Communities of Style: Portable Luxury Arts, Identity, and Collective Memory in the Iron Age Levant.
The year 2014 saw the appearance of two publications on art and interconnections in the Near East and Mediterranean during the first millennium B.C.E. One is the book under review here. The other, Assyria to Iberia at the Dawn of the Classical Age (Aruz, Graff, and Rakic 2014), accompanied the stunning exhibition of the same name at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Viewers and readers explored complex webs of interaction, guided by stimulating displays, captions, and catalogue essays. Feldman's remarks there on metalwork (pp. 157-60) link the two publications. Indeed, so many of the objects and issues figure in both, yet are approached so differently, that the books ought to be used in concert.
In her own monograph, Feldman begins by defining her terms and principal argument. By "communities of style," she means that "the material effects of art objects, particularly that of style... generate community networks, and... accomplish this through their unique ability to catalyze collective memories" (p. 2). As she explains further, "more than simply a guide to attribution, style serves to establish and structure communities through the engagement of human participants with material objects" (p. 6). Here the objects in question are portable luxury goods, including carved ivories, decorated vessels of bronze, gold, and silver, and horse bridle ornaments, made in the Near East ca. 1000 to 600 B.C.E. and found from Hasanlu to Praeneste.
In chapter one, the horse bridle frontlets from the Northwest Palace at Nimrud afford the springboard for Feldman's critical analysis of traditional methods of connoisseurship, as well as for her discussion of comparanda seen in such items as engraved tridacna shells and stone orthostat reliefs. Deemed in most scholarly literature to be neither Phoenician nor North Syrian in style, the frontlets have presented a problem of "in-betweenness," as she puts it (p. 11). But rather than trying to map stylistic groups in space or even time, Feldman suggests that the artistic evidence points to communities of shared, skilled practices, which moved fluidly among the Levantine polities of the age.
Among the topics treated in chapter two is the issue of a specific set of markings often found on animal bodies, beginning in the Late Bronze Age and continuing into the Iron Age. This so-called Flame and Frond pattern occurs on lions, bulls, and fantastic creatures of leonine or bovine parentage. The designs seem in part based in the reality of the Asiatic lion's distinctive belly fur (something not noted here), in part more abstract. If, Feldman argues, the markings should not be seen, as they usually are, as a stylistic signature, they "might be viewed then as the product of certain shared social relations that spanned this entire region; conversely, through their consumption, they contributed to shaping certain panregional community identities" (p. 57).
Chapter three turns to Assyria and its clearly defined style. Here we are on well-trodden ground: as the state expanded, art was frequently enlisted in the service of empire. While Feldman acknowledges this, she nevertheless maintains that 'Assyrian cultural identity and style did not exist before the production of the arts. Rather, it came into being through the processes of stylistic practices" (p. 110). I suspect this may lead us into the circularity against which Feldman cautions us elsewhere in her book. And where does her contention leave the cultural identity observable already in the Old Assyrian period? In addition, if the homogeneous, consistent Assyrian style reflects a centralized administration, when did that arise? Not until the reign of Tiglath-Pileser III (p. 79)? There will surely be disagreement on these questions, yet fuller discussion would appear fundamental to the validity of her argument.
The book concludes with selected studies of inscribed metal bowls (chapter four) and recycled luxury goods (chapter five). Take the Near Eastern bronze bands that were affixed to bronze statues at Olympia. What did the eclectic ensemble mean to the Greeks? Why keep some bands and melt others down to make ones with Greek iconography, as we know they did from scientific analyses of the bronze? Why re-use them at all? In these and her previous chapters, there are thought-provoking avenues of inquiry to pursue at every turn.
In the space remaining here, I would like to follow one of these a short distance. We read this in chapter one: "As Moorey notes, what slim evidence that exists for craft production in the textual sources reveals more about 'administrative history' than craft organization" (p. 29). In fact, by the time of his summary of it (Moorey 1994), the evidence from the crafts archives from the Ur III to the Neo-Babylonian periods was far from slim. Further, his quoted remark refers specifically to the archives of five Ur III royal centers (Neumann 1987), which preserve a wealth of information, but do not document accountability straight through from production to distribution to consumption. In the twenty years since Moorey's book, major text publications have shed considerable additional light on crafts, artisans, materials, and workshop organization. It seems a missed opportunity for Feldman not to have used their findings to support, modify, or negate her theoretical and art historical positions.
