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Die wandinalereien aus tell misrifel qatna im kontext iiberregionaler kommullikalion.

Die Wanclinalereien aus Tell MigrifelQatna int Kontext iiberregionaler Konzrnuttikation. By CONSTANCE VON RODEN. Qatna. Studien, vol. 2. Wiesbaden: HARRASSOW1TZ VERLAG, 2011. Pp. x + 278, 70 pits. [euro]84.

Publication of the recent finds of wall paintings from Qatna has been greatly anticipated. Located 18 kilometers northeast of the modern city of Horns in western Syria, Qatna (present-day Tell Mishrife) lies approximately 100 kilometers from the Mediterranean coast in the Orontes River Valley, at the juncture of important east-west and north-south trade routes. It has long been known that the site played a critical role in second-millennium Aegean--Near Eastern relations; however, its poor excavation and publication record by Robert du Mesnil du Buisson in the early twentieth century have severely hampered its contribution to the study of this topic. In 1999 a joint expedition between the Syrian Direction Gdnerale des Antiquit6s et des Musees (under Michel Al-Maqdissi), the University of Tubingen (under Peter Przilzner), and the University of Udine (under Daniele Morandi Bonacossi) returned to the site. One research objective was a reevaluation of the architecture that du Mesnil du Buisson had uncovered on an elevated rise in the western part of the city. Identified by du Mesnil du Buisson as containing distinct religious and palatial structures, this area is shown by the renewed excavations to have housed the main city palace, begun in the Middle Bronze Age (MB IIA according to Pfalzner) and destroyed in the Late Bronze Age around 1360/1340 B.C.E.

It was in this area that du Mesnil du Buisson found several fragments of wall painting. Between the years 2000 and 2004 the German division of the expedition added to this small and poorly published corpus in spectacular fashion with the discovery of more than 3000 fragments of painted plaster. The majority of them derived from a cistern area (Rni U), into which they had slid from a small (7 by 4 meters) neighboring room (N) during the final destruction of the palace. The fragments confirm what had been suspected already, namely, that the city had strong ties to the Aegean world and its remarkable fresco tradition. As such, they join a growing body of evidence for wall (and floor) painting in the second millennium B.C.E. around the eastern Mediterranean, including remains at Tell ed-Daba in the Egyptian Delta. Tel Kabri along the coast of the modern state of Israel, Tell Burak in Lebanon, Tell Sakka near Damascus, Alalakh in the Alum plain, Hattusa in central Anatolia, and Miletus in western Anatolia, as well as the finds from Crete, the Aegean islands, and the Greek mainland.

Central questions that propel the study of this material are, first, whether any given instance uses a -true" al fresco technique, and second, its implications for understanding Aegean--Near Eastern interrelations. The volume under review presents the results of Constance von Rilden, who undertook the reconstruction and study of the new Qatna painting fragments as her doctoral dissertation. A catalogue of the fragments from Room N accompanies the study, as do two appendices: the first on the analysis results of the painting technology by Ann Brysbaert, and the second documenting the restoration process by Ilka Weisser.

Von Rliden concentrates the principal part of her study on the frescoes from Room N, which are the only ones well enough preserved to permit reconstructions. Dividing them into five main groups according to technical differences, she takes a commendably conservative approach to the reconstructions, which are based on a combination of technical features, precise archaeological findspot, and motival joins. Due to the manner of Room N's collapse, most of the fragments belong to the lower part of the frescoes, with none exceeding 70 centimeters in height. The largest group (Group 1) yielded seven different reconstructed scenes, which von Ri1den places on the west wall of Room N. The scenes form a landscape with palm trees, papyrus, running spirals, and pinnate bands, arranged in an unusual set of stepped, trapezoidal zones and red-and-white horizontal stripes.

Groups 2 through 4 are distinguished by technical features such as the presence of bitumen (Group 3) or paint (Group 4) on the back; no larger scenes, however, could be reconstructed. Von Riiden interprets these fragments as evidence of reworking during the time of the paintings' production, although she notes that they could indicate later repairs (which would lend support to an earlier date for their production; see discussion below). The Group 5 fragments are characterized by more layers of plaster (six or seven) than Groups 1-4 and .a curving edge indicative of their join with a horizontal plane (the floor of Room N according to von Riiden; a niche or window opening according to Pfalzner 2008). They depict an underwater landscape that preserves several turtles, a crab, a fish, and a dolphin. Based on their findspots in Room U, von Rilden argues for their original placement along the south wall of Room N.

