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Bronze and Iron: Ancient Near Eastern Artifacts in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

This exemplary catalogue of metal objects in the collection of the Metropolitan should provide a model for such publications for many years to come. It can be read on several levels at once, following the Hebrew proverb, "He who understands will understand"! On the primary level, the catalogue is filled with a vast amount of information and scholarly analysis for each of the 609 objects presented. On another level, by separating out and clearly demarcating excavated from unexcavated objects, the limitations inherent in dealing with unexcavated objects are made clear, and implicit is a warning to colleagues and students alike that one cannot deal with unexcavated objects casually. Finally, although the author is a curator in a major collecting institution, the message to museums is clear: institutions have responsibility, not only to secure the objects in their care, but to preserve human history. The latter involves both an awareness of the moral and ethical issues raised by current acquisition policies and a responsibility to abide by international laws regarding cultural property.

At the level of information, the author covers an impressive range of literature regarding objects extending from the Caucasus to south Arabia to the western Mediterranean. Excellent photographs are provided for every object, with multiple views for selected pieces. Unfortunately, however, the photographs lack any scale. Absolute measures are given for each piece, but the illustrations vary in scale from 1:1 to other ratios depending upon the size of the piece. Although one can take a ruler and read off the measurements given, then compare these to the photograph, it would be far more useful to include a scale in the original photography. Yet this seems to be avoided on aesthetic grounds in most museum catalogues. When everything is photographed at a scale of 1:1, then an explicit statement to that effect is useful in the introduction, and scales in photographs can be dispensed with. When ratios vary, then some means of quickly "reading" relative sizes is desirable. The drawings by Grace Freed Muscarella and Elizabeth Simpson, when provided, make important contributions. They permit better readings of the decoration on a number of pieces (e.g., no. 308, bronze "Luristan" quiver, by Simpson; no. 145, bronze vase from northwest Iran, by G. F. Muscarella). I found myself wishing for more, however, as, for example, in the case of no. 475, a solid cast bronze object, Mesopotamian in style and identified as an amulet; no. 579, an Urartian bronze belt-fragment; or no. 499, a bronze "cult vessel" of the early first millennium B.C. In the third case, a roll-out drawing of the entire circumference would have provided an immediate visual record of the overall decorative scheme of the object and hence afforded better understanding of the relationship between its "iconography" and its cultic function. The issue of numbers of drawings and photographs in catalogues is not a trivial one and clearly poses a dilemma for cost-conscious institutions and publishers. Choices must be made and, in the present instance, the author is clearly more interested in typology and decoration, less so in the technological aspects of bronze- and iron-working. He occasionally includes lengthy technical reports by conservators in footnotes, e.g., no. 467, a Mesopotamian zoomorphic vessel stand of the Early Dynastic Period. However, a fuller photographic record would have been useful as documentation of technological details. Thus, for the vessel stand cited just above, the description refers to the superstructure of a supporting rod topped by three prongs, cast as a unit, and set into the body of the ibex on the stand, while the animal's hooves include cast-on tenons to permit attachment to the base. These details are difficult to visualize from words alone; an x-ray photograph of the interior support and a photo looking into the base to show the tenons would have greatly facilitated the discussion. Similarly, for no. 493 a and b, two bronze plaques of winged sphinxes, north Syrian in origin, the text description tells us that on the right rear leg of no. 493b there is a metal strip held by small rivets, visible clearly from the reverse, and only with careful examination from the front. The rivet heads are not visible in the frontal photograph as presented; and there is no photograph of the reverse. Further, the author, in assessing these rivets, suggests that "apparently this is either an ancient repair or a strengthening device made at the time of manufacture to secure the separately made leg (so well masked as not to be noticed)." No technical report is provided for this sphinx, and one is led to wonder whether it might not have benefited from technical analysis, which, with additional photography, could help in choosing between the two possibilities.

