Archeo-mineralogy of Neolithic and Chalcolithic artefacts from Bulgaria and their significance for gemmology, by Ruslan I. Kostov
Interdisciplinary studies are mainstream activities in any self-respecting contemporary archaeological project. And yet they provoke major controversy. While we applaud the rapid development of new methods in archaeological science like DNA, diet and isotope analyses, at the same time we tend to overlook the not so glorious but basic studies of raw materials and their possible sources and procurement. The situation is even worse beyond ‘the academic iron curtain’ in the post-communist countries of Eastern Europe. That is why, the new book by Ruslan Kostov should be appreciated for two major achievements – 1) the popularisation (or reinforcement in the case of Western Europe) of the importance of mineralogical studies in archaeology and, 2) the dissemination to a wider audience of the sometimes exciting information on the range of raw materials used by the prehistoric societies and their processing strategies.
Whether or not the book is ‘one of the first archaeo-mineralogical monographs worldwide’, as stated in the preface, does not undervalue its significance as the first of its kind in Bulgaria. The monograph consists of ten chapters, an introduction and conclusions, English summary and massive bibliography that includes titles in both Cyrillic and Latin languages.
There are five major themes scattered across the book – priority is given to the nephrite phenomenon, followed by discussion of artefacts made of rare minerals either of local or non-local origin, petrographic analyses of archaeological artefacts from selected sites, discussion of the non-metal ornaments from Varna cemetery and the weight system of the gold artefacts form the Varna cemetery.
For an archaeologist unspecialised in petrology, nephrite is just one of the ‘greenstones’ so popular with the past societies we study; for a gemmologist, it is a unique material that should not be mistaken with the 19 other types of green rock. By putting nephrite into its contexts – geographical, archaeological and mineralogical - and together with concrete discussions of some artefacts, the author manages to intrigue the reader with what is so special about that mineral. We understand that, while there are numerous nephrite artefacts in China, they post-date the earliest ones found in Bulgaria. Not only the latter appear to be the oldest in the world but nephrite artefacts seemed to have ‘vanished’ from the archaeological record at the beginning of the Bronze Age in Bulgaria, presenting archaeologists and gemmologists with the difficult task of finding out why. Moreover, there is a lack of evidence for any production processes or the presence of any basic artefacts. Kostov should be acknowledged for his effort to go beyond the description of physical properties of the material, such as hardness and colour, and to look for explanations of preferences in possible colour symbolism, and thus, to conclude that the green colour (not only nephrite but also other minerals) was a deliberately targeted choice in the past. Along with the long-lasting misidentification of nephrite artefacts, so far no source is yet known in Bulgaria. Wrong identifications have been addressed by the analyses of the author and by giving a precise guidelines how to differentiate nephrite from other minerals (the language is not advisable for a non-specialist); the second issue is still open, suggesting a source that is not yet found or that has been exhausted in the past. Kostov is constantly referring to nephrite in Europe and worldwide, making it clear that problems of sourcing and misidentification are very common. The present nephrite sources in France, Holland, Italy, Swiss, Germany, Austria, Finland, Norway, Poland show a poor relation to the known artefact distribution in Europe and not all known artefacts can be related to these sources. In addition, the above sources are found relatively late, and therefore, are irrelevant to the Eastern Europe artefacts. Along with the table of systematized sources of nephrite worldwide, potential sources of this mineral in the Balkans are suggested to be the serpentinite ultra-basic sources in Central Bosnia, Western Serbia, Western Stara Planina, Belasitsa and the Rhodopes, since the formation of nephrite and serpentinite is genetically related.
