BMCR 2010.12.27

The Power of Technology in the Bronze Age Eastern Mediterranean: The Case of the Painted Plaster. Monographs in Mediterranean Archaeology 12

, The Power of Technology in the Bronze Age Eastern Mediterranean: The Case of the Painted Plaster. Monographs in Mediterranean Archaeology 12. London/Oakville: Equinox, 2008. xiv, 258; figs. 36; tables 28. ISBN 9781845534332 $100.00.

This book is based on the author’s dissertation (University of Glasgow 2004) and on her recent papers about the materials and techniques of Bronze Age wall paintings. While the title emphasizes the ‘power of technology in the Bronze Age eastern Mediterranean’, the originality of the book relies on its subtitle, the ‘painted plaster’, where the author has to offer first-hand observations. As claimed in the introduction, Brysbaerst’s prime interest is to provide new insights into the whole tissue of interaction between human and social agency, technological production, and the transfer of knowledge within the eastern Mediterranean, through a multidisciplinary approach. Furthermore, the author argues that her present work combines issues of iconography, technology and style, moving a step forward from the traditional stylistic and iconographic studies.

The volume is structured in two parts. Part I (chapters 1 to 4) offers the theoretical and methodological background of the study by assembling existing ideas on the craft specialization in the Late Bronze Aegean and eastern Mediterranean, with an emphasis on the suggested role of the artisans, on the different stages of production, their organization in groups and their ‘social identities’. Part II (chapters 5 to 8) is dedicated to the presentation of her experimental work and the archaeometric results as they pertain to painted plaster samples, the subsequent interpretation of which leads the author to propose a transfer of technological knowledge from west to east, diverging from the established east-west influence of iconographic motifs. What creates some confusion in the structure of the book is that the author anticipates discussions in Part I that should have normally been developed after the demonstration of the results provided by her case study, in Part II. Consequently, there are several overlapping discussions and the reader should be prepared to skip back and forth between the various chapters for a complete picture.

In her first chapter “A Tale of Frescoes” (pp. 1-14), Brysbaert presents a broad overview of the research conducted so far in the field of Bronze Age wall painting studies; however, there are cases where the bibliography needs to be updated and there are several technological studies missing, as already indicated by A. M. Meier.1

In chapter 2, “The Power of Technology, Knowledge and Social Agency” (pp. 15-44), the author emphasizes how our understanding of the role of ‘human action’ may shed more light on questions regarding personal motivation and technological transfer. The discussion moves on to the social organization of the artisans and their identities, relying mostly on previous works dealing with interconnections between crafts, society and craftsmen’s mobility within an eastern Mediterranean koine. ‘Traditional’ questions, such as the estimation of the artisans’ full-time or part-time work, their attachment to elites or their independent status, and the transmission of their knowledge over time, are further ramified.

The third chapter, “Technological style and the Power of Technology and Knowledge” (pp. 45-51), stresses the necessity of combining issues of iconography, technology and style in order to appreciate the production of wall paintings in a holistic way.

In chapter 4, “Archaeometric Approaches to Technologies and Materials” (pp. 52-76), Brysbaert discusses the methodology followed both for the technological examination of the painted plaster and replication work. The author also describes the instrumental and analytical techniques on which she relied for the identification of the painting materials.

In her fifth chapter “Painted Plaster in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean”(pp.77-110), Brysbaert provides for each site useful information above archaeological contexts and the importance of the examined material. The author tackles the role of painted plaster in the Eastern Mediterranean, underlining its primary technological and practical aspect.

Chapter 6, “Analyzed to Bits: Technological and Iconographic Transfer” (pp. 111-146), considers results obtained through the scientific investigation of painted plaster samples, by dividing them into six sections, according to the method of analysis employed. Although most of the results in this chapter are already known from the author’s previous works, it is very convenient to have them assembled together here.

In chapter 7, “Considering Material Culture and Social Identities” (pp. 147-185), Brysbaert attempts to interpret more thoroughly the data presented in the previous chapter and to demonstrate that the direction of technological transfer is from west to east, heavily relying on the assumption that the of a fresco technique was practiced in the east (at Tell el-Dab’a).

Finally, chapter 8 “Technology and Social Agency of Painted Plaster” (pp. 186-198), seeks to place this study in its broader context and to illuminate the importance of technology and trade in the Late Bronze Age eastern Mediterranean. The author emphasizes the elite context of the examined wall paintings, in and outside the Aegean, and the importance of elite gift-giving during the Middle and Late Bronze Age in the broader eastern Mediterranean.

The most original aspects in Brysbaest’s work are both her personal involvement in the in situ selection and analysis of painted plaster samples, and their wide-ranging provenance from 16 sites on Crete (Knossos, Palaikastro, Monastiraki, Myrtos-Pyrgos), the Cyclades (Phylakopi), the Greek mainland (Mycenae, Tiryns, Thebes, Gla, Orchomenos) and the eastern Mediterranean (Alalakh, Hattusha, Qatna, Tell Sakka, Tel Kabri, Tell el-Dab’a), covering a wide chronological span and allowing for comparisons regarding technological achievements and cross-cultural contacts. There are, however, some problems which need to be pointed out.

