BMCR 2022.11.10

Die goldenen Siegelringe der Ägäischen Bronzezeit

, Die goldenen Siegelringe der Ägäischen Bronzezeit. Heidelberg: Heidelberg University Publishing, 2018. Pp. 666. ISBN 9783947732128 €54,90.

Open access

 

This monograph, which represents a modified version of a doctoral thesis submitted at the University of Heidelberg in 2016, aims at a comprehensive survey of the Minoan and Mycenaean golden signet rings. It deals with both real objects and imprints on clay which are—on the basis of several arguments (pp. 34–37)—likely to have derived from golden rings; about 350 pieces of evidence in total. In contrast to previous discussions, which for the most part concentrate on certain aspects, this work tries to understand golden rings in their entirety embracing technical, contextual, functional and iconographical analyses. As a consequence, conclusions about the function of these rings are drawn on a broad basis.

The monograph is divided into seven chapters. Chapter I provides a general introduction into the field introducing the material, the approach chosen and the methods used; it also gives a concise history of research. This chapter is followed by several analyses of different aspects: Chapter II deals with technical aspects and explains the development from the origin of simple stone and metal rings from the Early Bronze Age to the sophisticated golden examples of the late Middle/Late Bronze Age; golden signet rings are viewed (p. 57) as a Minoan invention at the beginning of the Neopalatial period, i.e. in the 17th century BC. The chapter discusses the exclusive material gold as well as the highly elaborated manufacturing techniques used to make the rings. It includes a revised and expanded typology (allowing for variations in type, size and decoration of bezels and hoops), which results in a more substantiated chronological classification of rings that lack a secure find context. Chapter III is devoted to the analysis of localities and find contexts. The geographical distribution patterns of the rings (concentrated on Knossos and its vicinity [in Crete] and on the Argolid with Mycenae as its centre and, to a lesser degree, on Pylos as the palatial centre of Messenia [on the Greek mainland], see pl. 2a–b on p. 22) hints at the strong link between ring owners and palatial centres. The important social role of ring owners in Minoan and Mycenaean palatial societies is further emphasized by the architectural setting of tombs and the range and quality of grave goods of burials in which rings came to light. In contrast to the rings themselves, impressions of signet rings are not found in burials but in contexts which allow insights into administrative processes (see pl. 3a–b on p. 23). As a consequence, Chapter IV provides a thorough functional analysis of these impressions including an overview of different types of sealings and detailed descriptions of palatial (in “Minoan” and “Mycenaean”) and non-palatial (only in “Minoan”) find contexts—unfortunately, plans are reproduced only occasionally. Changes in the chronological development are clearly highlighted. Finally, chapter V presents the repertoire of motifs and groups of motifs (ornaments, animals, human figures, objects) of the Minoan and Mycenaean golden rings. It aims at the visualisation of a chronological development of the different groups of motifs.

Chapter VI discusses features which allow—from the author’s point of view—for a clear differentiation between Minoan and Mycenaean signet rings. Although some arguments are certainly worth considering, not all rings—from the reviewer’s point of view—allow for a clear decision. In contrast to the (too) optimistic wording of the author, discussions among specialists show that it is not always possible to draw a clear, generally accepted demarcation line between “Minoan” and “Mycenaean” rings. And this is also true for other objects. For example, contrary to Becker, who follows Ellen Davis’ line of argumentation with regard to a “Minoan” golden cup from Vapheio and a “Mycenaean” one (pp. 296–297), others have convincingly argued for a Minoan provenance of both objects.[1]

The results of the technical, contextual, functional and iconographical analyses are presented in Chapter VII. In short, the author argues for different status groups within the group of ring owners, which belong to the economic, political and/or religious palatial elite of Minoan and Mycenaean societies. Becker views the use of certain motifs specific to groups as likely (see, e.g., arguments that rings with the motif of bull-leaping are likely to be used by officials of the palace of Knossos), although she has to admit that a direct relationship between the owner/user of a ring and the motif on the ring is difficult to document (see pp. 147–151 and tab. 2). The chapter includes a discussion on golden rings as prestige objects.

