You are here

Un art citoyen: Recherches sur l’orientalization des artisanats en Grèce proto-archaïque

Un art citoyen: Recherches sur l’orientalization des artisanats en Grèce proto-archaïque

By Thomas Brisart. Pp. 352, figs. 19. Académie Royale de Belgique, Brussels 2011. €25. ISBN 978-2-8031-0278-5 (paper).

Reviewed by

Wide in scope and argument, this book is sure to resuscitate interest in and reflection on the social function of the orientalizing artifacts, styles, and practices in seventh-century B.C.E. Greece. Brisart takes issue with the understanding of the orientalizing phenomenon as the unavoidable surrender of Greek culture to stimuli emanating from the eastern Mediterranean. On the basis of contextual analysis of artifacts and practices in the developing societies of the early city-state, he constructs two operative models for arguing that “orientalizing” was a carefully controlled strategic choice for the social distinction and self-definition of its users. Brisart is aware that this emerging world was tremendously variegated, and his analysis cannot account for the entirety of Greece or all the particular inflections of orientalizing. He focuses instead on Athens, Argos, and Crete to demonstrate and apply his methodology. Other areas such as Sparta, the Cyclades, and the eastern Aegean are outside his purview, but this stimulating book should incite interest in revisiting areas that have yielded plenty of data but few interpretive studies.

Brisart is careful to explicate in detail the analytical categories and the generic sociopolitical framework against which he bases his investigation. For the purposes of his study, he defines “art orientalisant” as pertaining to artifacts whose iconography and technique “faisaient echo à l’une ou l’autre tradition artisanale du Proche-Orient, mais qui n’ont pas pour autant paru orientaux ... l’objet orientalisant ait eu pour ambition d’évoquer les cultures matérielles du Proche-Orient tout en apparaissant clairement grec aux yeux des usagers” (58). The sociopolitical framework is the internal fabric of the emerging Greek city-states, especially the groups of those politically enfranchised citizens who came to wield political and military power in the newly consolidated communities. In the hands of these citizens, Brisart argues, orientalizing artifacts and practices acquire a potent constitutive agency: not only do they reflect the ideology and social aspirations of those incorporated stakeholders within the polis who are no longer capable of behaving as the former “big men,” they also become decisive and effective shapers of social formation. Brisart is especially concerned to reveal how orientalizing effectively constituted social distinctions in the overall homogenizing climate of the city-state.

In putting forward this explication of the agency of orientalizing material culture, Brisart seeks to understand its working in contexts that matter, that is, cemeteries, sanctuaries, and the symposium. His first case study focuses on Argos and the Argive Heraion, both familiar loci for the investigation of the early city-state. Here from the late eighth century onward, Brisart sees evidence for the formation of the city-state, precisely when burials become homogeneously unremarkable and sanctuaries such as the Argive Heraion flourish as receptacles of status-shaping oriental or orientalizing luxuries. Brisart interprets these luxuries as dedications expressing the will of some citizens to define themselves as exclusive practitioners of the prestigious oriental banquet (136). This is indeed an interesting idea, but Brisart treats the material at hand rather summarily without addressing an obvious problem that Strøm (“Evidence from the Sanctuaries,” in G. Kopcke and I. Tokumaru, eds., Greece Between East and West: 10th–8th Centuries BC [Mainz 1992] 46–60) had already formulated in the early 1990s: the strong possibility always remains that other deposition patterns account for a lot of what Brisart labels “dedicatory” objects mediating between aspirant citizens and their gods. The sanctuaries themselves may well have been “collectors” either as controllers of imports or of local workshops (Samos is a suspect) or simply to enhance their otherworldly aura. The question is still open as to what messages were embedded in these objects, whom they targeted, and under what circumstances they were experienced in the context of sacred space. This skepticism becomes reinforced if one also takes into consideration that Argos never really manifested a true “orientalizing” phase, at least in terms of the development of workshops and styles that elsewhere have become hallmarks of stereotypical orientalizing (e.g., Corinthian pottery, Samian cauldrons, Daedalic-style terracottas, ivories). Obviously in Argos a mechanism kept the spread of orientalizing under strict control during the seventh century B.C.E.