A general discussion of nephrite artefacts from 15 Neolithic and 11 Copper Age Bulgarian sites shows that not all stone artefacts were available for analyses and not all nephrite (nephrite-like) artefacts were spectroscopically analysed. Nephrite was used for utilitarian objects like adzes and chisels (eg, in Gulubnik, Kovachevo, Kurdzhali and Karanovo) but also for rare artefacts like a hair pin (Varna), a sceptre and ornament holders (Gulubnik and Kazanluk). Undoubtedly, the most interesting are the zoomorphic amulets (8 Neolithic and 2 Copper Age) generally associated with a frog-like form. Each of them follows a different type of symmetry that Kostov tries to relate to swastika and cruciform motifs on pots from Bulgaria and worldwide, feeling comfortable with discussions of symbolism and cultural parallels. More importantly, the reader can find some interesting details that may have escaped the un-trained archaeological eye – eg, the amulets from Ovcharovo and Eleshnista are first broken and were then polished over. The frequency with which nephrite artefacts appear in the archaeological record can be inferred from the Karanovo tell where 2 to 4 objects are known from each Neolithic and Copper Age occupation. However, there are exceptions like the site of Kovachevo, from which 38 nephrite artefacts are known. Only 7 artefacts were petrologically compared to a Swiss lake dwelling adze and samples from 4 sources, providing very interesting results - the Bulgarian artefacts were very close in composition but not deriving from a common source. It would have been very helpful for a non-specialist in addition to the tabulated comparative data to have a concluding paragraph that places the 7 artefacts in the context of the discussed sources.
The second theme that cross cuts the book is the petrographic identification of artefacts made mainly of serpentinite or other minerals. Serpentinite looks like nephrite but it is less hard and the artefacts made of it form another large class of objects called by the unhelpful term ‘greenstone’. After proper study, axes and chisels but also decorative objects like beads and amulets made of serpentinite were found at 10 sites, located mainly in South Bulgaria. Among the so-called ‘malachite’ beads from the famous Varna cemetery, there are some 18 serpentinite beads as well as other serpentinite artefacts. Serpentinite beads are known from the Durankulak cemetery as well. For those interested in comparative studies, there is a discussion of serpentinite adzes, chisels and axes from Italy, Swiss, Croatia, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Ukraine, Serbia and Greece. As with nephrite, a highly professional discussion of methods to distinguish serpentinite from other rocks is provided. The advice is given that, if destructive methods are not allowed, then optical and spectroscopic methods should be sought, for which the experience of the analyst is very important, since the polish makes the analysis more difficult. The possible sources of serpentinite are the above-mentioned serpentinite ultra-basic sources in Bulgaria and the Balkans. A detailed study of 100 stone artefacts from the Varna cemetery (89 visually, 11 analytically) can be summarised as follows – the preferred tool types were adzes made of volcanic tuff, with other selected material including marble, quartz, limestone, sandstone, talc schist, volcanic rock (andesite?) and obsidian. An important implication for our understanding of the Varna phenomenon is the fact that, apart from the limestone and the quartz, most of the raw materials are non-local.
The third theme - the discussion of artefacts made of rare minerals either of local or non-local origin - has important implications for people’s choice and rejection of certain materials and the possible networks for their production, distribution and consumption. The first of the local minerals is graphite, whose sources occur in South Bulgaria. This poses interesting questions for its massive distribution in the LCA, which extends far beyond the above sources. The second mineral is turquoise, that is believed to have come to Europe from Iran to Turkey. The finds from Bulgaria appear to be the earliest in Europe, as the author characterises claimed examples from Brittany and the Iberian peninsula as calais and variscite. A local origin is assumed, since there is a source near the site at which there is evidence for production. The last local mineral is heliotrope, known so far by two tools. It is possible that the material comes from the Rhodopes and it is probably what is later called the ‘Thracian stone’ by Pliny the Older.
The first of the non-local minerals is jade, introduced to the reader by an overview of sources and artefacts worldwide, as well as the distribution of jade artefacts in Europe, the etymology of the name and its confusion with nephrite. In Bulgaria, jade is known from a controversial case of 28 axes with a disputed find context (?Svoboda, Chirpansko), that provokes speculation over when and how they came to Bulgaria. The other non-local mineral is glaucophane, known from only two tools. Neolithic glaucophane artefacts are known from France, Italy, Slovakia and Hungary and there are sources of that mineral in Greece and Turkey. Last but not least is obsidian, whose paucity as a raw material and as an archaeological find in Bulgaria is a real puzzle.
