Online Review: Book

Syro-Hittite Monumental Art and the Archaeology of Performance

Alessandra Gilibert


Reviewed by James F. Osborne

Topoi 2. Pp. xiii + 223, figs. 64, tables 14. Walter de Gruyter, Berlin 2011. €99.95. ISBN 978-3-11-022225-8 (cloth).

The capital cities of the Iron Age "Syro-Hittite" kingdoms surrounding the northeast corner of the Mediterranean Sea were among the first sites to witness excavation by Near Eastern archaeologists. In recent years, a new generation of scholars has begun to reexamine sites that were explored, in some cases, more than a century ago. Gilibert's interesting volume is very much a part of this movement in the archaeology of Iron Age northern Syria and southeastern Anatolia. Gilibert takes as her subject matter the large-scale horizontal exposures made at the sites of Carchemish and Zincirli, both capitals of Syro-Hittite kingdoms. She expands our understanding of their architectural and iconographic remains by looking at their buildings, and especially the orthostates decorated in low relief that lined their walls, through the theoretical lens of performance and the materialization of ideology as articulated by Inomata and Coben (Archaeology of Performance: Theaters of Power, Community, and Politics [Lanham, Md. 2006]) and DeMarrais, Castillo, and Earle ("Ideology, Materialization, and Power Strategies," CurrAnthr 37 [1996] 15–31).

Gilibert organizes her volume into six chapters, plus a seventh brief concluding chapter that serves as an abstract of chapters 5 and 6. She begins in chapters 1 ("Introduction") and 2 ("The Syro-Anatolian Region in the Iron Age") by laying out the geographical and historical context and presenting the theoretical background of the study, framing her analysis of Syro-Anatolian art in terms of performance and ideology. Gilibert presents the volume's primary goal as being "to explore how change in art may relate to change in ceremonial behavior, and the latter to change in power structures" (2).

Terminological issues are, inevitably, a thorny problem. Foremost among these, of course, is what to call the culture in question. Gilibert opts for "Syro-Hittite," arguing that the expression accurately represents the hybrid character of the region and period (2, 10). However, throughout the volume she uses "Syro-Hittite" and "Syro-Anatolian" interchangeably, perhaps even using the latter with greater frequency. "Syro-Anatolian" might actually be preferable, keeping both sides of the expression ethnically neutral and geographical in nature.

Perhaps more significant to her work is the discussion of "monumental," which Gilibert defines primarily with regard to permanence and visibility (2). Though reference is made to studies of monumentality in archaeology, especially to the work of Richard Bradley, it is surprising that there is no discussion of monumentality in art history, such as Wu Hung's Monumentality in Early Chinese Art and Architecture (Stanford 1995) and Riegl's "The Modern Cult of Monuments" (Oppositions 25 [1982] 21–51; originally published as Der Moderne Denkmalkultus: Sein Wesen und seine Entstehung [Vienna 1903]), or in architecture, such as Sert, Leger, and Giedion ("Nine Points on Monumentality," Harvard Architecture Review 4 [1984] 62–3). These omissions are relevant because much of this literature questions the applicability of absolute values such as permanence and visibility to monumentality, and Gilibert's definition informs what is considered "monumental" in the chapters that follow. For example, the large and elaborately carved basalt column bases that lined the portico of Zincirli's Building K are excluded from consideration of monumental art (79), even though their iconographic composition (palmettes, guilloches, and rosettes) imbues them with as much symbolic significance as the orthostates.

The volume's goal of relating art, ceremony, and power structures is temporarily put to one side while Gilibert presents the vast and complex architectural, iconographic, and epigraphic records of Carchemish (ch. 3) and Zincirli (ch. 4). These two chapters are the most accessible and lucid presentations of the archaeological record of these two sites in English-language scholarship. Gilibert skillfully synthesizes both the spectacular remains from the sites and the large body of scholarly literature written about them. Furthermore, by presenting the sites' reliefs in a systematic and holistic fashion, Gilibert succeeds in emphasizing that ceremony was the ubiquitous iconographic theme and that the program of reliefs and the architectural features they lined were combined to render that theme as public as possible.

