Online Review: Book

The Aigina Treasure: Aegean Bronze Age Jewellery and a Mystery Revisited

Thomas Zimmermann

115.2

By J. Lesley Fitton. Pp. 127, b&w and color figs. 222. The British Museum Press, London 2009. $100. ISBN 978-0-7141-2262-5 (cloth).

Within the portfolio of immeasurable treasures held by the British Museum, the find known as the Aigina Treasure, a marvelous collection of gold and precious stone jewelry with a single gold vessel, still holds a special and much-debated position. This is partly because of the rather dubious legacy concerning its recovery and acquisition, but it is mainly because of the dispute over the connectedness of the finds (i.e., is it a single “treasure”?) and its date, although it is now generally believed that the material belongs—roughly speaking—to the Middle Minoan/Helladic period. These points have generated a large number of scholarly articles, but along with the first major monograph on the find (A. Higgins, The Aigina Treasure: An Archaeological Mystery [London 1979]), these have all approached and considered the find from a largely traditional, antiquarian angle. In particular, none of these studies has attempted an objective and scientific analysis of the individual objects that make up this find, even though an in-depth archaeometrical study of these might have aided elucidation of their historical milieu. It seems that successive scholars failed to appreciate how even a preliminary scientific analysis of the alloy and production techniques used in the Aigina Treasure might produce the basic data set for its evaluation in a wider cross-cultural sphere. This would further on allow insight into the treasure’s internal grouping and its connections within the emerging network of thriving powers of the second-millennium B.C.E. Mediterranean world and neighboring regions.

This much-needed and long-awaited scientific analysis has now been done under the direction of Fitton and Meeks, and their results, together with the contributions of a number of distinguished scholars, are presented in the handsomely illustrated volume under review. We might begin by noting that the individual contributors to the volume have supplied us with essays of special value. For example, Felten’s account of a recently excavated and professionally documented new treasure from Aigina-Kolonna, along with in situ color photographs of the same, provides an opportunity to place the original Aigina Treasure into some form of local context. No longer does the original find stand in isolation, but the new find confirms the potential of Aigina as a residential center for early elites, whose mercantile activities prove to have emerged in Early Helladic III at the latest and continued to prosper in the Middle Helladic period. No less important are the other essays in this volume, which are devoted to the multifold stylistic influences on the items in the original Aigina Treasure from both neighboring and remote regions, namely Egypt, Anatolia, and Mesopotamia. These influences have been discussed before, and at great length, with different conclusions being arrived at regarding the date of the material, but the volume benefits especially from a condensed series of essays by Aruz, Collon, and Laffineur (re)evaluating the treasure’s international character. What becomes clear from this is that the original Aigina Treasure, although purchased as a whole assemblage, never could have existed as a closed find in the sense of being chronologically homogenous: it was more a cache of fine objects that were accumulated over a long period of time in antiquity—even though analysis shows that most of the items were manufactured in one workshop.

This brings us to the central, and, for this reviewer, the most exciting, part of this volume: the results of the scientific analyses. These provide us with some fascinating insights into Middle Bronze Age craftsmanship, as with, for example, the microscopic analysis of carving, casting, and soldering procedures on certain of the objects, which has provided strong evidence for the work of two individual craftsmen operating in a single workshop. To this we might add the important results provided by nondestructive or minimal invasive spectral analysis of the metals and stone artifacts that form the original Aigina Treasure. This was done using the standard array of Raman, X-ray diffraction, and scanning electronic microscope equipment, whose complementary energy-dispersive X-ray spectroscopy application allows for minute micro-area scanning of an object’s surface, with the possibility to bypass corrosion or other surface contamination that could bias the result. The work has permitted the definition of the different types and possible provenance of the gemstones in this find with the best scientific accuracy possible, and it has disclosed the precise chemical composition of the metal objects, revealing evidence for their deliberate alloying (table 1). From the reviewer’s point of view, though, it is unfortunate that the results of the metal analyses are only given as combined composition ranges. It would have been better to have the exact spectral measurements of each artifact, allowing deliberation over phenomena such as substantial copper contents in electrum (Au-Ag alloys), which appear to be too high to be simply labeled as unintentional surface enrichments.

The essays and analyses are complemented by numerous color illustrations, excellently fulfilling the long-standing need for a thorough, in-depth presentation of the Aigina assemblage. However, some accompanying illustrations of finds and features that are related to the Aigina Treasure in its spatial and temporal context introduce flaws to an otherwise skillfully edited publication. For example, some of the plans and objects, and especially those reproduced on page 110, are much too small and faint to be of actual use. Also, the drawing of a presumably Old Hittite finger ring (fig. 188) stands out awkwardly in its coarse execution, and should have been at least redrawn. Even so, the book will be an indispensable companion for everyone with a research focus on ancient Mediterranean metal production and consumption. Even for those without a keen interest in the arcane issues of Bronze Age metalworking, the book offers fascinating insight into an assemblage that represents one of the apogees of ancient jewelry making and provides a rich source of information about the ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern world in Middle Helladic/Bronze Age times.

Thomas Zimmermann
Department of Archaeology
Bilkent University
Ankara 06800
Turkey
zimmer@bilkent.edu.tr

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1152.Zimmermann

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.