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Corpus der minoischen und mykenischen Siegel. Vol. 6, Oxford, the Ashmolean Museum

July 2011 (115.3)

Book Review

Corpus der minoischen und mykenischen Siegel. Vol. 6, Oxford, the Ashmolean Museum

By Helen Hughes-Brock. With John Boardman. 2 parts. Pt. 1. Pp. xxxii + 348, figs. 1,224, color pl. 1, tables 3, map 1; pt. 2. Pp. xlv + 712, figs. 1,091, color pl. 1, map 1. Philipp von Zabern, Mainz 2009. €210. ISBN 978-3-8053-3971-1 (cloth).

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The publication of any volume of the Corpus der minoischen und mykenischen Siegel (CMS) is welcome; the long-awaited appearance of the sixth volume of CMS is a cause for celebration, for this presents the priceless collection of 516 Aegean Bronze Age seals housed in the Ashmolean Museum (sealings and subsequent purchases from private collections appear in CMS 2, nos. 7, 8; CMS 8; CMS 10; concordances 39, 40).

Essential reading is the foreword (ix–x) by the series editor, Ingo Pini, setting out the long gestation of the Oxford volume. The project was originally assigned to Kenna, following his publication Cretan Seals (Oxford 1960). After Kenna’s death, Boardman prepared the catalogue descriptions; in 1978, the mantle passed to Hughes-Brock. Most photographs of seals and casts were executed almost 50 years ago by Albiker, using highly unsatisfactory techniques. The results, despite much enhancing of the scans by Pini himself, are decidedly variable. The casts themselves are also variable in quality, made in plaster, Vinagel, silicone, and plasticine. Not widely recognized (even by photographers) is that each material demands specific lighting techniques. For certain important pieces, new plasticine impressions were made and photographed by Pini; excellent drawings were prepared by the CMS draftsman Lieberknecht (others are less good; credits appear on pp. xi–xii). Catalogue order and all-important dating was determined by Pini (51); much advice on materials and techniques was proffered by Müller.

Hughes-Brock’s introduction covers the history and sources of the collection (3–29); find places and places of acquisition on Crete; materials and shapes; manufacture and technology; motif, iconography, and style; and objects not in the catalogue. Also preceding the catalogue proper is a valuable appendix summarizing scientific analyses of selected pieces (31–5); concordances and indices follow (37–51). Comments below are perforce highly selective.

A substantial number of the Oxford seals belonged to Arthur Evans; many were acquired during his travels across the island in the 1890s. Places of acquisition, documented in his notebooks, are generally more trustworthy than those given in Scripta Minoa (vol. 1 [Oxford 1909]), Palace of Minos (4 vols. [London 1921–1935]), or Cretan Seals. An especially happy piece of detective work now links number 104, the famous Middle Minoan (MM) II hieroglyphic prism that first aroused Evans’ interest in Crete, to Lakónia (Mirabello) and not Lakonía (Sparta). Admittedly, such information cannot be construed as provenance in the strict archaeological sense, yet it can offer valuable insights into distribution patterns. Even in the Herakleion Museum, a high proportion of the seals are little more than stray finds.

Hughes-Brock rightly stresses the difficulties of identifying materials, especially the soft stones used extensively for Cretan seals (chlorite, steatite, serpentine). Since changing patterns of use may reflect chronological or regional factors, accuracy is important. While identifications here are markedly better than in Cretan Seals, some individual pieces and groups will certainly merit reexamination in future. Number 84, published in Cretan Seals (no. 102) as “steatite” and here as “serpentine” (an unlikely material for MM I–II), is surely chlorite: the piece belongs to the recently identified Mesara-Chlorite Group, datable a trifle earlier than the steatite prisms of east Crete (M. Anastasiadou, The Middle Minoan Three-Sided Soft Stone Prism: A Study of Style and Iconography. CMS Beiheft 9 [2011] 127–28, no. 503).

MM II steatite prisms (nos. 26–90) account for about 10% of the Oxford collection, reflecting Evans’ interest in “pictographic” seals. Most sit easily in the Malia/east Cretan group identified by Anastasiadou: production is linked closely to the seal-cutter’s workshop at Malia Quartier Mu. Contemporary output in hard semiprecious stones (e.g., agate, carnelian, chalcedony, jasper) includes justly famous prisms (nos. 91–106), Petschafte (nos. 124, 125, 127–34), and zoomorphic seals and foliate backs (nos. 138–49). Most bear fine figural motifs and/or hieroglyphic inscriptions, though unaccountably the signs are not transcribed, as in recent CMS volumes, following the table in Olivier and Godart (Corpus Hieroglyphicarum Inscriptionum Cretae [Paris 1996] 17).

