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The Origins of Monsters: Image and Cognition in the First Age of Mechanical Reproduction

The Origins of Monsters: Image and Cognition in the First Age of Mechanical Reproduction

By David Wengrow (The Rostovtzeff Lectures). Pp. xviii + 162, figs. 34. Princeton University Press, Princeton 2013. $39.50. ISBN 978-0-691-15904-1 (cloth).

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The material covered in Wengrow’s short but ambitious volume was first presented within the M.I. Rostovtzeff Lecture Series at New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (ISAW) in 2011, and it is in many ways a tribute to both the wide-ranging work of the ISAW and of Rostovtzeff himself. Working at the beginning of the 20th century, Rostovtzeff, who is known primarily for his studies of the social and economic history of the Graeco-Roman world, extended his interests to the material culture of areas farther to the east, bringing together an impressive variety of visual and historical sources that enabled him to pursue “a complex argument about the relationship between economic forces and cultural change” (8–9) based on the links “between large scale distribution of images and the growth of commercial and political networks” (16). Following in these footsteps, Wengrow sets his sights on representations of “monsters,” or rather, “composites,” which, though sparsely documented in archaeological contexts as early as the Paleolithic period, seem to proliferate with the coming of the Bronze Age. He views their spread through the visual landscape of the ancient world as an example of an “epidemiology of culture” similar to that hypothesized by scholars such as Pascal Boyer and Dan Sperber in their discussions of the expansion of religious thought. The volume begins with an overview of current cognitive theories (ch. 2) and is followed by a brief timeline chronicling the appearance of composites (chs. 3, 4). The final chapters (chs. 5, 6) consider the ways in which the images themselves may have spread through the ancient world.

By appealing to cognitive theories, Wengrow brings two important concepts to his discussion of Bronze Age monsters—the idea that the human “perception of the world is shaped by a modular pattern of recognition” (21) and the concept that successful supernatural beings are characterized by their effective balancing of a series of modular forms that conforms with our intuitive understanding of the world and a smaller number of extraordinary characteristics. Thus, the most memorable monsters are only minimally counterintuitive; they have fantastic attributes but are still able to function—breathe, eat, see, hear, move—in ways that make sense to us based on our own knowledge of the natural world. While the majority of the literature on cognition and religion deals primarily with textual or oral sources, Wengrow attempts to expand the discussion to the visual and, in particular, to the images of composite creatures that appear to spread through the ancient world from the beginning of the Bronze Age onward.

Chapters 3 and 4 present an abbreviated timeline of the appearance of composites in the visual record of prehistory, serving primarily to refute the argument that figures of this type are found throughout Paleolithic art. In fact, Wengrow argues, composite figures do not become an important element of the artistic repertoire of antiquity until the beginning of the Bronze Age, and they can be linked conclusively with the beginnings of urban society over a wide geographic range. It is during this period that we begin to see an increasing use of a modular logic of depiction, not only in the construction of composite figures but also in the development of religious and secular imagery, architectural construction, and most importantly, perhaps, with the advent of writing. In the second of these chapters, Wengrow covers a chronological and geographic range that echoes Rostovtzeff’s ambitions, following the trail of the composites from Mesopotamia and western Iran in the fifth–fourth millennia B.C.E. to the Early Dynastic period in Egypt and as far as the Indus Valley by the mid third millennium B.C.E. While much of the material is covered only superficially, the survey makes an important connection between the expansion of trade routes in these regions and the spread of composite images.

Chapters 5 and 6 deal primarily with the ways in which these composite images were spread, both on a physical or technical level and on a more organic level. Referring back to the title of the volume, chapter 5 considers the function of mechanical reproduction in the spread of composite images, using the example both of seals utilized in administration and of molds used for the production of clay plaques and faience vessels. These technological advancements, which go hand in hand with the rise of urban society, made it possible for these counterintuitive images to be endlessly reproduced with great precision, allowing the copies to spread far and wide. In an earlier article on this subject (“Cognition, Materiality and Monsters: The Cultural Transmission of Counter-Intuitive Forms in Bronze Age Societies,” Journal of Material Culture 16 [2011] 131–49), Wengrow (2011, 144) argued that this “mechanical replication of counter-intuitive forms” is a reflection not only of the pervasiveness of these images in the visual landscape of Bronze Age cultures but also of increasing religious codification as societies became more settled and hierarchical. In this volume, he takes a broader geographic view and refutes the value of mechanical reproduction as a methodology for the spread of composite images by observing the example of Shang China, where, while composites became increasingly important in the decoration of ceremonial bronze vessels, they nonetheless continued to be produced by hand. On the organic level, chapter 6 presents the three modes of image transfer that Wengrow sees for this imagery—transformative, integrative, and protective.

In the end, it is in its failure to follow up on the points raised in the earlier article that this book feels most disappointing. While it endeavors to use a cognitive model to explain how people perceive composite images and what allows them to spread, it fails to answer, or even approach, the basic question of why these images were created to begin with and what function they served. With the exception of a few Egyptian examples, the book does not seem to take into account that fantastic beings did not exist in the visual realm alone. The stories and religious beliefs associated with them, as well as the use that local elites may have made of these beliefs, were surely equally important and deserve to be included within any theory that considers this imagery. In this sense, while The Origins of Monsters runs the risk of leaving readers who want more than a superficial treatment of the material unsatisfied, it is a volume that raises a variety of fascinating issues and will appeal to a broad audience with many different interests.

Marta Ameri
Department of Art
Colby College

Book Review of The Origins of Monsters: Image and Cognition in the First Age of Mechanical Reproduction, by David Wengrow

Reviewed by Marta Ameri

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 120, No. 1 (January 2016)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1201.Ameri

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