BMCR 1998.10.14

Isthmia: Excavations by the University of Chicago under the Auspices of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens: Vol VII, The Metal Objects (1952-1989)

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This deceptively slender volume is a monumental work, containing 616 catalogue-entries, often represented by multiple fragments which probably belong together, and 873 more items listed in 14 appendices. The objects are made of bronze, lead, iron, silver, gold, or copper (though analyses of the two items in the last category — nos. 43 and 275 — will no doubt reveal that they are bronze). There are bits and pieces of statues, statuettes, vessels, jewelry, belts, wreaths, tripods, horse trappings and chariot-parts, spoons, spatulas, mirror-handles, needles, buttons, hooks, hoes, strigils, door-pulls, sockets, nails, clamps, dowels, rings, a drain cover, furniture-parts, and odd bits of lead. Coins are not included. The text is the result of work done by Isabelle Raubitschek over many years until her death in 1988. Even her extensive working bibliography is included, updated by A. E. Raubitschek, whose careful attention to this volume over the past ten years was instrumental in seeing the manuscript through to publication this year.

The objects come from the temenos around the Temple of Poseidon and from fills washed down from the temenos (dated from the 9th century B.C. to the Roman period), from a shrine on the ridge at the south side of the temenos (6th C. B.C. to 200 B.C.), and from a 4th-century-B.C. hero-shrine west of the sanctuary. They were excavated over a period of nearly forty years — from 1952, when Oscar Broneer began full-scale excavations, through the years of work by Paul Clement (1967-1986), followed by Ohio State University (1988), and by Elizabeth Gebhard (1989). The addition of material from the 1989 excavations makes for slight confusion (a catalogue number followed simply by vacat means that an object has been removed from where I.R. had catalogued it and placed elsewhere), as do Gebhard’s hasty preface and note on the organization, which occasionally contradict one another or I.R.’s actual text.

The nine chapters are arranged according to the different types of objects: sculptures and statuettes; vases; jewelry; tripods; horse trappings and chariot fixtures; household articles; tools; metal fixtures; and lead. Each entry has, at a minimum, dimensions, findspot, and page references to the excavation notebook. Because of the nature of the organization, the same as in G.R. Davidson’s Corinth. XII: The Minor Objects (1952), objects found together are sometimes separated, such as a bronze arm (no. 18) and two handles (nos. 72 and 81), but there are careful references to where each item appears in the volume. The arrangement of entries within each chapter is chronological, rather than by material, though the metal of almost every piece is given in the catalogue heading. All of the catalogued objects are illustrated, as are some of those listed in the appendices; the many drawings by A. E. Raubitschek and P. Collet are superb and help very much to clarify the appearance of objects in poor condition. The objects which altogether defy identification tend to appear in the chapters on metal fixtures and on lead.

With this volume, I.R. has done the groundwork for all future research and publication of the metal objects from Isthmia. Her brief explanatory paragraphs are packed with fascinating information, and she provides extensive references to parallels for all classes of the Isthmia metal objects, very few of which have been published previously. A. E. Raubitschek has intentionally seen that the text be left as it was written, so the book remains I.R.’s meticulous work, rather than that of the editors. Do not expect to find all the references or to be presented with broad conclusions about the various categories of material: this book makes the material available; it is the readers’ responsibility to use the material as a springboard for their own work, to find more parallels, and to begin to discover some of the answers to the important questions addressed in virtually every chapter of this book.

There are fascinating finds, such as a lead garlic bulb (no. 40), and an inscribed bronze wheel dedicated to Poseidon (no. 41), both entries accompanied by extensive bibliographies. And a small bronze boat with passengers (no. 36) has terracotta parallels from the site. To the bibliography here might be added the entry for this boat (and others like it) in A Voyage into Time and Legend Aboard the Kyrenia Ship (Athens, 1987); for “Thimme 1980” substitute “Thimme 1983.” I.R. did not have a chance to standardize all of the terminology, but readers can easily see that an “omphalos phiale” is the same thing as a “mesomphalic phiale” (pp. 21-22). We might also identify the “thick cloth” over the shoulder of a bronze statuette (no. 17) as a “mantle,” or substitute “fringes” for a few of the “eyelashes” (pp. 8-9).

Although no bases for bronze statues have yet been found at Isthmia, nos. 606-609 are lead dowels that were used to fix bronzes in their stone bases. For a recent survey of this subject, see Frank Willer, “Beobachtungen zur Sockelung von bronzenen Statuen und Statuetten,” BJb. 196 (1996) 337-370. No bronze foundries have yet been uncovered at Isthmia, but there is plenty of evidence for the presence of that industry somewhere near the excavated site. A rock-cut reservoir near the southwest corner of the temenos of Poseidon, filled by the end of the 5th century B.C., contains workshop debris. I.R. follows Rostoker and Gebhard (Hesperia 49, 1980) in mistakenly referring to “risers and gates” rather than “vents and gates” (American usage) or “runners and risers” (British usage), but she is quite right to observe that miscasts are a sure sign of local manufacture. Many objects provide technical information, like the fragmentary panther (no. 89) which still contains the lead that was used to solder it to a vessel.

