In the ANU Classics Museum, parked conspicuously in a case of Bronze Age artefacts, is a large copper vase—a modern vessel modelled after a Minoan bronze hydria in the collection of the Chania Archaeological Museum in Crete, hammered into shape with stone and wooden tools. The copper hydria is not a replica, but an artefact of a transdisciplinary investigation undertaken by the author for her doctoral research between 2008 and 2012, bringing together archaeological research and the author’s expertise as a practicing gold- and silversmith to illuminate Aegean Bronze Age technology and the dawn of metal vessel production. This paper revisits the study and the hydria itself in light of the recent explosion of interest in practice-led historical and archaeological studies, and discourse around the future of contemporary craft practice.
During the Early Bronze Age in Crete, Minoan metalworkers learned or discovered how to hammer gold, silver, copper and their alloys into thin-walled vessels. Over the course of the Middle and Late Bronze Ages, Minoan metal vessels grew increasingly sophisticated in parallel with the rising influence of palatial authorities at centres such as Knossos, Malia, Mochlos and Zakros. The archaeological record suggests that the diverse corpus of bronze vessels, which included enormous cauldrons, assorted hydrias and pitchers, basins and cups, as well as a likely equally diverse corpus of precious metal vessels, were employed by elites for conspicuous consumption during communal feasting events associated with rituals and interments.
Prior to this study, the bulk of scholarship on Minoan metal vessels focused on their social and functional roles, but discussion of the manner of their production was inhibited by inaccurate understandings of metalworking practice which have, in turn, had a considerable impact on the vessels’ interpretation. The author’s doctoral study aimed to redress this by outlining an authoritative chaîne opératoire of Minoan vessel production via practical experimentation grounded in material expertise and comprehensive analysis of the archaeological record. However, putting this technology into practice also provided unanticipated insights into the lived experiences of Minoan artisans, the idiosyncrasies of Minoan metalsmithing technology, and the early evolution of the craft itself. The study was published as a monograph in 2013 by Astrom Editions for their series Studies in Mediterranean Archaeology, and remains the only comprehensive study of early metal vessel production and technology.