BMCR 2022.04.07

Late antique metalware. The production of copper alloy vessels between the 4th to 8th centuries

, Late antique metalware. The production of copper alloy vessels between the 4th to 8th centuries: the Benaki Museum collection and related material. Bibliothèque de l'Antiquité Tardive, 37. Turnhout: Brepols, 2021. Pp. 410. ISBN 9782503569413. €85,00.

The study of late antique copper alloy vessels has lagged behind that of silver, ceramic, and glasswares. This book provides firm foundations for future study in the area by contextualising the substantial late antique copperwork collections in the Benaki Museum within the wider scholarship on crafts in the period. The focus of the volume is largely on vessels, as the title suggests, but this is interpreted liberally and substantial discussion of allied artefacts, such as ladles and dining implements, is also included. Other copper alloy items in the Benaki (e.g. medical instruments) are briefly mentioned but not treated in detail.

The state of the field creates a thorny problem: how can we study copper alloy vessels when we still lack a thorough typology of vessel forms for the period? Additionally, objects in museum collections, like the one discussed here, often do not have any archaeological context, though details of the Benaki Collection’s acquisition suggests that most of the material comes from Egypt and/or Nubia, and stylistic considerations indicate a date between the 4th and 8th centuries CE. Drandaki responds to these challenges by attempting to develop a chronological framework primarily through comparison with vessels excavated in Nubia, supplemented with items from datable hoards, graves, and other contexts elsewhere. She also draws useful parallels with forms in other materials.

Part 1 (Type of vessels: typology, manufacture, distribution, dating, function and terminology), which makes up most of the volume, comprises 14 chapters discussing vessels grouped according to their forms. The resulting systematic review of a series of different vessel forms naturally relies heavily on technical language, but the prose remains clear and highly readable. This part of the book also integrates evidence from texts and iconography and attempts to untangle ancient from modern terminologies, with some interesting implications for our understanding of vessel uses. The insights arising from this section are too numerous to repeat here, and I shall restrict myself to commenting on a few of the most important themes.

The discussion begins with various types of bowls (Chapters 1-6). Many of these vessels were probably used for different kinds of food serving (e.g. the small bowls discussed in Chapter 1, the three-footed bowls in Chapter 2, and perhaps the pedestalled bowls in Chapter 3). Others, however, such as handled pans (Chapter 4) or bowls with moveable handles (Chapter 6) may also have been used for handwashing, while spouted bowls (Chapter 5) could have been used for mixing and serving foods, cosmetics or even medicines. Two chapters stand out in this section. Chapter 1 provides some interesting insights into the role of tinning either for decorative purposes or to prevent verdigris (copper oxidation) poisoning on dining vessels. Chapter 6 is particularly valuable as it provides a re-examination of the well-known problem of “Coptic” basins, a class of hemispherical, handled bowls attested across Western Europe, and attributed by past scholars on stylistic grounds to Egyptian workshops. Drandaki’s technical reassessment of internal evidence of the metalwork itself alongside the external evidence provided by grave chronologies and other findspots shows convincingly that this is not the case. Instead, Drandaki argues, so-called “Coptic” metalwork reflects a natural development of metalworking traditions across Western Europe which sought to supply goods to meet the cultural needs of local elites.

Chapter 7, on ewers and bottles, situates these vessels within a range of possible uses, including in liturgical rites, dining, handwashing, or bathing. The treatment of ewers is accompanied with a fruitful consideration of sets recovered in archaeological contexts. For example, the appearance of a bowl with moveable handles and an ewer in a grave at Nocera Umbra (p.119) could suggest that these items were used together.

Next comes a discussion of items for serving and eating. Chapter 8 examines ladles and contextualises these objects within a lengthy tradition stretching back to the Classical period. Drandaki concludes that ladles were probably used for serving food; while some of the examples in the Benaki bear Christian iconography, this does not necessarily mean that they were liturgical implements. Chapter 9 discusses the Benaki Museum’s modest collection of dining implements (one spoon and two strainers). Perhaps the most interesting observation here is on the history of the fork, which challenges received wisdom that this kind of implement was not widespread until the late Middle Ages; Drandaki makes a strong argument for the adoption of the fork and its continual use from the 1st century CE onwards. Separately, a sensible consideration of possible functionality suggests that different types of strainers existed for serving wine and for removing impurities from wine that was already poured.

