AEGEAN BOOK REVIEWS
14 March 2016
Giulia Dionisio, Anna Margherita Jasink & Judith Weingarten, 2014. Minoan Cushion Seals, Innovation in Form, Style and Use in Bronze Age Glyptic [Studia Archaeologica 196, Vicino Oriente 2], Roma: «LʼERMA» di Bretschneider.
Reviewed by Maria Anastasiadou, Cluster of Excellence Asia and Europe in a Global Context, Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg (maria.anastasiadou [at] zaw.uni-heidelberg.de)
This monograph by three authors is devoted to the study of Minoan seals of a certain shape, namely the cushion seals. In the title, cushion seals are described as expressions of innovation in form, style and use in the glyptic landscape of the Aegean Bronze Age. A preface precedes an introduction to the topic, while eight chapters constitute the main part of the treatise. The latter is followed by two concordances, two appendices, an illustrated catalogue of the material studied and references.
The preface (pp. 9-10) provides a brief description of the term seal and short references to the MM II technical revolution (Betts 1989; Evely 2000, 158-160; Müller 2000) and Neopalatial glyptic. The cushion seal is defined as ‘a rectangular stone with biconvex faces’ which appears in Crete in MM IIB but reaches its floruit in MM III-LM IA (p. 10). While early Minoan cushion seals are not differentiated from the rest of Protopalatial glyptic in terms of materials, style and imagery, these seals later start developing a distinctive character that sets them apart from seals of other shapes. The aim of the book is to examine all aspects of cushion seals in the context of contemporary glyptic. In doing so, the authors hope to shed new light on developments connected with form and style in the transitional phase from the Protopalatial to the Neopalatial period and to provide a better understanding of ‘the symbolic significance’ of this seal type (p. 10).
In the introduction (pp. 11-14), the authors note that their study is an attempt to elucidate the reasons for the appearance of ‘extraordinary scenes’ on certain cushion seals and, to an extent, the significance of these objects in Minoan society (p. 11). They note that the material is first treated in chronological order. Ornamental motifs, hieroglyphic seals and talismanic motifs are discussed first and figurative imagery independently of chronological order at a later stage. Separate chapters discuss metal seals and impressions of cushion seals, while two appendices present unpublished cushion seals and an online database of cushion seals. Cushion seals are ‘a class of seals of rectangular shape on the surface and biconvex in section’. The term cushion, which was introduced by Victor Kenna, is adopted despite its extrapolation from an intrinsically soft object to an object made of stone. John Younger’s theory that the shape of cushion seals developed from rectangular plates is accepted (p. 12). Cushions, whose core area of production is Crete, are mainly produced in MM II-LM I, but individual examples are also encountered in LB II and LB III. The stylistic dating proposed in CMS databases is accepted, and short clarifications of the terms used to describe materials, techniques, motifs and style are provided.
Chapter I (pp. 19-27 [text], 29-39 [tables, images]) focuses on the material qualities of cushion seals. Both soft and hard stones are used for the manufacture of these objects, with the latter being slightly more plentiful than the former. Among hard stones, agate and cornelian are most common, as is also the case with lentoids and amygdaloids. Medium hard stones and glass paste are used more rarely. Both soft and hard stone techniques are attested on these seals. Descriptions of the tools employed in both techniques as well as the typical tool marks left by them are provided. Eleven cushions with engraving on two faces are introduced and the imagery of four hard-stone examples is shortly discussed. Nineteen cushions and three seal impressions dating from MM II-LH IIIA2/B, in which the representation has a vertical orientation are also discussed. The scenes on such cushion seals find occasional parallels to those engraved in a vertical orientation on certain metal signet rings. All subjects are represented on such cushions, but there is a preference for human and ‘humanoid’ subjects, which is justified given the vertical proportions of the human body. Vertical orientation cannot be connected with certain styles or workshops.