Both the vessel stand and the sphinx illustrate the point that the catalogue serves issues of metal production and technology less well than it does issues of style, iconography, and typology. This caveat notwithstanding, individual entries follow a careful format of discussion that is generally exemplary in the way in which objects are first described; then publications and previous discussions are considered, new information and parallels added, explanatory hypotheses set forth, and remaining questions clearly articulated. Every scholarly reader will find some points with which to quibble or some dates with which to disagree. For me, these include the rare lapse of a necessary source for no. 492, a Syrian bronze standing figure of a female goddess: D. Collon's study of the seals of Alalakh (The Seal Impressions from Tell Atchana/Alalakh. AOAT 27 |Neukirchen-Vluyn, 1975~)--more recent and more specific than the 1948 study of Porada cited; an overdependence on Frankfort's Diyala chronology for dating no. 467, the Early Dynastic zoomorphic stand cited above; lack of consideration of regional factors to explain variance, and too great a belief in evolutionary relative chronologies based upon "quality," as applied to no. 493, the north Syrian sphinx plaques; and the need for more serious philological study of the inscription on no. 338, a bronze flanged tablet thought to be (late) Middle Babylonian. A slightly more important quibble is the choice of the term "idol-standards" (emphasis mine) for a class of "Luristan" bronzes (nos. 225-27), which are in effect but shorthand renderings of the more complete motif of "master-of-animals" standards (nos. 228-37). Not only do I feel that the former are merely a sub-set of the latter, I also query the use of a culturally weighted, pejorative term, as well as one which implies that these figures were used in "worship"--especially when we have no archaeological evidence to that effect, and no such claims are made in the terminology or discussion of the related "master-of-animals" group. It seems advisable to seek more culturally neutral, descriptive, rather than interpretive, vocabulary. As with any museum, where the collection is weighted in particular areas, the catalogue does not represent equally all of the Near Eastern areas it covers. 432 of the 609 entries are from or attributed to Iran, and by far the bulk of the contribution is in this area. Then, in descending order, 52 pieces are attributed to Anatolia, 42 to Mesopotamia, 32 are designated as generalized "Near East," 14 belong to the "Levant," 13 to the Caucasus, and 2 to south Arabia. The remainder consists of 15 works of greatly varying origin and quality grouped in a final category of "Miscellaneous Objects" (nos. 594-609). Buried within this group is a very important piece, no. 595, a bronze ewer purchased in 1955. It belongs to a significant class of Phoenician vessels distributed through the western Mediterranean from the eighth to the sixth century B.C. in a pattern that generally follows the path of Phoenician trade in the West. The author's discussion is well and fully documented, although he could perhaps have also documented the shape in other materials, from pottery to rock crystal. What is significant is how little the vessel has in common with the rest of the "miscellaneous" class of undifferentiated bells, nails, etc., whose origins cannot be specified. As long as the south Arabian category includes only two objects and as long as there is a "Levant" category, could there not also have been a category made for this major and known piece--whether as a subset, "Western Phoenician," under "Levant," or as a unique class? The underlying issue here is whether a catalogue, any catalogue, stands as a once-only document, in which case expediency may drive economizing on categories, particularly for under-represented groups; or whether the catalogue rather stands as but a statement of the temporary, with classes created representing objects to be supplemented in the future as the museum collection increases and the catalogue is updated. If the latter, then smaller classes of objects, even classes of one, should be given their proper category based on place of origin, once provenance or attribution is known.

