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Archäische Silhouettenbleche und Schildzeichen in Olympia

July 2007 (111.3)

Book Review

Archäische Silhouettenbleche und Schildzeichen in Olympia

By Hanna Philipp. With an appx. by Hermann Born (OlForsch 30). Pp. xiv + 143, pls. 120, fold-out pls. 2. Walter de Gruyter, Berlin 2004. €128. ISBN 3-11-017865-6 (cloth).

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The materials presented in this impressive volume deal with bronze plates adorned with figures that were created through hammering and “chiseling“ into the plates. Such plates were primarily used as shield plates but were also worked into other objects such as wooden chests; however, the exact function of these plates cannot be determined in every case.

The catalogue of findings (158–400) constitutes the bulk of the study and includes 105 fragments that originate from ca. 650 C.E. to the beginning of the fifth century C.E. In fact, this artistic genre from the Middle and Late Archaic periods is represented better in Olympia than anywhere else. Although the plates and plate fragments were strewn across the entirety of this sanctuary, a large number were found near the stadium walls. This is likely due to the fact that captured weapons were lined up along the wall like trophies. Viewed retrospectively, the exact position of these findings may be an indicator that the number of shield plates scattered among the unidentifiable fragments of silhouette plates was likely very high.

One of the appendices (404–12) also contains Oriental shields from Olympia and big silhouette plates from other sites. This volume of Olympic research can therefore claim to hold an all-encompassing representation of silhouette plates in Greece and to fill a gap in research.

The individual pieces are described in detail in the catalogue and are brilliantly documented in photographs and drawings. The 1:1 reconstructive drawings of the gorgon monster and the nursing griffon are special treats, as they give a concrete presentation of the greatness and the resulting effect of such shield plates, whereby the picture of the gorgon monster also shows the ornamentation on the edge of the shield. The little holes that can be seen at the very edge of the shield were made for nails and studs, which were used to secure the plates to the shields themselves; in fact, some of the remains of the nails and studs can still be found in the little openings.

Whenever the preserved pieces do not give a clear indication of the function of the respective plates, the material itself becomes important, thereby bringing up the question about their production. This is largely dealt with in the description of the technique (8–12) and the commentary given by Born, responsible for restoring the plates (413–24). Marks on the surface show that the plates were hammered out of cast material and periodically heated until they reached an average thickness of 0.5–1 mm and were subsequently smoothed out. This work required great skill, which is why even the undecorated plates are examples of brilliant craftsmanship; obviously, craftsmen specialized in this type of work. This is what Aeschylus calls a “sematurgos,” a creator of shield plates (92). The ornamentation of the plates was formed of plaster in which indentations were made with a hammer. There are no indications of engravings, or cuttings, which, as Born states, is likely due to the thinness of the plates. But this is also attributable to the fact that there were no Archaic tools durable enough to cut bronze. What is disturbing about Born’s text is his tendency not to interpret the research results of the materials at hand but rather to refer to his own experiments. For example, his text does not even contain a metal analysis, and his comments about the application of color are speculative at best. It is only certain that the craftsmen were skilled metalworkers and that even ornamentations are hardly noticeable because of the rivets they used.

The analysis of the findings published in the catalogue is found in individual chapters, whereby the distinction made between silhouette plates and shield plates leads to unnecessary doublings of information. Since shield plates can also be found among the fragments of the silhouette plates, this distinction is not comprehensible.

Of all the motifs found, animal depictions clearly dominate: lions, boars, roosters, eagles, and horses are the most prevalent. These plates, a few of which have been totally preserved and none of which should be interpreted too quickly, show resting animals, and no scenes of fighting are depicted. One major focal point is the head of the gorgon monster, which is always portrayed from the front and is common in Archaic depictions. By comparing shield plates with pictures on vases and by comparing shield plates with the realm of imagination in the seventh and eighth centuries C.E., the author has demonstrated that the animals are an expression of certain qualities captured in expressions such as “strong as a lion” and “to have the eyes of an eagle.” This also helps explain why two men on a vase depiction could carry a shield bearing the same animal. At any rate, there is no indication of heraldic animals as was the case in the Middle Ages. As far as can be deciphered from the fragments, some of which merely show parts of figures, these scenes show neither Olympic gods nor multiple figures. An exception to this, of course, is the late depiction of Hercules fighting the Nemean Lion.

The small number of intact shield plates most likely originates from the fact that these thin metal plates were in the ground for a long time and thus suffered greatly. Still, pressed plates do not seem to have been the norm. An overwhelming number of wooden shields merely had the pictures painted on them, leaving them lost to discovery forever.

By including the shield plates from scenes depicted on vases and by including the literary references to this topic, the author has created a comprehensive work about this particular art genre that far exceeds a superficial treatment of a single genre of monuments and invites general questions about the meaning and complexity of the sanctification of weapons in a sanctuary (71–86, 135–57).

Philipp’s book is thus a true treasure chest of scholarly observations. It not only includes excellent summaries about the sanctification of weapons in Olympia but also about shield plates in literature and art and about the relationship between shield plates and those who carried these shields. All of these observations are based on the latest research and a thorough knowledge of the findings in Olympia.

This praise, however, also leads to a minor point of criticism: it is questionable whether it is reasonable to write such an all-encompassing work about Archaic pictures based on such a small number of findings. This approach causes much information to be lost, because few think about referring to a book about silhouette plates when they are looking for answers to questions about weapon sanctification. In this respect, it would have been more desirable for the author to put her vast knowledge into a book outlining the general phenomenon of sanctifications in Archaic times.

One final issue needs to be mentioned about Philipp’s book. The editorial work is oriented to the renowned high standard of Olympic research. It is therefore surprising to see that one or more lines are missing on page 423 after line 8.

Gerhard Zimmer
Klassische Archäologie
Ehemalige Staatsbibliothek
Katholische Universität Eichstätt-Ingolstadt
85072 Eichstätt

Book Review of Archäische Silhouettenbleche und Schildzeichen in Olympia, by Hanna Philipp

Reviewed by Gerhard Zimmer

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 111, No. 4 (July 2007)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1113.Zimmer

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