Curt W. Beck— 2001 Pomerance Award for Scientific Contributions to Archaeology
Curt W. Beck is the world’s expert on the analysis of amber and its archaeological interpretation in the Mediterranean world, Europe and Western Asia. As a Professor of Chemistry at Vassar College, an undergraduate institution, he established the Amber Research Laboratory. He has not only conducted distinguished research, as over 150 publications demonstrate, but also he has educated others in the process of doing professional-quality research. Forty of his undergraduate students at Vassar have been co-authors on his publications. By colleagues in Europe he is best known as the initiator and chair of the Committee on the Study of Amber in the Union Internationale des Sciences Prehistoriques et Protohistoriques. To American colleagues, he is best known as the chair and editor of the Fifth Symposium on Archaeological Chemistry. He has championed the cause of archaeological sciences as an editor of Art and Archaeology Technical Abstracts, and Chemical Abstracts, the Journal of Archaeological Science, and the Journal of Field Archaeology. He is now an emeritus professor, but, rather than retire, he has a opened a new area of archaeological amber research in China and other countries in East Asia.
Below is a review of several areas of the field Beck likes to call “organic archaeometry.” Curt Beck’s earliest field of study was the provenience analysis of archaeological amber artifacts. When Schliemann discovered thousands of amber beads in Grave Circle B at Mycenae, he raised the question whether amber came from the north of Europe or from a more proximate source, like Sicily. An attempt late in the 19th century to answer this question by quantitative analysis for succinic acid is one of the earliest chapters in the history of archaeometry, but was soon found to be invalid, and the question had remained unanswered for almost a century when Beck found that the amber of northern Europe—called Baltic amber or succinite—has a unique infrared spectrum. The ease and speed of IR spectroscopy led to a systematic study of archaeological amber finds across Europe, and in 1978 to the creation, by the Union Internationale des Sciences Prehistoriques et Protohistoriques (U.I.S.P.P.) of a special “Committee on the Study of Amber,” which he has chaired since then. In the course of almost four decades, Beck and his students have recorded the IR spectra of about 2000 naturally occurring amber deposits and of more than 6000 archaeological amber artifacts. He believes that work on amber artifacts in Greece, Hungary, Switzerland, and Great Britain now is essentially complete; representative amber finds from most other European countries, from the Near East, and from China have also been analyzed, but the work is ongoing. Results have been published