By Elska á Fjárfelli, of the Dominion of Myrkfaelinn

Abbreviated documentation for my entry in the Category Curiosa at the Passing of the Ice Dragon Arts & Sciences Pentathlon, AS 53.

The two curious artifacts of Schloss Ambras
The medieval castle of Ambras in Austria houses quite a few unusual 16th century artifacts as part of its collection of rarities, including two wreaths assembled of many identical wooden pieces. While this description may sound familiar to the farmhouse brewer, such was not the case when the artifacts entered the collection, and both are catalogued as ‘use unknown.’ The wreaths are remarkably similar in design and construction to traditional Scandinavian yeast rings which raises the question: why are the artifacts there, and what could have been their contemporary use?

The two wreaths are part of the ‘Kunst- und Wunderkammer’ collection – in English the Chamber of Art and Wonders – a collection of rarities collected by Archduke Ferdinand II (1529-1595), Prince of Tyrol and Further Austria. He opened his court in Innsbruck in 1567 and had the medieval castle Schloss Ambras retrofitted into a Renaissance style residence. He specifically added an Unterschloss (lower castle) – built between 1572-1583 – to house his collections, making Schloss Ambras the oldest museum in the world still in existence. It is also the only Renaissance Kunstkammer of its kind still to be in its original location.

The unique collection of the Ambras Kunstkammer consists of armor, weapons, portraits, natural objects, rarities, ‘wonders of natura’, most recent scientific instruments, musical instruments, precious items etcetera, which in later times would be classified as artificia, naturalia, scientifica, exotica and mirabilia. The two artifacts were likely thought to fit this profile because they are visually intriguing, even for those unfamiliar with its function. Ferdinand II was the first to present his collection according to a systematic concept, within a specially constructed dedicated building. A variety of unusual artifacts such as glass figurines, coral artifacts, mechanical toys and clocks are on display and open to the public to this day, administered by the KHM-Museumverbands as part of the Kunsthistorisches Museum of Vienna.

Museum photo.PNG
Museum photo of artifact AM_PA_742 (a twisted torus)

The extant artifacts
According to the museum, the Ambras Kunstkammer contains three artifacts of similar shape. Only two of the artifacts are mentioned as part of the inventory of 1596, and were described as such:

  • Ain cranz, von holz gemacht. (A wreath, made of wood.)
  • Ain selczames holz, so creizweis under einander gewachsen. (fol.472’) (A rare [unusual] wood[en object], inserted cross-wise under each other.)

There is no other providence available for the artifacts, apart from being stored in cabinet 18 of the Kunstkammer labeled as “darinnen allerlei holzwerch” (in there all sorts of woodwork).

What is a Twisted Torus
The artifacts in question are two wooden wreaths (Kranz), now located in the Unterschloss Kunstkammer, cabinet 10. They are both made of wood (Holz), without specifying the species of tree, how it was worked or if the wood was treated in any way. One has a diameter of 24 cm (9.4 inches), and the other of 27 cm (10.6 inches). The wreaths are assembled by cross-wise interconnected rectangular slotted links of wood (kreuzweise ineinandergesteckte Blättchen) and the resulting chain is doubled back and connected beginning to end to form a circle, a wreath. (pr. comm. Ambras Museum) The design is in the same tradition of celebrating geometry as the German graphic artist Johannes Lencker in his woodcut of 1567. (Hart) If the number of units is more or less than a multiple of three it will display a natural twist – for instance 75 pieces gives an untwisted circle, while 76 and 77 links will give a twisted circle, like a mobius ring. Studying the museum provided photographs shows the 24cm wreath to be an untwisted circle, and the 27cm wreath a twisted circle.