None of the above in any way compromises the many scholarly contributions of the present volume. Nor does it diminish its primary classificatory contribution: the careful and systematic distinction made between excavated and unexcavated objects. Many museum or exhibition catalogues have made provenance clear in the past under individual entries: distinguishing in vocabulary a work "from" such-and-such a place, identified as acquired from excavation, as opposed to pieces "said to be from" or "attributed to" a particular place. Muscarella's pioneering contribution is to have made provenance a prime factor in the organization of categories, and to have brought the issue to the forefront in the scholarly discussion of individual pieces. Both of these aspects are stated clearly in the author's introduction. I quote Muscarella, since I believe his distinctions should serve as a model for future publications, as well: "In ordering the material for publication, I have chosen to keep separate the categories of excavated objects and unexcavated objects. The reasons for this are to signify the real distinction that exists between these categories, those with a known provenience and those without, and to clarify precisely that it is the former category alone which informs archaeology and makes possible an archaeological perspective for the latter . . . ." He then goes on to state, "I never affirm ancient trade or other social contacts between two areas based on the alleged or arbitrarily accepted findspots of unexcavated artifacts." One of the things that makes this volume such a pleasure to deal with is that the lofty goals set forth in the introduction are actually practiced throughout.

For each major subdivision within each cultural/geographical area, e.g., northwest Iran (nos. 1-144), excavated objects that have come to the Met as part of the Museum's legitimate share in return for support of the field project are presented first, followed by objects acquired by gift or purchase that can be attributed to that same area (nos. 145-72). Some of the excavated objects are published for the first time (as the bronze plaque of a ram, no. 463, from Balawat in northern Mesopotamia). Some of the groups have long awaited publication (as the important collection of objects from Surkh Dum in Luristan (nos. 191-214). Their publication provides the necessary geographical and chronological anchors for the unprovenanced pieces that follow. Now, not all "excavations" are conducted with equal quality of data-recording, and it is clear that more information is available for the material from Hasanlu (nos. 1-140), say, than for Surkh Dum, where Schmidt's investigations of the late 1930s leave much to be desired. Still the provenance of the Surkh Dum material is clear, and the date, associated pieces, archaeological context, and cultural associations have at least a hope of being established (see p. 114 for discussion of the problems attendant upon artifacts from Luristan). Nowhere is the dependence of unexcavated pieces upon excavated materials clearer than in Muscarella's excellent discussion of nos. 342 and 343, decorated bronze beakers acquired by purchase in 1948 and 1971, respectively. These beakers were previously attributed to western Iran on stylistic grounds, but it is only through the Surkh Dum remains that this can in any way be supported by solid evidence.

Conversely, in his discussion of the inscribed copper bowl, no. 468, dated to the Akkadian period, he is careful to distinguish similar vessels known from excavation and those that have appeared via the art market and to make clear that, even if some examples from the market are attributed to findspots in Iran, "for the sake of archaeological integrity and . . . to avoid confusing modern trade patterns with those of the past . . ." none of the known vessels "can be said to come from Iran."

Excavated objects not only provide far more information about the past than unexcavated objects; the former also have been acquired legitimately, while the latter have generally come via the market, often from clandestine digs and illegally exported from their countries of origin. In 1970 UNESCO adopted a convention on the traffic in cultural properties in order to address the legal and ethical issues attendant upon unexcavated objects. That convention was quickly endorsed by organizations like the Archaeological Institute of America and the American Oriental Society. Institutions that continued to collect unexcavated antiquities after the early 1970s--and certainly after 1983, when the U.S. ratified the UNESCO convention--did so and do so in the face of active opposition from scholars in the field.

Muscarella takes the market in antiquities as a phenomenon to be discussed, not masked. He has himself been a pioneer in the discussion of unprovenanced objects and their consequences in scholarly discourse (cf. "Unexcavated Objects and Ancient Near Eastern Art," in Mountains and Lowlands: Essays in the Archaeology of Greater Mesopotamia, ed. L. D. Levine and T. C. Young, Bibliotheca Mesopotamica 7 |Malibu, 1977~, 153-207), and the field has been in his debt for having brought this subject into print. In the present catalogue, one even wonders whether the author might have been stronger in his criticism. For example, with respect to no. 494, a very important arsenical copper head in the round variously attributed to Mesopotamia, Urartu, and Achaemenid Iran, and dated from the third to the first millennium B.C., Muscarella states that "the only unfortunate issues surrounding the copper head are that we do not know its final resting place or the cultural context in which it existed . . ." "The only unfortunate issues"? Rather, the absolutely unfortunate issue is that scholars have been forced to grasp at straws for parallels because we do not know where the work came from!

