Matériaux, productions, circulations du Néolithique à l’Age du Bronze, by Jean Guilain (Editor)
Éditions Errance. Paris, 2002. 245 pages; 78 figures. ISBN 2-87772-232-5-30

The intervention of man on material resources, to supply subsistence equipment, dates back to the earlier evolutionary steps of humankind. It was a slow route, but after the first exploitation of roughly adapted pebbles, working techniques developed towards a surprising set of tools made in stones and tough animal matters (bones, hornlike parts, claws, teeth, shells etc.) already available in the early Neolithic Age. Exactly, the study of the progressive use of natural resources in the pre-historical contexts constitutes the rationale for this volume. That is a collection of 12 essays prepared by renowned French specialists to present the state of the art of knowledge about the way artisans in the Neolithic and proto-historical time worked minerals, metals, and bony parts of animals to get products for daily use or with extra-ordinary purposes.

The publication is the 5th in a series following after the distinguished seminaries organized by the chair “Civilisations de l’Europe au Néolithique et à l’Age du Bronze” of the “Collège de France”, actually held by the curator of the collection, professor Jean Guilain. Previous titles dealt with prehistoric western burial ceremonies (1998), megaliths (1999), peasantry and agriculture (2000), and ancient villages communities (2001).

The present volume (Materials, productions, distribution from Neolithic to the Bronze Age), encompasses stone tools, natural gemstones, shells and claws ornaments, glass and faience sets, golden objects, and earthenware treating their making, circulation, and the surrounding economics from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age. The focuses are in the Mediterranean, the Western/Central Europe, and in the Middle East. But the discourses frequently embrace a wider perspective of production and distribution, under the guide of professor Guilain that briefly introduces the lectures presenting the theme, the authors and their current research, and suggesting further readings on the treated argument.

A central point for this issue is the awareness that right away, after the step of hunters-gatherers society, the communal significance of tools and artefacts overwhelmed the utilitarian or economic functions and - likewise in modern times - prestige and rank happened to be associated with possession of regarded objects. Power functional items, like weapons, and precious ornaments expressed symbolically a sense of magic associated with the properties of the materials (colour, toughness, rarity), but also with the remoteness of their sources, since geographic distance equated figuratively with chronological detachment of sacred ages and with the inaccessibility of supernatural realms.

The opening essay, “L’obsidienne et sa diffusion dans le Proche-Orient néolithique”, is afforded to Marie-Claire Cauvin. Obsidian forms during volcanic eruptions as a natural-occurring hard glass and has been used to obtain sharp-edged tools since 30.000 years ago. Its chemical homogeneity, ensuing from the natural rapid solidification, permits the recognition of patterns of sources and trade. That is why obsidian emerges like a paradigmatic material for the inferences obtainable through its study. Cauvin centers her analysis on the Anatolian sources and trades. She provides, indirectly, an economic estimate following the status of obsidian artifacts and the presence of workshops as a function of their distance from the volcanic sources. Production techniques, distribution, and use of obsidian are also investigated, observing the scenarios modifying with time. Feeble occurrence of the artifacts, with prevalent singular provenance, is appreciated from 12000 to 9500 BC, then diversification of sources and workshops seem to have taken place during Pre-Pottery Neolithic A (PPN-A: 9500-8700 BC). Finally, at the end of the 9th millennium, increment of local cutting and set off of the pressure-flaking technique are appreciated in Djade el Mughara, on the Euphrates (Syria), and Cyprus.

Afterwards, Marie-Louise Inizan, in “Tailler des roches par pression: émergence d’une technique, étapes de sa diffusion dans le monde ”, introduces the first of 4 chapters that deal with the making of stone artifacts (blades and cutting tools) and with their diffusion and commercial contexts. Her contribution is solely devoted to the analysis of a working technique: she tries to place in space and time the origins of pressure-flaking, applied to gently cut rock pieces with pointed tools made of bone, ivory, horns, or metal. The method has been documented in the area of the Aztec civilization - passing from Siberia and Northern America - as well as the Middle-Eastern regions. Inizan locates the first establishment of the technique among Japan, Northern China and Mongolia in a period dating back to 20.000/16.000 years before our era. The advantages of the technique are appreciated when pressure-flaking of Anatolian obsidian blades is faced with bipolar-cutting applied on the nucleus of oblong rock pieces in the Levant PPN-B (7600 to 6000 BC).