Chapter 5 returns to the work's central thrust by arguing that these monuments and buildings, as well as the ritual performances that took place in the ceremonial open spaces created by them, were used to legitimize the ideology and political power of the ruling class (112). This is where Gilibert's analysis is at its most creative, including insights such as the idea that the ceremonial open space of Carchemish, at roughly 3,000 m2 in area, was large enough to contain 7,500 spectators, even using relatively conservative parameters. Gilibert argues convincingly that both monumental art and ceremonial performances were necessary to promulgate royal ideology. Performance is emotionally powerful but ephemeral; monumental art and architecture is enduring but prone to fade in meaning. Combining the two ensures the symbolic longevity of the ideological messages being conveyed (112–14).

Chapter 6, "Art and Ritual in Diachronic Perspective," constructs a convincing diachronic perspective of the evolution of Syro-Anatolian ritual performance and royal ideology as manifested in architectural and iconographic changes. Gilibert divides the Iron Age into (1) the "archaic transition period" from the 12th to the mid 10th century B.C.E., in which traditional motifs such as bulls, lions, sphinxes, libations, and hunting scenes at Carchemish consciously continue artistic traditions from the Hittite empire; (2) the "age of civic ritual" from the late 10th through early ninth centuries, when Carchemish's kings Suhis II and his son, Katuwas, created a public ceremonial plaza for rituals that aimed at promoting royal ideology primarily by means of a royal ancestor cult; (3) the "mature transitional period" from ca. 870 to 790 B.C.E., when both sites witnessed a dramatic decrease in monumental art and are characterized instead by the rise of a wealthy aristocracy manifested in nonroyal funerary stelae and prestige goods; and (4) the "age of court ceremony" from ca. 790 to 690 B.C.E., at which time both sites saw significant additions to their monumental repertoire that promoted ceremonies belonging to a court culture of the wealthy elite (130).

The volume is well assembled, with attractive illustrations in the text as well as a thorough and immensely helpful "Catalogue of Monumental Items" that presents images and information for all of the sculpted works found at Carchemish and Zincirli. The numbering scheme of the catalogue follows the order of the discussion in the text, which possesses an internal logic that makes for convenient reading. However, it does result in an additional layer of referential information, since these pieces have already received designations from the original excavators, from Orthmann's study of Syro-Anatolian art (Untersuchungen zur späthethitischen Kunst [Bonn 1971]), and, if inscriptions are present, from Hawkins (Corpus of Hieroglyphic Luwian Inscriptions. Vol. 1, Inscriptions of the Iron Age [Berlin and New York 2000]) or Donner and Röllig (Kanaanäische und Aramäische Inschriften. 2nd ed. [Wiesbaden 1966]).

There are a number of typographical errors throughout the text, ranging from minor spelling mistakes to footnote numbering problems, but ultimately these do little to distract the reader. However, there are a couple of errors that do cause confusion, such as Gilibert's statement that "[t]he second group [of reliefs from the Water Gate at Carchemish] is carved with a sphinx in profile on its longer side and two walking persons on its shorter side (Carchemish 6–7)" (28). This is, in fact, a description of orthostate Carchemish 8, not 6 or 7, and is apparently a word-for-word quote of a passage describing Carchemish 8 in the first group of reliefs from the Water Gate on the previous page (27 n. 63).

Nevertheless, Gilibert's volume is a well-written, interesting, and creative analysis of the architecture and relief programs at Carchemish and Zincirli. It will be crucial reading for the burgeoning number of scholars interested in Syro-Anatolian archaeology and also constitutes an essential case study for all archaeologists interested in performance and the materialization of ideology cross-culturally.

James F. Osborne
Department of Near Eastern Studies
Johns Hopkins University
Baltimore, MD 21218


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