Online Review: Book

Kenchreai. Eastern Port of Corinth. Vol. 6, Ivory, Bone, and Related Wood Finds

By Roger B. Ulrich

112.3

By Wilma Olch Stern and Danae Hadjilazaro Thimme. Pp. xxxvi + 364, figs. 317, pls. 80, plans 3. Brill, Leiden 2007. $237. ISBN 978-90-04-1581-4 (cloth).

This is the sixth volume of the series reporting finds from the excavations of Kenchreai, which took place between 1963 and 1968, the field campaigns sponsored jointly by the University of Chicago and Indiana University. Publication of the finds included in volume 6 was delayed due to the death of Diether Thimme in 1978; the text and catalogue of this volume were subsequently prepared by Wilma Stern (text) and Danae Thimme (catalogue). Despite the intervening time between the recovery of the artifacts and their publication, the documentation of the excavation and its careful presentation by the authors have resulted in an outstanding report.

From the title alone, one might expect that the artifacts under discussion represent a somewhat amorphous array of organic fragments associated with local industry, architecture, or general small finds. In fact, the text and catalogue document a discrete set of artifacts that were fashioned to serve as both the framing elements (wood) and decorative veneers (bone and ivory) of luxury furniture dating from the Late Roman period (Stern proposes a date of the late fourth century). Other wooden elements from the site, such as a door and the remains of shipping crates, have been published elsewhere. The objects of worked bone and ivory discussed here, despite their fragmentary condition, are of immense value for our understanding of Graeco-Roman furniture and decorative art, including the contemporary workshops that produced it. Indeed, some of the objects found, such as veneered cross-legged chairs, are singular.

Too often, artifacts of organic materials are poorly preserved or entirely missing, especially from temperate contexts (the extreme dry conditions of Egypt or the wet, boggy conditions of northern Europe are notable exceptions). At the port town of Kenchreai, the same difficult environment from which the waterlogged artifacts were recovered—a matrix of thick mud lying beneath sea level—also preserved the organic materials included in this study. In terms of period and location, the finds offer information that could previously be hypothesized primarily from contemporary artistic depictions (i.e., representations of furniture on ivory diptychs, sarcophagi, Early Christian mosaics, etc.). Indeed, the list of sites from which substantial amounts of wooden furniture and its embellishment have survived from any period in the Graeco-Roman world is regrettably short. If we limit our survey to mainland Greece and peninsular Italy, only the site of Herculaneum, with its carbonized examples of wooden furnishings, has produced a range of artifacts from the Common Era sufficiently well preserved for study, and these objects predate the Kenchreai material by a good three centuries. In addition to the paucity of tangible evidence, it has only been in the past 60 years or so that wooden artifacts have been recognized, recovered, and conserved for study (conservation techniques themselves make subsequent examination of the artifacts problematic; at Kenchreai, the authors have had some trouble making observations because of the polyethylene glycol used, presumably shortly after the wooden objects were found, in 1965).

Following a brief introduction to the site (ch. 1), the authors offer a succinct overview of the use of ivory, bone, and wood in (late) Roman contexts (ch. 2). Here, discussion includes background on the actual techniques and tools used, particularly when working with bone and ivory. The finds per se from Kenchreai are presented in the four chapters that follow. Each contains commentary and a catalogue of the finds: figurative relief plaques and veneer panels (ch. 3); decorative plaques and veneer (ch. 4); architectural elements (e.g., miniature columns and capitals used to decorate furniture [ch. 5]); and pieces of wooden furniture, most notably cross-legged chairs and fragments of an armarium (cupboard), some of which have veneers of bone and ivory still intact (ch. 6). A final chapter offers hypothetical reconstructions of the furniture represented by the recovered fragments and addresses questions of dating and provenance. Here, Stern speculates sensibly about the possible appearances of the objects (no group of fragments can be reassembled into a complete piece) using comparanda drawn from the types of evidence mentioned in the previous paragraph. Discussion considers why the furniture was abandoned in this harbor setting, and what purpose it might have served, and offers observations on the Egyptian workshops where the objects might have been manufactured. Finally, five short appendices include a catalogue of miscellaneous wood fragments, unadorned veneer fragments, methods of conservation, commentary on the working of ivory (especially molding by softening), and concordances listing both catalogue and site inventory numbers of the finds.

Virtually every artifact from the site is described and illustrated. Most of the superb ink drawings (by Martha Breen and Roxana Docsan) in the catalogues are reproduced at 1:1 scale; multiple fragments that belong to a larger composite structure (such as a lunette “Curved Panel” with a possible imperial “tribunal” scene) are also combined in fold-out hypothetical reconstructions. Most substantial fragments of bone and ivory are further illustrated in photographic plates; the plates also include a good number of comparanda, especially fine reproductions of ivory diptychs that are used to provide visual parallels and aid with questions of dating.

Throughout the text and associated catalogues, the authors take every opportunity to cite parallel examples, both artifacts and contemporary depictions, of the object under discussion. Since physical descriptions and catalogues of all classes of objects are discussed before any synthetic analysis is presented (e.g., reconstruction of furniture), the reader interested in a particular group of objects will find relevant discussion at times widely separated in the text. For such selected reading, additional cross-referencing would help. This is a minor complaint; the index of this volume facilitates rapid survey.

In sum, both presentation and discussion are meticulous. Scholars interested in luxury furnishings and the decorative arts from the later Roman period will find this study invaluable.

Roger B. Ulrich
Department of Classics
Dartmouth College
Hanover, New Hamsphire 03755
roger.ulrich@dartmouth.edu

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1123.Ulrich

Add new comment

Plain text

  • Use [fn]...[/fn] (or <fn>...</fn>) to insert automatically numbered footnotes.
  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Typographic refinements will be added.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
Click "Save" to submit your comment. Please allow some time for your post to be moderated.