Chapters II-IV focus on the imagery of cushion seals. Chapter II (pp. 41-44 [text], 45-51 [tables, images]) discusses Protopalatial seals with ornamental imagery. The ornamental images on cushion seals are divided into “architectonic” and related motifs, which are further subdivided into three iconographic groups relevant only for cushion seals; concentric circles with central dot motifs in which group are categorized twelve soft stone examples dating to MM III-LM I and LM III; and geometric motifs which are encountered in fifteen seals (stars, lines, crosses, dots, angular lines). The authors note that a quarter of architectural seals are cushions and that, among architectural cushion seals, examples cut in soft stone prevail.
In Chapter III (pp. 53-60 [text], 61-66 [tables, images]), scribal motifs, which are equated to inscriptions of –in the authors’ opinion–Cretan Hieroglyphic, and talismanic motifs, which are named post-scribal, are discussed. Three cushion seals with peculiar imagery are described as Hieroglyphic and categorized as belonging to Jasink’s matrix seals (Jasink 2005). Talismanic motifs are seen as a Neopalatial continuation of Cretan Hieroglyphic motifs which had, however, lost their semantic function. A catalogue of fourteen talismanic motifs on cushion seals and lists of the cushions, on which each motif is represented, are presented. Certain talismanic seals with motifs that the authors do not see as clearly talismanic are omitted.
Chapter IV (pp. 67-79 [text], 81-96 [tables, images]) discusses ‘figurative iconography’, i.e. images that show animals, hybrids and humans. All such representations, apart from those on seal impressions, are included in this chapter. 103 seals with depictions of animals and hybrids are discussed. Among them, those of animals in running positions that fit well in the rectangular field of a cushion seal occur frequently. Earlier depictions (MM II) show native animals whereas in the Neopalatial period non-native animals/hybrids, such as lions and griffins, are added to the repertoire. Animals are encountered on cushions until the Postpalatial period. The representations showing humans with animals and human figures alone are also presented. John Younger’s attributions of Late Bronze Age seals to various masters and stylistic groups are accepted for many pieces (Younger 1983-86, 1989).
Chapter V (pp. 97-99, 101 [image]) provides a catalogue of metal cushions (bronze, silver/silver alloy and gold). The percentage of metal cushions is high, when compared to numbers for metal lentoids and amygdaloids. The authors point to the rather poor imagery of silver cushions, which contrasts with the exquisite representations encountered on golden cushions. A possible ‘mental’ link between cushions and metal seals (do they mean rings?) is discerned, which is also implied by shared iconography, as well as evidence from sealing practices (p. 98).
Chapter VI (pp. 103-109, 111-114 [images]) is devoted to seal impressions of cushion seals. The majority of this material comes from MM III/LM IA Crete, but there are also finds from elsewhere in the Aegean. Cushions and their impressions make up 4.6 % of Late Bronze Age seals. A catalogue of seal impressions from 13 find places in Crete and the Aegean is presented. In a short commentary of the evidence from the Temple Repositories at Knossos, the authors note that impressions of cushions are encountered on all nodule types and suggest that a higher proportion of cushion seals than expected ‘participated in all facets of sealing administration’ (p. 105). Regarding LBIA Thera, a connection is discerned between metal signet rings and cushions which could represent the expression of some joint authority or some administrative affinity.
Chapter VII (115-119) is devoted to stylistic groups and workshops. No workshops specialized in the production of cushion seals could be identified and no evidence for workshops exists for Protopalatial and talismanic material. Cushion seals with “’animal’ styles” (p. 116) are discussed with regard to John Younger’s attributions which are accepted, modified or refuted. In the case of four small seal clusters, the products of one hand or workshop are identified and, in the case of two seals, the hands of a master and an apprentice.
The concluding chapter, Chapter VIII (pp. 121-130), discusses the role of cushions in Minoan glyptic. Protopalatial cushion seals do not stand out as a separate class but follow the advances of Protopalatial glyptic. In this period cushion seals are often cut in soft stones and frequently display architectural motifs. The rarity of Hieroglyphic inscriptions on them is probably related to the fact that the shapes of hieroglyphic seals became standardized before cushion seals became popular. Cushion seals with inscriptions are connected with the Archanes Formula A-SA-SA-RA-ME or its abbreviated form A-SA, which only appears on ‘unusual seals’ (p. 121).
