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Communities of Style: Portable Luxury Arts, Identity, and Collective Memory in the Iron Age Levant

Communities of Style: Portable Luxury Arts, Identity, and Collective Memory in the Iron Age Levant

By Marian H. Feldman. Pp. xvii + 250, figs. 41, color pls. 20, maps 3. University of Chicago Press, Chicago 2014. $70. ISBN 978-0-226-10561-1 (cloth).

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Following her first monograph on second-millennium minor arts of the Ancient Near East (Diplomacy by Design: Luxury Arts and an “International Style” in the Ancient Near East, 1400–1200 BCE [Chicago 2006]), Feldman now focuses on portable luxury objects of the Iron Age Levant. She seeks to approach material culture from a new perspective and wishes to move away from the formalism of early art history mostly concerned with the object’s physical appearance toward a semiotic and contextual approach that regards objects as active agents in a dynamic process creating (social) meaning between people across time and space. She does, however, include aspects of formalism as well (e.g., 176). She considers the objects as “active agents,” entangled in human social practices and evoking individual and collective experiences through “affective properties” of their style (175). Feldman intends to explore “the ways in which artistic production, consumption, and appreciation generate community networks” arguing that “artworks accomplish this through their unique ability to catalyze collective memory” (2).

The book begins with an introduction that summarizes her lines of reasoning for each chapter. It is positive to note that Feldman regards “Phoenicia” as a problematic term (179), whereas her definition of “Levant” as including the East Syrian Jazirah remains debatable (3–4). Chapter 1 sets the scene with a brief overview of ivory studies, including a short discussion of general terms such as “workshop,” “connoisseurship,” and “style.” Chapter 2 addresses the question of how “stylistic practices” can create collective memory in general and exemplifies this for Levantine ivories. In chapter 3, Assyria is described as an artistic monolith, which decidedly opposes the heterogeneous Levantine styles. A different light onto the role of objects in creating memory and identity through the notion of extended personhood is shed in chapter 4, exemplified by inscribed metal bowls. Chapter 5 offers a number of examples for the displacement of Levantine luxury objects, with different meanings behind those displacements. The conclusion summarizes Feldman’s theoretical background, acknowledges the many different stories behind any given object’s manufacture and use, and invites further studies to elucidate the ancient past.

The book being well edited and having good quality images distracts the reader from its shortcomings. For example, Feldman roughly sketches the development of ivory studies (13–17), which was concerned with the initial steps to organize the vast amount of material in regional stylistic groups and subgroups and establish a chronological order (cf. the various works by G. Herrmann; e.g., Ivories from Nimrud VI: Ivories from the North West Palace [London 2009]). She dismisses endeavors to localize places of manufacture as a generally fruitless attempt (171) but nevertheless employs the “established” grouping of Levantine ivories into three major traditions (North Syrian, Phoenician, South Syrian), which is based on formal, technical, stylistic, and iconographic reasoning. This line of argument is considered by her as a formalistic art historical approach and equated with connoisseurship (11–12, 17–22). Still, those analyses are basic principles in archaeological and art historical work. Connoisseurship, on the contrary, is a very special field of art historical studies, aiming to attribute artworks to individual artists and to distinguish between master and apprentices, between originals, copies, emulations, and fakes (M.J. Friedländer, On Art and Connoisseurship [London 1942]; J. Brewer, “Evaluating Valuation: Connoisseurship, Technology, and Art Attribution in an American Court of Law,” in A.B. Antal et al., eds., Moments of Valuation: Exploring Sites of Dissonance [Oxford 2015] 89–107). Such an endeavor can only be a second-step analysis once the basic attribution is done.

Feldman insinuates that terms such as “school,” “workshop,” or “hand” were taken directly from Italian Renaissance studies (26) when she misquotes (187 n. 56) Mallowan and Herrmann (Ivories from Nimrud III: Furniture from SW.7 Fort Shalmaneser [London 1974] 35). Yet these authors decidedly point to their awareness of the ambiguity of the nomenclature and its wider concept. Feldman posits a dichotomous opposition between “isolated production loci” (as alleged opinio communis in ivory studies) and pan-Levantine “networked practices” propagated by herself but unfortunately not detailed any further (e.g., 13).

It is difficult to understand why Feldman discredits attempts to map stylistic groupings onto geography but at the same time argues for “geographical round-trips” of objects in order to tell stories of social supraregional networks. Feldman sharply criticizes attempts to localize artistic styles by asserting that they are based on “the enduring assumption of cultural identity being rooted in place” (40). She even goes so far as to imply “the commingling of blood and soil” (40), using an infamous watchword of Nazi ideology. This is an unscientific blow backed by an inconsistent reference to Greenblatt (“Cultural Mobility: An Introduction,” in S. Greenblatt et al., Cultural Mobility: A Manifesto [Cambridge 2010] 3), who in fact used the phrase “properly rooted in the rich soil of blood and land.” The difficulty of geographic attributions of objects, which is a precondition before starting to think about the meaning of distribution at all, is glossed over by Feldman by reducing the relevant geography to Assyria-Levant-Greece, which are three vast geographical regions and do not display homogeneous stylistic groups at all.

