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The past re-made: the case of oriental carpets.

Old carpets, as informative material objects, are therefore the proper stuff of archaeology. Aspects of the carpet world offer food for thought as to how entities we recognize among the debris of antiquity come to be recognized and valued. Here James Mellaart's recorded paintings from Catal Huyuk, which 'surfaced' a generation after the dig was completed, have now come to have an unexpected role.

Carpets: names and histories

The process by which an unprovenanced object of purported antiquity acquires a genealogy and value involves the fabrication of history. Not often the recipient of 'serious scholarship', carpets have long been considered the domain of thieves, swindlers and naive romantics -- all busy fabricating history. While a solid data-base has been developed from which rugs may be coherently categorized and understood, dealers apparently still manufacture myths and trade terminology with facile grace. Although the best of the new books now reflect a scholarly approach to their subject, many are still little more than thinly disguised sales talk.

The major sources of information about the oriental carpet have often been dealers, who can be extremely insightful and well informed, but who are also interested in selling. Some early scholars prominent in the field were dealers, although not actually presenting themselves as businessmen. F.R. Martin, author of the first comprehensive history of oriental carpets (1908), was a successful dealer. Arthur Upham Pope, organizing force behind the massive, six-volume Survey of Persian art (1937/8), actually was the selling agent of a number of classic carpets depicted in his history. How objective is a dealer in his scholarship while he is simultaneously trying to sell a rug? Creative labelling by dealers illustrates the problem. Starting in the 1920s, a group of large, red field carpets, originally seen as originating from Mughal India, began to be labelled as 'Isfahans', presumably from the Safavid court. Strong evidence against this appellation began to surface with non-dealer carpet scholars such as May Beattie (1972: 39-40) and Charles Grant Ellis (1988: 211). Further scholars, such as Eiland, Jr (the father of the writer), noted that even today the greatest concentration of these rugs remains in Jaipur. Early Mughal buildings, including Akbar's tomb in Sikandra and a number of structures at Fatehpur Sikri, show architectural details similar to those found on the carpets. Mughal miniatures, such as in the Hamza Nama, also show a similar design vocabulary (Eiland, Jr 1991). Unfortunately, the dealers today still find that the rugs sell best as 'Isfahans'. Mellaart, Catal Huyuk and Anatolian kilims

Dealer scholarship, making use of a prominent archaeologist, has resulted in Turkish kilims, long a low spot on the market, now being sold as 'archaeological relics'. Many Turkish kilims have risen from 10 to 100 times their previous value, over a time-span of less than five years, following a recent publication of James Mellaart, known excavator of Catal Huyuk and Hacilar in Turkey. Although Mellaart's last excavations there were in 1965, he announced in 1983, at the 4th International Conference on Oriental Carpets in London (published by Frauenknecht 1984) that he had withheld a number of drawings from Catal Huyuk that demonstrated a startling connection between Neolithic art and the modern Anatolian kilim. In 1989, he produced 44 reconstructed drawings alleged to be of wall paintings found at Catal Huyuk (Mellaart et al. 1989). Almost immediately, a wave of enthusiasm directed toward those kilims thought to contain descendants of the Mellaart 'goddess figures'. Kilims that had been a 'hard sell' at $2000 were fetching prices in the vicinity of $50,000 or more. In reaction, rug scholars compared Mellaart's original field reports with the new material in his goddess publication (Eiland, Jr 1990). In 1967, Mellaart provided a chart in which he clearly delineated which of the excavated rooms at Catal Huyuk had wall paintings, and he further described their content (Mellaart 1967: 81). As he noted in this same publication (1967: 166), 'Paintings of human figures, goddesses, and animals, are comparatively rare at Catal Huyuk. The goddess is usually represented in plaster reliefs, which may or may not have been painted.' The plaster reliefs show the goddess figure in an entirely different pose from that found on the reconstructed paintings. Among Mellaart's reconstructions were paintings from 10 rooms which, in a chart in his 1967 book, were described as having no wall paintings (Eiland, Jr 1990: 23). Further analysis noted the vast stylistic differences between the 44 new drawings and the photos of wall decor in the original field reports. It was later observed that designs shown in these new drawings could not be produced in slit tapestry unless turned 90 degrees from the way they are represented in the drawings (Mallett 1993b).

Dominique Collon (1990) and Mary Voight (1991) pointed out substantial inconsistencies in Mellaart's material, which had not been published in a scholarly journal, but in an expensive, privately printed, four-volume, slip-covered edition from an Italian rug dealer who had made a substantial business selling Anatolian kilims. Voight stated, 'neither Collon or I have found anyone associated with either the excavation and recording of the wall paintings at the site, or with the subsequent conservation of paintings and fragments at the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations |Ankara~, who had seen or drawn any fragment that he or she considered as evidence for the sketched scenes and designs'.