Neopalatial cushions, on the other hand, are commonly cut in hard stones. Representations of animals are most common in Neopalatial hard stone cushion seals. No connection could be established between the motif and the colour of a stone.
Cushion seals slowly become differentiated from other seals and ‘develop a momentum of their own’ (p. 122). The evidence from the use of cushion seals in sealing deposits suggests a connection between signet rings and cushion seals, which counter stamp each other in nodules of the Temple Repositories and LBIA Akrotiri.
Some of the best examples of experimentation with complex figural scenes are encountered on MM III cushion seals. This suggests that many representational scenes, including those with narrative scenes of animals in a natural setting and those with human figures, first developed on seals (cushions and signet rings) and were then transposed to wall paintings and other media. The rectangular frame of cushion seals could be seen as a miniature version of the rectangular boundary of a wall available for a wall-painting.
Gold cushions from the Mycenaean Mainland could be connected with a possible workshop in Knossos on account of similarities between a Pylian cushion seal and a seal impression from Knossos. Cushions and signet rings appear related in sealing practices and some examples could have also been made in the same workshops. Neopalatial cushion seals must have represented objects of high status since they are connected in many ways with metal signet rings, but would not have been as prestigious as the latter. In the Neopalatial period they must have represented prominent objects owned by elites who were closer to the palace. At the end of this period, however, these pieces were probably eventually ‘traded up’ for metal signet rings ‘perhaps via a short-lived phase of gold cushions’ which were more prestigious and gave their owners the status of ‘in some sense, palatial officials’ (p. 128).
The treatise is followed by two concordances (pp. 131-138), which provide correspondences between the catalogue numbers of the study and CMS numbers. Appendix A (pp. 139-142, 143-144 [images]) contains a catalogue of 31 cushion seals/seal impressions of cushion seals, which have not been included in the CMS. Among them is a cushion seal from the Tyrrhenian coast of Calabria, which represents the only Aegean seal excavated in the central Mediterranean. Appendix B (pp. 145-146, 147, 149 [tables]) presents an online database based on the catalogue of cushion seals included in the study, which is to be constantly updated. The illustrated catalogue of the material (pp. 151-238 [text], pp. 241-263 [CMS drawings]) only includes pieces published at the CMS, which amount to 201 stone/glass cushions, 11 metal cushions and 45 impressions of cushions. The study concludes with a list of references (pp. 265-273).
This is the first study of Minoan cushion seals and a welcome addition to the field, especially as it concentrates on a seal shape which flourished during the archaeologically elusive period of transition from the Protopalatial to the Neopalatial period. However, the choice of a seal shape alone as the topic of a treatise, which is not defined further by other criteria, such as material, technique or dating, results in a study which includes very stylistically diverse material. This presents inherent difficulties in producing a coherent treatise. These problems are evident in the subdivision of the short chapters into numerous shorter sub-chapters, which only rarely end with a concluding synthesis of the data. In Chapters II-VI in particular, the largest part of the discussion is restricted to a short description of the data, while a synthesis of the evidence would have been helpful, in order for meaningful patterns to emerge or the interpretational potential of the material to come about. Chapter II, for example, consists of categorizing ornamental images according to categories well-established in the field, and ends without any explanation or discussion on the significance of this categorization. Solely descriptive are discussions of cushions carrying inscriptions and talismanic motifs (Chapter II), and those of animal and human representations (Chapter IV). The treatments of metal cushion seals (Chapter V) and seal impressions from cushion seals (Chapter VI) take on, for the most part, the form of a catalogue and not that of a discussion.
This lack of cohesion is almost overcome at the conclusion of the book, where a more holistic view of the biography of cushion seals during MM II-LM I is attempted. The authors’ argument of a connection between cushion seals and metal signet rings is certainly worthy of consideration, as are also the parallelisms between certain cushion seals, metal signet rings and the art of wall-painting. The observation that certain Neopalatial cushion seals of exquisite craftsmanship could have developed as a semi-independent class of prestige objects which themselves represent, in a way, miniature versions of the art also seen on wall-paintings sheds new light on the biography of the object in question and its possible differential significance in various moments in time. The idea that certain complex narrative scenes first appear in MM III glyptic before they become the norm in Neopalatial wall paintings reiterates an old subject of interactions across the media and invites new discussions on an old issue.
