Online Review: Book

The Gordion Wooden Objects. Vol. 1, The Furniture from Tumulus MM

116.2

By Elizabeth Simpson (Culture and History of the Ancient Near East 32). 2 vols. Vol. 1. Pp. xl + 285, figs. 12, chart 1, tables 12, drawings 2; vol. 2. Pp. xxxii + 274, b&w pls. 158, color pls. 16, CD-ROM 1. Brill, Leiden 2010. $373. ISBN 978-90-04-16539-7 (cloth).

In this long-awaited publication of the wooden furniture from Tumulus MM at Gordion, the so-called Tomb of Midas and the most extensive and well-preserved collection of wooden objects from the ancient Near East, Simpson presents the results of more than 20 years of careful research by the Gordion Furniture Project and commences an important and promising series. Truly the product of collaborative efforts, as evidenced by nine supporting appendices authored by 13 scholars in all, this volume supersedes preliminary publication of project results, such as Gordion Wooden Furniture (E. Simpson and K. Spirydowicz [Ankara 1999]) and also includes technical analyses of textile fragments and organic residues. Difficult conservation challenges help to explain the length of the project, and discussion of how these difficulties were discovered and surmounted adds a heroic detective-story angle to the work.

This investigative approach begins in the first two chapters, which lay out the conditions of the 1957 discovery and early interpretations of the furniture remains by Young, based on unpublished field notes and initial reports as well as the posthumous Gordion Excavation Reports (Vol. 1, Three Great Early Tumuli [Philadelphia 1981]). Simpson’s own involvement in that publication led to the current work, conceived from a realization that all prior reconstructions of the furnishings had to be reassessed. Separation of old and new interpretations achieves an element of suspense as one awaits the inevitable “however,” but it also underlines how the present study is founded on Young’s work and yet stands on its own. Young’s records often proved critical to the current findings, despite their inconsistencies, assumptions, and even aesthetic biases (as when he described the “full horror” of the inlaid table [15]). Early attempts at consolidation, however, were sometimes detrimental to the objects, and the conservation team had to spend much time undoing treatments from 1957 before they could proceed.

The bulk of the text (chs. 3–7) presents the different furniture pieces (inlaid table, plain tables, serving stands, coffin, and remains from the northeast corner) in catalogue format, with detailed descriptions followed by in-depth investigation of comparanda for form and decoration and discussion of possible symbolic significance. Young’s monstrous “Pagoda table” becomes an “eccentric” and deliberately provocative piece, playfully engaging the viewer to try to understand its “complex artistry” (36). Simpson’s new reconstruction clarifies the somewhat unexpected positioning of legs and struts and the coherent system of variation in strut design, while accepting a lack of any apparent order in the organization of mazelike patterns on the square panels of the surrounding frame. Among these designs, Simpson identifies unicursal and multicursal mazes, the latter previously thought not to have been represented until the 15th century C.E. She entertains the idea that the mazes and swastikas may have been intended as apotropaic devices and that other patterns used here, such as the lozenge with central dot, may have symbolized fertility. Her analysis also reveals that parts of the design must have been completed in another material, probably metal or ivory; but her insistence that these elements had been removed in an act of “robbery,” whether at the hands of Cimmerians or at the time of burial (35 n. 19, 134), overlooks other possible explanations, such as intentional reuse.

Eight other tables were recovered from the tomb, and they are of similar construction but of simpler form and undecorated. All the tables, including the inlaid one, were portable serving tables and may be seen as banqueting accoutrements. All share the same method of attaching each leg to the tabletop, with a collar projecting from the lower surface of the tabletop and surrounding a tenon projecting from the top of the leg. Wide-ranging parallels for this method of joinery are adduced, from Middle Bronze Age Jericho to the Pazyryk tombs.

Simpson’s reconstruction of the so-called bed as a carved log coffin has been well known and generally accepted since its first publication (E. Simpson, “ ‘Midas’ Bed’ and a Royal Phrygian Funeral,” JFA 17 [1990] 69–87). New points here primarily concern wood types: the coffin is now identified as cedar and the supporting corner blocks as pine. The presentation of the wood remains from the northeast corner is, however, entirely new. The jumbled mass contained three sets of furniture legs, now assigned to two low stools and a low chair. To the chair belongs also a horizontal rail and adjoining vertical slats. The top rail is decorated with carved panels representing paired or combatting animals, “imagery of power” appropriate to royal seating (117).

The intricately inlaid serving stands (Young’s “screens”) are arguably the masterpieces of the assemblage, and their analysis forms the core of the main text. The identification of the pieces as banqueting furniture, for holding cauldrons from which food or drink was served, has been accepted in the scholarly community since it was first suggested in preliminary publications. The symbolic interpretation of the screens as “portable shrines” of the Phrygian goddess Matar, “shown in symbolic epiphany” (96), has also been suggested previously but is most fully explored here, with color diagrams clearly illustrating their design schemes: the dynamic, diagonal variation of the inlaid squares on Screen A strikingly contrasts with the more static, horizontal variations on Screen B. Simpson finds calendric significance in the numbers and groupings of the square motifs and reads the rosette medallions and curved legs with paw feet as symbolic representations of Matar.

