©J. Paul Getty Trust
Causey, Faya. Amber and the Ancient World, Ancient Carved Ambers in the J. Paul Getty Museum
Ed. Faya Causey. Los Angeles: Getty P, 2012. museumcatalogues.getty.edu. Web. 11 December 2013.
Amber and the Ancient World
The J. Paul Getty Museum collection of amber antiquities was formed between 1971 and 1984. Apart from the Roman Head of Medusa (figure 1), which Mr. Getty acquired as part of a larger purchase of antiquities in 1971, all the other ancient amber objects were acquired as gifts. The collection is made up primarily of pre-Roman material, but also includes a small number of Roman-period carvings, of which the Head of Medusa is the most important. The pre-Roman material includes a variety of jewelry elements that date from the seventh to the fourth centuries B.C.: fifty-six figured works and approximately twelve hundred nonfigured beads, fibulae, and pendants. This volume examines the fifty-six objects of pre-Roman date representing human, animal, and fantastic creatures, plus a modern forgery. The Getty’s nonfigured pre-Roman objects and the Roman works are not included in this catalogue.
The ambers were acquired by their donors on the international art market. The loss of any artifact’s context is immeasurable, and any attempt to discuss ambers without their original context is, to borrow an analogy from Thorkild Jacobsen, “not unlike entering the world of poetry.” Poetry plays a part in locating the cultural ambients in which the ambers of this catalogue once performed. In addition to ancient literary sources, the work here is examined via a large interdisciplinary toolkit, including art history, archaeology, philology, pharmacology, anthropology, ethnology, and the history of medicine, religion, and magic.
At a critical moment in writing this introduction, I read two of Roger Moorey’s final contributions, his 2001 Schweich Lectures, Idols of the People: Miniature Images of Clay in the Ancient Near East (2003), and his Catalogue of the Ancient Near Eastern Terracottas in the Ashmolean (2004). Both were important to the final shaping of my text. (It is from the latter publication that I borrowed Jacobsen’s quotation.) Certain of Moorey’s observations played critical roles; among them is his cautionary note in the Catalogue: “Even if it may be possible to identify who or what is represented, whether it be natural or supernatural, that does not in itself resolve the question of what activity the terracotta was involved in.”
Indeed, in what “activity” were these carved ambers involved? This catalogue attempts to address this question. Keeping in mind the challenges presented when working with decontextualized artifacts, I make comparisons to scientifically excavated parallels, to documented works in museums, and, with extra care, to unprovenanced material in other collections, public and private. The evidence suggests that amber was dedicated primarily to female divinities, and that most pre-Roman amber objects were buried with women and children. Individually and as a whole, the Getty Museum’s amber objects are important witnesses to the larger social picture of the people who valued the material.
My interest was first sparked by the peculiar nature of the carved amber on display in the British Museum and by Donald Strong’s masterful 1966 catalogue of the material. Strong duly noted the magical aspects of the subjects of Italian Iron Age ambers, and I took as a challenge one comment: “Many of the more enigmatic subjects among these carvings probably have a meaning that is no longer clear to us.”
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Amber and the Ancient World