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Plotting the material flows of commonplace Late Bronze Age Seals in Western Eurasia

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - PLOMAT (Plotting the material flows of commonplace Late Bronze Age Seals in Western Eurasia)

Reporting period: 2018-09-01 to 2020-08-31

The aim of PLOMAT, an innovative project on commonplace cylinder seals of Late Bronze Age Western Eurasia, was to offer new perspectives on the study of non-élite populations and the small-scale networks that operated at a time of art internationalisation in the ancient world. PLOMAT mapped the flows of materials and ideas in the Late Bronze Age by studying cylinder seals, which were an important and widely used class of object, invented in Mesopotamia in the 4th millennium as a control mechanism tool and an important status indicator.

Combining Digital Humanities and scientific material analysis with innovative archaeological and art historical theories, it studied for the first time the production and consumption of ‘commonplace’ cylinder seals in mid-second millennium BCE, which spread over a wide area from the Eastern Mediterranean to Central Western Asia. They were seemingly produced en masse from ‘low-cost’ materials (glazed clay, frit or sintered quartz) and display designs of low-quality. These artefacts represented an ideal subject for studying the flow of ideas across large areas in the ancient world.

By developing and implementing novel computational methods and material analysis, and engaging with a bottom-up social archaeological approach, PLOMAT charted movements of people and ideas throughout East and West, providing for the first time a corpus of material analysis characterization for vitreous materials, and exploring the appropriation and/or rejection of Syro-Mesopotamian material and visual culture. PLOMAT unveiled the connectivities of societies through exploring the seals’ spread – and questioned whether it was the objects themselves which were actually travelling, or rather their images and thus ideas, or the technology of making such materials. This reflects upon how and why such seals were appropriated by individuals negotiating their identities in places far from centres of power, during this important transitional period, in the middle of the 2nd millennium BC. It therefore uncovered elements of non-élite history of the region and its peoples.

PLOMAT had three overall objectives:

1. to determine workshops of production for these so-called ‘Common Mitanni’ cylinder seals. This was done utilising two methods: a) by determining how such Common Mitanni seals were produced; material characterisation established seal elemental composition, enabling a first level grouping of material and identification of workshops, and b) image-annotation tools helped determine whether the images and designs of these seals were imitated/locally produced or transferred.

2. in order to explore the socio-cultural context of their production and function,
PLOMAT implemented a GIS framework to plot the spatial distribution of these seals, by applying quantitative and qualitative criteria to the material and their spread

3. and finally to develop a theoretical model of transcultural flows of ideas, materials and artefacts associated with non-élite populations, tracing mechanisms and unveiling socio-scapes of interactions in mid-second millennium BCE Western Eurasia through studying these so-called ‘Common Mitanni’ cylinder seals.

These objectives have been reached through extensive research, training, networking, presentation of research, public engagement and forthcoming academic publication.
In order to achieve the project’s aims and objectives, the following work was carried out:

- Collection and contextual analysis of about 1600 distinct cylinder seals from throughout Western Eurasia. These have been included in a customised Filemaker database which includes fields related to their context, design, and material and has further photos and/or drawings of their designs. The contextual information has also been included into an excel database, fed to ArcGIS.
- Training in pXRF, Machine Learning, GIS, social network analysis, archaeological theory, Aegean archaeology
- Participation in weekly seminars
- Lectures for undergraduate and postgraduate students
- Supervision of postgraduate students’ Master dissertations
- Marking of undergraduate and postgraduate essays and MPhil dissertations
- Research museum field trips visits entailing study and pXRF analysis of cylinder seals in nine museums in Greece (National Archaeological Museum, and the Archaeological Museums in Lamia, Chalkis, Patras, Volos, Nafplion, Nemea, Isthmia, Thiva)
- Research trips to initiate collaborations and obtain further training in pXRF and Convolutional Neural Networks’ analysis
- Training in transferrable skills such as teaching training, project management, language training, administration and leadership skills
- Invited research seminars and conference presentations in major workshops (i.e. Heidelberg University, Charles University Prague), conferences (i.e. Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale, Paris) and Archaeology departments (i.e. Durham University, Oxford University, Institute of Mediterranean and Oriental Cultures Warsaw)
- Organisation of session at European Association of Archaeologists annual conference, Kiel, Germany
- Organisation of session at the 12th International Congress for the Archaeology of the Ancient Near East in Bologna, Italy
- Presentation of PLOMAT project research at 12 conferences and invited lectures
- Public dissemination through online interviews
- Forthcoming scientific peer-reviewed publication of results: one article on computer vision research and workshop identification; two articles on pXRF and workshop identification; and a monograph in preparation on theoretical framework.
This project integrated cutting-edge methods in archaeometry, computer science and GIS with theoretical archaeology, anthropology and art history to analyse commonplace artistic production for the first time. By understanding and mapping the spread of materials, ideas and objects within non-élite contexts in Western Eurasia during the mid-second millennium BCE, it filled a large gap in our current understanding of the past.

Using a specific type of material and visual culture (commonplace seals) as a case study, mapping the spread of raw materials and technological processes required for their extraction and production, engaging with the aesthetic qualities of both the raw material and end-product (colour, glaze) and connecting them to their function and consumption (social demand, social milieu, stratification, gender), PLOMAT explored the potential of transcultural flows and their consequences in the formation of societies.

Combining trade routes and movement of images, objects and techniques along small-scale networks has never been attempted. PLOMAT thus shifted the focus from the élite to commoners in a new way: looking at objets d’art (seals are generally classified as such) through the lens of material culture. The new ‘scapes’ defined (landscapes, socioscapes, resourcescapes) refer to the non-élite history of the peoples of Eurasia during the Late Bronze Age, providing for the first time a grassroots approach to this material. PLOMAT offered new perspectives to the study of non-élite populations and the small-scale networks operating at a time of art internationalisation in the ancient world.
Dr Christina Tsouparopoulou presenting PLOMAT at the Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale, Paris
The pXRF analysis setup at the Nafplion Archaeological Museum, Dr Christina Tsouparopoulou