References are in some cases rather limited despite the fact that the relevant bibliography is often known to the authors (as is evident in the list of references). This is, for example, made evident when materials and manufacturing techniques are discussed (pp. 13-14, 19-25), a topic for which references to directly relevant bibliography are omitted (e.g. Evely 2000; Müller 2000; Müller 2007). An instance of important bibliographical omissions is the fact that, while John Younger’s attributions of Aegean seals to masters and stylistic groups largely shape the views expressed in the book (especially Chapter VII), no hint to contributions that discuss potentially problematic aspects of such attributions is made (e.g. Krzyszkowska 2005, 324-328; Pini 1997, 85-91; 2000). In Chapter III, the term ‘significant motif’ is used to explain why talismanic motifs are included in the chapter, but neither an explanation of the term nor a bibliographic reference for the reader not acquainted with it is provided (p. 53).
In some sections of the study, a vagueness regarding certain statements has been noted. Talismanic motifs for example are discussed both in Chapter III and Chapter IV without this ‘double’ discussion having been justified or the reason it is considered necessary being noted. The motif fish in Chapter III includes a mix of depictions, which are categorized under dolphin, flying fish and generic fish in Chapter IV (pp. 66, 89, 90). This is done because Onassoglou’s categorization is followed in Chapter III and the categorization into biological species in Chapter IV. However, a note drawing the attention of the non-specialist reader to this apparent inconsistency is missing. In Chapter III, a brief sentence mentions that certain talismanic seals are omitted on the grounds that not all talismanic seals carry talismanic motifs (a suggestion not clear to the present author), but it is not noted which ones or for what reason they are omitted (p. 55). The remark on the same page that ‘in matters of motif, talismanic seals [is it meant motifs?] on cushions have a few tendencies and peculiarities – which may or may not be significant’ remains unclear since no further explanation is provided apart from a short reference to Table III, which does not itself offer any straightforward explanation of this sentence. In the introduction, it is suggested that the material is dealt with in a chronological order in the first chapters (p. 11), but it would be more accurate to say that it is considered according to its imagery, since Chapter II already includes a few LM III examples (p. 49, Cat. 50). The suggestion, in the same section, that cushion seals are the third largest category of Minoan seals is inaccurate since lentoids, amygdaloids and three-sided prisms are more numerous than cushion seals (p. 14 n. 3). In Chapter VIII the first sub-chapter is entitled The Protopalatial cushion seals, but its last paragraph turns to Neopalatial cushion seals. In speaking of seal impressions from cushions in the Knossos Hieroglyphic Deposit, the statement that cushions used in this deposit could come across as ‘unimaginative’ because they are ‘overshadowed by those who used Hieroglyphic seals’, is not clear to the present author (p. 123). Finally, it would have been valuable if stylistic considerations that lead to the attribution of small clusters of cushion seals to workshops (p. 118-119) were discussed more thoroughly (as is done in the case of Cat. 131 and CMS II,6 no. 70). The suggestion that Cat. 131 and CMS II,6 no. 70 represent the products of a master and an apprentice working in different time periods is bold but certainly interesting.
The catalogue of cushion seals taken into consideration for this study and the accompanying illustrations are a useful (and necessary) addition to the book, since a catalogue provides the reader with concrete images of the evidence considered and enables critical observation of the data from a third party. The catalogue of the cushion seals not published at the CMS (Appendix A) is a welcome addition, since it guarantees the completeness of the data taken into consideration, something which the CMS volumes regrettably can no longer claim because they do not contain recent material.
The illustrations (drawings) at the end of each chapter provide images of the material discussed in the chapter, arranged according to the groupings proposed, and are therefore a useful visual companion. The absence of photographic material is probably cost-related and connected with the fact that high quality photographs of the material can be found in the CMS Databases in ARACHNE. In cases, however, where a photograph would be necessary for understanding text descriptions, such as in the parts where toolmarks characteristic of the various techniques are discussed in detail (p. 24), or where the object that constitutes the topic of this study is defined and described (p. 12), photographic documentation would be meaningful. The lack of photographic material reduces the object to the motif on its seal face and disregards its materiality, which is an important perspective from which an object is best approached archaeologically.
