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The Manufacture of Minoan Metal Vessels: Theory and Practice

The Manufacture of Minoan Metal Vessels: Theory and Practice

By Christina F. Clarke. Pp. xxviii + 249, figs. 176, tables 2. Åströms Förlag, Uppsala 2013. €56. ISBN 978-91-7081-249-1 (cloth).

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The reconstruction of the processes used to create metal vessels in Minoan Crete has been a challenging subject because of the nature of the evidence. The Minoans imported the raw materials of silver, lead, copper, and tin, and they exported finished products. As a result of the fact that numerous objects were made for export, many vessels that might suggest the use of complex metallurgical techniques in the Cretan Bronze Age workshops have not been found on Crete itself. Some of the most elaborate of these metallurgical products come from the Greek mainland, especially from the shaft graves at Mycenae. Which of these vessels should be considered Minoan? Authors like Davis, who wrote what is still one of the definitive studies of the subject (The Vapheio Cups and Aegean Gold and Silver Ware [New York 1977]), needed to begin with basic assumptions about what vessels from outside Crete she should use in order to define the Minoan production in the first place. If the assumptions are based partly on the evidence from exports, and those assumptions are then used to identify which vases on the Greek mainland or elsewhere originated in Crete, the result is circular reasoning.

Clarke avoids this problem and considers only objects found in Crete itself. This is a good decision because it sets up a baseline of workshop practices that can be proved to be Minoan. She brings both scholarly study and a thorough technical understanding of how to manufacture metal vessels to her work, and the result is an excellent book. The volume is an essential study for anyone considering the manufacturing techniques used in Minoan workshops.

After an introduction, the second chapter provides a discussion of the development of Minoan vessels and their chronology and characteristics. Chapter 3 follows with a thorough description of modern techniques for making hammered metal vessels. This is a very useful addition to the book, and it sets the stage for the next chapter, on the theories that have been suggested for Minoan practices. In her discussions of the Minoan workshop techniques in chapter 4, the author’s practical experience is used to address specific problems. Clarke surveys the various theories that have been advanced for making the vases and adding decoration, noting where problems occur. For example, the idea that metal vessels were hammered over a stone core to produce three-dimensional decorative embellishments is highly unlikely because after the work the stone core would be locked within the vessel.

After these introductory sections, chapter 5 discusses the evidence for Bronze Age metallurgical tools and other equipment and how these were used to make vessels. The study is thorough, and it provides a good survey of the available tools. A list of metallurgical sites follows in chapter 6, and individual vessel shapes are listed in chapter 7. The author is uncertain about whether the silver kantharos from Gournia is a local product or an import from Anatolia. Chapter 8 discusses the author’s modern replication of Minoan vessels. This represents an important aspect of the book; Clarke’s experience in manufacturing replicas of ancient vessels—especially a Late Minoan IIIA1 hydria in the Chania Museum that was composed from multiple sections—contributes essential information for the history of metal vessels in Crete. The regular practice was to hammer the vessel from inside the shape, not from outside over a stake as in many other parts of the eastern Mediterranean, resulting in containers that were either open at the top or composed from several sections. Chapter 9 offers conclusions, and the book closes with appendices that provide a list of Minoan metal vessels, analyses of the metals and their percentages of elements as determined by several techniques, and a workshop report. A glossary is a useful addition. The absence of an index is a serious flaw.

The volume is an important contribution to the subject of Minoan and Mycenaean metalworking practices. The production of metal objects, particularly in copper and bronze, was a crucial part of the economy in palatial Crete during the Bronze Age. This book’s interdisciplinary approach, combining the study of the ancient artifacts with the experience from replicating vessels of Minoan design, offers several new insights into the Minoan craftwork tradition. It is recommended for every serious library.

The book provides new conclusions on how metal vessels were made by the Minoans, but it will not be the final word on the subject. Because of the accidents of survival and excavation, discoveries in Crete have not given us the complete picture of what was made by the Minoans. At least some of the elaborately inlaid polymetallic vessels found outside the island were surely made in Crete. In addition, some very sophisticated methods have been documented from the manufacture of other Minoan objects in metal, such as the complex system used for coating rivets with silver caps for daggers (J.A. Charles, “The First Sheffield Plate,” Antiquity 42 [1968] 278–84); they suggest that complex practices not covered in this volume were certainly available to Minoan workshops, although they have not yet been recorded in the extant finds of metal vessels.

Philip P. Betancourt
Department of Art History, Tyler School of Art
Temple University

Book Review of The Manufacture of Minoan Metal Vessels: Theory and Practice, by Christina F. Clarke

Reviewed by Philip P. Betancourt

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 121, No. 1 (January 2017)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1211.Betancourt

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