Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.03.36

Harald Mielsch, Barbara Niemeyer, Römisches Silber aus Ägypten in Berlin.   Berlin:  Walter de Gruyter, 2001.  Pp. 91.  ISBN 3-11-017231-3.  DM 97,90.  

Contributors: Additional text by William Brashear and Brigitte Galsterer.

Reviewed by John Tamm, McMaster University (
Word count: 2160 words

Between 1898 and 1907, the Berlin Antikenmuseum acquired three "treasures" of silverware, found in Egypt in the late 1800s. Egypt has, surprisingly, provided far fewer examples of Roman silverware than one might expect; the forty-six pieces described in this book make up a significant proportion of the total sum. The Hermopolis (mostly first century AD), Karnak (mostly second to early third century AD), and Memphis (sixth to early seventh century AD) treasures consist mainly of eating silver, with some drinking silver and at least one votive. After various travails -- wars, partition, successful and not-so-successful attempts at conservation and restoration -- the pieces are now reunited in the Antikenmuseum. Some are well-known, but for many this is the first thorough publication; for a few it is in fact the initial publication.

At the book's core is Mielsch's (M.) comprehensive catalogue of the pieces. Surrounding and supplementing this core are a general introductory chapter, also by M., a chapter on the inscriptions carried by some of the Hermopolis vessels, by Brashear (B.) and Galsterer (G.), and chapters detailing production techniques and efforts at conservation and restoration, both by Niemeyer (N.). The text is generally clear, readable, and thorough; numerous photographs and drawings, profile and otherwise, illustrate the vessels. The silverware specialist, at whom this book is clearly aimed, will not be disappointed.

The introductory chapter effectively introduces the three treasures and sets them into a broader context. The circumstances of the discovery of each treasure and its acquisition by the Berlin Antikenmuseum are discussed as fully as possible; unfortunately, these are not always as clear as one would wish: the Hermopolis treasure, allegedly the better-preserved remnant of a larger group, was purchased from a dealer (p. 5), the Memphis treasure came through a private collection in Berlin, with Thebes claimed as the origin (p. 18). Presumably, these were originally parts of domestic services. The Karnak treasure was found in the temple precinct; one vessel seems quite clearly to have been a votive, while a few more may have been. The remainder is again table silver, possibly that used by the priests (pp. 12-13).

Chronology is an important issue. The absence of proper contexts for the Hermopolis and Memphis finds means that stylistic considerations and comparisons with other silver vessels, with all their disadvantages, must be relied upon. The suggested dates are, however, reasonable. The Karnak find included some gold coins, the latest of which were dated to AD 217/8 (p. 12). At least a terminus post quem was thereby supplied for the deposition of this group. Furthermore, this late date combined with the apparent presence of votive silver suggests, to M., continuance of cult practices at the site for longer than previously believed (p. 12).

Another important consideration is the place of production. As M. rightly reminds the reader (p. 4), with such valuable and easily portable items the findspot does not necessarily say anything about origins. Nor do the pieces found in Egypt possess any special characteristics that would absolutely demand production in Egypt (pp. 20-1). Nonetheless at least some pieces may well be Egyptian work; the treasures would therefore provide at least a glimpse of the development of the silversmith's craft in Egypt, a craft, moreover, that appears to have persisted well into Late Antiquity.

It is interesting to note that, leaving aside the apparently purpose-made votives, most of the pieces are of eating silver: dishes, bowls, platters and the like. Conceivably, some of the bowls could have been used as drinking vessels, and some of the pieces could have served more as display pieces. Of drinking silver proper there are only the fragments of two (or more) jugs and the handles from a cup; these come from Karnak. Elsewhere in the Roman world it tends to be the case that silver drinking vessels appear less frequently after the first century AD; these Egyptian treasures seem to follow this pattern.