Part 1 concludes with a small group of MM III–Late Minoan (LM) I cushions (nos. 177–85), including fine naturalistic studies such as the “wild goat at bay” and “bull at the trough.” New impressions and drawings now help reveal crucial details of technique and iconography. More or less contemporary are seals of the “Talismanic Style,” grouped together with the somewhat later (LM I–II) “Cut Style” at the beginning of part 2 (nos. 187–275). The distinction between the two styles is now well understood, and it is puzzling to read that the Cut Style birds with outstretched wings (nos. 271, 272) are either “Talismanic” or “Cut Style” (23). No “Cut Style features” are to be observed on the talismanic goat (no. 247); and to classify numbers 205 and 229 as “non-standard” is risky. One cannot help wondering if certain observations were embedded at an early stage in preparing the volume and not removed or modified in the final redaction. This may also account for some outdated terminology (e.g., “man,” “woman,” instead of the more neutral “male/female figure”) and descriptions that are decidedly cursory when judged by standards of recent CMS volumes prepared wholly by the Marburg team.

Pride of place in part 2 goes to the famous gold rings with cult scenes (nos. 277–81). The lengthy bibliographies (one of the enormous strengths of this volume) attest to their importance in our discussions of Minoan religious iconography. While some may still harbor doubts as to the authenticity of the “Ring of Nestor” (no. 277), other suspect pieces (including no. 336) are now fully rehabilitated. Owing to a highly unfortunate slip, a photograph of the Nestor ring appears again on page 697, devoted to Evans’ replicas of the “Ring of Minos” housed in Oxford. The correct dimensions for number 278 are 2.1 cm length, 1.2 cm width.

The remaining seals (nos. 282–514) are datable to the Late Bronze Age and are broadly arranged by subject matter: human figures, alone or interacting with animals, Mischwesen, animal studies, and finally ornamental motifs. Noteworthy are seven made of lapis lacedaimonius, quarried only near Sparta. Most of the seals, such as number 298 depicting a “minotaur,” were probably Cretan-made, as rightly noted in the commentary (479; contradicting the inexplicable statement that it may be a mainland product [24]). Otherwise unparalleled is the use of a soft stone (serpentine) for another seal depicting a “minotaur” (no. 300). In fact, the collection contains relatively few soft-stone seals of LM I and LM II–III date, a reflection of Evans’ aesthetic judgement perhaps, not of original output. Of considerable interest are the six “Mainland Popular” seals evidently found on Crete (e.g., nos. 477, 478 [perhaps by the same hand]). Even in the Armenoi cemetery near Rethymnon, they are not especially well represented (pace 9), accounting for a mere eight–nine pieces of a total 170 seals. Among the Late Bronze Age ornamental seals are several of fluorite that are also probably mainland-made (nos. 494, 496, 497). But similar seals with distinctive Cretan designs from Armenoi have been identified as calcite, and this may also be true of number 493.

Any volume of this size is bound to have minor blemishes, but these are far outweighed by the sheer delight in finally having the rich Oxford collection fully and systematically documented. Deep gratitude is thus owed to the patient dedication of the volume editors and the CMS team in Marburg. Yet the appearance of this volume also causes profound disquiet, for it is the last to appear under the aegis of the present CMS project. At the end of 2011, the CMS archive will be transferred to Heidelberg University, where it will serve as a major resource for glyptic research and teaching. But the backlog of seals not published in the CMS series is considerable: (1) seals in non-Greek collections omitted in the original volumes or acquired since their publication; (2) pieces that entered the Herakleion Museum after 1960; (3) “new” seals discovered elsewhere in Greece since the last “collecting” trip in 1999. The task is daunting. To ensure that the new archive is not a dead archive, to ensure that well more than 1,000 seals as yet unrecorded in volumes of the CMS do not become “lost souls,” the scholarly community must give its full support, both moral and financial, to the new project.

Olga Krzyszkowska
Institute of Classical Studies
Senate House
Malet Street
London WC1E 7HU
United Kingdom

Book Review of Corpus der minoischen und mykenischen Siegel. Vol. 6, Oxford, the Ashmolean Museum, by Helen Hughes-Brock

Reviewed by Olga Krzyszkowska

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 115, No. 3 (July 2011)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1153.Krzyszkowska

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