Nigel McGilchrist’s LRB review of David Abulafia’s “magisterial” The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean (I confess I’m a sucker for words like “magisterial”) got me so fired up I went to the Amazon page, noticed that the Kindle price was under ten dollars for this $35 book (Amazon’s selling the hardcover for $21.69, but who needs another hardcover cluttering up the place?), and succumbed to the lure of getting it instantly, even though I won’t get around to it for a while. I suspect it will eventually provide me with a number of posts, but the word that inspired me to write this one doesn’t even occur in the book—it’s from a section of McGilchrist’s review where (in the time-honored tradition of scholarly reviewers) he complains about what the book doesn’t cover:
In his discussion of the prehistoric era, Abulafia mentions obsidian, whose importance to early human communities cannot be overestimated, and points out that the training of tool-makers ‘in what seems a deceptively simple craft was no doubt as long and as complex as that of a sushi chef’. Obsidian is cited a dozen times in the first thirty pages, but never so as to explain or to pursue satisfactorily its immense significance. Obsidian is the oldest widely ‘traded’ commodity in Mediterranean history. It occurs naturally and is easily accessible at only two major sites within the sea – the volcanic islands of Lipari near Sicily, and Milos in the Aegean (that is, if we exclude minor sources such as Nisyros and Gialí) – and yet it is found at the lowest levels in archaeological sites all over the Mediterranean from Malta to Crete, and from Lemnos to Egypt. Thanks to its distinguishing characteristics we can recognise the source of the material in each case, and can deduce that from perhaps as early as 8000 BC, obsidian from Milos was being transported around the Aegean islands, presumably in sail-less coracles.
Ninety kilometres to the east of Milos lie the islands of Paros and Naxos, which produce minerals quite different from the sharp, black, volcanic glass of their neighbour. The soft, white, crystalline marble of Paros is still recognised by many artists as the purest and most responsive sculptural marble in the world. Anyone who has visited these islands will have understood the quality of the marble from the soft, translucent pebbles found on their shores, smoothed by centuries of the waves’ slow abrasion. With obsidian the prehistoric islanders could cut the soft marble into shapes, but how was it possible to give the resulting form the soft patina of the stones on the shore? The solution was on their doorstep: a valley in the east of Naxos is one of the major sources in Western Europe of emery: a dull, unprepossessing stone that has the ability to polish and smooth marble without leaving behind any scuffs or colour.
From this trinity of materials Cycladic sculpture was born. Early human trading by boat thus gave rise to the slim white figurines of the Middle Bronze Age, which have been found at so many places on neighbouring islands. They represent the origins of a Western sculptural tradition. And the monumental sculptures undertaken 1500 years later on Naxos, which would lead to all later Greek and Roman and Renaissance sculpture, were also a product of that proximity of marble and emery – this time worked with bronze tools rather than obsidian. To mention Cycladic sculptures, as Abulafia does, without saying how they emerged has little other than documentary value, and the same goes for talking about obsidian without saying what it gave rise to.
Isn’t that fascinating? But it occurred to me to wonder where the word emery comes from, so I looked it up; turns out it’s “from Old French emeri, emeril, from Late Latin smericulum, from Greek smiris.” Nothing astonishing, but I like the way French got rid of the s– and added an e-, which we stress in English, so that the sound of the word is substantially changed. It also pleases me that the soft sound of the English word could be taken to represent the smooth surface produced by emery, whereas the harsh sound of Russian наждак [nazhdák] brings to mind the rough material itself. (The Russian word is from Turkish nаdžаk, or nacak in modern spelling, which apparently means a kind of large ax with a hammer at the back; the semantic transition isn’t self-evident, but they’re both used to cut away material, so it’s not implausible.)