Interdisciplinary borrowings from sociology or anthropology are equally negligent: Connerton’s distinction between “inscribed practices” and “incorporated practices,” for example, is condensed beyond comprehensibility (66). The discussion of collective memory could be aided by reference to Erll and Nünning’s Cultural Memory Studies: An International and Interdisciplinary Handbook (Berlin 2008) and Erll’s, Memory in Culture (Basingstoke 2011).

Another difficult issue is Feldman’s notion of style, described in general as “the artwork’s visual and formal effects” (175) and more precisely as “stylistic practices.” These are pivotal to her argument and are developed with reference to Bourdieu’s concept of habitus (ch. 2). At the same time these definitions become conflated with Feldman’s “minutiae of visual forms” (44) and in turn become ambiguous terms. It is reasonable that “style” can be labeled as a social practice with corresponding affective properties and as such forms a kind of “glue” for society (177). However, it appears odd that the animal markings of the “Flame and Frond” ivories are seen as “a coherent bundle of stylistic traits that nonetheless can coexist with a variety of other stylistic traits,” indicating “an interconnected network of varying stylistic practices that could come together (or not) in multiple fluid combinations across the geographic extent of the Levant and over a long period of time” (64). Here, the critical reader wonders about the benefit of Feldman’s new understanding of style.

According to Feldman, “stylistic traits form a critical component of collective memory, being both the product and the source of shared social practices at the level of creation and appreciation” (6). Based on the distinct markings that were used to render some anatomical details of animals and hybrid creatures in the Late Bronze and Iron Ages, Feldman posits “an effective emotive link with the past” (73). She holds that it is “the specific Bronze Age tradition of diplomatic courtliness that resides latent in the animal patterning” of the Iron Age (73). Hence, the Iron Age arts should be seen as evoking a “‘golden past’ through the selection of properties connoting aspects of heroic kingship” (75). Yet, one has to ask what petty potentates of the Iron Age Levant knew about the Great Powers’ Club of the “golden” Amarna Period, which excluded the Late Bronze Age petty kings of the Levant according to Feldman (2006). Feldman avoids the question of how such a memory between Bronze and Iron Age was kept alive for several hundred years; nor does she mention the role of the craftsmen and their training or the issue of iconography. In general it is difficult to grasp why style should be more apt to create communities than motifs, which had been Feldman’s major evidence previously.

Feldman justly emphasizes that “we need to analyze closely each situation on its own before we begin to construct large-scale narratives of cultural interaction” (172). She warns that “the degree of displacement is so great that speculation regarding an exact itinerary remains tenuous beyond reasonable bounds. This conclusion, while negative, should stand as an important caution in our attempts to reconstruct relations between Greece and the Near East during the eighth century BCE” (170). Yet, against her own warnings, Feldman draws a highly conjectural itinerary for objects such as bronze bridle elements found in Eretria and Samos from Levantine starting points through Assyrian royal magazines to Greek sanctuaries (ch. 5). Such objects are called upon as evidence for “round-trip displacements” that would have led to enriched social biographies of the aforementioned objects. In dealing with the Olympia bronzes, Feldman follows Guralnick’s hypothesis that the relief bands originally decorated doorposts, columns, or standards of an Assyrian building in North Syria; the stylistic discrepancies between the reliefs are explained as the result of pan-Levantine interactions of craftsmen from many bronzeworking centers, who came together in order to work on a particular large project (141–46). Feldman has missed the contributions by Kreutz (“Fremdartige Kostbarkeiten oder sakraler Müll?” in M. Novák et al., eds., Die Außenwirkung des späthethitischen Kulturraumes [Münster 2004] 107–20) and Seidl (“A Goddess from Karkamiš at Olympia?” in A. Cilingiroğlu and A. Sagona, eds., Anatolian Iron Ages 6 [Leuven 2007] 225–43) and ignores the criticism of Guralnick, who lowered the date for the Greek sphyrelata with which the Oriental bronzes were secondarily combined. If a higher date for the Greek parts is maintained, as suggested by several scholars, then the assumption that the Oriental bronzes arrived in Olympia after the fall of Assyria becomes untenable and Feldman’s case study “After the Fall: Mobility post Assyrian Empire” (141) implodes. At the end of chapter 5 the reader is at loss to see what bigger picture Feldman wants to draw when juxtaposing her various case studies. They do have in common the general trait of displacement but are otherwise quite unrelated.