There are hardly any spelling issues in the study. The following two misspellings were observed: in p. 26 CMS II,5 no. 254 should read CMS II,5 no. 258; CMS VI no. 98 should read CMS II,6 no. 98. In some cases the language is stylistically awkward. An example is the term Greece in Map III (p. 17), which should better read Greek mainland (as the term Greece also encompasses Crete); the term Anemospilio (p. 118), which is better spelled Anemospilia (Ανεμόσπηλια); and the word expensive (p. 20), which is not particularly apt for describing value in the Aegean Bronze Age. The difference between the terms ornamental and decorative, in relation to iconography (p. 41), is not clear to the present author. Turning to the catalogue, the omission of the Mycenae cushion CMS V no. 593 has been noted.
Turning to formal aspects of the volume, the text of the actual treatise is short, amounting to a scanty 65 pages out of the total 273 pages (280 if one adds the last seven pages with a catalogue of the editions of Studia Archaeologica). The remaining 208 pages contain secondary material, such as tables, illustrations, maps, concordances, references and the short texts of the appendices. As a result, most chapters are notably short, with the longest consisting of 13 pages (Chapter IV) and the shortest barely three pages (Chapter V). The tables following each chapter are long printouts of tables, created by database-type queries, and unnecessarily analytical. Statistical graphs summarizing the data would have been more effective and would require considerably less page space. The visual data used in this book are almost exclusively drawings of seal faces. There are, otherwise, two pages with small black-and-white photographs (Appendix A), and two more photographs of a seal impression in other sections. The quality of these images (whose use is much appreciated) ranges from poor to good, a situation which the authors have little control of, since they had to use images from other publications, or which had been provided by the excavators. The sole colour photographs in the book are the two cover images. The front cover image of the famous Anemospilia cushion with the lone paddler is a particularly apt choice which is, however, regrettably printed in pixelated format.
Certain opinions expressed in the study are debatable. Soft stone Cat. 28 and CMS II,5 no. 47 were most likely cut by a compass type of tool or a toothed drill (Pini in CMS II,2 XVI-II; Betts 1989, 10; Evely 1993, 150-2; Anastasiadou 2011, 40; Anastasiadou forthcoming) and not with tools operated using a horizontal spindle, as seems to be suggested (p. 12). The inscriptions on the cushion seals, discussed in Chapter III, are far too particular to be characterized hieroglyphic and, given their peculiarities (clearly admitted by the authors), it would be better if they are not attributed to this system of writing (Anastasiadou 2016). It might have been useful for seal impression Cat. S-32, which is the only example of a seal face of a cushion seal in which a hieroglyphic inscription is attested, to be mentioned in the discussion in Chapter III, in spite of the fact that it is a seal impression. The silver cushions included in the study do not necessarily need to be identified as seals since, given their similarities and simple ‘motifs’, they could also have been beads. Finally, the suggestion that golden cushions could have been made in Knossos on account of a tentative stylistic similarity of one of them to an impression of a signet ring from Knossos, is bold and hypothetical, especially since all hitherto golden cushions stemming from a known context come from the Greek mainland. These objects might have been made by Minoan artists but were, however, possibly crafted in this way in order to satisfy the taste of mainlanders for prestigious golden objects. Therefore, the combination of a Minoan cushion shape with gold does not necessarily express Minoan preferences as is suggested by the authors in an attempt to explain the transition from cushions to metal signet rings (p. 128).
The monograph is the first study of a seal shape that has not received particular attention in the literature and, therefore, a valuable contribution, which promises to bring to the foreground a hitherto unknown aspect of Minoan seals. This is a welcomed attempt, especially since the authors reach some interesting conclusions, which can, if tested further and against other types of evidence, bring us a step forward towards understanding the seals discussed in it. However, the restricted length of the treatise and the long, descriptive texts, which take the form of a catalogue, make one wonder whether it would have been more meaningful for this study to appear in the form of a concise article instead of a whole monograph.
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