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From Ancient to Modern: Archaeology and Aesthetics

July 2016 (120.3)

Book Review

From Ancient to Modern: Archaeology and Aesthetics

Edited by Jennifer Y. Chi and Pedro Azara. Pp. 240, figs. 125, map 1, illustrated exhibition checklist. Princeton University Press, Princeton 2015. $39.95. ISBN 978-0-691-16646-9 (cloth).

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As we see archaeological sites and artifacts destroyed with alarming rapidity in today’s Middle East, the question of to whom the past belongs is more relevant, and more troubling, than ever before. When applied to artifacts, the very idea of ownership gives them financial value as commodities, saleable by terrorist groups, dealers, and auction houses. From an intellectual perspective, we also haggle over these objects among disciplines: should they be viewed as part of an art historical narrative, a nationalist identity, an archaeological record, or simply as products of the human imagination? How we answer such questions has immediate and critical material consequences for archaeological sites in the global arena of war, religion, and terrorism.

It is from that perspective that this volume is timely and thought provoking. The exhibition (of the same title as the book) was on view at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University from 12 February to 7 June 2015. The show was built around Mesopotamian objects from the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology but also included pieces from public and private collections, modern and contemporary works of art, and archival material from the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The contemporary works are those of the artist Michael Rakowitz, whose evocations of ancient sculpture using modern materials make a powerful statement about aesthetics, loss, value, and politics, but they unfortunately are not strongly addressed in the catalogue, save a brief mention in the introductory essay.

The major ancient works included come from the third-millennium B.C.E. site of Ur, excavated by Sir Leonard Woolley in the 1920s. The “Royal Cemetery” at Ur, and especially the unlooted tomb of Queen Puabi, provided an unparalleled collection of “treasures” that have been a source of scholarly investigation for nearly a century. Some of the most recent research on objects from that tomb appears in this volume. Hafford and Zettler, in their chapter, detail the excavation of the tomb and the problems of understanding its complex stratigraphy. They also relate the early exhibition and reception of the objects, emphasizing controversies around the appearance and dress of the model bust of Puabi used to display her headdress and jewelry.

In their chapter, Pittman and Miller reassess Puabi’s “diadem,” a set of beads and ornaments found in the queen’s tomb chamber, which has been newly reconstructed into a set of related diadems (rather than a single piece of jewelry). The authors document their investigation of Woolley’s field notes and of other Royal Cemetery diadems, providing a revealing depiction of archaeological and curatorial processes.

These two research reports set the stage for Benzel’s essay, which revisits Irene Winter’s arguments about Mesopotamian aesthetics in an effort to take the question of Puabi’s appearance back to the queen's own time. Picking up Winter’s idea that the quality of an object determined its aesthetic value to a large degree, Benzel examines the workmanship and effect of Puabi’s jewelry; her emphasis on the materiality of the pieces is a welcome shift from the topic of Puabi’s hairstyle and appearance, arguably overplayed elsewhere in the volume.

A similar case for materiality is made by Green and Evans in their chapter, which examines third-millennium votive statuary. They begin by looking critically at the reception of these objects in the 20th century, then argue for a closer examination of archaeological context as a better means of understanding the works. Having placed the statues back in the temple, in an intellectual sense, they then review the display of the objects in our modern temple, the museum. They consider how a museum display can evoke the statues’ original contexts and meanings, as well as allowing individual museumgoers to find personal points of connection to the objects. Making a strong statement against an art historical approach to the statuary, Green and Evans’  essay illustrates the powerful effect of archaeological objects, especially when their original context is emphasized in their presentation to the public.

These chapters, in different ways, illuminate the “biography” of the objects on display: they provide a history of the ancient meaning and the modern life of the objects. Object biography is much in vogue in scholarship today, and to good effect. It pulls away the curtain from the traditional “objective” and voiceless narration of the past, in which objects become stable signifiers of the “cultures” or “style” of a moment in history. Object biography instead recognizes the past as a construct of the present, so that the story of an object becomes a shifting dialogue with each present with which it interacts. That dynamic intellectual space is where the book as a whole situates itself.

The volume investigates the processes—historical, intellectual, and political—through which archaeological artifacts have been, at moments in their histories, transformed into aesthetic objects. That investigation is critical, thorough, and revealing; inclusion of archival records and contemporary objects challenges the reader (and in the original exhibition, the viewer) to wrest the artifacts out of whatever art historical or archaeological narrative they had nestled into and view them critically and historiographically as constructs of particular historical ideas.

What is, in the end, less satisfying about how the editors frame this investigation is that they do not challenge the aestheticization of ancient objects. The chapter authors seem keenly aware of the danger of transforming archaeological artifacts into works of art. The art market of the 20th and 21st centuries is a world of fetishized art, in which slippery intellectual and aesthetic ideals make some works of art worth millions; viewing archaeological objects as part of that category of art is dangerous and damaging. The editors, however, have not foregrounded those issues. In their introduction, they seem to accept this process of aestheticization, arguing that aesthetics impart valid meaning to the object biography. While the 20th-century art historical approaches to these artifacts are indeed part of the objects’ biographies, it is that very history that commodified ancient objects, making them desirable on the art market and putting archaeological sites at such risk today.

Sarah Kielt Costello
University of Houston–Clear Lake

Book Review of From Ancient to Modern: Archaeology and Aesthetics, edited by Jennifer Y. Chi and Pedro Azara

Reviewed by Sarah Kielt Costello

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 120, No. 3 (July 2016)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1203.Costello

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