The discussion of non-metal ornaments from Varna and Durankulak cemeteries is a key contribution to the long awaited publication of the Varna cemetery but also a very useful guide for anyone interested in ornament studies. It is very clearly underlined that the production of such fine ornaments requires skills, patience and good abrasives. The following stages of bead working are identified: – knapping, pre-faceting, shaping, faceting, polishing and perforation. Apart from the faceting circle as a mechanical aid, corundum (and maybe diamond) is suggested to be a possible abrasive, based on evidence of Minoan beads. Surprisingly, some of the polish suggests some kind of tumbling even at this early time and drilling starts from both ends. Along with the methodological advice on how to define ‘barrel’ (wrongly named as ‘biconical’ by archaeologists) and facetted beads, there is abundant information about the size and weight of the beads from both cemeteries that could be a basis for comparative studies. In addition, there is a detailed description of the type of raw material of seven necklaces from the Durankulak cemetery, beads from the Varna I cemetery, one necklace from the Varna II cemetery (130 beads), a nephrite hair pin, a serpentinite holder of a bow drill and a serpentinite ritual artefact also from Varna II. The beads from Varna and Durankulak look alike and are made of malachite, azurite, serpentinite, jasper, lignite, limestone, shell and quartz – viz. agate and carnelian. A real challenge is the production of what was the preferred number of 32 facets (16 on each side) on carnelian and agate beads that is rated as 7 hardness on the Mohs scale. The skills to produce multiple facets – up to 39 facets - were pioneered only in these two Bulgarian cemeteries. Together with the detailed mineralogical description of the carnelian and agate beads from both cemeteries, a range of cross-reference data (eg, beads vs. gender and other types of grave goods) is provided that presents some very interesting results. For example, in Varna, chalcedony beads are mainly found in cenotaphs (314 beads from 13 cenotaphs), while, in Durankulak, they are in comparable number in both male and female graves (30 beads from 9 male graves and 20 beads in 8 female graves)
Kostov proceeds to an identification of possible sources of malachite, agate and carnelian. Only the latter is problematic and a Bulgarian source is still unknown. Malachite is usually related to copper sources and has been known and used as a pigment or a cosmetic powder (eg, Stara Zagora), while sources of agate are to be found in the Eastern Rhodopes. As with every other mineral, Kostov provides a wide range of curious facts for artefacts and sources of malachite, agate and carnelian from all over the world.
It is not a surprise that a specialist involved with precious and semi-precious stones was tempted by the fine gold artefacts from the Varna cemetery. This time, however, they were approached as potential source for a prehistoric system of weight. After a general discussion of the development of metallurgy and gold processing (while cold or around but always under the melting point), the oldest gold artefacts are identified to be the 31 beads from the Varna II cemetery. Their total weight is 4.5075g that gives a mean value of 0.145g, which was suggested to be one of the Copper Age weight units. The golden objects from the Varna I cemetery were divided into 3 groups – up to 10g, up to 20g and above 20g. The first group consisted mainly of beads and is the basis of the identification of the proposed main Copper Age weight unit - eg, grave 36 contains 752 beads whose weight (312.5g) results in a mean value of 0.415g. This is the value of the Copper Age weight unit and it is double the present unit of the carat – 0.200 g. Kostov gives examples from other graves and other cemeteries (Devnja) that can be measured by the Chalcolithic unit – eg, 30 zoomorphic appliqués from grave 36 weighs 4 Chalcolithic units or 1.68g. The second group comprises of diadems that also fit the Chalcolithic unit – this time from 20 to 32 times. The third group (bracelets and pectorals) have an interesting interlink – eg, the pectoral from grave 4 is 6 times the weight of the pectoral from grave 43 (and other similar examples) and also conforms to the Chalcolithic unit. A comparative table of bracelet weight and the Chalcolithic unit with other well known measures (eg, the shekel) seeks to prove that such a weight pattern is not coincidental but deliberate. The short account of the origin of the weighing of precious material and the known measurements also fits well with the Chalcolithic unit, while there is a good internal fit between the gold objects and non-metal artefacts (beads). A name is suggested for the Chalcolithic unit of weight - the ‘van’, after the first letters of the Varna Eneolithic Cemetery (in Bulgarian).
The overall impression of the book is that it is perhaps a little patchy in terms of subject and area but that reflects the willingness of archaeologists to do archaeological science and to benefit from the implications of the results for their interpretations. Kostov’s book is an invaluable source for anyone interested in production, consumption and distribution of precious metals and stones in the past, as well as for the development of technology, transmission of knowledge and skills and most importantly for the establishment of an aesthetic of colour and brilliance in the past.
Review Submitted: February 2008
The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those
of the Society or the Reviews Editor.
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