A few points are presented by M. as if settled, whereas the reader should be made aware that there are alternatives. The Aquileia dish may have been a special commission for Mark Antony and Cleopatra, and so dated to the 30s BC (p. 2), but this is not certain. Other interpretations place the dish as late as the mid-first century AD.1 Second, the figure seated on the sella curulis on the cup from Meroe, showing a judgement scene, is presented as Augustus (p. 3). Such precise identification of figures on silverware would be tricky at best, even were the vessel in better condition than it is. That there was an Augustan style is not in doubt, but one may ask whether anyone who resembles Augustus, even in passing, must therefore be Augustus. Could the resemblance not just be a function of the style? The sella curulis and tribunal suggest a Roman magistrate, which is perhaps as far as one should press the issue.2 Lastly, mention is made of a fragmentary papyrus from Egypt, (BGU III, #781) which appears to contain a listing of one individual's silverware holdings, packaged up and handed over for safekeeping. The importance of the papyrus lies not only in the detailed inventory it gives of a collection of eating silver, but also in the fact that some of the pieces are identified as having been made in Egypt, in the Arsinoite nome. This papyrus was originally dated to the first century AD, and many scholars have maintained a first-century date.3 Here the papyrus is dated to the second century, without further comment (p. 4). Given its general importance and relevance, a fuller explanation of this dating would have been helpful.

M.'s catalogue makes up the second chapter. Each piece is thoroughly described: measurements, condition, decoration and inscriptions if present, production and decoration techniques, proposed dating, previous bibliography. Each piece is also accompanied by at least one photograph, and often more, located both here and elsewhere in the book. A profile drawing of each piece is included; scales vary from 1:1 to 1:3. Any inscriptions present are also illustrated, again here or elsewhere in the book, either by a photograph or a drawing; these drawings range in scale from 1:1 to 1:4. Throughout the book the photographs seem a shade dark, but this may be partly a function of the condition of the silverware itself; they are otherwise of good quality.

The text goes awry in one entry, for Cat. 24. This is a large plate from the Karnak treasure, with a figural frieze decorating the rim. The text describing this frieze (p. 37) begins by stating that it is subdivided into four longer and four shorter sections by pairs of masks: "Der Randfries ist durch an Altäre gelehnte Masken in vier längere und vier kürzere Abschnitte unterteilt." As the following text, the accompanying detail photographs on pp. 35-36, and the general photograph on p. 14 make clear, however, there are only three pairs of masks, and accordingly only three longer and three shorter subdivisions of the frieze.

Chapter 3 is concerned only with the Hermopolis vessels, more specifically, with the inscriptions present on a few of the pieces. B.'s section examines the highly unusual ink inscriptions, in Greek, present on the medallion dishes Cat. 3-4. Included are drawings of the texts, at scales of 1:3 and 1:2 respectively, along with transcriptions and commentary. They appear to register weight and ownership; given their complexity and the nature of the cursive script, reproductions on a larger scale along with some explanation of the transcription would have been helpful. The presence of a date in Cat. 3 is unusual; M. accordingly raised the intriguing possibility in his introductory chapter (p. 10) that at least these vessels may themselves have been pawned or handed over to someone for safekeeping. We would, therefore, be seeing a parallel for what the aforementioned papyrus suggests.

In the second part of the chapter, G. examines the inscriptions, added in the more standard methods of engraving or punching, present on the small bowls Cat. 6-11 and the two small plates Cat. 19-20. The inscriptions are written in Latin, carefully added name (Cat. 19-20) or name and weight indications (Cat. 9, 10, maybe 11), and Greek, more cursorily inscribed characters (Cat. 6, 7, 11). G.'s suggestions (p. 56) are attractive: the name and weight inscriptions were added by the producers, and served as guarantees of weight and number both in the workshop and while in transit, while the Greek characters should be taken as indications of number, added in the owner's household and serving as internal inventory controls. Interesting too are the hints of quantities provided by the inscriptions on Cat. 9-10: these belonged to sets of 24 and 8 bowls respectively.

Chapter 4 looks at the various production and decoration techniques observed on the vessels in the treasures. As a full range appears to have been used, the chapter becomes a useful compendium of, and primer on, metalworking techniques. After this summary, a few specific pieces are singled out for further discussion, illustrating how various of the techniques were combined to make the finished product.

Some confusion appears to have crept into the text in the section on lathe-work, entitled "Drehen und Drücken" (pp. 59-60). The first paragraph establishes that "Drehen" is a technique that can result in the removal of metal: "Das Drehen ist ein spanabhebender Vorgang, bei dem Material vom Ausgangsprodukt abgetragen wird." The second paragraph deals with "Drücken", characterised as "...eine spanlose Verformung, oft über einem Holzkern" -- thus "spinning", a process in which metal is not removed. Further on in this paragraph comes the sentence "Beim Drehen bleibt also alles Material erhalten." Given the context, "Drücken" would appear to be the appropriate word.