Two essays, remaining on stone, deal with the polished Neolithic long axes, which first attracted the attention of scholars and art collectors thanks to their superior aesthetic attributes. Since from the end of the XIX century, mineralogists tried to locate the original areas of these pieces, usually addressing to the Alps, to reconstruct the working processes, and to recover the social role long axes played in ancient contexts.

The contribution by Pierre Pétrequin, Serge Cassen, Christophe Croutsch, and Michel Herrera, “La valorisation sociale des longues haches dans l’Europe néolithique”, integrates archaeological and geological data. It permits to retrieve regional concentrations of the long axe findings in Western Europe and Great Britain, within a distance of 1600 km from the epicenters, located in the inner Alps and the Apennines. Typological breaks associate with differences in composition: the pieces of green red-mottled eclogite are abundant in the southern regions and occasionally found in burial graves, while the longer specimens of the depots in the North are made of greenish jadeite. Changes with time are appreciable about the social and cultural attributes of long axes. Beginning with a mere practical use, to do the working of wood (6000 to 4000 BC), the approach to long axes gradually shifted towards the affirmation of privileged status and gained trans-cultural meaning, as evidenced from the over-refined and continuously diversified working. Along the 5th and 4th millennia, the counter position of the megalithic Western Europe with the copper-making Eastern Europe is reflected by a parallel dichotomy between rock-axes and copper-axes. Finally, the autonomy and creativity of the western production is underlined remarking how it sparely met with oriental influences.

Then, in “Plussulien et la diffusion des haches polies armoricaines”, Charle-Tanguy Le Roux discusses on a statistical basis the distribution of polished axes originating from the ore of metadolerite at Plussulien, in the middle Britain region (France), formerly called Armorica. The number of pieces originating from this location is estimated between 2 and 3 millions over a period of exploitation that lasted from 5000 to 3000 BC. These axes reached the regions around Orleans and Paris, the Southern England, Belgium, and Alsace. Among the applications of the blades in metadolerite, the use as a ploughshare is suggested, remarking that although rare this was already documented in 3000-2000 BC Syria. It is notable that for these objects there is no appearance of relationship with the symbolical and cultural spheres. Diversely from eclogite, jadeite and serpentinite axes, polished Armorican axes seem to have remained just under the domain of utilitarian practical applications.

The successive contribution by Jacques Pelegrin, “La production des grandes lames de silex du Grand-Pressigny”, is the last one dealing with stone matter. The appraisal of several other workshops of long blades of flint has been already appreciated in Europe. But, the location of Grand-Pressigny, in the French/Swiss region of Jura, stands as a reference site for flint blades, thanks to its large impact in Western Europe, the originality of its productions, and the wideness of its distribution. On the basis of his own practical experiences, with conscience of the constrains and limitations of empirical approaches, Pelegrin offers details on the whole operative chain, starting from the choice of the proper nucleus upon which the working-out develops. His conclusions point at the great skill of the prehistoric workers, who applied indirect cutting to obtain flint blades about 40 cm in length within a labour environment of selected and experienced artisans. The powerful socio-cultural attributes of these long siliceous blades is testified by their presence, likewise poniards, in burial places, with other sharp weapons, exclusively marking male interments.

In the Prehistory, non-functional objects, with only decorative or symbolic purposes, first appeared made of natural resources: minerals, shells, bones, and teeth. Then the variety of colours and forms was enlarged when mastering of fire permitted to employ man-made artefacts done by forgery of metals and alloys, or imitating in the aspect the natural gemstones through the production of faience and glasses. The supernatural world and social identification permeated the wearing of these stuffs.

Six chapters of this volume deal with ornaments. The first one is the interesting contribution by Christian Jeunesse, “La coquille et la dent. Parure de coquillage et évolution des systèmes symboliques dans le néolithique danubien (-5600/-4500)”, that presents the symbolic meaning of fancy sets made of shells and mammal claws in the Danube region, within the millennium broadly ranging from 5600 to 4500 BC. Spondyles and continental or sea gastropods are recurrent among the findings. In particular Atlantic and Mediterranean shells appear within an occidental branch production, the so-called French Rubané, which extended from Northern Alsace to the basin of Paris. Thus, communication with Mesolithic civilisations (the only contemporary inhabitants of the Western areas) has to be attested along with contacts with Cardial Pot People, in the direction of the Mediterranean Sea. During the Middle Neolithic Age (5000 – 4500 BC) faunal remains, as teeth of boar, deer, fox, and wildcat reoccur in burial tombs, identified as a novel savage ideology. It is the same period in which horns, antlers, mandibles, and skulls can be found in continental interments. According to the author, this indicates the integration of the native imagery in the agro-pastoral societies. The question posed by Jenuesse is on the dichotomy between Rubané shells and Mesolithic mammal bones: the Rubané society developed under the twofold influence of Balkan Neolithic people and European hunters; perhaps those Rubané people kept on using shells to mark their Danube origin, before integration within the indigenous tradition.