The main text is followed by a detailed catalogue (pp. 331–575), made up of descriptions both of signet rings (R1–R99) and of impressions of signet rings (A1–A252). It includes information on localities, find contexts, stylistic and contextual dating, technical details, iconography, and bibliographical references. The individual items are presented in a chronological order, which is not always in line with the dating favoured in CMS volumes: although the stylistic dating of some items is discussed in detail in Chapter VI, not all dates will find general agreement (see below). Within the chronological order the author seems to have favoured an arrangement according to motifs without making that clear. As a consequence, rings which are (convincingly) assigned to the same artist/workshop (see pp. 85–96) are not listed next to each other (see, e.g., R51/R67, R52/R87 and R62/R82). The catalogue concludes with a section of figures, which includes a drawing, an impression and views of the rings, and a drawing and a photo of the seal impressions, respectively. References, lists of figures, plates and tables and a concordance of Becker’s numbering and CMS numbers are found at the end of the monograph. Unfortunately, there is no concordance arranged by CMS numbers, which would have much improved the volume.

On the whole, this monograph provides a sound foundation for a thorough understanding of Minoan and Mycenaean golden signet rings, including their function both in administrative processes and as prestige objects of individual status groups. Most laudable is that Becker has compiled all the evidence including rings as well as impressions of rings. Among the more debateable aspects of the work are (1) the clear line drawn between Minoan and Mycenaean rings (see above) and (2) a generally unsupported sympathy for a LH III B2 dating (pp. 219–220) of some of the (non-preserved) signet rings used sphragistically in Mycenaean palaces (on the basis of their impressions), despite the fact that it is widely accepted that most, at least, of the sealings impressed by seals and all sealings impressed by rings, which have been found in LH III B2 (end of 13th century BC) destruction levels of Mycenaean palatial sites were impressed with seals and rings that were made (much) earlier in the Late Bronze Age.[2] The active use of non-contemporary seals and rings (termed ‘heirlooms’ for convenience but without modern connotations) has been widely observed in the Aegean Bronze Age ever since Arthur Evans; Becker’s reluctance to accept this phenomenon (pp. 115–116, 140–143, 219–226), which even leads her to doubt the LM I B dating of impressions from the golden signet rings known as ‘Knossos “replica” rings’ (pp. 228–237), is not clear to me.[3]

Other aspects which lead one to raise an eyebrow are: (1) some of the human figures (see, e.g., CMS II,7 nos. 7, 16–17) are described as male despite the fact that these human representations defy straightforward sexing. The still popular tendency to ascribe all figures that show no breasts to the male sex clearly reflects an androcentric misconception in the interpretation of human representations. It is in line with this approach that Becker seems to deny women the ability of jumping over bulls (p. 495: “Gegen die Annahme, es handle sich um eine Stiersprungszene (on CMS II,7 no. 29), spricht, dass die dargestellte Person weiblichen Geschlechts ist”); this view is not easily reconciled with the evidence of the wall paintings; (2) at times one comes across statements for which some evidence or reference should have been provided: What evidence do we have for Mycenaean roundels (p. 222)? Who views “floating symbols” on Minoan seals as part of the Cretan Hieroglyphic script (p. 254)? What are the reasons for interpreting the “chrysalis motif” as a “cocoon” (p. 255)? (3) Some aspects should have been presented with a more balanced view. For example, palatial centres are deemed by Becker to have exerted full control over the import of high-valued materials (such as gold) that were not locally available (pp. 58–60). The alternative position arguing that palatial centres neither had the means nor the desire to exert full control over long-distance exchange is not even mentioned.[4] The interpretation of the central figure of the master impression (oddly reproduced in the catalogue along the horizontal axis) as a ruler is said to be nearly without controversy (p. 272). However, in the basic monograph dedicated to this object the decision whether this figure should be viewed as a god or a human ruler is left open.[5] Clearly, more in-depth discussions on these and other aspects are missing.

