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Old Javanese Gold (4th-15th Century): An Archaeometrical Approach.

In recent years we have seen an increased interest in Southeast Asian jewellery. This was first evidenced with Susan Rogers' publication Power and Gold (Geneva, 1985), which presented the Barbier-Muller Collection and set it into a cultural context. While she dealt mainly with ethnographic material, it was clearly part of an ancient tradition of using gold for personal adornment, as a prestige item, and for magical or religious purposes, as was emphasized by two catalogues subsequently published by John Miksic (Small Finds: Ancient Javanese Gold, Singapore, 1988; Old Javanese Gold, Singapore, 1990). Early in 1991 news spread about a most significant accidental find in Central Java; just north of Yogyakarta, in a field at the village of Wonoboyo numerous gold and silver objects had been found, clearly undisturbed since they had been left there at the time of a Mt. Merapi eruption in the early tenth century. As many of the precious metal objects known up to then had not come from a datable context, this had to be one of the core finds for material of this kind.

The importance of this slim publication has to be seen against this background. It is a first attempt to gauge the state of knowledge available at the moment, and it is therefore essential reading for anyone with an interest in the topic. Two groups of gold items are the focus of discussion: the Hunter Thompson collection (previously published by Miksic in 1990) and the Wonoboyo find, described here in full for the first time, apart from a publication in Indonesian. Four distinct perspectives are given. John Miksic first offers an overview of the role field archaeology has played in establishing provenance and dates for Southeast Asian jewellery; alongside an epigraphic identification, this is surely the most important, because primary, context we need to have for Javanese gold finds. Only with evidence from archaeological finds, including location and strata reports, can we hope to gain a wider and more accurate picture of production techniques and stylistic developments. Miksic gives a summary of the key archaeological sites, with the material they have provided, from Oc-Eo (Vietnam), via Kota Cina (Sumatra), to Trowulan (East Java), and spanning from pre-historic times (Oc-Eo) to fifteenth-century East Java. Pauline Lunsingh Scheurleer's contribution utilizes a stylistic analysis to establish the age of unrated objects in the Hunter Thompson collection, by drawing on parallels to stone-carved relief ornaments from dated Javanese temples. This is a well-developed art historical tool and for much of the Javanese jewellery the only possible method of suggesting provenance and date.

Wahyono Martowikrido follows with a full description of the Wonoboyo find. He gives the circumstances of the discovery (on three separate occasions), discusses the objects found, including the large collection of coins, and gives the basis for dating on palaeographic grounds. He suggests that because of inscriptional evidence and the luxury quality of the objects, the find belonged to a noble household. The religious affiliation seems to have been syncretic, with signs of Vaisnavite, Buddhist, and possibly Tantric beliefs. It is regrettable that it was not possible to include a fuller and better-quality illustration of the finds.

The final individual contribution is by Josef Riederer, who summarizes the possibilities and problems of a technical analysis of gold, and defines the analysis he has been able to make of the Hunter Thompson collection: this had to be very limited because of the size and unique quality of most of the objects, and therefore could only be useful up to a point. He sets out in detail what could be achieved if different forms of analysis could have been carded out; this is helpful information for future finds. Most informative, because definite in results, is the report on the production of the pieces, including casting in the lost-wax technique, soldering, the use of gold wires and metal sheets.

Finally the discussion from a meeting of experts and collectors, chaired by J.R.J. van Asperen de Boer at the University of Groningen, is reproduced here. The response is in particular to Riederer's laboratory analysis finds and the possible archaeological context, with speculation on the importance a similar analysis could have for the Wonoboyo find. The consensus of opinion was that much more needs to be learned before our understanding of Southeast Asian mining and processing of precious metals is properly understood. While it was agreed that technical analysis is a crucial aspect to be employed, it was also stressed by several contributors to the discussion that field archaeology, as well as historical and stylistic research, have to provide the wider context in which the laboratory analysis can be useful. The value of the publication is in particular that it makes it possible for the reader to assess what is - and what is not - known so far about old Javanese gold.

Ruth Barnes Ashmolean Museum
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Author:Barnes, Ruth
Publication:Journal of Southeast Asian Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1997
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