The following three chapters discuss various kinds of items related to bathing and/or care of the body. Chapter 10, on buckets, discusses their potential for mixing wine or as part of a bathing set, while also noting the potential gendered implications of some running animal motifs, which recur on buckets with inscriptions referring to women and their families. Chapter 11 provides a capable overview of a range of different forms of amphoriskoi. Highlights include an interesting discussion of the working of twisting stopper tops for vessels, which underlines that the contents of these containers were probably rather valuable, and an examination of divergences between modern scholarly and ancient terminologies for these vessel types. Chapter 12 examines flasks and has considerable overlap with the previous chapter, though it also interrogates the significance of fish-shaped vessels in the wider context of late antique Christianity.

The final two chapters in this part of the book are longer than the others, reflecting the wealth of textual and iconographic material which can be brought to bear in the discussion of these objects. Chapter 13 discusses lighting devices, including lamps, polycandela, candelabra, and openwork lamp holders (perhaps used in conjunction with glass vessels), to provide insights into domestic and ecclesiastical lighting. Drandaki’s treatment of the almost bewildering array of different lamp types provides ample evidence for continuity or even appropriation of pagan motifs in late antique art. Moreover, she convincingly shows that the iconography of some of these objects interplays with the art of pilgrimage tokens to depict simple yet instantly recognisable key Christian figures and events. Chapter 14, on censers, situates these objects within a very long tradition of incense burning. One of the most interesting points made here is the suggestion that censers were not just used for religious purposes, but could also have been used to perfume, or even ‘spring clean,’ domestic spaces. As the author notes, however, not all objects discussed in this section served as censers per se, and some may have been small boxes for containing incense.

Part 2 (The production of copperwares) is composed of three chapters which build on the themes already outlined. Chapter 15 discusses a range of technical considerations. It opens by providing definitions of key alloys. Drandaki demonstrates that these alloys were chosen not just for technical reasons but for their aesthetic qualities too, and papyrological evidence shows there was a further distinction between different grades of material (e.g., cast and wrought copper). It is striking that within this context, individual parts of some objects were made using distinct alloys, which speaks to the care late antique craftspeople took during the manufacturing process. The same chapter then presents and analyses technical data from compositional analysis of various items in the Benaki Museum. Based on these data, Drandaki argues for a higher rate of recycling in late antiquity when compared with earlier Roman material. She argues that this may tally with a decline in mining activity, but adds that textual evidence indicates some new tin was still imported into Egypt from as far away as Cornwall into the early 7th century. This chapter closes by examining the technical and economic implications of various production and decorative techniques.

Chapter 16 synthesizes the extremely fragmentary archaeological, iconographic, and textual evidence for copper workshops, including the social implications of organisation into professional associations. Drandaki highlights the flexibility of terms for craftspeople even when discussing the same individual, even when there clearly was some trade specialisation. She suggests we should probably envisage an industry organised around a division between production workshops and the retail sector.

Chapter 17, perhaps the most important in the whole book, discusses vessel shapes and decoration. It opens with an acknowledgement of the flexibility of different vessel shapes, which may have seen a range of different uses, before moving to a re-examination of the relationship between silver and copper alloy vessels. Drandaki argues forcefully for copperware to be examined in its own terms, rather than simply as an imitation of more expensive silverwares. Silver items may have been more likely to be made to order, resulting in more individualised compositions, and different manufacturing techniques were employed when working with each of these materials. In her view, the quality of artisanship was more important than the actual materials used in the manufacture of copperwares. Drandaki also makes a convincing case that the iconography of many scenes on copper alloy vessels—which is often of a more generic, repetitive nature than that on silverware—is a part of the wider material culture of the period and not something which should be dismissed as a form of “lower class” or provincial art. She concludes by tackling the problem of comparative chronologies for copper alloy vessels. Drandaki suggests a solution to the apparent earlier appearance of forms in Egypt well before they are present in Western Europe through a process of parallel development based on earlier forms in different parts of the Roman and post-Roman world. This hypothesis deserves to be tested by further in-depth research.

The volume’s brief conclusions are followed by a descriptive catalogue with detailed line drawings or photographs of individual pieces, some of which are published here for the first time.

This is a valuable book. The lavish illustrations, both of the Benaki’s own collections and of a wide range of other materials from across the late and post-Roman world, provide clear contextualisation for the items published here, and readers can very much use this volume as a standalone resource. The volume’s translator, Valerie Nunn, should also be congratulated for producing an excellent and easy to follow English text. The only—minor—criticism from this reviewer is that the occasional extended passages of untranslated ancient Greek may prove challenging for some readers.