Voight continued (1991: 33), 'The reconstructions presented in The goddess can only be considered as Mellaart's personal visions -- imaginative products derived from small, burned, fallen pieces of plaster.' Voight then provided a coherent and convincing analysis of the evidence for a predominant female deity at Catal Huyuk, concluding that the available evidence provides no justification to elevate one of these deities (1991: 39). Prompted by a favourable review of the Mellaart material by Marija Gimbutas, who found her own views on mother-goddess cults supported, Carl Lamberg-Karlovsky (1992: 38), of the Peabody Museum, Harvard, presented a highly critical opinion both of Mellaart's reconstructions and Gimbutas's unquestioning acceptance of them. He found no objective evidence for the existence of dozens of 'new' wall paintings, and noted that there is not a single photograph nor a single fragment which substantiates their existence.

To date, no one has been able to verify Mellaart's drawings, nor has there ever been explanation as to why there is not a single surviving photograph of any of the original paintings. Unfortunately, some modern publications simply perpetuate this unproven hypothesis, and offer rationalizations for the survival of ancient designs (Petsopoulis 1991: 27-8).

Turkoman carpets

Dealer hype also fuelled the Turkoman carpet boom of the 1970s. The literature on which it was based reflected a genuine enthusiasm from a small group of collectors, used for massive promotion by dealers. The new theories were based upon the idea that guls, the repetitive motifs in Turkoman rugs, most of them octagonal, were ancient tribal emblems by which a tribe identified its weavings and proclaimed its identity. Elaborate systems were devised for identifying a rug by these decorative motifs. Some began to hypothesize that guls were so important that tribes victorious in warfare made the vanquished weave their guls as a sign of submission.

As these issues were argued over during the 1970s, prices of Turkoman rugs began to rise. The rugs came to be placed into discrete groups based on structural features (such as whether the knot was open to left or right) and idiosyncrasies of colour, and it became clear that these groupings probably represented the output of particular tribal divisions. As soon as a tribal name was attached to a structural group, demand for it would increase.

There was certainly some productive scholarship during this period, as rugs of the Arabatchi tribe came to be recognized among the large assortment of weavings that had previously not been identified (Thompson 1980: 130-33). It was perceived that there were more structural groups than there were names of tribes that could still be identified, and yet it was clear, to those dealing in this merchandise, that a tribal label translated into a higher price. By the late 1970s, more obscure tribal names were being attached to rugs that had only a few years before received a generic Turkoman label. Rugs attributed to obscure tribes, some of which had entirely disappeared, became hot items on the auction market, at times in a manner obviously unrelated to aesthetics. The evidence linking these structural groupings with obscure tribes was often tenuous. Jon Thompson (1980: 135-9) introduced the label 'Imreli', after a tribal group so obscure that no one could ascertain whether a trace of the tribe had survived. Justification for this attribution was scanty, but no worse than for other tribal names that came into use at about the same time. David (1980: 20) commented: 'to parade this half-developed schema in front of a serious group of Turkoman experts is an affront and ought to elicit laughter rather than applause'. Eventually, at the 1986 International Conference on Oriental Carpets in Vienna, Thompson confirmed that the Imreli label had never been intended to be taken seriously, but as something of a joke (personal communication from a number of delegates). The Imreli label continues to be used by dealers. The phenomenon of 'Turkomania' began its descent in the early 1980s. Some students had always doubted the theories of tribal emblems because rug guls never appear on Turkoman banners, weapons, garments, yurts or ritual objects. When precursors of some of these 'ancient' guls began to be recognized among late, degenerate floral forms on urban Persian rugs (Thompson 1980: 146-50), the theories came under fire. When relationships between other Turkoman guls and earlier Chinese, Persian and Byzantine textiles were observed (Eiland, Jr 1981), the tribal emblem theory began to unravel.

With further evidence from such sources as Timurid miniatures (Briggs 1940), it has become clear that the 'guls' of Turkoman rugs are a mixture of motifs from diverse sources. Robert Pinner, an early student of the 'guls as tribal emblem theory,' conceded the multiple origins of the gul in his 1990 address to the 6th International Conference on Oriental Carpets in San Francisco (heard by the author). One wonders weather the dealers were listening.


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MARTIN, F.R. 1908. A history of oriental carpets before 1800. Vienna.

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VOIGHT, M. 1991. The goddess from Anatolia: an archaeological perspective, Oriental Rug Review (Dec./Jan.): 32-9.
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Author:Eiland, Murray L., III
Date:Dec 1, 1993
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