Woodcut of a twisted torus by Johannes Lencker of 1567. From (public domain): https://books.google.com/books?id=exMOAAAAQAAJ&dq=Perspectiva+Literaria&source=gbs_navlinks_s

What I find intriguing is that the collection information mentions “verwendungszweick unbekannt” or, use unknown. George Hart, an early enthusiast of Rapid Prototyping also known as 3D printing, mentions on his web page Twisted Torus that he does not know what it could have been either, and goes on to speculate:

“Was it just a visual puzzle, challenging the viewer to think about how it was assembled? Was it a “masterpiece” displayed to prove the skill of the creator? Was it functional, perhaps a trivet, or laurel to be worn on the head like a mazzocchio? Were the parts leftover material in some workshop, perhaps a wooden furniture or carriage maker, which someone casually put together into a chain?” (Hart)

Bret Rothstein, a philosopher interested in intellectual puzzles, wrote several articles about the curious wooden objects. He argues the tori were intended to be visually and intellectual difficult. Rothstein theorizes that as interest in the tradition of making objects to confuse people increased around the same time the twisted tori entered the Ambras collection, the tori could be curiosity puzzles too. He thinks that, unlike most manufactured objects in the collection, the tori do not actually depict anything. They are what they are – wooden pieces that interlock in a seemingly impossible way. And then goes on to say:

“However charming one may find the helical tori, they simply cannot match that sort of craftsmanship. Though their configurations are elegant as well as beautiful, their components are rough, to put it mildly: gouge marks and tearouts mark virtually every piece. Furthermore, those pieces are not really works of art in their own right, but rather seem more like mortise pieces.” (Rothstein, 4)

If the wreaths are no more than practical tools, then what could they have been used for?

The practical use for a torus
Ferdinand II was not the only renaissance art-lover to collect unusual things. The Kunstkammer of Albrecht V (1528-1579), Duke of Bavaria, was another renaissance collection of all things natural and mechanical. Called the Munich Kunstkammer, it was one of the earliest universal collections north of the Alps. Albrecht had started collecting at the beginning of his reign in 1550 but already in 1557, his councilors found it necessary to curtail his expenses! By 1563 construction on a dedicated building began and even though it continued at least until 1578, the collections were already on display by the end of the 1560’s. (Kaliardos 2014, 1-5) All this as a convoluted way of illustrating the Munich Kunstkammer is very similar to the Ambras Kunstkammer – and low and behold, in 1598 the collection included an object remarkably similar to the Ambras Kranz:

389 (286 w) Ein hülzener Pfannenkhnecht, oder schüßelring, von clainem gestückletem holz ineinander verschrengt, umb und umb mit clainen schilten und aufgemahlten des Bayrischen Adels wappen. (Diemer 2004, 65) – A wood pot helper, or dish ring, of small slotted wood [pieces] combined together, alternating with small shields decorated with the Royal arms of Bayern.

This description is from an inventory assembled in 1598 and would indicate that at that specific moment in time the torus was identified as a pot helper, or dish ring – basically, a trivet.

The torus as a trivet
From the 19th century onwards, it is fairly easy to find examples of wood wreath trivets both in Scandinavian and in Hungarian culture. The digital collections of the Swedish and Danish museums especially list dozens of “pannring” objects collected in the late 19th to the middle of the 20th century. The same is found for Hungarian wood wreath trivets, there called cauldron wreaths – the oldest object is dated to 1840. But did they not get used, or did they not get collected and catalogued, before then? I think it unfortunately is the latter. The concept of ethnography, the systematic study of people and culture, had only recently developed. Universities and private collectors would collect data and objects, most often from strange and foreign lands and peoples. But not until the industrial revolution was it realized by governments and universities alike that rural life as had been known since living memory was quickly fading away, replaced by modern conveniences like refrigerators and dry-goods stores (supermarkets). Ethnographers were sent into the field in their own countries to preserve what was left, and this push for the past is still visible in the influx of collection acquisitions in the late nineteenth century. Honestly, it’s a good thing they did while it was still there to be found.