The last chapter deals with the various efforts at conservation and restoration of the pieces in the treasures. Some work was carried out soon after the finds arrived in Berlin; however, little documentation of this exists. In general, lacunae were eliminated by the addition of new silver, and attempts were made to remove surface deposits; both processes sometimes caused additional damage to the pieces. Many pieces, however, were not treated at all, and therefore remained in the condition in which they were found. In 1992 came the start of the second main phase of conservation and restoration work. It was decided to remove much of the previous work, especially that which could cause further damage or obscured the decorations; metal support frameworks and the silver supplements were kept as they were deemed useful documentation of the earlier conservation work. An analysis of the silver content in the vessels was not performed as the amount of corrosion was deemed sufficient to skew any test results. Atomic absorption analysis was performed on a fragment found in a storeroom, which confirmed a suspicion that it belonged with the Hermopolis group. However, this is a destructive test, rendering it rather unattractive for general use. After these more general introductory comments, further details of the actual processes employed are given. These included chemical and mechanical removal of copper and silver corrosion products, the bonding of fragments and fragmentary vessels using various resins and materials, the restoration of lacunae, and the application of an acrylic resin varnish over all pieces to protect them from atmospheric pollutants.

To close the chapter, each piece in the treasures is re-examined from the point of view of conservation and restoration work. The condition of the piece in 1992 is given, and any changes from the condition noted when the piece first came to the museum. All work on the piece is then noted. This is a detailed treatment; the reader is left with a clear picture of this important but often underemphasised aspect of museum work. The chapter as a whole also serves as a salutary reminder that the decisions and processes of one day may yet, in the future, prove inadequate or even undesirable.

A few final quibbles. Some endnote numbers are missing from the text: Chapter 1 number 34, and Chapter 5 numbers 6, 7, and 14. The endnotes themselves are present, and their position in the text can be worked out roughly; nonetheless, proofreading should have caught these slips. Other slips occur mainly in the endnotes: inconsistent referencing formats, missing or inconsistent punctuation, and some typos. Many may well pass unnoticed; none affects the meaning of the text.

On the whole, the authors should be commended for their work. It should be stressed that the criticisms made above are mainly concerned with relatively minor matters; even the few more serious points, with the exception of the confusion in the description of Cat. 24, arise from discussions of supplementary material and are meant to show that the situation is more complex than the text here suggests. The pieces are comprehensively discussed and well situated in terms of context; the additional material on technical matters, both in terms of original production and modern conservation, is equally thorough. The book is an excellent example of its kind.


1.   See e.g. L. Pirzio Biroli Stefanelli, L'Argento dei Romani (Rome, 1991) 258 Cat. 33 (with previous bibliography); A. Bernhard-Walcher et al., Trésors des Empereurs d'Autriche (Vienna 1994) 87 Cat. 148.
2.   For an adventurous attempt at identifying specific Julio-Claudians on silverware, including the Meroe cup: C. Vermeule, 'Augustan and Julio-Claudian Court Silver.' Antike Kunst 6 (1963), 33-40. A different interpretation of the Meroe cup, with a review of previous scholarship: F. Burkhalter, J. Arce, 'La coupe de Méroé. Une nouvelle étude iconographique et historique.' Bulletin de Correspondance Hellénique 108 (1984), 407-23.
3.   The notice in BGU III, #781 (by F. Krebs) gives just the first-century AD for the date; the detailed publication of F. Drexel, 'Ein ägyptisches Silberinventar der Kaiserzeit.' Römische Mitteilungen 36/7 (1921/2), 34, follows this dating, justifying it on the basis of the letterforms. The more recent publication of A. Oliver, Jr. and J. Shelton, 'Silver on Papyrus. A translation of a Roman Silver tableware inventory.' Archaeology 32.1 (1979), 22, further narrows this down, again on the basis of the letterforms, to the mid-first century AD. I note, however, that the entry in the PHI #7 (Greek inscriptions and papyri) CD-ROM does give the date as first/second century AD.

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