Innovation und tradition: Zur Herstellung und Verwendung von Prestigegutern im pharaonischen Agypten.

Author:Warburton, David
Position:Book review

Innovation und Tradition: Zur Herstellung und Verwendung von Prestigegutern im pharaonischen Agypten. By HEIKE WILDE. Gottinger Orientforschungen, Agypten, vol. 49. Wiesbaden: HARRAS-SOWITZ VERLAG, 2011. Pp. ix + 292, illus., 12 plts. [euro]64 (paper).

The author's understanding of her project stresses the role of "functional, technological, aesthetic, culturally specific or status-dependent" aspects of form, with the object of identifying the principles guiding the development and diffusion of innovations in the Bronze Age Near East (p. 3). Her interest was attracted by the fact that some groups of objects barely appear to change over time, while others reveal constant evolution. In this book, she can show that certain types of adornment made in gold in Egypt do not tend to change very much, and that some remain restricted to certain classes (e.g., royalty) through time. By contrast, she can follow the technical improvements in faience, which are gradually exploited to produce new forms and object classes.

The book is organized in four parts: I (pp. 3-16) the assumptions; II (pp. 17-148) the use, distribution, and processing of gold, silver, and faience; III (pp. 149-238) technological, economic, and social aspects of the use of precious metals and faience; and IV (pp. 239-52) conclusions about innovation and tradition in Egypt, plus a preface (pp. 1-2); followed by a bibliography (pp. 253-87), divided into abbreviations of different kinds and a substantial list of titles.

There are more than 1500 footnotes, some with several references so that the documentation is easily accessible (and the footnotes offer additional details). There is no index, but the table of contents provides a certain degree of detail. Throughout the text the author offers drawings of some objects and also summary illustrations of some manufacturing processes; however some (e.g., pp. 98,122) are not as informative as they could have been had the author offered a few clues concerning the process in the legends. In addition there are a couple of tables illustrating her arguments, among which are those on pp. 290-92, which should probably not have been hidden between the bibliography and the plates, since they are among the most important summaries of the author's work.

Wilde believes that in her M.A. thesis (Wilde 2003) she had already demonstrated that the innovation process involves three stages, beginning with (a), where a material initially appears, still rare and not well understood. This is followed by a phase during which (b) the necessary technology is mastered, and finally one in which (c) pieces in this material are routinely manufactured in larger numbers. Chapters then close with a summary of how the material corresponds to her model (gold, pp. 70-78; silver, pp. 94-96; faience, pp. 138-48), revealing a phase of technological accomplishment in the New Kingdom. The final summary--with explicit references to techniques and objects aligned to her chronological scheme--appears at the close of the book (pp. 240ff.), and it is here that the author summarizes her assertions about "change" and "tradition" in the choice of forms. She also relates this to her social models of prestige, stressing a bipartite trend: innovation in objects of daily life as opposed to tradition in cult and ritual objects.

Her innovation model is not quite adequate as a global means of investigation, since in the case of glass, for example, we have the early era in third-millennium Mesopotamia when it was still rare, followed by the Egyptian production of luxury vessels in the mid-second millennium, then blown glass in the Roman era, followed by today's molded glass: a transformation of a luxury product into an ordinary commodity whereby essential aspects took place well after the Bronze Age. Yet Wilde's project concerns only prestige goods in Egypt; her interest is centered on creativity and the standardization of production in the centuries around the middle of the second millennium B.C. in Egypt, meaning that her concept of innovation is rather restricted when compared to the long-term history of object categories.

She complements this diachronic analysis with a means of measuring value based on Egyptian...

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