Throughout her book, I.R. discusses the problems associated with attempting to define a local Isthmian/Corinthian style. Few would question that an Archaic vase-rim inscribed with the ethnic Solygeiatas (no. 48) makes the dedicator a local. But she cautions against identifying a goat (no. 52) as Corinthian when 20 similar goats have been found, not all of them surely from the Peloponnesos, let alone from the Corinthia. I.R. also mentions the pitfalls in trying to define a local Archaic style for vases when literary testimonia mentioning Corinthian production refer to the Roman period. Identical cast lead juglets from Isthmia (no. 116) and from Corinth (unpublished; uncatalogued[?]) are intriguing evidence for a workshop that served both sites. And an Archaic lead kouros from Isthmia (no. 14) and its twin at Nemea (no. IL 201) may not define a local style, but they are compelling evidence for the extent of sales by a (presumably) local workshop. Along the same line, a Geometric tripod-leg (no. 295) with a close parallel at Olympia calls into question whether scholars should even try to assign a particular style to a city. Or, once measured against Olympia B 4350, no. 295 may tell us something about whether two workshops used the same model, or simply adhered to the same general specifications for design. A bronze pyxis from Isthmia (no. 94) carries the investigation of workshop practices further: because this pyxis resembles earlier terracotta pyxides from Corinth, it shows that within a given style the medium is interchangeable, and suggests that here, as in sculpture, we must use caution in associating the emergence of styles with particular media. Had she had the time, I.R. would no doubt have pursued this interesting question further, for she contributes more than once to the discussion by citing a number of important parallels between bronzes and terracottas.

The jewelry from Isthmia ranges in date from proto-Geometric to Byzantine, and includes straight pins, fibulae, belt-buckles, finger-rings, earrings, beads, pendants, anklets, and wreaths. Included with “various decorative pieces” like disks, bands, and rosettes, is an exquisite Archaic draped male incised on a bronze sheet: he holds a dolphin and wears a wreath, which looks like celery (no. 294). “Open bronze circuits” (nos. 254-258) could be anything from earrings to chariot fixtures, and I.R. leaves the question open. But objects like the bronze celery leaves from victors’ wreaths (nos. 272-274) surely gave I.R. delightful moments as she worked on this vast project.

In the chapter on tripods, I. R. demonstrates her facility in dealing with puzzling fragments by her convincing identifications of the scaly necks of griffin and siren protomes. Two beautiful horseheads included in the section on rod-tripod stands (nos. 326A-B: found together), recall the horses on the Vix krater, and the photographs suggest that they were based upon a single model or drawing, but that the waxes for them were individualized. The two horseheads were surely used to adorn the same vessel.

Horse trappings and chariot fixtures — bits, blinkers, wheel-parts, and wheel- and axle-bindings, bolts, rings, and clamps — come from all over the site. I.R. discusses the history of bits at some length, and she would have liked A. Hyland’s, Equus: The Horse in the Roman World (London, 1990), or a harder-to-find book: J. Spruytte, Early Harness Systems, trans. M. Littauer (London, 1983).

Fragmentary household articles and tools are always difficult to identify — at Isthmia we see whorls and hooks, styli, spatulas, axes-adzes-mattocks, hooks and hoes (I.R. wonders if the latter are really ancient), weights, fishhooks, and more than 90 strigils. I.R. shows great ingenuity in her efforts to trace the development of the strigil. She wonders whether all of the “furniture fixtures” actually belong to furniture, and finds it nearly impossible to say whether most of the bronze and iron architectural fixtures were attached to wood or to stone. Other bronze and iron fixtures — eyelets and staples — could have been used on wood, metal, leather, or heavy cloth. And there are lead clamps and lead strips, even a bronze that may be a rectangular drain cover (no. 524).

Ch. 9 deals with lead objects that cannot be identified. Interested readers might wish to consult C. E. Conophagos, Le Laurium antique et la technique grecque de la production de l’argent (Athens, 1980) on the subject of extraction. At Isthmia, there are ingots with varying shapes, with weights that seem to be fractions of the 29-kilo talent. Incised or cast letters are so far mystifying, as are painted red letters. I.R. observes that similar “ingots” at other sites are identified variously, as “bars,” “tools,” even “pencils.” But she hopes that these pieces will “add to our knowledge of how ancient architects, artists, and artisans worked” (p. 157).

I.R.’s extensive and objective presentation of the vast array of metal objects from Isthmia will be of great value to anyone working with ancient metals and metal objects. Isthmia VII is in the tradition of G. R. Davidson’s Corinth. XII: The Minor Objects (1952). Compendia like these require incredible efforts on the part of the authors and the editors, but they are invaluable, and should be among the publications of all major excavations.

To I.R.’s vast working bibliography, we might now add C. Rolley, “Les Bronzes Grecs et Romains: Recherches Recentes” (RA 1988, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996); H. Kyrieleis, “Samos and Some Aspects of Archaic Greek Bronze Casting,” in Small Bronze Sculpture from the Ancient World (Malibu, 1990) 15-30; W.-D. Heilmeyer, “Giessereibetriebe in Olympia,” (JdI 84, [1969]) 1-27; F Johansen, Greece in the Archaic Period (Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, 1994); and I Vokotopoulou, Ellenike techne: Argyra kai Chalkina Erga Technes (Athens, 1997).