Barnes, Ruth, Emma Natalya Stein, and Benjamin Diebold (eds.), Gold in Early Southeast Asia. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Southeast Asia Studies, 2015, xviii + 289 pp. [Monograph 64/Yale Southeast Asia Studies]. ISBN 9780985042929. Price: USD 29.00 (paperback).
This book presents the outcome of the symposium ‘Gold in Early Southeast Asia’, held in 2011 on the occasion of the exhibition of the magnificent Valerie and Hunter Thompson Collection of Javanese gold, donated to the Yale University Art Gallery. A revised edition of John Miksic’s (1990) earlier catalogue on Javanese gold was published alongside. The book encompasses seven of the total of 12 essays presented at the symposium. It provides useful discussions of issues related to the history of gold in this region and to contemporary controversies in museum studies and the international art market. But the volume has some unfortunate shortcomings, both in terms of broad content and detail. For example, the index (p. 283) has a small mistake: UNESCO Convention was established in 1972 (and not 1970), the World Heritage Centre was established in 1992 (and not in 1972). It is regrettable that the book lacks a specific article on the precious gold objects from another Southeast Asian region, such as Khmer or Myanmar gold; Emma Bunker’s presentation at the symposium probably addressed such a topic.
The book provides the scholar and interested reader with a broad range of topics, various approaches, and with detailed insight into single aspects on gold in early Southeast Asia. The first three essays are written within the classical disciplines—art history, archaeology, iconography, style, function, date; the respective topics are specified on Java and Indonesia. The other four articles discuss topics of more recent scholarly interest, such as provenance, production technique, and technical analysis. In particular, the papers by Canilao, Bennett and Glover raise the issues of provenance and the role of the international art market and of fakes and looted material. More or less explicitly, the authors discuss the controversy between researchers and collectors and the implications of these problems for curators of art museums. Thus, the book delivers an important contribution for discussions on cultural heritage and its preservation.
The introduction by Ruth Barnes gives a concise research review, from the relatively minimal work by Dutch archaeologists in the 1920s, leading up to the mid-1980s when scholarly research on gold became serious. The discovery of the Wonoboyo hoard in 1991 greatly accelerated the process. The first essay by Helen Ibbitson Jessup, ‘Indonesian Gold: The Origins of Forms’, unfolds the broad range of forms and functions of gold objects, covering both sacred and secular objects, and in this way introduces key topics in the following articles. The text is richly illustrated by 48 figures. But unfortunately, the outline of the sub-chapters and the images are somewhat confusing, since the topics of function, chronology, and material are not consistently arranged.
In chapter two ‘Gold and Early Javanese Inscriptions’, Jan Wisseman Christie thoroughly discusses the evidence provided in inscriptions to help determine the date of gold objects, their function, and their provenance, restricted to the Early Javanese Mataram period. In particular, she addresses coins and weights, and the monetary value of gold rings. She raises the question of provenance of the raw material and the worked gold, which can be determined only in a few cases. Another issue involves the functions of gold jewelry for personal ornamentation and for religious purpose. Based on the evidence of inscriptions and on the objects of the Wonoboyo hoard, the author concludes that the priority on the religious function of gold in the earlier time of Mataram later shifted to the secular function of wealth and power.
Pauline Lunsingh Scheurleer’s article ‘Ornaments with Meaningful Motifs: The Necessity of Genital Protection’ investigates, in her usual meticulous way, a specific category of art objects, namely the golden ‘pubic plaques’ which are extant only in a small number. Evidence from research history, provenance, style, measure, and material provide the basis for suggestions on the function of the pubic plaques: they were used by the upper class for ornamentation and for magic purpose rather than for real protection of the genitals. Lunsingh Scheurleer draws attention to the frequent specific motif, namely the depiction of mothers of a newborn child. Based on detailed iconographical description, comparison, and analysis, she concludes that the major purpose of the plaques was ‘to avert evil spirits’ (p. 118) in connection with procreation, both for male and female; thus, she objects the previously common interpretation of the plaques as being worn by ascetics. Only one piece, depicting the temptation of Arjuna by the nymphs, points to sexual abstinence.
