©J. Paul Getty Trust
Causey, Faya. Early Iron Age and the Orientalizing Period, Ancient Carved Ambers in the J. Paul Getty Museum
Ed. Faya Causey. Los Angeles: Getty P, 2012. museumcatalogues.getty.edu. Web. 24 March 2019.
Early Iron Age and the Orientalizing Period
After about 1200 B.C., amber was much scarcer throughout the Mediterranean until about the mid-eighth century, when it begins to reemerge appreciably in archaeological contexts. For the most part, it was at the end of the eighth and especially during the seventh centuries when amber was most popular in Greece and peninsular Italy. This is not to leave out a few extraordinary tenth-to-early-eighth-century exceptions, notably at sites in Italy, in Latium, at Castel di Decima, and, most recently, in the Roman Forum and in the Basilicata, in the area between the Agri and the Sinni, where, in the graves of elite women, remarkable amber parures were discovered. This is the case with a girdle with interspersed bird-shaped beads from the Enotrian Tomb 83 at Latronico. On the whole, amber-embellished objects were buried in both male and female graves, but figured amber is almost exclusively found in those of women and children.
Carved figured ambers of eighth-to-seventh-century date are characteristically small (on average, roughly fingertip size), suggesting that these works, mainly pendants, were carved from small pieces. None are composites, that is, works made from almost imperceptibly joined pieces, as is characteristic of contemporary fibulae from Etruria, Campania, and the mid-Adriatic. Among the earliest figured finds are those from the eighth-century necropolis at Veio Quattro Fontanili. They include a standing ithyphallic male, monkeys, a horse, a duck, and a human lower leg and foot, as well as both scarabs and scaraboids, some of which have intaglio horses engraved on their flat sides. All of these are amuletic subjects of great antiquity, and truly Orientalizing. A cinerary urn buried in the First Circle of the Interrupted Stones at Vetulonia (of circa 730–20 B.C.) contained a number of high-status objects, including an amber scarab, thus indicating an object interred after cremation. The scarab may well have been an import, like the accompanying glass beads and bronze Phoenician bowl, although the urn also contained locally produced objects. A number of female graves in and around Magna Graecia each contained but one small waterbird, which may be related to the Egyptian duck amulet, a symbol of regeneration; it may also be related to the duck symbol of northern Europe. Since the Bronze Age, the duck, a multivalent symbol both guardian and apotropaic, was believed to connect the chthonic and other worlds.
In Greece, worked amber was buried in foundation and votive deposits as well as, more rarely, in graves. A pair of Geometric-date tombs (possibly of priestesses or princesses) at Eleusis offer critical evidence of amber in the burial of women of the highest rank. The rich tombs include sumptuous grave gifts, among them necklaces of gold, amber, and faïence, and amber-inlaid ivory furnishings. The presence of glowing elektron bears witness to the lavish and exceptional occasion of the entire funeral process.
Both figured and nonfigured ambers have been excavated at sanctuaries dedicated to a limited number of divinities, mainly female. These include objects from the sanctuaries of Artemis (Ephesus), Artemis Orthia (Sparta), Hera Limeia (Perachora), and Apollo Daphnephoros (Etretria). Intaglios were found at Perachora, and two animals at Aetos (Ithaca). The earliest date to the decades around 700 B.C. and represent birds at rest and couchant animals, and they, like the contemporary Italian objects, are generally quite small. At Ephesus, the foundation deposit was buried circa 700 near the cellar of the temple of Artemis. Anton Bammer has suggested that the ambers (and accompanying ivory objects) are the remains of a pectoral worn by an early statue of the goddess. Other figured Greek works of this period include the by-now traditional subjects of figured amber: crouching monkeys, recumbent lions, human heads, and birds, ducks, and other species.
The seventh-century B.C. ambers from Italy are almost exclusively mortuary and more extensive in number, type, and size than the contemporary Greek examples. As is characteristic of all art from the Orientalizing period, they take on a character different from the eighth-century material, although birds, especially ducks, retain their popular status, as they do in other figurative arts in Italy. At some sites, figured amber is found in combination with faïence amulets of Egyptian fertility and protective subjects. The primary seventh-century finds have come from Etruria, Campania, and Latium; Etruria Padana and elsewhere in the mid-Adriatic; and from the Basilicata. Recent discoveries in southern Italy and at the Adriatic site of Verucchio (near Rimini) have greatly modified the picture of amber importation and use. One rare figured subject from the extraordinary amber-rich graves at Verucchio is a fibula decoration of addorsed ducks.
Figured ambers excavated at southern Etruscan sites include the ubiquitous monkeys and a number of standing “nude” females, their arms in various poses associated with fertility. An exceptional example, dating to the first half of the seventh century, is the elaborate grouping of amber pendants and beads (possibly a collar) found on top of the cremation layer in a tomb at Vetulonia. Little else accompanied the strings of amber: the figured pendants include fish, a scaraboid, seven monkeys, and eleven standing female figures dressed only in collars and armlets, with legs apart, the vulva exposed, and hands placed on the lower abdomen. The most important pendant represents an enthroned female giving birth, the infant’s head appearing between her legs. This tiny amber is the strongest evidence to date for a direct link between amber and childbirth.
Many other types of figured amber from the second half of the seventh century correspond to standard Egyptian amuletic iconography. Among the most popular are the dwarf deities, such as Bes and Pataikos-Ptah—the most common Egyptian protective genies. Bes was known to protect sleepers and women in childbirth and safeguarded the young mother and her children. Both figures have solar associations; the Pataikos-Ptah figure, part adult and part infant, symbolized the infant sun. Almost without exception, the images on early amber carvings were reiterations of Egyptian-sourced solar and rebirth symbols.
The main focus in this catalogue is amber in the form of figural subjects, but the many beads and pendants of this period in botanic or shell forms are also important, since they, too, served a similar role via a metonymic process. Amber cowrie pendants, common in Italy from the seventh to the fifth centuries B.C., were potent subjects of fertility and childbirth, since the mature cowrie shell was thought to resemble the vulva. The extraordinary Getty Cowrie Shell / Hare pendant (figure 42), for instance, combines the two subjects of fertility and regeneration. Scarab-cowrie combinations, such as that represented by a ninth-century amber from Tursi (Basilicata), do the same. In Egypt, both real cowries and imitations in gold and other materials were strung together to make girdles and worn in the pelvic region.
The most important surviving ensemble of the seventh century from Italy is that of a high-ranking woman buried at Latin Satricum (Tomb VI). The grave, dated circa 650/40 B.C., contained a flint (actually a Neolithic obsidian scraper), and more than five hundred amber objects—fibulae, spindles, nonfigured beads and pendants, and numerous figured objects. The medley of stylistic and iconographic connections of the objects is typical of the period and place, but the burial is without parallel: it is the largest single burial with amber from ancient Italy. The figured pieces include nude females and males (some doubled and addorsed), fantastic creatures, and fish, and some of the pendants were carved from large amber blanks. Some pendants are unique, others variants on or copies of Egyptian subjects: fish, Bes, and patakoi. The unworked pieces of amber, here and in other tombs, may also have served as fumigants, unburnt incense, or apotropaics. This grave’s goods and the many contemporary large amber fibulae of the mid-Adriatic of these decades speak to new sources (geographic or cultural) or to new access to big pieces of jewelry-grade amber.
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Early Iron Age and the Orientalizing Period