SAS Bulletin

Volume 20   Number 1/2   January /June 1997

Trade and Discovery: The Scientific Study of Artefacts from PostMedieval Europe and Beyond.

Duncan R. Hook & David Gaimster (eds.). British Museum Occasional Paper 109, British Museum Press, London, 1995. v + 326 pp., 131 b&w illustrations, £20.00 (paper). ISBN 0-86159-109-7.

Reviewed by Paul T. Nicholson, School of History and Archaeology, University of Wales, PO Box 909, Cardiff CF1 3XU, Wales, UK

    This volume is the result of a conference of the same title held at the British Museum in November 1992, and marking the 500th anniversary of Columbusí voyage to America. This, and similar journeys of discovery, heralded the opening up of hitherto unknown or unexploited areas of the world to European trade, an expansion which sets the PostMedieval world apart from its forerunners. Not only was this a time for the export of goods from Europe, it also opened the way for the introduction of new raw materials and new ideas inspired by this expanded world view.
    The 24 papers presented in this volume fall into two broad groups, three ëcontact studyí papers dealing with the material evidence for early European trade in North America and the remaining 21 papers examining different classes of material. These classes comprise ceramics, glass, precious metals, copperbased alloys and ëother metalsí (steel for armour and lead seals as evicence for the cloth trade). There are however, numerous overlaps between the two broad groupings.
    This is a fascinating collection of papers because of its many interconnections. Studies of trade and exchange in prehistory and in early historical times are well established in archaeology, just as they are for later historical times within the discipline of history; the approach however, has tended to bedifferent. For decades now archaeological science has been used to study the materials of earlier periods for which there is little or no written evidence. It has served to reinforce scant historical information on trade in the early civilisations and has won a place in the standard armoury of archaeological techniques.
    However, just as archaeology and industrial archaeology were relatively slow to develop in Medieval and PostMedieval studies so has been the rise of archaeological science. There have certainly been scientific studies of materials from these periods (cf. papers in Peacock 1977) but they have often been published in volumes dealing only with a single class of material, notably ceramics or metals. This book represents a much broader spectrum of materials and clearly illustrates the scope for scientific studies in all periods. It does not deny the importance of history, but rather facilitates the asking of new or more detailed questions.
    In the ëcontact studiesí section the paper by Auger et al. was particularly interesting. Here archaeological excavation of the arctic camp established by Martin Frobisher between 1576 and 1578 was combined with historical research on documentary sources for the expeditions and analytical studies of certain of the finds. Amongst other questions raised is the reasoning behind faulty assays undertaken by Frobisherís expedition which led to the shipping of 1136 tons of worthless ore to England. Contamination of the samples by lead used in separating gold and silver from ore is suggested as a possibility, one which may be answered by further investigation of the assay office located at the Kodlunarn island site.
    As might be expected, the largest single group of papers is that dealing with ceramics. Pottery is almost ubiquitous and lends itself to studies of provenance. Here Neutron Activation Analysis (also used in other studies in the volume) and mineralogy/chemistry are represented alongside morphological studies. Unfortunately many of the papers here, as elsewhere in the volume, are too short and although they give an interesting overview of the work many of them present relatively little data.
    In the glass section the paper by Gratuze et al. is of particular interest not so much in that it examines the sources of cobalt colourant in French glass of the 13th18th centuries, so much as that this has been undertaken as part of a wider project examining cobalt sources from the Bronze Age to the 19th century. This not only illustrates the relevance of scientific studies for historic periods of time, but also the importance of building up databases on particular materials over long chronological spans so that patterns of exploitation can be established. The paper demonstrates the continuity of certain cobalt sources from prehistory into historical times.
    The paper by Redknap et al. concerning glass ingots from an East Indiaman is one of several in the volume examining material from shipwrecks. The link between underwater archaeology and scientific studies has continued to grow in importance in recent years, and this combination is of fundamental importance for studies of trade. This particular paper suggests that the ingots may have been bound for China where European glass was prized in the 18th century, an interesting reversal of the well known trade in oriental porcelain to Europe. An appendix by Vlierman will prove instructive to those faced with deciding whether certain objects are ingots or parts of ships equipment! This same period saw the import of Chinese nickel and brass to Europe, a subject covered in the paper by Gilmour and Worrall.
    Papers by Mackay and Barrandon et al. look at gold and precious metals from the Americas, not least in relation to the silver mines at Potosi in Bolivia. Not all regions are so rich in historical information to which analytical studies can be related. This point is well expressed in the paper by Craddock and Hook, attempting to examine the trade in copper to Africa where there are exciting possibilites for further study.
    To conclude, this volume will prove of great interest to historians, archaeologists and archaeological scientists interested in trade. The papers are brief, but their number and scope cannot fail to impress upon the reader both the diversity of work taking place in this field and the immense scope for further work. One criticism however, must be the use of notes as a vehicle for references. Genuine notes and footnotes undoubtedly have their place, but with the Harvard referencing system now well established it seems perverse to avoid it here in favour of a numerical system for references.
    The volume is an example of the fruitful collaboration between scholars in archaeology, history and science and it is to be hoped that studies of this kind in the postmedieval period will become increasingly common in the future.

    Peacock, D.P.S. (ed). 1977. Pottery and Early Commerce. Academic Press, London.

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