The article by Andreas Reinecke ‘Ancient Gold and Silver Jewelry and the Beginnings of Gold Working in Mainland Southeast Asia’ goes beyond Indonesia and looks at prehistoric and early historic findings, attracting scholarly interest only recently. The focus is on burial sites in South Cambodia (Bit Meas and Prohear) and North Vietnam. Categorizing the objects into gold sheet ornaments and profiled ornaments such as earrings helps analyzing the production techniques and the function of the objects. From comparisons with findings in other sites in Cambodia, Burma, and Vietnam, the author concludes that local craftsmen developed mastery, from simple techniques in the early first century BCE up to c. 100 CE; some worked objects may also have been imported. The author raises the problem of looting, which prevents archaeologists from an encompassing analysis. Still, the 112 items found in the looted site of Prohear allow some substantial interpretations presented in the essay.
Michael Armand P. Canilao’s article ‘The Ibaloi Miners of Northwestern Luzon and Their Traditional Method of Gold Extraction, Processing, and Working Dating to as Early as the Fourteenth Century’ approaches another much neglected aspect: geology and mining techniques, in the case study of traditional gold mining in the Philippines. Following Chinese annals, gold trade between China and Luzon goes back to the third century CE. According to local oral tradition and Spanish reports, gold mining traces back to the fourteenth century or the sixteenth, respectively. The author demonstrates the long-term tradition of gold mining techniques of the Ibaloi, quoting a number of Spanish and American sources from the seventeenth century until today. This case study may also shed light on early ways of gold extraction in other Southeast Asian regions.
The following article by A.T.N. Bennett, ‘Ancient Gold and Modern Fakes in Southeast Asia,’ addresses problems in today’s collecting of ‘ancient’ gold. Specifically, he shows how the practices of private and organized looting serve the international art market; one of the practices is that gold objects are being recycled and presented as ancient artifacts. Experts who may be able to distinguish fake from original, are often not consulted in order not to obstruct the art trade. The good news is that new techniques for determining composition and quality of objects have been developed and provide valuable information. The impressive tables listing chemical compositions give an idea of modern analyzing techniques. The author suggests that ‘the techniques of gold extraction and working were introduced into Southeast Asia via Indian and/or Chinese merchants seeking old ores’ (p. 230) which seems to have happened in the second half of the first millennium BCD.
The final article by Ian C. Glover, ‘Collectors and Archaeologists with Special Reference to Southeast Asia’ starts with an ironic statement: ‘Archaeologists, private collectors, and museum curators have uneasy relationships […]’ (p. 237). Originally archaeological research served the interests of collectors. Nowadays, it is often vice versa: collectors contribute to the destruction of antiquities. Looting for the art market is extremely profitable. Modern ways of trade and the digitalized globalized trade routes such as eBay encourage illegality. ‘What can be done to improve the situation?’ (p. 245) I appreciate that Glover thinks in practical terms by referring to two programs conducted in Thailand and England, which may prove successful and lead to further protections. Another crucial point in his discussion is the controversy of legislation and museum politics. Namely, should museums prohibit exhibitions of looted and illegal material, or should collecting and cataloguing be considered as a means to save the objects for future generations? Like Miksic, who published the Thompson Collection, Glover documents and publishes objects of ‘dubious provenance’ (p. 249).
Some outcomes of the symposium and the book may provide valuable input to the discussions going on today in museums worldwide regarding their conceptual frameworks and strategies for managing their collections. The comprehensive bibliography also provides a useful source for scholars and readers interested in early Southeast Asian history, art, and gold in particular. I prefer this way of compilation of references at the end of the book instead of following each chapter. There is also a detailed index. I recommend this book as an enriching collection of a broad range of approaches to the precious topic of gold in early Southeast Asia.
Miksic, John (2011), Old Javanese Gold. The Hunter Thompson Collection at Yale University Art Gallery. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Miksic, John (1990), Old Javanese Gold. Singapore: Ideation.