Nevertheless, the book is well structured and, for the most part, written fluently.[6] From an editorial point of view proofreading was not done with the desirable degree of precision. Throughout the text one finds reduplications of letters (p. 58: “diesse”), reduplications of words (p. 14: “either either”; p. 448: “dies führte dazu führte”), incorrect spellings of personal names (“Eric Hallager”, “Teocharis”), missing letters (p. 107: “überlieft”), writing errors (p. 292: “exstatisch; p. 230, 278: “wiedersprechen”), blackouts (p. 356: “fernöstlicher Axttyp”) and erroneous hyphenations (p. 177: “Siegelf-unde”; p. 293: “Bilda-nordnung”). The list of references is impressive; however, publications which have appeared after 2012 are referred to only rarely (8 in total). For example, important papers written by Erik Hallager after 2005 are missing.[7] The monograph on seals and sealings from Akrotiri by Artemis Karnava was published in the very year as Becker’s book (2018) and is for that reason not included.[8] The same is, naturally, true for papers on the topic, which are published in the proceedings of the MNHMH conference in 2019 and which look at some aspects in a different way.[9] Nevertheless, these publications clearly show how timely Becker’s work is.

 

Notes

[1] For a discussion of this view, which is not even mentioned in Becker’s account, see, e.g., Fritz Blakolmer, Vom Wandrelief in die Kleinkunst. Transformationen des Stierbildes in der minoisch-mykenischen Bildkunst, in Felix Lang, Claus Reinholdt, Jörg Weilhartner (eds.), ΣΤΕΦΑΝΟΣ ΑΡΙΣΤΕΙΟΣ. Festschrift Stefan Hiller (Vienna 2007) 31–36.

[2] For a summary see Jörg Weilhartner, The Use of “Heirlooms” in Mycenaean Sealing Practices, in Elisabeth Borgna, Ilaria Caloi, Filippo M. Carinici, Robert Laffineur (eds.), MNHMH. Past and Memory in the Aegean Bronze Age. Proceedings of the 17th International Aegean Conference, Udine – Venice, 17–21 April 2018. Aegaeum 43 (Leuven, Liège 2019) 497–505.

[3] Strikingly, the dates stated in the main text differ at times from the dates given in the catalogue.

[4] For arguments on that view see Susan Sherratt, Potemkin Palaces and Route-Based Economies, in Sofia Voutsaki, John T. Killen (eds.), Economy and Politics in the Mycenaean Palace States. Proceedings of a Conference, Cambridge, 1–3 July 1999 (Cambridge 2001) 214–238.

[5] Erik Hallager, The Master Impression. A Clay Sealing from the Greek-Swedish Excavations at Kastelli, Khania (Gothenburg 1985) 22–30.

[6] For a discussion of some verbal peculiarities, see the review by Fritz Blakolmer in Archäologische Informationen 42, 2019, 344.

[7] Erik Hallager, Development of Sealing Practices in the Neopalatial Period, in Walter Müller (ed.), Die Bedeutung der minoischen und mykenischen Glyptik. CMS Beiheft 8 (Berlin 2010) 205–212; Erik Hallager, Mycenaean Administrative Sealing Practice: World of its Own? in Jörg Weilhartner, Florian Ruppenstein (eds.), Tradition and Innovation in the Mycenaean Palatial Polities. Proceedings of an International Symposium, Vienna, 1–2 March 2013 (Vienna 2015) 141–153.

[8] Artemis Karnava, Seals, Sealings and Seal Impressions from Akrotiri in Thera. CMS Beiheft 10 (Heidelberg 2018).

[9] See, e.g., the papers of Artemis Karnava, Olga Krzyszkowska and Jörg Weilhartner in the volume mentioned in note 2.