The Hungarian Kutyagerinc – used to keep round-bottom cooking pots from tipping. Photo: Arcanum online (copyright free)

Hungarian Trivets
A neat example of a wood wreath trivet is the Hungarian kutyagerinc, or dog’s spine, as seen on the table in the photograph of the shepherds’ couple dining. In the words of Barna Gábor in his book A pásztorok muvészete (The art of shepherds, 1989):

“In the shepherd’s apartments, most have chimneys, smoky kitchens, open stoves and multiple families cook on the stove. There is also a kitchen in the Keszthely Empire where six families cook on a stove. The feet, pots and pans are designed for this, and the fire is gathered into its circle. It is natural that the feet and the pot are rusty, which is not a problem; the people consider that, with open fire, the goal is a more delicious meal and a crunchy roast.

If the soiled dish is put on the beautiful white tablecloth, it makes a mess. For this reason, the shepherd carries a tablecloth-outside table-saver, which is called the kutyagerinc (dog’s spine) because it really resembles the backbone of the dog, but is assembled as a wreath (218). The kutyagerinc consists of two or three hundred parts intersecting each other, held together by the parts, so that one part is tightly connected to the other.

The good kutyagerinc is that which is cramped as close as possible. You don’t need to use a glue, an adhesive for the kutyagerinc, “because it holds itself together”. If the assemblage of the kutyagerinc is connected with two opposing parts, it can be turned so that the heads of the parts stand in a different direction [it rotates] and the wreath has a different image. The two ends of the wreath are so cleverly hooked up that the observer can’t figure out how to put the hundreds of pieces together so wonderfully! The shepherd does something that is for pleasure. There is no benefit, but it is nice!” (Gábor 1989)

Scandinavian Trivets
When I checked the museum records of Swedish wood wreath trivets, called “pannring”, I found many examples but also found something else: Ulrika Torell curator of the Nordiska museet (Nordic Museum) explained the “pannring” as follows:

“A so-called yeast ring, or yeast wreath, originally used for brewing beer and malt drinks. The wreath is placed in the fermenter where yeast residues adhered and were allowed to dry into the hollows of the wreath. In this way, a good yeast was preserved for the next brewing. The wreaths were made of wooden sticks or straw. When the homestead brewing needs eventually declined [yeast could now be purchased, as well as beer] the wreaths instead began to be used as trivets for pots and pans and got a new name.” (Torell 2012)

The torus as a yeast ring
As Bret Rothstein, George Hart and even Schloss Ambras Museum found to their surprise, whenever the torus was displayed where Scandinavians would encounter it, they would immediately identify it as a yeast ring. The identity of a yeast ring seems to be deeply ingrained in the Scandinavian mindset, which made me wonder how old this custom could be. While there exists a Norwegian yeast log conveniently carved on the bottom with the date of 1621, there is no such luck with yeast rings. Same with Hungarian kutyagerinc, the museum objects in the Scandinavian collections are all dated and/or acquired at the end of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th century. And then I remembered the multi-volume 1555 book Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus (A History of the Northern Peoples) by Olaus Magnus, which mentions many Nordic topics, including brewing. Maybe it is mentioned in there?
Yeast ring, hanging outside the brewery – from History of the Northern People, 1555.

There you have it: one yeast ring, hanging off a pole outside a drinking establishment, indicating the brew was successful and ready for consumption. Interestingly, it was apparently such a normal tool that the use of the ring does not even get a mention in the text of the book… And if you think it strange to hang the yeast ring out in nature, realize that brewers back then did not know yeast was a creature, only that the sun and an airy breeze would help dry the sludge out more quickly, and that that was good. Putting out the yeasty tool to indicate a job well done is not something unusual, there is a long tradition in Europe of using yeast related utensils as pre-period inn signs, like besoms (twiggy sweeping brooms) and ale-poles (the medieval variant of mash paddles).

