousand dollars. He split the folios apart to make plates for publication. And once they’d been pulled apart, those 759 folios were dispersed, in donations and in sales, to the four winds.

How do we talk about that? In telling the story of this astoundingly beautiful object, it is impossible to overlook the way it got into the Museum, behind that glass.

Olomi: There’s something quite beautiful about walking into a museum and finding art from all over the world. But there’s a violence there. That plastic, glass case is a violent separation. So this is the context we’ve got to look at when we look at the Shahnama in the museum. The continuation of empire is not a historical experience, but a lived one. And that’s like taking your mom to a museum to see a piece of art that’s part of her culture is part of that experience.

Dungy: Art historian Sheila Blair says it’s vital to grapple with this, even when a beautiful object has an ugly past. Like Ferdowsi’s tales themselves, a piece of art doesn’t stop when the artist sets their brush or chisel down. The story continues, with reverberations both within and outside of a museum’s walls. The Met has digitized its folios; you can see them on the website (and in our show notes). This manuscript has lived a long life. It’s languished in unseen splendor in Ottoman libraries, played a large part in codifying the identity of an empire, and is now fragmented but available to the world. After its five hundred years of history: what’s left for the Shahnama to do?

Olomi: What the Shahnama continues to do, the work that it actually does, is it continues to tell us the story of us, right? Why is my mom–born in Kabul, raised in Afghanistan, now living in the United States–telling this little American boy the story of Rostam? Why was that essential? Because whether she consciously was aware of it or not, it was her way of saying, ‘This is where we came from. This is who we are.’ When I have kids, I know that I’m going to be reading them the Shahnama.

Because there’s a sense of like, okay, well, ‘who are we?’ ‘Well, your grandmother comes from somewhere. That place is called Kabul,’ right? And Kabul has its own stories. It’s a way of linking the past to the present, the collective to the individual, and the individual to the collective. You belong.

Here was a woman who had fled war. The Cold War, and the destruction of Afghanistan. Fled it, came to the United States as a refugee. Didn’t speak the language, but the Shahnama allowed her to connect to a place that she had lost. It allowed her to connect to a people she could no longer find. It allowed her to speak a language that she could no longer hear.

And that is what the Shahnama continues to do. Here was a refugee living in Washington, D.C. in America, who is suddenly able through the Shahnama to connect to something larger than herself. And these stories continue to do that.

Dungy: I’m still thinking about something that came up with Ted, the Arms and Armor conservator. My experience of the beauty of this manuscript has to coexist with the fact that it was severed, both literally and figuratively, from its original context. In this document, the copper pigment has remained intact. It’s the manuscript itself that was pulled apart: not by time, or by chemical reactions, but by choice. And yet the magic remains.

The metals we discussed today are in a constant state of evolution. They want to tarnish, to rust, to transform the objects they’re part of. To truly understand metals, we have to ask the question: what stories do we tell through the things we shape and how do they change?

Next time: mercury, silver, and gold. I’m Camille Dungy, and this is Immaterial.

Immaterial is produced by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Magnificent Noise. This episode was produced by Adwoa Gyimah-Brempong.

Our production staff also includes Jesse Baker, Elyse Blennerhassett, Eleanor Kagan, and Eric Nuzum.

And from The Metropolitan Museum: Sarah Wambold, Benjamin Korman, Rachel Smith. and Douglas Hegley. This season would not be possible without Sofie Andersen.

Field production by Tanita Rahmani.

Translation by Kannia Rifatulzia.

Sound design by Ariana Martinez. Engineering by Ariana Martinez and Paul Schneider. This episode includes original music composed by Austin Fisher.

Fact-checking by Christine Baird.

The podcast is made possible by Dasha Zhukova Niarchos.

Additional support is provided by Bloomberg Philanthropies.

This episode would not have been possible without: Maryam Ekhtiar, Patti Cadby Birch Curator in the Department of Islamic Art; John Guy, Florence and Herbert Irving Curator of South and Southeast Asian Art; Edward Hunter, Armorer and Conservator in the Department of Arms and Armor; Marco Leona, David H. Koch Scientist in Charge in the Department of Conservation and Scientific Research; Maia Nuku, Evelyn A. J. Hall and John A. Friede Associate Curator for Oceanic Art in the Michael C. Rockefeller Wing; Vicki Parry, Conservator in the Department of Objects Conservation; Kendra Roth, Conservator in the Department of Objects Conservation; Markus Sesko, Associate Curator of Asian Arms and Armor in the Department of Arms and Armor; Jason Sun, Brooke Russell Astor Curator of Chinese Art in the Department of Asian Art; Pierre Terjanian, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Curator in Charge in the Department of Arms and Armor; Yana van Dyke, Conservator in the Department of Paper Conservation. Special thanks to Sheila Blair, Lauren Johnson, and G. Willow Wilson.

To see the fashion armor, those two-thousand-year-old bells, and more, visit The Met’s website at

I’m Camille Dungy.