A final chapter (ch. 8) places these furnishings in the context of the funeral service as a whole, with much emphasis on the “religious nature” of the ceremonial banquet represented by the tomb assemblage, understood against the background of earlier Hittite royal funerals (132). The dead king is perceived as a symbolic participant in the banquet, and the tomb offerings are read as “votive gifts” in honor of Matar as well as the deceased (131). The symbolic interpretations of the inlaid table and serving stands are here reiterated, with emphasis on their “meditative” aspects, suggesting “a journey or a quest that can lead to revelation,” as with mystery cults (135). Simpson mentions the recent dendrochronological dating of the tomb to ca. 740 B.C.E. but remains skeptical of its precision, thus sidestepping its implications for the identity of the buried king. If this dating is correct, the tomb must belong not to the legendary Midas but to his father. Simpson reasons that “in either case, Midas was the proprietor of the wooden furniture” (133).

The first two appendices, one by Sprirydowicz and one by the author herself, outline the challenges met, lessons learned, and successes celebrated in the long processes of reconservation, reconstruction, and museum installation of these remarkable furniture pieces. Next follow a brief presentation of the wood species identifications by Aytuğ, Blanchette, and Held, primarily in chart format, and a lengthier assessment by Blanchette of the causes for the deterioration of the wood, from soft-rot fungi and wood-boring beetles to abiotic factors, as determined through wood micromorphology. A fifth appendix, by McGovern, lays out the scientific evidence for the now well-known menu of the funerary feast, based on chemical analyses of food and beverage residues found in the vessels associated with the furniture.

The next two appendices concern aspects of construction. In her study of the graffiti carved on the tenons that connected pieces of the serving stands to one another, Roller concludes that the designs were not assembly marks, because they are too infrequent and their occurrence and motifs do not seem related to their positions in the construction of the stands. She suggests instead that they may have resulted from the artists testing their tools, practicing designs, and perhaps expressing themselves personally, on areas of wood that would not be seen. Simpson’s own appendix on carpentry tools and techniques synthesizes points raised in the catalogue and offers some new ones, including the observation that the lathe was used sparingly (only perhaps for the upper terminals of the curved legs of the inlaid table), though there is evidence for its earlier use at Gordion.

The eighth appendix presents the textile fragments found in association with these furnishings, studied with optical and scanning electron microscopy at the Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute (by Ballard et al.). Many of the samples were difficult to analyze because they include multiple fabric types, compacted and degraded over time, but the Smithsonian team was able to revise past assumptions and make some significant new discoveries. For instance, the gold-colored, plain-weave fabric from the coffin seems to have been coated in goethite, perhaps to impart an intentionally golden look, and fine, twined textiles have been recognized among the fragments from the northeast corner. The slight twist of the yarns used in these twined fabrics is the type found with silk and silk-like fibers.

A ninth and final appendix provides a useful concordance of illustration, inventory, and object numbers. The following bibliography and index are both admirably comprehensive, and the overall production quality of the book is quite high, with no typographical errors apparent. The two-volume format (text and illustrations) and accompanying CD-ROM are particularly convenient features of the book.

In sum, this work goes well beyond a typical site-specific object catalogue and makes important contributions to a wide range of scholarly fields, both technical and conceptual, from textile and wood analysis to anthropological and religious studies. It not only rectifies inaccuracies and aesthetic biases in the original publication of the material but also offers many new observations on the possible symbolic meanings of the masterful decoration. Though the religious interpretations of the decorative motifs and the overall assemblage will surely be met with some skepticism and, without further evidence, must ultimately remain speculative, they challenge even the most skeptical readers to remain open-minded to the possible meanings that geometric motifs may have carried. They also make this book critical reading for anyone interested in Phrygian religion and decorative motifs, as well as for specialists in ancient furniture and textiles.

One recurring thread in this work is the singularity of Phrygian art: that while certain structural elements (such as the collar-and-tenon method of joining tabletops to legs) were traditional in diverse cultures of the ancient Near East, the best parallels for the decorative motifs come from Gordion itself, in similar items from Tumulus P as well as on Phrygian pottery and in the pebble mosaic from the city mound. As much as we now understand about Gordion and Phrygian material culture, there is still much that remains mysterious about the Phrygians who made and used these objects. Readers can look forward to further insights into the intriguing “language of Phrygian decorative art” in subsequent volumes of this series (135).

Elizabeth P. Baughan
Department of Classical Studies
University of Richmond
Richmond, Virginia 23173
ebaughan@richmond.edu

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1162.Baughan

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