Afterwards, Marie-Josefa Villalba examines the progressive appearance of the semi-precious turquoise-type gemstones in her essay, “Le gîte de variscite de can tintorer: production, trasformation et circulation du mineral vert”. Guilaine exalts the research carried out by Villalba and co-workers, able to identify the mining site of Can Tintorer, at Gava, in the core of Catalonia, and to characterize and differentiate its mineralogical features from other occidental mining locations. Can Tintorer appears as the reference site for the production of the turquoise minerals which encompasses Provence to the East, the Ebro river and the Burgos regions to the West, Toulouse on the Northern side, and Priorat (Spain) on the Southern side. Exploitation of the site is recognized from about the early Neolithic to 4000 BC. But, what is more remarkable, technical and cultural implications suggest social selection, as observed in some Catalonian necropolises where only a number of the buried bodies (children for example) deserved the right to turquoise jewellery. When compared with the complex actions of mining, trade, and working, the distribution of turquoise addresses to a well-developed and ordered selective social system.

On the theme of gemstones, the following pieces by Michèle Casanova and Colette du Gardin challenge, respectively, lapis lazuli and amber, two of the most precious ornamental resources in ancient times. The extremely large areas of distribution for these natural gemstones attest for a very well rooted and long standing symbolic meaning.

It is emblematic the case of lapis lazuli, whose blue colour addresses to the source of life, to be counter posed to the reddish cornelian and jasper minerals, which represent mourning and death since from the dawn of civilization. In addition, the lapis lazuli gemstones are decidedly rare and difficult to obtain. Thus the ideological power results enriched by the remoteness of their sources in the very high mountains, that should attest for primordial and celestial connections. Casanova, in “Le lapis-lazuli, joyau de l’orient ancien”, remarks that the only sources available in the prehistory were in the massif relief regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan, 2.000 km away from the archaeological sites where lapis lazuli beads have been found (Mesopotamia, Syria, Levant, and Egypt). Numerous towns in the Middle East, likewise Susa and Ebla, were important commercial centres, with an apex of trading in the IV and III millennia BC. The rulers of civilised Mesopotamia adopted lapis lazuli as the notice of supernatural power, and the fabulous tombs of Ur stand as the best example for their symbolic meaning. The trove of lapis lazuli stocked in the funerary treasures at Ur represents the bulk of the whole findings of this material in the Middle East. Together with the number of servants died to accompany the kings in the afterlife, the abundance of lapis lazuli witnesses for the potent status gained by those rulers, when the concept of State definitely emerged in Mesopotamia.

Colette du Gardin, in “L’ambre et sa circulation dans l’europe protohistorique”, offers a contribution on the typologies of amber sets and the evolution with time of the distribution circuits. Surveying the morphology of the precious objects of amber, she observes the absence of stereotypes, as amber has been found in a multitude of different forms, frequently assigned to unique exemplars. In the Evolved Neolithic (3400-3000 BC) the usage of amber seems to be limited to the Danish and Baltic regions, although increasing in number and typologies. Along the 3rd millennium, amber objects continuously gained in diffusion and diversification, reaching England, France, and Central Europe. Then, in the Bronze Age the distribution progressively reached the central and Southern-Eastern Europe, and polarised around the major Mycenaean and great tumulus civilisations. The Late Bronze Age (1400-1000 BC) associated with a decline in the spreading of amber artefacts. Nevertheless, the Mediterranean area enriched its content of amber objects in the Sepulchres of the first Iron Age (Greece, Adriatic Sea, Lipari and Sardinia islands), but sources had differentiated. Finally, du Gardin remarks that number and dimensions of the objects diminish with the distance from the banks of the Northern Europe; consequently she puts some doubts on the possibility to define a network of exchanges, preferring to address towards a phenomenon of circulation of amber artefacts.

