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The Lives of Sumerian Sculpture: An Archaeology of the Early Dynastic Temple

The Lives of Sumerian Sculpture: An Archaeology of the Early Dynastic Temple

By Jean M. Evans. Pp. xii + 278, figs. 72. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2012. $99. ISBN 978-1-107-01739-9 (cloth).

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Those looking for a systematic survey of Early Dynastic Mesopotamian sculpture should continue their search. This volume’s contribution lies in its investigation of the relationship of humankind’s intellect with that of constructed bodies. I commend Evans’ scholarship, approach, and style. Overall, this is an excellent volume: essential for ancient Near Eastern scholars and art historians as well as archaeologists and anthropologists. It is a model of interdisciplinary scholarship, which will be ideal for graduate students and upper-level undergraduates.

Essential to and explicit in her argument is the sculptures’ participation in temple life through their deliberately constructed forms and thus their interaction with the human world for which they were created. Each chapter develops a particular concept and uses discreet material evidence, resulting in a tightly woven tapestry. The volume opens with a sociohistoriographic investigation of the material and moves on in chapter 2 to articulate the sculptures’ art historical trajectory. Chapter 3 examines the sculptures’ contexts—archaeologically, historically, and architecturally. Concepts regarding the physical body of sculpture through textual, religious, and archaeological evidence are discussed in chapter 4. Chapter 5 presents a close examination of the Asmar hoard. The sculptures’ iconographies are analyzed in chapter 6. Introductions and conclusions in each chapter are useful; however, transitions within chapters are sometimes a bit abrupt. Language is in a few places a bit convoluted, but the author articulately and cleverly points out the shortcomings of earlier interpretations. Although surely an issue of cost, I would have preferred to see more color images.

Chapter 1 places the reader in the world of late 19th-century studies in human taxonomics and race, clearly citing how quasiscientific theories about the origins of civilization and the “Sumerian Problem” influenced western perceptions of Sumer. The relationships between early archaeologists in Mesopotamia and their imposition of incorrect analyses of skeletal remains is presented as an example of how early “data” has colored our current interpretations of Mesopotamian material culture. This chapter could have benefited from a few examples of similar historiographic misinterpretations from other archeological regions.

The second chapter is an art historical highlight. Evans gets into the head of Henri Frankfort, acquainting the reader with the pitfalls (namely, his challenger, James Henry Breasted) and victories (aligning Early Dynastic sculpture with Brancusi and Picasso), of this period of scholarship. Regardless of how problematic the concept of “primitive” art was and still is to the analysis of these objects, her discussions of pattern-based “primitive” aesthetics and the concept of “ideoplastic” theories are insightful. The latter concept, as briefly referenced in relation to Egyptian art, could have been further developed. It also might have been helpful to have more primary-source references vis-à-vis modern artists.

Through the exhibition of these sculptures on pedestals under glass, early 20th-century scholars re-placed them in contexts similar to the third-millennium B.C.E. temples, as objects to be seen and not used. In chapter 3, Evans disentangles the stratigraphy of temple contexts and refutes such notions. Her discussion of the Grand Tour phenomenon, cabinets of curiosities, and the development of connoisseurship are commendable, but they could be fleshed out in greater detail. The museological penchant for ordering of information in the early 20th century in contrast to the gentleman’s study of the late 19th century has been recently examined in light of current museum trends (S. Bann, “The Return to Curiosity: Shifting Paradigms in Contemporary Museum Display,” in A. McClellen, ed., Art and Its Publics: Museum Studies at the Millennium [Malden, Mass. 2008] 117–32). These trends espouse the idea that chaos encourages rapid firing of synapses—elemental in Evans’ argument that the sculptures’ abstract forms functioned to aid viewers in their thought processes. Meant to be visible, these sculptures and their embodiment (including the stereotypical large eyes), not necessarily of divine agency but of the donor, was key to their function, as was their location in and around areas of movement (thresholds and courtyards). The theoretical concepts of the gaze offers another area for expansion.

Chapter 4 examines various lines of evidence around the animation and gestation of the sculptural body and the role of the donor in temple household contexts. The donors’ role surrounding festivals could have been further developed. Additionally, the concept of enlivening the sculptural body could have been examined in comparison with Egyptian ka statue traditions and the worshiper’s sociopolitical status, as examined by Tanner (“Nature, Culture and the Body in Classical Greek Religious Art,” WorldArch 33 [2001] 257–76). Essential to Evans’ development of the sculptures’ physicality are craftsmanship and materials; possible intentional deconstruction and subsequent reconstruction is examined in concert with the practice of replastering (in gypsum). The reoutfitting and even refinishing (e.g., the annual replastering of the mosque in Djenne?) also deserves further ethnographic investigation. Ultimately, these sculptures are posited as being both subjects and objects of worship through their ability to initiate activity. In fact, the physical changes of sculptural bodies over their lifetimes (through breakage and reattaching of parts, and by the addition of pigments) is another theme deserving of cross-cultural comparisons such as those of Hendrix (“Painted Early Cycladic Figures: An Exploration of Context and Meaning,” Hesperia 72 [2003] 405–46).

Through a detailed analysis of the Asmar hoard in chapter 5, Evans provides an outline of cultic practice. Sanctuary areas become more restricted; sculpture is associated more with accessible areas; and pose and cultic equipment change in relationship to each other. Perhaps here Evans also could have explored images of the deceased in Egyptian tombs and their function as directional markers for visiting, living ancestors. Also in this chapter, the concept of heirlooms and continuity in sculptural style is established to identify the hoard as an eclectic and transitional collection.

Chapter 6 more deeply engages the concept of iconographic communication of individual traits (portraiture?). Pose, material, and inscription are capable of rendering statues unique in terms of gender, occupation, status, and geographic context. Evans casts the donor as a theatrical participant in temple contexts. Through individual identities, Evans believes the role of the objects morphs and changes over time, yet they retain their power in perpetuity. There would also be an opportunity here to bring in examples from ancient Egyptian tombs. The Egyptian tradition of conjugal visits (and communication in general) between sculptures of Amun and Mut from Karnak and Luxor might also have been incorporated in her work on the Nippur fragments. Deposition of these fragments suggests sculptures were changed out and replaced on the same base, which faced the Enlil temple.

Essentially, Evans reorients the reader to a nonperspectival analysis of Early Dynastic temple sculpture. She deconstructs it through both modern and ancient time and space and reconstructs it into a more meaningful conceptual object. The composing of these objects, their installation, and their reuse was part of a complex system allowing for the communication of ideas of individuality and community to be present within and without temple space. This work will have traction both within the field of ancient Near Eastern art as well as in other fields such as anthropology, archaeology, and cultural and museum studies.

Sarah Jarmer Scott
Department of Art and Art History
Wagner College
Staten Island, New York 10301

Book Review of The Lives of Sumerian Sculpture: An Archaeology of the Early Dynastic Temple, by Jean M. Evans

Reviewed by Sarah Jarmer Scott

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 117, No. 4 (October 2013)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1174.Scott

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