Here, Muscarella embodies the dilemma of the archaeologist/curator of integrity in a collecting institution. Certainly, if one cannot avoid dealing with unexcavated objects, then it is good to address the differences between excavated and unexcavated works openly. At the same time, in order to produce a comprehensive catalogue of the collection, he is forced to include objects that have been acquired in contravention of the UNESCO convention. Of the 609 pieces in the catalogue, 113 of them have been acquired after 1972, by which time the convention had been endorsed by the AIA and the AOS (cf. concordance, p. 458). Of these 113, 56 are excavated pieces, 57 unexcavated. I found it striking that all but six of the unexcavated items were gifts made to the Department--e.g., no. 216, received in 1977 as part of a bequest of Alice K. Bache; and no. 230, received as a gift from Louise Crane. It is possible that, although the Met did not receive the pieces until after 1972, they were in their respective private collections well before 1970 and so would not contravene the UNESCO convention. The remaining six works include two purchases through the Rogers Fund in 1974: a bronze and silver dagger attributed to Iran (no. 390) and the important bronze ibex stand (no. 467); an Urartian plaque (no. 576); and two complete "rollers" with a fragment of a third, of uncertain function but interesting type (nos. 469-71). The Urartian plaque at the very least was acquired at a time (1976) when a great influx of Urartian artifacts appeared on the market, artifacts illicitly unearthed and illegally exported from Turkey in the mid-70s. Let us assume that the curator charged with writing the catalogue is not the individual directly responsible either for acquisition policies in general or for a particular acquisition of his department. To restate the dilemma, is the curator to decline to publish the piece as a matter of principle? If so, the catalogue would be incomplete and significantly diminished. The answer to the conundrum is not simple, particularly for those individuals who have chosen to work toward greater responsiveness from within institutions. Muscarella has made his choice: to include these fifty-seven pieces, even the most suspect six; but also to bring to the foreground issues of provenance, if not of ethics. Perhaps sensitized by his articulation of the issue of provenance, I was struck by the author's quiet declaration at the end of the introduction: "This catalogue does not include any of the bronze material in the Metropolitan Museum's collection from Afghanistan-Bactria . . . ." He notes that some of the material was published by H. Pittman (Art of the Bronze Age: Southeastern Iran, Western Central Asia and the Indus Valley |New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1984~). The casual reader may assume that Pittman's publication precludes the necessity to include this group in the present volume. The less casual reader may decide that the geographical region may be outside the author's area of expertise. The suspicious reader may even infer that this is in itself a quiet protest directed at the author's own institution and department. The pieces in question were acquired during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, when large numbers of clandestinely obtained archaeological remains were being smuggled out of the country, and their purchase in the West certainly was legally and ethically questionable.

However one interprets the reference, the curator's dilemma remains. What Muscarella has achieved in Bronze and Iron is a clear and calculated demonstration of how much more is known, knowable, and therefore of interest, when dealing with excavated pieces of known provenance. Once past the level of formal description, as soon as aspects of function, value, affect, and meaning are engaged, one cannot do without contextual data.

In the end, this is the best reason why the great museums (and collections) should engage in or support legitimate excavations, especially those in countries that permit some division of finds, and not waste their resources collecting pieces purveyed in the marketplace. Furthermore, such support of legitimate excavations combined with the eschewal of illicit trade would encourage countries wishing to host scientific excavation projects to institute or maintain enlightened policies of division and distribution of non-unique artifacts. In turn, this would go a long way toward lessening the need for an illicit traffic in archaeological objects. By making this point, both subtly and directly, Muscarella has made a contribution to scholarship in the Near Eastern field, and to archaeology in general, well beyond the studies of individual works in his catalogue.


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Author:Winter, Irene J.
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1993
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