Both von Riiden's visible analysis and Brysbaert's macro- and microscopic analysis of the Room N wall painting fragments indicate that they were mostly executed in a true al fresco technique. Brys-baert. in appendix 1 (p. 250), provides her definition of al fresco ("whereby mostly mineral lime proof pigments, suspended in water, are painted onto a damp lime plaster surface") in contrast to at secco (-whereby pigments, mixed with a binder (casein, egg white or yellow, oil, honey...), are applied onto a dry support of any material...").

Brysbaert's appendix is a welcome addition to the debate surrounding Aegean-style wall paintings in the eastern Mediterranean and derives from her doctoral work now published in a 2008 monograph. As part of this larger study. Brysbaert sampled fragments from Qatna and around the Mediterranean, including the Aegean, to study the techniques used in their production. Here she presents a detailed overview of the technical analyses employed in the study, although she does not explain how she chose which sites, nor the particular examples within a site's corpus. to sample. According to her analyses. she argues that the technological features discerned on the Qatna Room N fragments--such as polishing. string line impressions, impasto, and traces of underdrawing--fall within an Aegean sphere of influence.

In contrast, von Riiden makes the case that the Room N wall paintings exhibit evidence for a lengthy process of adoption and incorporation of Aegean elements into a western Syrian tradition. There are no exact parallels for Room N's decorative scheme, and individual elements show disparate associations. For example, although the palm trees with their blue fronds and contoured trunks appear to be close stylistically to those from the nilotic landscape wall painting in the West House at Akrotiri on Thera (dated to the Late Minoan I A period, between 1650 and 1500, depending on which chronology is accepted), their clustering in a symmetrical grouping of three has its closest parallels on Late Helladic LI pottery from the Greek Mainland (c. 1500-1400; pp. 75-76). In addition, the depiction of date clusters hanging from the Qatna trees can be compared only to Near Eastern examples, such as the MB period "Investiture Scene" at Mari. For these reasons, von Riiden considers the Qatna Room N wall paintings to be locally produced for a local (elite) audience, but to consciously quote the Aegean cultural realm for purposes of prestige and legitimation.

In her opinion, the intense interaction between the Levantine region and the Aegean, which is the only way to explain the transfer of the technological knowledge necessary for fresco production, must have taken place already in the Middle Bronze Age (when the first frescoed wall paintings appear at Alalakh). She reconstructs a scenario in which direct contact between crafters occurred in the Middle Bronze Age, when Aegean elements entered the local Syrian repertoire and became part of its cultural tradition. Continuing import of Aegean goods, such as pottery, ivories, and textiles, provided ongoing access to Aegean motifs, which were further incorporated into the local tradition (p. 111).

To a large extent, von Riiden's interpretation depends on a late date for the Room N frescoes. There is, however, disagreement on this, as Al-Maqdissi and Pfalzner note in the editors' preface. That the paintings were still in situ on the walls of Room N at the time of the palace's destruction is evident from the presence of a diagonal line of burning across the miniature landscape painting left from a collapsed roof beam. Von Rtiden argues that the structural instability of lime plaster on mudbrick walls limits the potential life-span for such paintings to fifty or sixty years. Counting back from the palace's destruction in the mid-fourteenth century, she dates the production of the Room N paintings to the very end of the fifteenth or beginning of the fourteenth century B.C.E. This would be quite late in the sequence of Aegean-style frescoes in the eastern Mediterranean, but agrees with Manfred Bietak's (controversial) late dating of the frescoes found at Tell ed-Daba to the fifteenth century (Bietak et al. 2007). Pfalzner, however, argues for an earlier date of production in the sixteenth century, primarily because of stylistic comparisons with Late Minoan IA paintings, in particular those at Thera (see Pfalzner 2008). He contends that the particular anchoring system used on the back of the Qatna frescoes would have provided a stable enough surface for the paintings to have survived on the walls for 150-200 years.

In addition to determining the date of the paintings' production, much attention has been focused on the identity of the producers, a question which is part of a larger debate regarding Aegean-type paintings in the eastern Mediterranean. Von Riiden is careful to note that her conclusions on this issue refer only to the Qatna paintings, and more specifically, to those of Room N. Presenting comparisons from the Aegean and Near Eastern spheres for both iconography/style and technical features, she argues forcefully for local artists. Yet, here again, we see the complexity in interpreting the data. For von Riiden, the specific means of attaching the lime plaster to the walls using finger-like anchors (cited by Pfalzner as a reason for their potential longevity) is a typically Syrian technique and thus betrays locally trained artisans (pp. 53,89,94). Brysbaert, in her appendix. however, claims that similar systems of attachment can be found throughout the eastern Mediterranean, including sites in the Aegean such as Orchomenos. Gla, and Tiryns (p. 259).

