Thursday, August 6, 2009

2009.08.13

Version at BMCR home site
A. M. Leskov, The Maikop Treasure. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthroplogy, 2008. Pp. x, 294. ISBN 9781934536049. $75.00.
Reviewed by Eleni Konstantinidi-Syvridi, National Archaeological Museum, Athens

Leskov's Maikop Treasure is not just a beautifully compiled catalogue of a significant group of items from various periods offering a study of Northern Caucasian art but also the successful attempt of an experienced scientist to compile in a few pages the history and context of a culture little known so far to international scholarship.

The author, Aleksandr M. Leskov, is a Research Associate in the Program for the Archaeology of Ukraine, University of Pennsylvania. His field of specialty is the Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age of Eastern Europe. He has led several expeditions to the south of Ukraine and to the Northern Caucasus. Previously, he was also appointed Head of the Department of Archaeology and Ancient Art at the Museum of Oriental Art in Moscow.

What makes a publication of the Maikop treasure so important, even to scholars with no previous engagement with the subject? Maikop is the name given to the culture that extended throughout the Northern Caucasus, from the Caspian to the Black Sea, after the location of a barrow. Discovered in 1897, the barrow was one of the richest in Europe and dated from the end of the 4th to the beginning of the 3rd millennium BC. The contacts between the bearers of the Maikop culture and the nomadic tribes of the Eastern European steppes, where Balkan imports are known, made possible the comparison of the two most investigated chronological systems, the Near Eastern and the Balkan. Based on that comparison, it has been possible to synchronize the principal archaeological cultures of south Eurasia from the 4th to the 3rd millennium BC with the antiquities of the Near East and of the Balkan Peninsula.

The so-called Maikop treasure includes around 300 objects ranging in date from the Bronze Age throughout the Medieval Period. The objects are currently held in four institutions: the Antikenabteilung Staatliche Museen and Museum furor- und Fruhgeschichte in Berlin, the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The Penn Museum holds the largest number of items with the greatest chronological range, from the 3rd millennium BC to the 14th cent. AD.

Previous publication of the Maikop treasure includes the two-volume work of A. Greifenhagen's Antikenabteilung catalogue, Schmuckarbeiten in Edelmetall (1970, 1975), in which he made short notes on some bronze and iron items. A small number of the finds had been published from the Berlin collection (Schmidt 1972, Potratz 1960) and from the Philadelphia collection (Colosanti 1915, Fernald 1930, Piotrovski 1975). Leskov's book is the first attempt to present the whole group united in a well-assembled catalogue, and togive all available information regarding its history, significance and chronological context.

The assemblage, which was compiled at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, has no single provenance. The objects were looted from various sites in the region of Northern Pontic and since most of them are identical to the gold and bronze treasures found in the Maikop area--now known as the autonomous republic of Adyghea in Northern Caucasus--, they became known under that name. The man behind the assembling of the treasure was Merle de Massoneau, a wealthy employee of Tsar Nicholas II who oversaw the cultivation of Imperial vineyards in the Crimea and Northern Caucasus.

The introduction starts with information on the life of M.A. Merle de Massoneau, a wealthy employee of Tsar Nicholas II, who at the end of the 19th century began to assemble the collection. He was the man responsible for the cultivation of Imperial vineyards in the Crimea and Northern Caucasus and the founder of the Bank of the Orient in Paris. De Massoneau spent almost twenty years in Russia, from 1884 to 1904, and during that time he managed to amass a unique collection of antiquities typical for the south of Russia. Some of the other persons involved to the assembling of the group were Karapet, an Armenian merchant who in 1912 offered a collection of antiquities for purchase in Berlin and Ercole Canessa, the most famous antique dealer of the early 20th century, who bought half of Karapet's collection. After that, we follow the fate of those artifacts passing through various hands before they end up divided among their current homes.

In the course of their life, inevitably, the Maikop objects suffered losses: many of the rich finds from the royal Scythian kurgans (Aleksandropol, First Mordvinovski and Chmyrev) held in the Kharkov Museum of History, for example, disappeared during World War II, while a number of artifacts held in the museums of Ukraine and Germany were damaged by fire during the same war, were broken or disappeared as well.

The next part of the book comprises the catalogue of the items. In general, the items made of bronze are considered first, followed by the gold ones of the 5th and 4th cents. BC, to which the bulk of the material belongs. The earlier objects (Bronze Age, pre-Scythian period) and the later (Sarmatian period, Medieval) are described in chronological order regardless of the material. Items not assigned a date are described last.

First is considered the Pennsylvania collection. Each object is given a detailed description, bibliography--where available--and a brief comment on its relation to the finds of the area and the chronological framework. Photographs are fairly good.

Next, the author presents the Germany collection. As neither of the two parts of the Maikop treasure in Berlin is preserved in full, the author describes first the preserved items in chronological order followed by the items that have not survived, and accompanied by drawings in their majority.

Last but not least, Leskov presents two gold plaques of the Metropolitan Museum collection, noting that the Museum holds thirty additional plaques of types represented both in the Pennsylvania Museum and in Berlin.

The chapter devoted to discussion presents the material in chronological order. This is quite useful as it gives for the first time an overall picture of the treasure in the international bibliography. Leskov offers tables with the chronological structure of the Maikop collection for the Scythian period and the 5th and 4th centuries BC. As interesting as they are, one would rather see inventory tables where he could easily trace the period or the class of items that would be of interest to him.

However, one has to recognize that by attempting the synthesis of such a catalogue, Leskov risked becoming boring; instead, he succeeded in being original. This is mainly due to his ability to overcome the usual problems that occur in the compilation of catalogues presenting a variety of artifacts, such as terminology; that is, the same object can be assigned two or more names. What Leskov did to solve the problem was to give each item a one-word definition and then describe it in detail.

All items are studied in their chronological and geographical context, while the most impressive are treated specially, offering at the end an account of the art throughout the period that the objects cover, and at the same time describing in lively terms the history of the area through the tribes that created the local cultures, their contacts and the influences that occurred.

The list of bibliography is extremely useful as it is--again--the first time that one can find it all gathered in a single publication.

All in all, this is a highly recommended edition not only for the scholar of the Caucasus. It offers to the public a unique collection of an extraordinary culture, little known to western scholarship mainly because English publications are so far extremely scarce. Along with Darejan Kacharava and Guram Kvirkvelia: Wine, Worship and Sacrifice, The Golden Graves of Ancient Vani, we have now in our disposal a complete picture of Caucasian art in antiquity.

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