I am also equally skeptical about Brisart’s willingness to explain all orientalizing cauldrons as individual dedications meant to establish the prestige of dedicants.This proposal is very stimulating to think about, but the evidence supporting it is tenuous at best, not least because of the extremely fragmentary nature of the surviving materials. There are reasons for doubting that the orientalizing cauldrons are the seventh-century equivalents of the traditional tripod cauldrons: why did they fail to register as kleos-producing artifacts in Greek imagination? The contrasts with the tripod cauldrons—which were still in use in the great Panhellenic sanctuaries—could not be more striking: there is a paucity of sources (Hdt. 4.152, on Kolaios, accounts for only one model of deposition while being the only source surviving from antiquity regarding the orientalizing cauldrons) and only a handful of visual representations. Moreover, the distribution patterns seem to point out that in certain environments (e.g., Argive Heraion, Kalapodi, Delos) these objects were scarce, if present at all. This is the case even if we take into consideration the hazards of survival. One wonders again what mechanisms might have controlled the flow, circulation, and cognitive accessibility of these objects. Brisart’s nicely formulated interpretation may account for only a small percentage of orientalizing cauldrons or similar objects, and I would strongly urge that we explore alternate models of deposition, such as corporate dedications or dedications by non-Greeks. At any rate, one model of social investment cannot simply account for all evidence both in regional or interregional sanctuaries.

Brisart is on firmer ground when he turns to seventh-century elite burials at the Athenian Kerameikos and the burning of luxurious orientalizing pottery in offering trenches accompanying cremations. Athens seems to have faced troubles in the seventh century, and no two scholars would agree on what exactly constituted the Athenian polis during this period. Nevertheless, Brisart is convincing in that these pots functioned as “attributs du mort, status symbols, c’est-à-dire des objets dont le but était de préciser le statut du défunt mais aussi celui de sa famille” (149). He argues that distinction was actualized through not only the lavishness of burial (cremation, tumulus) but also the exclusive capacity of Proto-Attic pottery to conjure up in cognitive and aesthetic terms the opulence and practice of oriental-style symposia.

In the last three chapters of the book, Brisart turns his attention to the peculiar case of Crete, especially to the evidence it offers for assessing the orientalizing repertory as a symbolic expression of the ruling elites of incorporated communities such as Gortyn, Aphrati, and Prinias during the seventh century B.C.E. Here, Brisart engages much more closely with the analysis of orientalizing material culture in context. He shows that in these city-states, the orientalizing material culture does not constitute social distinctions on a horizontal level or among members of a homogeneous citizen body as in the mainland; its function is rather diacritical along a vertical axis. He argues that the members of the ruling elites are identical with the ranks of enfranchised citizens, in whose hands the orientalizing expresses a corporate ethos that differentiates them from the numerically preponderant groups of noncitizens. This interpretive framework enables him to contextualize strongly orientalizing products such as the large pithoi attributed to Aphrati workshops or the well-known figurative armor from Aphrati within the performative commensal contexts of the Cretan andreia.

In a similar vein, he tackles the thorny issue of the social function of the “Daedalic” style on Crete, focusing especially on its monumental manifestations at the so-called Temple A at Prinias and on the architectural sculptures and corpus of votive plaques from the sanctuary at the acropolis of Gortyn (recently redated to the late seventh century B.C.E.). He argues convincingly that in both Prinias and Gortyn, the temples were conceived as civic projects whose orientalizing style and iconography epitomized the symbolic universe of the ruling citizens as the foundational charter of these emerging city-states. Following interpretive studies by D’Acunto and Marinatos, Brisart sees these groups defining themselves visually as warrior-hippeis (e.g., on the well-known frieze at Prinias or through ex-votos of miniature pieces of armor such as shields and cuirasses at Gortyn) under the tutelage of a poliadic goddess, a patroness of war with strong Levantine affinities. Brisart’s interesting arguments will surely fertilize debates, as his analysis stimulates questions regarding the agency of material and visual culture: What exactly is a dedicatory object in contexts like Gortyn? What are the affective properties of the Daedalic style and how did it come into being? Similar queries and many more should be addressed to the entire orientalizing corpus both inside and outside Greece. Brisart’s study provides a forward-looking operative framework for a productive engagement with this complex phenomenon, and it does it very well.

Nassos Papalexandrou
The University of Texas at Austin
Austin, Texas 78712

Book Review of Un art citoyen: Recherches sur lorientalization des artisanats en Grèce proto-archaïque, by Thomas Brisart

Reviewed by Nassos Papalexandrou

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 117, No. 1 (January 2013)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1171.Papalexandrou

Add new comment

Plain text

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.