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The Culture of Flowers.

Domestication, symbolism and luxury cultures also lie at the heart of JACK GOODY's new magnum opus on The culture of flowers (xviii+462 pages, 19 colour plates, 42 plates, 3 tables. 1993. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; ISBN 0-521-41441-5 hardback [pound]40; ISBN 0-521-42484-4 paperback [pound]13.95). This is vintage GOODY, starting with the big comparative question 'Why so few flower cultures in Africa compared with Eurasia?'. As with literacy, haute cuisine and technology, the picture turns out to be a lot more complicated in reality, so we set out to find the beginnings of cultures that value flowers 'not for what they will be [i.e. seeds] but for what they are', and then trace their fortunes through to the present. Unsurprisingly, this pursuit overlaps with the formation of gardens (whose origins pre-date, according to GOODY, the explicit elaboration of flowers) and also with the extraction of perfumes and the abstraction of decorative motifs. GOODY has hit on a splendid and original subject, and as always in his work there is no shortage of data nuggets to be mined. Yet for an archaeologist this book is a frustrating read. The answer to the origins of floral cultures turns out to be what can only be described as a flower power model. The culture of flowers (a pun also implying, of course, their cultivation) correlates with the rise of Bronze Age hierarchical societies practicing intensive agriculture (i.e. states), in which flowers, being transitory things that take up good arable for wasteful 'aesthetic horticulture', offer an ideal medium for elite display and conspicuous consumption. Hence they appear as ceremonial adornment at banquets, as bouquets in tombs, and provide a nice opportunity to say it with flowers to the divinities who so kindly legitimate the position of the elite in lotus-land. The ideas are intriguing, and may even be right. But save for a solid passage on Egypt, GOODY bungles the proof. His Mesopotamian Urgarten is mainly illustrated with Neo-Assyrian Iron Age evidence, and the Minoans, ultimate among flower lovers if we believe their wallpaintings, are inexplicably passed over. When GOODY admits that his association fails to come good until the 1st millennium BC, one must query if this is not simply a reflection of the greater accessibility of Graeco-Roman sources and, generally, if the correlations throughout are not more to do with horizons of representation and recording than actual patterns of behaviour. In addition, the decision to omit the New World cuts out not only the secret admirers of Coatlicue mentioned earlier, but the fantastic gardens of Tenochtitlan too, that so astounded Bernal Diaz and which form part of the 'marvel' whose literary expropriation by the conquerors is brilliantly unravelled in STEPHEN GREENBLATT's Marvellous possessions: the wonder of the New World (The Clarendon and Carpenter Lectures 1988. xiv+202 pages, 6 illustrations, 10 plates. 1991. Oxford: Clarendon Press; ISBN 0-19-812382-5 hardback [pound]22.50). A chance is also missed to explore the intriguing link between flowers and violence in the Aztec warrior's 'flowery death', a link that GOODY recognizes in the Old World in the use of garlands in sacrifice and of perfume by warriors. The most exciting and convincing chapters of this book for many archaeologists may turn out to be those that are the purest anthropology.

Still on ancient flowers, PETER WARREN writes: 'Everyone interested in the human response to the marvellously rich Greek flora will find a helpful and stimulating companion in HELLMUT BAUMANN's Greek wild flowers and plant lore in ancient Greece (252 pages, 482 illustrations many in colour. 1993. First published in 1982; this translation, with emendations, by W.T. & E.R. STEARN. London: The Herbert Press; ISBN 1-871569-57-5 hardback [pound]16.95). Its purpose, and success, is to set out the religious, mythological, medicinal and alimentary use by ancient Greeks (as described by Greek writers plus Pliny) of a large number of scientifically identified plants, mostly illustrated in excellent colour photographs. Baumann's approach is to summarize the associations of divinities with specific plants, not to relate the latter within structures of mythology, in short the German tradition rather than Detienne. Archaeologists of palaeobotanical or iconographical persuasion will discover much thought-provoking material here. The arrangement is not botanical, so the index is an absolute necessity. Future English editions, which will surely be in demand, should be able to correct a fair crop of remaining small errors and give evidence for sometimes questionable statements.'
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Author:Broodbank, Cyprian
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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