While Brysbaert stresses the ‘strongly interdisciplinary approach’ in her work, she has done no analysis intended to detect organic substances that could provide evidence for a secco painting techniques. The author’s argumentation (p. 56-57 and 119) that traces of organic binding media do not survive and may not be recognized by current scientific methods of investigation such as GC-MS (Gas Chromatography – Mass Spectrometry) is no longer the case. The results of recent publications of wall paintings from both Egypt2 and the Greek mainland3 have securely demonstrated that a secco painting techniques were employed during the Bronze Age, using egg, animal glue and vegetable gums (tragacanth and fruit tree gums) as binders.

In the ‘sampling strategy’ we may detect an inconsistency with the book’s overall aim. Although the author is constantly supporting the intersection between iconography, style and technology, she has chosen to examine samples on the strict basis of their physical colour, and structure, without any consideration of their iconographic context and artistic style. Brysbaert’s argument for doing this is based on the obvious reasoning that no samples should be taken from areas where iconographic elements are preserved. However, the major advantages of recent non-destructive analytical techniques (XRF, XRD, RAMAN, FTIR) rely precisely on the possibilities they offer to make unlimited numbers of analyses on the surface of the wall paintings, without causing the slightest damage. We do, therefore, have the potential to broaden our technical investigations by identifying pigments within specific pictorial compositions and then further to speculate about the choice and value of materials and colours within their social contexts.

In her pigment analysis I would like to draw attention on a few points of particular interest. The common gamut of pigments (including calcite for the whites, carbon black, iron based ochres for yellow and red hues, and Egyptian blue) is further enriched with additional pigments: riebeckite, pyrolusite and green earth, whose choice must have been related to their local provenance, and a few unusual pigments including lapis lazuli and an organic purple. The author’s observations about the composition of Egyptian blue are particularly interesting: she convincingly demonstrates that the percentage of tin content in copper indicates that recycled ‘bronze’ scraps were used as a source for the copper in the Egyptian blue samples she examined, and that this evidence may further support the notion that this pigment was produced in the Aegean (pp. 134-139). Chronological outlines for the use of riebeckite (a dark blue iron-containing variety from the family of alkali amphiboles which occur in metamorphic rocks) are also interesting, but the author includes in her discussion results that are uncertain, such as the presence of riebeckite in samples from the Greek mainland. Furthermore, the use of riebeckite at Miletus may not necessarily form ‘a great indicator for material transfer’ (p. 134), since blue amphiboles are present in sediments of the southern coast and northwest Turkey.4

The most potentially exciting analytical result is the identification of grains of lapis lazuli within a purple paint layer from Gla (p. 133). It is a pity, though, that the author does not discuss more extensively such an extraordinary case and does not provide an adequate photographic documentation of the paint layer. Indeed, the fact that lapis lazuli was detected only in grains within a mixture of hematite and a purple organic pigment is puzzling. I wonder why and under which circumstances a Bronze Age painter would chose to include this expensive material within a mixture. Could the use of lapis within an artistic context have been somehow connected to the great number of Kassite lapis lazuli seals found in Thebes?

The author’s assumption that the grain size of the pigments may be used as an indicator for connections between various sites, and also to suggest ‘less labour’ in the cases where pigments are coarser, is not convincing (pp. 151-152). Grain size is usually a function of the desired hue and a pigment’s properties. On the contrary, the practice in both Knossos and Miletus of the uncommon mixture of riebeckite and hematite to produce purple may be used as an argument to suggest a possible transfer of knowledge, as the author maintains (p. 154).

In so far as the application of pigments is concerned, the author is convinced that the a fresco technique was the one broadly used and she believes that a secco painting was limited to additions only. Such an assumption, however, may not be sustained only by macroscopic observations and by stratigraphic study of cross sections. Further analytical investigation using chromatographic techniques is required in order to prove the extent of the fresco technique on the examined wall paintings, since the author is using as her major argument the practice of a fresco in Eastern Mediterranean wall paintings to support the transfer of technology from west to east.

To conclude: this book assembles a great deal of information about the technology of wall paintings during the second millennium B.C. in the Aegean and the eastern Mediterranean (the reader would, however, have wished to find a more generous and higher quality set of illustrations). Furthermore, the problems Brysbaert poses are stimulating and, although not always treated in depth, she proposes original ways of approaching a more inclusive study of ancient wall paintings.

The book is rounded out with a glossary and a general index.


1. Arien M. Maeir, The power of technology in the Bronze Age eastern Mediterranean: the case of the painted plaster, by A. Brysbaert (Monographs in Mediterranean archaeology 12), London (2008), American Journal of Archaeology 114.3 (July 2010). Book Review.

2. R. Newman and S. M. Halpine, “The binding media of ancient Egyptian painting. In: W. V. Davis (ed.), Colour and Painting in Ancient Egypt, London 2001: 22-32; R. Stacey, “Paint media and varnishes”. In: A. Middleton and K. Uprichard (eds), The Nebamun wall paintings. Conservation, Scientific Analysis and Display at the British Museum, London 2008: 51-60.

3. I. Bonaduce, H. Brecoulaki, M. P. Colombini, A. Luveras, V. Restivo and E. Ribechini, “Gas chromatographic-mass spectrometric characterization of plant gums in samples from painted works of art”, Journal of Chromatography A, 1176 (2007), 275-282; H. Brecoulaki, C. Zaitoun, J. Davis, Sh. Stocker, “An archer from the palace of Nestor. A New Wall-painting Fragment in the Chora Museum”, Hesperia 77 (2008) 363-397.

4. M. A. Mange-Rajetzky, “Detrital blue sodic amphibole in Recent sediments, southern coast, Turkey”, Journal of the Geological Society v. 138 no. 1 (February 1981): 83-92.