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Masters of Fire: Hereditary Bronze Casters of South India

Lecture: Other UCB Archaeology | May 6 | 5:30-7 p.m. |  Badè Museum Gallery (Pacific School of Religion)

1798 Scenic Ave, Berkeley, CA 94709

Thomas E. Levy, Distinguished Professor and Norma Kershaw Chair, Anthropology, UC San Diego

Badè Museum at the Pacific School of Religion, American Schools of Oriental Research

The emergence of the Medieval Chola Empire (9th – 13th century CE) in Tamil Nadu gave rise to some of the world’s most talented metal crafters. Known as ‘Sthapathy’, this crafting community emerged when bronze icons of gods were required for newly institutionalized temples that spread throughout the empire. This hereditary crafting caste has existed for over 1,000 years. They continue to produce bronze icons at numerous workshops in the village of Swamimalai located on the banks of the Kaveri River. The most famous of these icons are the ‘Nataraja’ or ‘Dancing Shiva’ found in museums throughout the world. Working with one Sthapathy family-owned workshop, Tom and Alina Levy carried out three seasons of fieldwork in the village. While Chola bronzes have been widely studied by art historians for years, this was the first ethnoarchaeological project carried out in Swamimalai. New insights concerning the ‘lost wax’ method of metal casting came to light along with information concerning the social organization these hereditary bronze casters. The data also provide important comparative models for understanding ancient metal production in the Middle East and other regions.

Thomas Evan Levy is Distinguished Professor and holds the Norma Kershaw Chair in the Archaeology of Ancient Israel and Neighboring Lands at the University of California, San Diego. He is a member of the Department of Anthropology and Judaic Studies Program, and leads the Cyber-archaeology research group at the California Center of Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2). Elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Levy is a Levantine field archaeologist with interests in the role of technology, especially early mining and metallurgy, on social evolution from the beginnings of sedentism and the domestication of plants and animals in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic period (ca. 7500 BCE) to the rise of the first historic Levantine state level societies in the Iron Age (ca. 1200 – 500 BCE). A Fellow of the Explorers Club, Levy won the 2011 Lowell Thomas Award for “Exploring the World’s Greatest Mysteries.” Levy has been the principal investigator of many interdisciplinary archaeological field projects in Israel and Jordan that have been funded by the National Geographic Society, the National Endowment for the Humanities, National Science Foundation, and other organizations. Tom also conducts ethnoarchaeological research in India. Levy, his wife Alina Levy and the Sthapathy traditional craftsmen from the village of Swamimalai co-authored the book Masters of Fire - Hereditary Bronze Casters of South India. Bochum: German Mining Museum, 2008). Tom has published 10 books and several hundred scholarly articles. Levy’s most recent book is entitled Historical Biblical Archaeology – The New Pragmatism (London: Equinox Publishers, 2010 that recently won the ‘best scholarly book’ from Biblical Archaeology Society (Washington, DC).