Out of the twelve Scandinavian sources I’ve located and translated so far, my favorite about yeast rings is the Swedish article by Nils Nilsson called Jästkransen (Yeast wreaths) from 1981. While it is not as detailed as for instance Odd Nordland in his Brewing and beer traditions in Norway: the social anthropological background of the brewing industry (1969) or Gösta Berg in Jäststock och jästkrans (Yeast log and yeast wreath – 1949) what I love about it are the two photographs included. One is of a confirmed panring / trivet, and the other of a confirmed yeast ring. And it is clearly visible: the yeast ring is slathered in dried yeast, and the trivet has scorched edges from where the hot pots touched the wood. Interestingly, while yeast sludge can be soaked and rinsed away it is impossible to clean scorched wood. And most of the tori collected as trivets do not show any indication of heat scorching, which puzzles me.

two yeast rings.PNG

From Nilsson: (left) Wreath braided with sticks, according to Kulturens folk art catalog 1932, a trivet from Skåne, that is to say, a stand for a frying pan. Diameter 23 cm. KM 35.767. (right) Jästkrans, one of a pair acquired from Harlösa in Skåne in 1945, information about the use is missing. The dried substance between the sticks contains, apart from various “debris” residues, starch and yeast fungi. Diameter 15 cm. KM 47,356:2.

In the words of Nils Nilsson, in his 1981 Jästkransen:

“Another method was to allow the yeast to dry, which gave significantly increased durability. The yeast must then be collected in a suitable way. From ancient towns in central Sweden and Norway it is known that they used to lay down a so-called yeast log or yeast stick in the yeast vessel, a piece of log of rough bark or recessed depths where the yeast mass was gathered. The stick was then hung to dry and the yeast in the holes could then be preserved for a long time.

The same method has been applied with wreaths, which were usually straw bundles, but which in southern Sweden and Denmark were often composed of small sticks stuck into each other, yeast rings. The wreaths could either be placed in the vessel like the yeast stick, so that the yeast flowed into the cavities, or “filled” by pouring the yeast over them. Otherwise, the approach was the same.

Wreaths composed of small wooden sticks are quite common in our museum collections. Very few of these have a clear function as yeast rings. In general, they are found as a trivet for saucepans, pots and the like. In this capacity, they still exist, usually manufactured and marketed as home-made supplies. The question is then whether the use of wreaths as a pot holder was developed only after ceasing to store yeast dried in wreaths, in other words a kind of functional retreat as it is called in scientific language. More likely, they have been used for both these purposes and that the connection with the beer yeast has been forgotten after the use of brewing beer at home disappeared.” (Nilsson 1981, 45-48)

Elska Yeast Ring.PNG
Yeast ring made by me from backyard Swamp Birch (Betula allegheniensis)

Speculations on the past
With these newly found facts, we can speculate on the initial practical function of the tori. For instance, did the twisted torus started out as a trivet which was appropriated by an out-of-the-box thinking brewster and the technique was subsequently emulated by her impressed friends and neighbors? Or maybe the torus started out as a yeast ring but, with the invention of dried yeast in the early 1800’s, lost its job and that by the time the ethnographers stopped by for a chat and a brew the yeast ring had already mostly devolved into a trivet? If, perhaps the torus started out as a trivet, it was appropriated in the Scandinavian lands as a yeast ring but then reverted back to its original function when it was no longer needed? Or perhaps the use as a trivet, and as a yeast ring, was fairly simultaneous, depending on the needs of the people of a particular region at a certain place in time.

Food for thought: Bret Rothstein mentions the Ambras tori are likely made from beech. Most yeast rings are made of beech and birch, as the Betula species seems to be most favorable to yeast colonization. With only a little embellishing, this factoid favors the story that perhaps the two tori from the Ambras collection were gifted by a Scandinavian official for the Royal collection, or perhaps brought back as curious souvenirs from His Grace’s travels to the Nordic countries.

For references, and more, check my blog posts on Scandinavian yeast logs & rings at:
Or check my IceDragon documentation here: