JAIC 1986, Volume 25, Number 2, Article 6 (pp. 105 to 107)
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Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 1986, Volume 25, Number 2, Article 6 (pp. 105 to 107)


Arthur Steinberg

EsinAtil, W. T.Chase, PaulJett, Islamic Metalwork in the Freer Gallery of Art, Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D. C., 1985, 273 pp., including 4 appendices and extensive bibliography.

This is a catalogue of an exhibition of the Freer Gallery's collection of Islamic metalwork, which serves at the same time as a handbook. Ms. Atil has written a highly informative introductory overview of the history of Islamic metalworking and its relation to other arts, and to the cultures in which it was produced. She has also provided the individual catalogue entries with the usual comparisons to works in other collections. What makes this catalogue so much more important still are the technical portions written by W. T. Chase and Paul Jett, and it is to these that I will address myself in this review.

The Chase and Jett contribution begins with a ten-page chapter on techniques and materials, and an extremely handy glossary of technical terms. Then they have provided well-illustrated technical notes for each object that explains as fully as possible how the object was made (there is here occasional overlap with Atil's more art historical description of the individual object). Finally they have added an appendix on the x-ray fluorescence analysis (= XRF) of the objects in the collection. On the whole, these are excellent contributions which should be consulted both by the conservator who works on any metalwork of this kind and by the connoisseur who can gain considerable appreciation of the works of art by better understanding the complex technology used in their production.

The comments that follow are not meant to detract from this fine work, but rather to note some areas in which there are ambiguities and, perhaps, lacunae. The interesting discussion of brasses, pp. 35-39, would be clearer if the three techniques for alloying zinc with cooper were spelled out, and if there were more explanation in the caption to diagram 2 of exactly what it illustrates (it is reasonably clear to someone who reads metallurgical or geological papers regularly, but less so to the average user of this catalogue). What this diagram does illustrate strikingly, though not unexpectedly, is that the metalsmiths adjusted their alloys according to how they were going to work the metal: leaded brasses are better for casting and subsequent cold-working, while purer zinc brasses are better for hammering and spinning.

Drawings would greatly have improved the section on inlay techniques since it is not always easy to picture them from the descriptions. It is a shame that the organic materials in the black inlays were not analysed, it would be interesting to know once and for all what those inlays which are not niello are actually made of. (This illustrates all too well one of the classic problems among even the best of conservation scientists, namely that those well-versed in the analysis and examination of inorganic materials are reluctant to examine—or have examined—the organic materials found on objects that they are studying. It is significant that the craftsmen who made the objects had no compunctions about mixing organic and inorganic materials!) The extraordinary hardness of no. 29 is interesting (p. 41) but not discussed in the technical note under the object itself, even though it seems significant.

The glossary of technical terms is extremely useful as a ready-reference for the many metallurgical terms that are necessarily and rightly used in the technical notes (it is cumbersome and difficult to discuss metallurgical techniques without using this specialized vocabulary which has been developed over the years). But I note the omission of “scarf-jointed” which does occur in some of the descriptions, and I observe again that it would have been very helpful to add some drawings when discussing the shape of a join. “Fills” is another term used (e.g. no. 3) which might be explained more fully in the glossary: are they cast, flow-welded, or hammered into place?

As has already been observed, the technical notes on each catalogue entry are admirable: they are clear, and very instructive about how the object was made, joined, decorated, finished and repaired, moreover they are illustrated with beautiful detailed macrophotographs. So again the comments that follow are not so much critical as noting some omissions and ambiguities. Are the compositions of nos. 5 and 6 the result of intentional alloying or of natural alloys? Might it not be useful to explain how the granules used in granulation were made? There is an analysis of body metal, solder and twisted wire all together as one analysis on no. 7, p. 76, which can hardly illustrate anything since each component is surely of different composition! The niello inlay of no. 8, p. 80, was determined by both X-ray diffraction and fluorescence: it would be interesting to see this analysis and, in fact, to compare the compositions of various neillos just as the compositions of other alloys have been compared.

The analysis of the heavily leaded brass no. 11, p. 90, raises the question of how representative of the composition of the whole object any surface analysis really can be when the metal may contain strong segregation and has surface corrosion. Chase and Jett consider the problem on p. 42 when discussing their examination methods, and again in their appendix on XRF, but it might be well to raise it yet again when discussing an actual object. There is no question that compositional analyses are of some use, especially when dealing with such well-documented and well-dated objects. One may, for example, detect preferential alloying based on function, or perhaps identify a particular alloy that can be associated with one workshop, or one may even be able to cluster workshops on the basis of alloy compositions. But the metals that are being analysed here are prone to severe segregation on cooling, and some of the segregated phase may well be concentrated on the surface. Or again, other objects may actually have intentional surface enrichment of one or another phase in the alloy. Still other objects have surface corrosion which may penetrate into the metal along grain boundaries and, if sampled, will appreciably distort the analytical results. This is not to suggest that the writers are not fully aware of all these phenomena and their incumbent effects on analyses, but one must be zealous in observing these problems to the less informed reader at every opportunity!

