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Stone Vessels in the Levant

Stone Vessels in the Levant

By Rachael Thyrza Sparks. Pp. xviii + 488, figs. 100, tables 17. Maney, Leeds 2007. $198. ISBN 978-1-904350-97-2 (cloth).

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This volume is refreshingly different from other monographs on stone vessels of the eastern Mediterranean region. It not only describes the typology, chronology, and materials of the vessels—which is where other treatments stop—but also provides a thorough discussion of their archaeological contexts. This book is a study of 1,917 stone vessels found in the Levant, a region encompassing the lands bordering the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea. The corpus spans the entire second millennium B.C.E., from the start of the Middle Bronze Age II to the end of the Iron Age I, and reflects the broad spectrum of vessels in use during this period, from decorative prestige items to plain utilitarian objects. Both whole and fragmentary vessels are included and, most importantly, all come from excavated archaeological sites and so have a known provenance. The term “vessel” is broadly applied by the author to include stone objects that she variously refers to as vases, bowls, jars, jugs, juglets, bottles, flasks, alabastra, amphoras, pyxides, cups, goblets, basins, mortars, plates, pallets, tables, stands, funnels, lamps, and spoons.

After introducing her subject in chapter 1, the author considers the two sources for vessels found in the Levant: foreign imports (ch. 2) and local manufacture (ch. 3). It is also within these chapters that the chronology and typology of the vessels are described, with the latter well illustrated by copious ink drawings. Forty percent of the vessels in the study were imported, mostly from Egypt but also from Crete and Cyprus. For those originating in the Levant, the author distinguishes among vessels from the Palestinian, Syrian, and Levantine traditions.

Chapter 4 deals with the materials used, including their geologic sources. The identification of materials is one of the most problematic aspects of any study of stone objects; it is well manifested in this book. The author is not a geologist but seems reasonably well informed about petrology. Her study, however, would have benefitted from the assistance of a geologist to guarantee the correct petrological terminology. Instead, she relies largely on the original excavators’ (often flawed) identifications. Accordingly, many of the author’s different stone types are actually the same material. For example, her “gneiss,” “diorite,” and “anorthosite” are mostly, if not all, the gabbro/anorthosite gneiss from the so-called Chephren’s Quarry in Egypt’s southwestern Nubian Desert. The author seems to be aware of these sorts of nomenclatural problems but is unable to resolve them fully.

These problems aside, it is interesting to note that just six stone types make up 82% of the 1,917 vessels: 34% are “calcite” from Egypt (more correctly travertine); 22% are “gypsum” from Palestine (more correctly alabaster, but not to be confused with “oriental alabaster,” which is travertine); 16% are basalt from the Levant; 5% are limestone from Levant; 3% are “serpentine,” mainly from Egypt (more correctly serpentinite); and 2% are “chlorite family” from Crete, Cyprus, and the Levant (more correctly chloritic and talcose steatites). For the remaining 18% of vessels, the author recognizes another two dozen stone types, but because of misidentifications, many are not different materials. The author concludes chapter 4 by relating the stone types to vessel typology and also discussing the various ways the materials arrived at the archaeological sites where the vessels were found, including regional trade networks, local exploitation of resources, and recycling of stone objects.

Chapter 5 reviews what is known about excavated stone-vessel workplaces in the Levant, and also describes modern, but still primitive, vessel workplaces that may serve as models for the organization of ancient ones. In this respect, the modern calcite (travertine) workshop in the village of Sheikh Abd el-Gurna near Luxor, Egypt, is particularly instructive. Chapter 6 continues the literature review and focuses on the tools and technologies behind stone-vessel manufacture. There are good discussions of both the “drill-made” and “chisel-made” vessels from Egypt, Crete, Cyprus, and the Levant. Chapter 7 describes the distribution of archaeological sites supplying vessels to the author’s study and also characterizes the vessel types and materials at each of these sites.

The eighth and final chapter provides an interpretive overview for the study. Here the author demonstrates the utility of stone vessels for measuring the extent of foreign influences on the Levant. They indicate not only the points of entry for these objects but, by their numbers and types, the nature of the international contacts at these sites. This is well illustrated by the Egyptian stone vessels, which came into the Levant through a vigorous commercial trade, with principal entry points at Ras Shamra in the northern Levant and Tell el-‘Ajjul in the southern coastal plain. In contrast, the comparatively rare Minoan (Crete) and Cypriot vessels found mainly at Atchana (Minoan only), Ras Shamra, and Byblos appear to reflect merely the presence of people from these islands (probably craftsmen or traders in other commodities), rather than an organized trade in stone vessels. Another interesting conclusion of this study concerns the relationship between imported and domestic vessels. Egyptian imports were arriving in the Levant at the beginning of the second millennium B.C.E., and this, the author asserts, created a taste for luxury items that spanned the elite and “middle-class” segments of Levantine society. It was this demand that spurred the development of the domestic stone vessel industry, which then evolved according to both local aesthetic and cultural preferences and material availability.

The remainder of the book consists of a 149-page object catalogue for the vessels in the study, which is followed by a site concordance (appx. A) and a materials concordance (appx. B). A comprehensive list of references and a detailed index complete the book. Even though it is an excellent reference, the book seems overpriced given that there are no color illustrations, just black-and-white ink drawings and only three figures with grayscale photographs.

The author is to be congratulated for producing a scholarly work of the first magnitude as well as an authoritative reference of great usefulness. It deserves a place in the library of every student of stone vessels and not just those with an interest in the Levant. This book is relevant to the stone vessels found in Egypt, Crete, and Cyprus and will also be useful in the study of vessels from Mesopotamia and the rest of southwest Asia.

James A. Harrell
Department of Environmental Sciences
The University of Toledo
2801 West Bancroft Street
Toledo, Ohio 43606

Book Review of Stone Vessels in the Levant, by Rachael Thyrza Sparks

Reviewed by James A. Harrell

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 113, No. 2 (April 2009)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1132.Harrell

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