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The Power of Technology in the Bronze Age Eastern Mediterranean: The Case of the Painted Plaster

July 2010 (114.3)

Book Review

The Power of Technology in the Bronze Age Eastern Mediterranean: The Case of the Painted Plaster

By Ann Brysbaert (Monographs in Mediterranean Archaeology 12). Pp. xiv + 258, figs. 36, tables 28. Equinox, London 2009. £60. ISBN 978-1-84553-433-2 (cloth).

Reviewed by

The book under review is an admirable attempt to study the painted plaster of the central and eastern Mediterranean during the second millennium B.C.E. from an inter- and multidisciplinary approach, combining traditional art historical perception (though in a limited manner) with a strong emphasis on a technological and materials science viewpoint, along with insights from experimental archaeology. Based on a dissertation written in 2004 at the University of Glasgow, this book clearly moves discussion into a relatively new and important realm. The overall aim of the study is an attempt to understand the role and power of technology in the Bronze Age Mediterranean, using the study of painted plaster and its appearance and variations throughout this region as a test case.

Most previous studies of Bronze Age painted plaster have primarily focused on stylistic analyses of the artistic medium. These analyses were used in an attempt to define origins and influences and from them, larger questions regarding cultural and economic patterns. The author and a small group of other scholars have recently moved the discussion of painted plaster into a different realm, as technological analyses provide new information and insights for discussions that have gone on for decades. Given the relatively recent finds of painted plaster at Levantine sites (e.g., Kabri, Daba, Qatna), this volume offers important new perspectives for understanding this phenomenon.

Overall, the author presents cogent and convincing arguments about several issues, including (1) the various methods and techniques of wall decoration used in the Bronze Age Mediterranean; (2) the technological origin of painted plaster (as opposed to the stylistic influences, which were bidirectional), which she demonstrates (in my opinion, conclusively) was in the Aegean and not in the Levant; (3) the influential role of the artisans—who were hardly producers that passively conformed to the demands of the elite—in the production and style of painted plaster, as well as the intimate connection between style and technology; and (4) the spread of painted plaster in the eastern Mediterranean, which aptly reflects the intense cultural, political, and economic contacts between the various parts of this region, and in particular, among elites.

While in general the book is of high quality, several comments and critiques are worth noting. First, the book would have benefited from tighter editing. For example, several authors quoted in the text do not appear in the bibliography (e.g., Child 1956 [26]; She 2005 [86]; Maran 2007 [94]; Bietak 2007 [106]). Also, many of the sites on the maps of the eastern Mediterranean (97, fig. 5.3) and Egypt (103, fig. 5.4) are embarrassingly misplaced.

While most discussions are current, there are some cases where it appears that the author did not update the bibliography and discussions beyond the dissertation. For example, there is no mention of the relatively recent publication of painted plaster from Kommos by Shaw (“Plasters from the Monumental Minoan Buildings: Evidence for Painted Decoration, Architectural Appearance, and Archaeological Event,” in J. Shaw and M. Shaw, eds., Kommos. Vol. 5, The Monumental Minoan Buildings at Kommos [Princeton 2006] 117–260) or the important technological studies conducted by Dandrau and Dubernet on those materials (Shaw and Shaw [2006] 236–48). The author was apparently not aware of the technological studies of painted plaster from Lachish (A. Shimron, “Selected Plaster and Glassy Samples,” in D. Ussishkin, The Renewed Archaeological Excavations at Lachish (1973–1994). Vol. 5 [Tel Aviv 2004] 2620–55). While the author is correct in noting the lack of in-depth technological studies of the Mari painted plasters, a limited amount of analysis was conducted by Muller (“Aspects de la peinture murale proche-orientale au IIe millénaire av. J.-C.,” Revue Archéologique de Picardie 10 [1995] 131–40). It is nowadays agreed by virtually all that there are no pre–Middle Bronze Age levels in Woolley’s excavations at Alalakh (contra p. 98 in the volume under review), as already pointed out by Mellink years ago (rev. of Alalakh: An Account of the Excavations at Tell Atchana in the Hatay, 1937–1949, by L. Woolley. AJA 61 [1957] 395–400). Several studies relating to technological analysis of Aegean painted plasters seem to have been missed, such as Rasmussen et al. (“Composition of Pigments of Santorini Frescoes: The Rietveld Method as an Aid in Qualitative Phase Analysis,” Powder Diffraction 19 [2004] 145–48); Karydas et al. (“Importance of In-Situ EDXRF Measurements in the Preservation and Conservation of Material Culture,” in M. Uda et al., eds., X-Rays for Archaeology [Heidelberg 2005] 27–53); and Hejl and Tippelt (“Prehistorical Pigment Mining on Santorini’s Neighbouring Island Anafi (Cyclades, Greece),” Austrian Journal of Earth Sciences 98 [2005] 22–33). Finally, there is preliminary discussion of the new excavations at Kabri and its painted plaster (E. Cline and A. Yasur-Landau, “Poetry in Motion: Canaanite Rulerships and Minoan Narrative Poetry at Tel Kabri,” in S.P. Morris and R. Laffineur, eds., EPOS: Reconsidering Greek Epic and Aegean Bronze Age Archaeology. Aegaeum 28 [Liège 2007] 157–66).

In light of the likely audience for this book (archaeologists and art historians who do not necessarily have a background in science), it is a pity that the author does not explain, even briefly, the analytical methods used for plaster analysis, akin to the extensive explanation of “experimental archaeology” (63–76). The author notes the presence of oblong surface marks in plaster, and she proposes that these were caused either by tiny air bubbles or decayed chopped hair (118). This issue can easily be checked if casts of these marks are analyzed under a scanning electron microscope.

There are several careless aspects of the volume. For example, the author states that Tel Kabri is located in “northern Palestine” (101), Israel/Palestine (108), or Syria (257). Mixing modern and ancient designations is confusing. In addition, within a discussion of studying ethnicity and identity through archaeology, the author unfortunately juxtaposes methods employed in Nazi Germany with archaeological practices in modern Israel (23), even though genealogical strategies for tracing heritage into prehistory have now long been discredited in mainstream Israeli archaeology.

Despite these comments, this book is an extremely important piece of research that opens up new vistas in the study of painted plaster in the ancient Aegean and its influence and appearance throughout the eastern Mediterranean Bronze Age. The author has clearly opened the door for a relatively new and refreshing course of research.

Aren M. Maeir
Institute of Archaeology
Bar-Ilan University
52900 Ramat-Gan

Book Review of The Power of Technology in the Bronze Age Eastern Mediterranean: The Case of the Painted Plaster, by Ann Brysbaert

Reviewed by Aren M. Maeir

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 114, No. 3 (July 2010)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1143.Maeir

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