The high-zinc brass candlestick no. 13, pp. 95-101, is apparently made of a single piece of sheet metal which was raised, embossed, chased, etc. out of a disk. It was not worked in a flat sheet which was then rolled and soldered together. This is an extraordinary bit of metalsmithing, showing the craftsman pushing his materials to the limit (cracks and stretching apparent on x-radiographs show just how far he pushed). The unusually thin casting, no. 14, pp. 102-110, is carefully studied, but we are not told how thick the walls actually are. The interpretation of the “chaplets” as chills on the basis of the excellent enlarged x-radiograph is interesting, and reasonably convincing. It is not at all obvious that 2% more lead in the handle of no. 16, p. 123, would make the metal flow better and have a much lower melting temperature than the rest of the brass used in the object, since the higher zinc contents of the handle might effect the casting qualities just as much as more lead would.

The precise specification of the gold and silver content on the object no. 26, p. 189, is very curious indeed, and the authors' dismissal of the figures as wrong needs more discussion. Their observation in note 5, p. 190, that gold was left over and used elsewhere by the craftsman is very probable, and the metalsmith merely recording how much material he was given to make the commission. He probably did not expect the patron to try to calculate the precise gold and silver content of the finished work! It is such insights into the working procedures of the shop that enrich and humanize studies of this kind.

I find that the technical discussion of the steel objects is somewhat less complete and satisfactory than that of the brasses and gold and silver. This is not unusual in catalogues dealing with art objects since curators and conservators are generally more interested in the complexities of casting, building-up, inlaying and otherwise decorating non-ferrous objects than in the niceties of the blacksmith's art. Thus the first discussion of “water-patterned” steel (no. 31, pp. 200-201) is rather summary, and does not really tell the connoisseur enough about how this kind of steel is made, nor does it tell the person interested in steel production enough either. Moreover, to “light forge at relatively low temperatures” to weld parts together is virtually impossible—if steel is to be hammerwelded it is generally done at white heat, which is not “relatively low.” The interesting threaded screw-pin and nut on the end of this axe is not at all discussed: is this a common occurrence at this period; how were the threads cut? Some discussion of the hardness of this steel would also be in order: how does it compare to others in the collection and/or to other contemporary steels?

What I am suggesting by these comments is that iron and steel objects have a different set of technologically interesting characteristics than do non-ferrous objects, and they should be observed to the user of a catalogue of this sort. The production of steel by forging, or by a “casting” method as suggested for wootz steel, are complex technologies and they form the necessary background for the whole further processing of the objects. Hardness, edge maintenance, surface patterning, welding (whether for patterning or other reasons) and mechanical joining techniques, are all significant characteristics of these objects and are important considerations in the production of tools and weapons. They are, moreover, distinctly different from the concerns of the brass worker or of the gold and silversmith. The Freer collection contains objects which illustrate a good many of these different aspects of steel-forging, but I do not find that the authors have really given them adequate discussion; they tend to concentrate more on the decorative aspects of the steel objects than on their very interesting methods of production.

A beautiful, heavily worked example of water-pattern steel is found on the dagger no. 35, pp. 214-219; a curious line across the whole blade about one-third up from the point appears like a repair or other discontinuity, but is not remarked on by the authors. The pattern-welded knife, no. 36, pp. 220-225, is the first example of still another iron-working technique, and is again rather sketchily described. It would be interesting to know what the authors think the inclusion of meteoritic iron does to the properties of the steel of this dagger.

The discussion of analyses (pp. 262-264), and especially comparisons of XRF with wet chemistry, is excellent, and highlights well the sampling problems that are encountered on various samples due to alloying and corrosion. Clearly the authors are well aware of the pitfalls of analyses, and focus on them: their restraint in relying on them, or drawing important historical conclusions from them is admirable. When all is said and done, this appendix is typical of the very high quality of this catalogue: it is carefully done and well considered, beautifully illustrated, and highly informative. If I have been unduly critical in my remarks, it is only because I think that it might help clear up some minor flaws. This catalogue is, in fact, a model of its kind and deserves careful study.

ArthurSteinberg, Anthropology/Archaeology Program, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA 02139

Copyright 1986 American Institute of Historic and Artistic Works