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Coral trade

Study of Iron Age objects with coral inlays for the determination of the provenance and alteration phenomena

The project is the first extensive study of central European coral finds from the period between the 7th to the 3rd c. BC with the aim to fully exploit the informative potential of corals for central problems of the Iron Age research. The red coral (Corallium rubrum) is well suited for investigating intra-european cultural contacts and exchanges because it bears the particularity in comparison to other import goods that it was traded over the whole period, its distribution was narrower than that of other goods, and it allows a more precise temporary classification because it was generally used as decoration of well dated jewelry objects and originates from graves with other well dated finds. Therefore, coral finds play a crucial role in the reconstruction of social structures, because they are present in less wealthy graves as well as in élite burials.

However, there are legitimate doubts about the reliability of previous material interpretations. It can be assumed that a large number of objects have been incorrectly identified. Correct material identification is absolutely needed to exploit the informative potential of archaeological coral finds. Despite the 130-year-old history of research on prehistoric corals, there have been hardly any extensive studies. One reason for this limited interest is that corals lose their intense red color and shiny surface structure due to poorly understood ageing processes, which is why other light-colored materials such as bone, ivory, chalk or shells are often mistaken for corals. It is therefore not surprising that attempts have repeatedly been made to identify these substances using different methods.

At this stage starts the project idea of an interdisciplinary working group composed of archaeologists. A reliable and efficient analytical strategy for the material identification of corals was elaborated. Besides non-invasive methods the group will search for new markers in the coral composition and structure in order to test the potential of corals for provenancing and dating. The archaeological interpretation of the gained new knowledge will be used to study temporary and regional changes of trade and communications routes in the Iron Age. Economic and social as well as consumption-theoretical and religious approaches will be used for the study in their archaeological contexts. A central aim of this project is the establishment of a database and an extensive catalogue on the Iron Age coral finds comprising at least 2500 artifacts. All information will be gathered and be made available to the scientific community in order to allow further research on this exceptional type of find.

Sponsor: Johannes Gutenberg-Universität, Institut für Vor- und Frühgeschichte, Mainz 
Project partners: Johannes Gutenberg-Universität, Institut für Vor- und Frühgeschichte; Université Pierre et Marie Curie - Paris VI De la Molécule au Nano-objets: Réactivité, Interactions et Spectroscopies (MONARIS) – UMR 8233; Laboratoire d‘Archéologie Moléculaire et Structurale (LAMS) UMR 8220 CNRS / UPMC
Duration: 2014 to 2017