To give some idea of the richness and potential of the texts presently available, I have chosen one example each from the third, second, and first millennia. About 2220 B.C.E., the Akkadian king Naram-Sin inaugurated a grandiose refurbishment of Ekur, the sanctuary complex of the god Enlil at Nippur. We learn from an archive of over forty tablets, seal impressions, and other inscribed pieces of the vast quantities of metals and rare materials used, of the hundreds of artisans (e.g., seventy-seven joiners, eighty-six goldsmiths) brought from throughout Mesopotamia to work at Nippur, and of the administrative logistics of managing the various workshops, including one that supplied projects elsewhere (Westenholz 1987). We also have detailed descriptions of Ekur's new decorations and furnishings, from the monumental figures with gold-plated faces flanking the entrance and guarding the gateways and enclosure wall to the door bolts shaped like water buffaloes, emblems of Naram-Sin's eastern conquests.
From Mari in the early second millennium, we now have a very large corpus of published texts with relevance for artistic production. A recent volume (Arkhipov 2012) provides a comprehensive glossary of words for metals, precious stones, beads, and decorative techniques. The texts may be studied by ruler, often within eponym or year, or by type, such as distribution of tools for use by court artisans, or by the names of persons, places, or deities. I mention here two insights, among the many that may be gleaned: first, what aesthetic criteria underlay the classification of precious stones; and second, how closely a complete inventory of jewelry kept in a palace treasury resembles comparable inventories from other places and times, earlier and later.
First-millennium Babylonia has yielded an enormous amount of pertinent information about such matters as the movements of peoples and goods, business partnership agreements involving artisans, craftsmen-owned archives, and apprenticeship contracts for potters, engravers, and goldsmiths, as well as for privately owned slaves whose training would enhance their value (Jursa 2010). The Eanna textile and metal archives from Uruk, to cite one example, show that there were temple craftsmen and also unaffiliated master craftsmen who could be hired by institutional or private employers in cities or surrounding areas. It is now possible to evaluate all this in the wider context of the Babylonian economy, by comparing for instance craftsmen's salaries or expenditures with garden prices at Borsippa or wool sales at Uruk. And we can look back at the same cities in the Ur III period, with which this excursus began, to gain a sense of what has or has not changed for craftsmen and workshops.
It remains to say that Communities of Style is beautifully designed and produced, with ample illustrations of good quality, even a section of color plates. This old- fashioned reader could have done without quite so much jargon, but Feldman has on the whole an elegant prose style, clearly informed by years of effective teaching and deep engagement with the material. One hopes that in future works she will unite the theoretical and art historical with the archival.
Arkhipov, I. 2012. Le vocabulaire de la metallurgie et la nomenclature des objets en metal dans les textes de Mari. Leuven: Peeters.
Aruz, J., S. G. Graff, and Y. Rakic, eds. 2014. Assyria to Iberia at the Dawn of the Classical Age. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Jursa, M. 2010. Aspects of the Economic History of Babylonia in the First Millennium BC. Munster: Ugarit-Verlag.
Moorey, P. R. S. 1994. Ancient Mesopotamian Materials and Industries: The Archaeological Evidence. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Neumann, H. 1987. Handwerk in Mesopotamien: Untersuchungen zu seiner Organisation in der Zeit der III. Dynastie von Ur. Berlin: Akademie-Verlag.
Westenholz, A. 1987. Old Sumerian and Old Akkadian Texts in Philadelphia. Part Two: The "Akkadian" Texts, the Enlilemaba Texts, and the Onion Archive. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press.
KAREN POLINGER FOSTER
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|Author:||Foster, Karen Polinger|
|Publication:||The Journal of the American Oriental Society|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Apr 1, 2017|
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