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Prehistoric metal from Italy.

ANNA MARIA BIETTI SESTIERI & ELLEN MACNAMARA with DUNCAN HOOK. Prehistoric metal artefacts from Italy (3500-720 BC) in the British Museum (British Museum Research Publication 159). ii+352 pages, 216 illustrations, tables. 2007. London: British Museum; 978-086-159-159-6 paperback 45 [pounds sterling].

MARK PEARCE. Bright blades and red metal., essays on north Italian prehistoric metalwork (Accordia Specialist Studies on Italy 14). 144 pages, 34 illustrations, 14 tables. 2007. London: Accordia Research Institute, University of London; 978-1-873415-33-7 paperback 36 [pounds sterling] (Accordia members 20 [pounds sterling]).


It is a pleasure to see the literature on Italian metallurgy enriched by two new English language publications. The volume by Bietti Sestieri and Macnamara presents the metal artefacts from Italy collected in the past held in the British Museum and dated to between 3500 and 720 BC. This is a considerable undertaking, involving archive research, inventories, illustration and classification. The work follows a standard format: a short introduction, notes on the collections, classification method, chronology, catalogue of the objects in chronological order, technical analysis, bibliography and supportive apparatus (concordances, typological table, types, provenances--to which one could have added references to the classification used at the beginning of the book--list of donators and collectors, and 7 period maps).

The first chapter acts as a guide to the volume. The authors present more than 800 objects, of which 34.5 per cent have a known provenance, and relate them to current research, with a relatively complete bibliography. The material is organised in 13 sections which correspond to typological groupings: axes, tools, knives, razors, ornaments, fibulae, bracelets, halberds and daggers, swords and swords sheaths, spearheads/javelins and spear-butts, arrowheads, groups of associated artefacts, miscellaneous artefacts. These are then detailed in a catalogue numbered from 1 to 837. A few pages are devoted to chronology and include a discussion of the importance of written documentary sources available for Italy from the time of Greek colonisation onwards and a consideration of the role played by metal artefacts in typological analyses, at times taken to extremes by Peroni and his colleagues. Adjustments in dating which take account of the most recent studies available are presented in tabular form, allowing the reader some choice in this domain. The catalogue is organised in chronological sections: Copper Age, Middle Bronze Age, Recent Bronze Age (specific to Italy), Final Bronze Age and Early Iron Age. Numbers of artefacts per period vary, from 16 for the Copper Age to 587 for the Early Bronze Age. The vast majority of objects are illustrated in good quality line drawings, the remainder in, sometimes rather dark, monochrome photographs. Unfortunately photographs of detail, especially of decoration, have not been included. The double numbering system in each entry, involving a catalogue number (roughly in chronological sequence) and a type number per grouping (following a typological order), is rather unwieldy. The volume is in fact quite complicated to use, forcing the reader to flip backwards and forwards to consult the individual entries and the artefact groupings, not forgetting the concordance tables, typological tables (cross-referenced to the catalogue) and types (per group) at the end.

The volume ends with an analysis by Duncan Hook of the technology and composition of the Italian objects. As is standard practice, analytical techniques (Inductively Coupled Plasma Atomic Emission Spectroscopy or ICP-AES, Atomic Absorption Spectroscopy or AAS, and Scanning Electron Microscopy or SEM) are presented briefly but not the detail of each object analysed. Results are discussed and shown in tabular form (Tables 1 & 2) with major, minor and trace elements shown in Figures 1-11, complemented by a few X-ray plates (Figures 12-16). The use of laboratory techniques in this type of research has become current practice, in line with the proliferation of archaeometric techniques in all aspects of archaeological investigation. In metallurgical research, to consider the development of technology through time--particularly when a corpus spans such a long period--is of course a legitimate aim, bur we must not forget the objects themselves; we should try to re-position them in their stages of manufacture (chaine operatoire) and understand their function and use. A sword is not necessarily made of the same alloy as a fibula, since these objects were not made in the same way (by the same craftsman?) and were put to different uses. To conflate the results of analysis by period without taking account of these differences is not particularly helpful. The identity of the artefacts is given in Table 1 bur information on the quantity of objects or fragments and where analysis was carried out is missing; the figures obtained by analysis are also not related to individual objects. It would be desirable in future that we include a further dimension in artefact research, a dimension which cannot just be tabulated, though of course the figures must be retained. It would involve the reconstruction of the chaine operatoire and the formulation of hypotheses on practice, manufacturing techniques and modes of consumption.

Nevertheless this publication is a fundamental research tool. The British Museum corpus spans a period from 3800 to 720 (780?) BC, or three millennia, which allows us to take the long view. Furthermore a very wide range of material is represented, with all categories of artefacts present in varying quantities. This publication represents a true edition of archaeological sources similar to the edition of documentary sources held in archives. One dreams of seeing all ancient museum collections, even if not always fully provenanced, treated in such a way and thus given a new life.

