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Royal Statuary of Early Dynastic Mesopotamia

July 2012 (116.3)

Book Review

Royal Statuary of Early Dynastic Mesopotamia

By Gianni Marchesi and Nicolò Marchetti. Translated by Penelope-Jane Watson (Mesopotamian Civilizations). Pp. ix + 374, figs. 10, pls. 65, tables 16. Eisenbrauns, Winona Lake, Ind. 2011. $89.50. ISBN 978-1-57506-173-3 (cloth).

Reviewed by

This volume is an updated, enlarged, English-language version of Marchetti’s La statuaria regale nella Mesopotamia protodinastica (Rome 2006). Anglophone archaeologists and art historians interested in third-millennium B.C.E. Mesopotamia should rejoice at the amount of data compiled in this work. For those not specializing in the third millennium, the book offers a strongly stated and rigorously practiced methodology for Mesopotamian art history, in which stratified archaeological contexts, rather than style, are the primary determinants of chronology. The interpretation of formal qualities is then drawn from the objects in their proper chronological, developmental framework.

The project of the volume, as the title suggests, is to investigate all royal statuary from Mesopotamia dating to the Early Dynastic (ED) period within its proper archaeological, epigraphic, chronological, and stylistic context. Royal statuary comprises an important genre within Mesopotamian visual culture, but its roots have been obscure, a problem the book aims to correct. Beyond serving that goal, however, much of the book is devoted to the related problem of chronology. ED chronology is the subject of a lengthy chapter 1, followed by ED history, a study of royal statuary, analysis, and conclusions.

The chronology of the ED period is taken up in chapter 1. The archaeological contexts of fragments of ED statuary are reviewed. While archaeological stratification is the principal means of deriving phasing, style is used secondarily. The material is reviewed site by site, with full explanations of the phasing of each site, including in some cases section drawings to clarify points. Following the site-by-site details, each chronological phase is summarized, based on the preceding analysis. There are surely points that will be contentious; for example, the authors’ dating of the Royal Cemetery of Ur to ED IIIb, rather than IIIa, is not in line with other recent work (89). The authors’ reasoning and explanation is, as elsewhere, made very clear, however, so readers will be able to assess the merits of the case. In its clear presentation of chronology, phases, excavations, and finds, this chapter provides a useful summary and guide to the student or scholar dealing with the principle ED sites in any capacity. Scholars of glyptic, in particular, will find their material discussed in detail: findspots of seals and seal impressions (as well as tablets) are included in the discussion, since they often bear royal names. As elsewhere in the volume, extensive footnotes provide explanations and full references to related publications.

Chapter 2 uses textual evidence and inscriptions to create a broad historical summary of the political landscape of the ED period. It also takes on, in detail, the Sumerian King List. These various lines of evidence are used to compile a fuller, more accurate list of rulers during this part of the third millennium. That evidence sets the stage for chapter 3, in which the royal statuary is presented and examined. The authors define how “royal” is determined (129), establishing their data set. After presenting the data, they interpret the development and meaning of the type. A catalogue is included in this section. The inscriptions on the pieces are addressed in chapter 4. Drawings of the original inscriptions are included, which will no doubt be appreciated by many scholars.

It is in chapters 5 and 6 that the various lines of evidence—chronological, artifactual, visual, and textual—are brought together in an interpretive thesis. The authors put the ED material into a broader context, looking first at the protohistorical “priest-king” to see if it can be read as an early example of royal iconography, and instead drawing the provocative conclusion that it depicts not a ruler, but a deity (192). The authors marshal arguments derived from chronology and visual analysis to support the new theory. The argumentation is weakened somewhat through the inclusion of pieces from the antiquities market, namely the Blau plaques. Using these pieces to help determine the chronology and meaning of iconographic elements not only introduces the possibility of false data but also undermines the primacy that stratified data is given elsewhere in the text. In the same section (193–94), Marchetti identifies an ED I skirted figure from an Ur Seal Impression Strata (SIS) 4 impression as a man in a net skirt (pl. 49.2), though the skirt looks more like a smooth, fringed skirt typical of the early ED period. Eliminating the questionable Blau plaques and this possibly misidentified skirted figure weakens the hypothesis that the “priest-king” image continues in ED I and II and must represent a deity. The argument as it pertains to the Late Uruk and Jemdat Nasr phases nonetheless merits serious consideration.

More to the point, the discussion of royal iconography in the ED period is rich and detailed (196–207). Marchetti describes dress and hairstyles of royal figures and discusses variations of the common banquet and contest scenes. Chapter 6 assesses the development of ED state administration, based on epigraphic and iconographic sources, and finally advances the argument that true royal visual propaganda emerges only in ED III.

Additional resources include appendix A (“Remarks on Early Dynastic Temples”), which is another useful compendium of research and resources, and appendix B (“Royal Statues in Administrative Texts”). There are 65 plates, many of which include multiple objects, making it easy to quickly see the objects and images under discussion in the text.

There are a few areas within the text that could stand improvement, though they do not detract from the overall excellent quality of the volume. There are points at which the translation is not entirely clear; this is, of course, a petty gripe, given that the book was translated for the convenience of English speakers. A more substantive problem arises within the complex discussion of chronology, in which various lines of evidence are woven together, yet other strands are rejected as simply “unhelpful,” such as pottery seriation (e.g., 8 n. 41). A related issue is the use of the term “style.” Marchetti employs terms such as “Archaic style,” “courtly style,” and “intermediate style” (62) but leaves these undefined and unreferenced. Generally speaking, “style” is not problematized, but understood evidently to be an element observable to the trained eye. Given the authors’ stated interest in employing a transparent methodology, more clarity in these areas would have been welcome.

This is a book that scholars of early Mesopotamia will no doubt reference often for its discussion of stratigraphy, chronology, tablets, seals, and sculpture of the ED period.

Sarah Kielt Costello
School of Art
University of Houston
Houston, Texas 77204

Book Review of Royal Statuary of Early Dynastic Mesopotamia, by Gianni Marchesi and Nicolò Marchetti

Reviewed by Sarah Kielt Costello

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 116, No. 3 (July 2012)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1163.Costello

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