Von Miden's detailed study of the Room N wall paintings provides a valuable contribution to the ongoing discussions regarding the date of Aegean-style paintings in the eastern Mediterranean and the identity of their producers. However, of perhaps even greater interest is the evidence she includes that points to the long tradition of wall painting in the second millennium Levant. In addition to the spectacular Room N frescoes. von Ri.iden presents summary overviews of other painting fragments found at Qatna, including a brief mention of fragments found by the Italian division in a palatial structure in the lower town (p. 21) and a review of du Mesnil du Buisson's finds (pp. 31-32). Of note are those fragments that derive from earlier MB levels of the palace (pp. 25-28); regardless of the date ascribed to the Room N frescoes, there is clear evidence that wall paintings made up an important part of the palace decoration from the time of its construction and that they ornamented several rooms throughout the building.

Whether these earlier wall paintings were executed in the al fresco technique is unfortunately not clear. Von Raden notes that they used a pure lime plaster similar to that of Room N, but because her macroscopic inspection showed evidence for paint flaking from the surface, she suggests they may represent an earlier stage in the technological development from the al secco to al fresco technique (pp. 27-28). According to Brysbaert's table 1, which lists the Qatna fragments included in her study, she analyzed only one piece from the earlier levels (from Rm M), and she does not provide any specific data on its technological features. This is a critical omission, as the presence of al fresco technique from the Middle Bronze Age palace would certainly alter the discussion.

In a similar vein, one wishes that Brysbaert had included samples from Mari. Nuzi, or Kar Tukulti-Ninurta as an important control in her study of painted plaster in the eastern Mediterranean. The strict dichotomies between "Aegean- and "Near East," "fresco" and "secco/tempera" that structure much of the scholarship on this material may in fact obscure more graduated degrees of shared technological practice and cultural identity. The case of the Qatna wall paintings seems to exemplify this. Von Rilden's technical study (at a macroscopic level only) reveals variations in production practices among all the wall painting fragments found in the Qatna palace (that is, those dating to the earlier MB levels and those from the LB levels), as well as within Room N itself (evident in her five subgroups of the Room N fragments based on technical features). This signals different crafting practices, which might be the product of differently trained groups of craftsmen and/or production at different times. Indeed, the MB fragments indicate a long tradition of painting within the Qatna palace, and even within Room N the variations seen in the different fragment groups suggest that the production of painted walls was not a one-time event.

Pfalzner (2008) has proposed a scenario in which some Aegean-trained craftsmen were resident at Qama and worked alongside and in exchange with locally trained craftsmen, the crafting groups interacting and hybridizing their practices. Von Riiden argues that such interaction happened early, most likely during the Middle Bronze Age period of the Alalakh frescoes. For her, by the time of the Room N frescoes, the hybridization was so complete that she sees them as the final outcome of centuries of adoption and incorporation into local artistic traditions. Their exoticness related to the distant Aegean, however, remained an important element in their accruement of prestige and explains their presence on the walls of a Syrian palatial structure.

Harrassowitz's beautiful volume, in large format and with extensive color plates, is a fitting vehicle for von Riiden's impressive study. There are, unfortunately, typos and misprints, and there might have been more rigorous copy editing. For example, in appendix 1, Brysbaert refers to tables 54a--c, 54e, 56a, and 57a--d, which however could not be located in the volume. Likewise, it would have been helpful to have a key for the colored dots shown on the palace plan in plate 16b; it is only in the text on page 25 that one learns that the blue dots represent painting fragments from the MB palace levels and, on page 31, that the green dots represent the findspots of fragments excavated by du Mesnil du Buisson. Nonetheless, such minor editing issues detract little from this detailed and thought-provoking work. While the interpretation of the material may remain equivocal in terms of the specific nature and chronology of Aegean--Near Eastern interactions, von Rilden's volume makes a seminal contribution to the debate and is essential reading for anyone engaged in the topic.



Bietak, M.; N. Marinatos; and C. Palivou. 2007. Tattreador Scenes in Tell el-Dab 'a (Avaris) and Knossos. Vienna: OsteiTeichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften.

Btysbaert, A. 2008. The Power of Technology in the Bronze Age Eastern Mediterranean: The Case of the Painted Plaster. Monographs in Mediterranean Archaeology, vol. 12. London: Equinox.

Pfalzner, P. 2008. In collaboration with Constance von Ri1den. Between the Aegean and Syria: The Wall Paintings from the Royal Palace of Qatna. In Fundstellen: Gesarneite Schriften zur Archaolo-gie und Geschichte Altvorderasiens ad honorem Hartmut Kuhne, ed. Dom..inik Bonatz, Rainer M. Czichon, and F. Janoscha Kreppner. Pp. 95-118. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.

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Author:Feldman, Marian
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book review
Date:Oct 1, 2013
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