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Ancient Metallurgy in the USSR: The Early Metal Age.

It is appropriate, in this case, that the reviewer should declare an interest: it was at my suggestion that this book was submitted to CUP as a significant work for translation. Some time (and several translators) afterwards, it is a privilege to commend the final product to its potential readership, because it has a scope and authority which mark it out as a quite outstanding volume in its series. Sarah Wright's final translation (with archaeological advice from Timothy Taylor) is a faithful and sensitive rendering of one of the fundamental works of later 20th-century prehistory.

Its appearance is certainly timely, when the political circumstances which made it possible are in course of dissolution. It is perhaps paradoxical that although for outsiders access to many parts of the former USSR is now far easier than heretofore, opportunities for such an all- encompassing survey are likely to be increasingly difficult. To have such a summary of the Bronze Age metallurgy of an area occupying one sixth of the world's total land surface (three times the size of the USA!), by a leading expert who knows the material at first hand, is a rare piece of archaeological good fortune; to have it in English, in a reliable and thoughtful translation, is no less providential. Whatever the verdict of history on the experiment in political centralization that was the Soviet Union, this work will stand as one of its major archaeological achievements. To have it at a time when the component areas of the former USSR are painfully regaining their sense of individual national identity makes it especially valuable, for it provides a perspective within which regional work can now be set.

Evgenii Chernykh, now chef de section of the Institute of Archaeology in Moscow, has the double advantage of a training both in archaeology and metallurgy. The spectrographic analyses on which his compositional groupings are based were for the most part carried out in his own laboratory, from samples collected by his own hands. He has systematically worked his way eastwards across the territory he covers, in a series of monographs (in Russian), from his History of the earliest metallurgy in Eastern Europe (1966), through the Earliest metallurgy of the Ural and Volga area (1970) and Early metalworking in the south-west USSR (1976), to a work with S.V. Kuzminykh entitled Early metallurgy of northern Eurasia (1989). The single-mindedness of purpose in this enterprise may not lead to great originality in titles, but it provides an essential consistency in treatment. It has been supplemented by a pioneering monograph on Copper Age metallurgy and mining in Bulgaria (1978), so that the history of early copper-working in southeast Europe -- a more familiar territory for western European students of this period -- is keyed in to that of the other great centres of prehistoric metallurgy, in the Caucasus and the Urals. The development of European and Near Eastern metallurgy can now be seen in Eurasian perspective.

As Philip Kohl emphasizes in his Foreword, this is no narrow technical study. While the equipment and methods of microchemical analysis might seem simple (even old-fashioned) to the research-and-development-driven world of the Science-based Archaeology community in the West with its relentless quest for high-tech novelty, the strength of this work lies in its fundamentally archaeological rationale. This is essentially a cultural history of metallurgy, informed simultaneously by typological and compositional data, and its primary media of illustration are line-drawings, maps and chronological charts: there are no catalogues of raw analytical data, and rather few histograms. This makes it much easier to read for the non-specialist, but may lead to undeserved criticism if its methodology is not properly understood. This is not a study of complex urban trading systems, where a multitude of competing sources and rapidly shifting trade routes require isotopic characterisation: rather, it is a geographical and chronological study of the successive florescences of regionally distinctive groups of ore-sources and the metallurgical traditions based on them, which spread widely over adjacent resource-deficient cultural provinces. On this scale the patterns are sufficiently robust for a striking picture to emerge, whatever further contribution more technologically sophisticated methods may bring to sort out the detail.

There is no space here to summarize a work which is in any case admirably clear. A brief word about chronology may, however, be helpful. Radiocarbon dating is still in its infancy over many of the areas covered here: the current scatter of low-tech determinations offers only a preliminary framework, though it is often used (in uncalibrated form) in Russian publications. The time-charts included here use a calibrated chronology to begin the Early Bronze Age (in the east European sense) in the 4th millennium BC and the Middle Bronze Age in the 3rd. Confidence fails, however, with the beginning of the Late Bronze Age, which is set conventionally in the late 2nd millennium. This accords with discussion in the text, which treats Mnogovalikovaya pottery as a short phase, and elsewhere appeals to traditional 'Mycenaean' links for the Borodino hoard. Current dating programmes in Oxford and Arizona will soon begin to sort this out, but my hunch is that these periods, too, will be revised upwards, to the early 2nd millennium. This has important implications for chronological parallelisms both with the Near East and with China -- such is the perspective that this work has opened up.

This book is expensive, but page for page provides a value rarely equalled in archaeological publications. Yet it is only the tip of an iceberg of information about the former USSR, hidden not only by language but by the absurdly short print-runs and poor distribution of recent Soviet and CIS literature. If it serves to prepare the way for further translations of this kind, and more co-operative work, it will be a triple success.

ANDREW SHERRATT Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford
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Author:Sheratt, Andrew
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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