Thursday, 23 February 2012

Landscape of an object

The surface of an artefact is a landscape to be studied in the same way as a terrain in the real world. Objects have been scanned and studied microscopically for some time now and the scanning electron microscopes (SEM) used to study the edges and use wear of flint and other stone tools are used also to study other types of marks and details left by manufacturing, decoration and use. The resulting images allow studying the traces of the tools used in manufacturing or showing interaction between different materials. The grooves and polishes of the surfaces can be viewed as surface models in the same way as LiDAR images are the digital representations of real landscapes.

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Not many people outside the discipline of classical archaeology – or more precisely Italian or Roman archaeology – know the story of the Fibula Prenestina. This delicate golden brooch was presented by the famous German archaeologist Wolfgang Helbig in 1886 in the German Archaeological Institute in Rome as carrying the oldest Latin inscription (MANIOS:MED:FHE:FHAKED:NUMASIOI, Manios has made me [or, had me made] for Numasios) on its catch. There were some muted murmurs since the exact circumstances of the find were not known and it was just alleged to have been found in Praeneste, an ancient Latin town and a finding place of two of the richest Orientalizing tombs of pre-Roman period dating to the 7th century BC. Many people have assumed that it possibly originated from one of these, the Bernardini tomb. This so-called princely tomb had been excavated in 1876. The details of the find were reported only later and the detailed catalogue of all grave-goods does not exist. The unknown provenance makes it difficult to evaluate the genuinity of the object and the alleged earliest inscription.

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An Italian scholar Margherita Guarducci studied the object in detail in 1980 and concluded that the inscription was poorly executed and the surface had been treated with acid. The gold was also different from the one in the real brooches from Praeneste. These findings and the resulting arguments became the source of a long-standing controversy. However, now the microscopic study has been said to have proven without doubt that this brooch is a genuine article. Last year a round table presented the new results from a detailed study. The surface of the object had been cleaned during some clumsy restoration and conservation operations but there were also signs of ancient repairs with thin layers of different gold placed on the surface. Physicist Daniella Ferro from the National Research Institute (CNR) told press that the inscription had been inscribed in the similar manner as the decorations on the brooch and that the technique was unlikely to have been mastered by a faker in the late 19th century when the knowledge of the brooches was still scarce. In this case it is known that the specimen was provided by a dealer and a faker, named Martinetti, a fact Helbig had tried to hide.

The sad truth is that even if the brooch clearly stems from the period, the genuinity of the inscription can always be considered uncertain because the lack of provenance. If it was not a loose find passed down by the dealers but an object discovered during the excavations, these long discussions and doubts would not exist. Archaeological finds lacking their context and requiring the observation of the landscape of their surface and the testing of their materials leave always the ultimate answer with a tiny amount of doubt. The proof in this case also has to include the undoubted proof that no faker could imitate at the time the ancient techniques used in manufacturing the few then known fibule.

See also:
Maras, D. M., 2012. ‘Scientists declare the Fibula Prenestina and its inscription to be genuine “beyond any reasonable doubt"’, Etruscan News, 14, Winter 2012 on

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