Mark Pearce's book belongs to another register. As the title indicates, it is a series of essays, organised into seven chapters of uneven lengths which mix discussion and results of analysis; the degree of success of this undertaking is similarly unequal. The first chapter (pp. 20-22) consists of a series of questions underscoring the work; such a reflection needs developing further, three pages seem just too short. Typology (chapter 2) gets more extensive treatment. Here the author considers the history of typological research, highlights the impact of radiocarbon dating, evaluates Italian typology and the role of the 'new archaeology', and examines the historical significance of the various classification systems, their limitations and their usefulness as archaeological tools. 'Understanding the origins of metallurgy in Italy' is chapter 3's aim: Pearce first draws attention to the proliferation of new studies between 1990 and 2000 and then turns to dating. A schematic table (Table 3.1) presents dates between the Middle Neolithic and Early Copper Age (5000-3000 BC) in relation to the appearance of metallurgy and the first axes in the Late Neolithic. Middle and Late Neolithic sites are presented together with the results of analyses on axes taken from earlier studies, but copper, although represented in the large majority of cases, is not quantified. The author reflects, rightly, on these early objects, their introduction, their social context, considers the role of certain lithic artefacts and dwells on the significance of the axe found with Otzi, the 'Ice man' loved by the media. The remainder of the volume follows to an extent the chaine operatoire: mining and extraction (chapter 4), production (slag and smelting, chapter 5), intentionality (chapter 6) and consumption (chapter 7). Copper mines known from North Italy, from the Valle d'Aosta to Friuli-Venezia Giulia and from the Trentino-Alto Adige to Emilia Romagna are reviewed: this work is erudite and thorough, although adding a map showing the location of the numerous sites would have helped readers unfamiliar with northern Italy.

The exploitation of early mines is treated in some depth and, this time, illustrated by a few photographs and line drawings; Liguria, where the sites of Libiola, Monte Loreto and Valle Lagorara are located, emerges in particular as the area of earliest known mining exploitation in northern Italy. A brief chapter (chapter 5) is dedicated to the process of reduction from ores and to smelting. Too short and with too few illustrations, it does not consider the chaine operatoire, does not explain the processes involved, the types of operation, constraints, gestures, or the types of evidence left for archaeology to uncover. On the other hand, there is a list of sites where such operations may have taken place (on the same sites? For what precise operations?) between the Copper Age and the Final Bronze Age. More space is given here to manufacturing metallurgy than to transforming metallurgy; more specifically the approach is territorial rather than technical. Chapter 6 ('Production: intentionality') is more original, and merits an explanatory note. The author mentions a debate amongst archaeologists dividing, on one side, those in favour of a craft which was controlled from early on from those, on the other side, who consider that the practice of metallurgy was conducted in a more random manner. On could add a third way, not considered here, which envisages a praxis based on know-how which is not haphazard bur allied to an empirical element which cannot be termed 'pre-scientific' since precise measuring instruments would not be invented for many centuries... The question for the author lies therefore in deciding whether the composition of alloys was deliberate or not. Pearce reminds us rightly that there are thousands of results available from analyses carried out on the composition of alloys. He addresses such questions as the addition of arsenic to copper, or of flanged axe hoards: for instance, at the site of Pieve Alignola the 26 axes found there exhibit proportions of tin which clearly varied depending on whether they were unfinished or finished products, or older broken objects. The author concludes that the craftsmen were well able to distinguish between products and to work with chosen alloys. He also touches on the question of the 'value' of objects: form/function, object/weight measure (here again with respect to flanged axes) are considered to propose a form of standardisation akin to a pre-monetary system. A similar suggestion has been made for Bronze Age axes from the Atlantic facade. The book's last chapter concludes that there were well organised exchange networks in place in the Po plain by the Late Bronze Age (involving a shift from alpine sources to metal produced in the metal-bearing foothills) in the period between the Terramare culture and that of the bronze centres, with the site of Frattesina pre-eminent amongst them. This well-argued essay attempts to trace the dynamics at work in northern Italy from the origins of metallurgy to the Final Bronze Age.

This reviewer's impression of the volume as a whole is that it is an uneven book with some good passages. Synthesis concentrates rather on the second millennium BC, while sites and material of the earlier periods are covered more extensively; bur a strong conclusion breathing life into the whole is missing. Craftsmen, whether miners or bronze casters, are too often overlooked (except on p. 88). Finally, the bibliography does not take French work, particularly of its technological school, into account, except for that of the 'founding father', Leroi-Gourhan (cited in translation); recent French research in this tradition, whether on Italy or elsewhere, is missing too.

In fine, these two books cover an important chronological epoch in the history of metallurgy--from around 5000 to c.750 BC. The approaches are different and complementary. Pearce's opening remark, that 'artefacts studies in general, are out of fashion in Britain' could be applied to the rest of Europe especially where technological questions are concerned. The archaeology of ideas, of human impact on the environment or of funerary practices is more fashionable, since these themes have the ability to breathe new life into research. Artefacts, and metal artefacts in particular, on the other hand, have been studied since the beginnings of archaeological enquiry, and there may be a perception, amongst some, that all has been said on the subject. This is an illusion. The renewal of research directions coupled with advances in methodology requires returning to the primary data, if we are to avoid getting lost in theoretical debates without substance. New publications--of primary data as well as syntheses--on the subject are essential to develop understanding; they will once again give a place to metallurgy, not as the study of an isolated material or of particularly beautiful objects, but as a historic documentary source in its own right capable of giving insights into ancient populations who themselves gave metal such prominence.

Anne Lehoerff, University of Lille 3, Laboratoire de Metallurgie HALMA-IPEL, Villeneuve d'Ascq, France, Membre de l'Institut Universitaire de France (Email:

Translated from the French by Reviews Editor
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Title Annotation:Prehistoric metal artefacts from Italy in the British Museum, Bright blades and red metal
Author:Lehoerff, Anne
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 1, 2008
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