On the ornamental objects return Yves Billaud and Bernard Gratuze. In “Les perles en verre et en faïence de la protohistoire française” they present the repertoire of beads in glass over the French territory accompanied by a detailed look over their chemical characterization. On the basis of the evidenced composition, these researchers classify the finished products and clarify that faience appeared earlier and in different forms (tubes, cones, spheres, buttons etc.). Additionally they distinguish faience, an agglomerate of quartz grains embedded in a vitreous matrix, from the completely vitrified objects of glass, that only took place in France after 1600 BC in a restricted range of forms. Even if local workshops in Europe have been identified, beads, annular pearls, and sets of glass and faience are considered the first goods imported in Europe from the oriental lane of Mycenae, Egypt, and Cyprus, where faience is known to have appeared since from the 4th millennium BC.

The only essay on ceramics is that prepared by Laure Salanova, “Fabrication and circulation des céramiques campaniformes”. The so-called Campaniforme ceramics appeared in the second half of the 3rd millennium BC, identified as a reddish pottery in the form of reverse bell with simple geometric decorations. The reconstruction of its origin and distribution in Europe is an intriguing issue of prehistory, interesting a territory that spans from the Britannic islands to the Northern Africa and from the Atlantic Ocean to Hungary. Campaniforme beakers and vases are relatively common in single tombs in Central and NorthEastern Europe, and in collective burials for what concerns the Mediterranean and South Atlantic regions. After the presentation of stylistic and technical aspects, Salanova depicts the connections among the different production groups on the Southern Atlantic coast (Britain, Galice, Portugal). Then, supported by the trove of productions around the Tago estuary, she addresses to Portugal as the core of the Campaniforme making. Alternative controversial origins, as in Northern Central Europe, have been proposed on the basis of the stylistic evolution of the pottery findings, continuously contaminated in their fashion along the North-South direction. Nevertheless, the diffusion of Campaniforme pottery all along the maritime routes firmly supports the origin in Portugal, individuated as the median point of a symmetrical distribution that, from the Britannic islands and the French and Spanish seashores, reaches Sicily throughout the whole Northern-Eastern Mediterranean coasts.

The conclusive essay, “Techniques et usages de l’or dans l’Europe protohistorique”, by Christiane Éluère, contemplates the role played by the golden artefacts in Prehistoric societies. The analysis starts from the royal tombs of Varna (5000 BC) on the Black Sea (Bulgaria). Here in the early Copper Age gold was already regarded as the metal of wealthy people. Those minor kings of the Caucasian demonstrated a precocious large usage of gold in their burials with respect to the Ur and Aegean rulers. In the Mediterranean golden metallurgy was only established with the Bronze cultures (Troy, Cyclades, Crete) and in the Western world it was the Campaniforme society that first contributed to its spreading and divulgation. Subsequently (3000-2000 BC), together with amber jewellery and sharp bronze weapons gold sets marked the leading elites in Europe where hierarchy was most established. During the 2nd millennium in the Crete-Mycenaean sphere the sovereigns were buried with golden masks and in Western Europe metallic vases decorated with gold address to ritual ceremonies and sacrificial offering. Bulk objects in gold (Bracelets, necklaces, and twisted ornaments) appeared in the Atlantic Late Bronze Age. In the 1st millennium Europe large wrought-gold collars and helmets occurred in Alsace; twined pendants and necklaces appeared in Spain while the Etruscan put the basis for the granulation technique. On the Middle-Eastern side, gold was used as the support for animal and Greek mythological scenery, testifying for the powerful references (symbolic, ceremonial, extraordinary) of golden objects, continuously maintained over the millennia.

What extremely characterises this volume is its specificity on material culture of the Neolithic and Bronze Age, which is a remarkable and rare propriety for an educational volume. Making the point on prehistoric artefacts, the book permits useful and complementary comparisons with more conventional publications, usually focussing on the classical ages. The articulation of the different issues about the materials, their production through exploitation of the available resources, and their diffusion, valorises the analyses within an integrated framework. Scale production, distribution, working techniques, and their variation with times permit to reconstruct the way in which materials have been used and transformed. At the same time, the social, supernatural and ideological orders of the functional and precious artefacts can be excerpted, even if care must be exercised to standardize and harmonize these advances. The book is recommended to those teaching and specializing in archaeological investigation, but its educational flavour, the constructive focus of the discussed topics and the plain style make it attractive also to non specialised readers.

Enzo Ferrara,
Materials Department,
Istituto Elettrotecnico Nazionale Galileo Ferraris,
Torino (Italy)

Review Submitted: September 2003

The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those of the Society or the Reviews Editor.

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