In chapters 3 and 4, Feldman elaborates on two case studies in order to elucidate how social communality can be brought about by style, respectively by objects. In chapter 4, late Assyrian art, exemplified by an Assyrian court style, is presented as a standardized stylistic phenomenon that was used by the central Assyrian administration “to establish norms of being (royal) Assyrian” and to create a clear boundary between the homogeneous Assyrian empire and the heterogeneous and dangerous “Other” (79–80). Oddly, this ignores the clearly discernible development of Assyrian art from the ninth to the seventh century B.C.E. as was discussed in detail, for example, already by Nagel (Die neuassyrischen Reliefstile unter Sanherib und Assurbanaplu [Berlin 1967]). When Feldman draws on experts such as Frankfort, Parrot, or Moortgat she reproduces outdated opinions, which cannot be balanced by references to recent publications by Collon or Collins, who address the interested layman, not the scholar. Moreover, there are various degrees of Assyrian styles present besides and apart from the Assyrian court, which leads to questions about Assyrian workshop organization in general, an issue not addressed by Feldman.

Feldman redefines the term “Assyrianization” in an interesting way: not “a process acting on non-Assyrian peoples” but “a set of social engagements” to form Assyrian self-identification (80–1). Feldman’s idea of stylistic Assyrianization holds that the depiction of non-Assyrian foreign objects, such as booty, in Assyrian style in the royal reliefs would be an attempt to neutralize or tame the threatening Other and was an act of “stylistic appropriation” (thus a meaningful social practice). This, however, is untenable. She presupposes the craftsmen’s knowledge and ability to render Egyptian loot in Egyptian style or Anatolian goods in Anatolian style. But this is a very modern notion of artistic production, and it is only in 20th-century art that different stylistic expressions have been mixed in order to create very specific meanings (cf. L. al-Gailani Werr, “Archaeology and Politics in Iraq,” in B.A. Brown and M.H. Feldman, eds., Critical Approaches to Ancient Near Eastern Art [Boston and Berlin 2014] 21, fig. 4). Apparently, Feldman does not consider her very own concept of style as habitus, which the craftsman cannot shed. Yet, the intention to show the Other on Assyrian reliefs was realized much more obviously by using iconographic and antiquarian details. The Anatolian weather god on Tiglath-Pileser’s relief (97, fig. 3.6) is clearly recognizable by stance and headgear, which are immediately evident to any attentive observer. The interpretation of Ashurbanipal’s famous garden scene as a display of various foreign goods has become an often repeated academic topos. Alas, an argument does not become true by repetition (100–1). It is thus regrettable when the pyxis on the table or the carvings on the bedpost are claimed to be “stylistically” Assyrianized foreign objects instead of proper Assyrian products. Once the iconographic minutiae are observed, the alleged multitude of non-Assyrian objects is reduced to only one (the obscure necklace hanging on the bed).

In chapter 4, Feldman discusses decorated metal bowls with inscriptions declaring ownership as evidence for the creation of a collective social identity and memory through objects. She puts such bowls into the general frame of collective acts of memorial practices such as kispu or marzeaḥ rituals, where the consumption and libation of wine is involved. According to Feldman, the inscribed names evoke the owner, and thus the object testifies and contributes to the owner’s memory.

Her application of the concept of extended personhood (118–19) in combination with funeral and ritual events appears as a simple matter of overinterpretation, making too much of the personal possessive inscriptions on the bowls. Marking objects with one’s name as a sign of possession is nothing particularly unusual but rather is a cross-cultural phenomenon, as witnessed in the different languages used.

It is rather astonishing from a formalistic, typological, and general archaeological point of view that Feldman considers the presence of inscriptions as a relevant characteristic enabling her to group 16 otherwise heterogeneous metal vessels from different contexts (palace storeroom at Nimrud, sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia, tombs): “While the content of the inscriptions clearly connects these vessels to one another cross-culturally, as do their general form and presumed funerary function, the imagery reveals no obvious pattern of visual relationships” (128). Feldman turns to the elaborate decoration in a rather odd way. Because of her eclectic interpretative approach, she must explain the varying motifs of hunting and other genres that are difficult to relate to funeral rituals because they are not “almost self-referential” like the depiction of a banquet (129). Therefore, she draws on Gell’s idea of “art as the technology of enchantment” and considers the complex decorative motifs and narratives as generating conversation among the banqueters by providing “rich fodder for later memories” (130–31). While it is uncontested that shared rituals such as banquets create communities, the point of matter is the act of drinking and not so much the means for drinking (vessels).

This critique does not want to diminish the potential of theoretical approaches to increase our understanding of material culture. It is an aim worth pursuing, once the context is established and once the means to disentangle the complex network of (social) relations wrapped around objects such as Near Eastern ivories or metalwork are ready. Feldman intends to unravel the social network to the reader but fails to convince in her archaeological arguments, mainly because she avoids thorough discussions of the objects and their contexts. Contrary to Feldman’s own statement—that her “study has sought to provide a richer understanding of these long-enigmatic artworks through a serious commitment to their formal, stylistic, material, and physical properties, and the ways in which these material aspects encourage and condition relationships” (182)—the reviewers cannot recognize such commitment in her book.

Erika Fischer
Institute of Ancient Studies
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz

Dirk Wicke
Institute for Archaeological Sciences
Goethe University Frankfurt

Book Review of Communities of Style: Portable Luxury Arts, Identity, and Collective Memory in the Iron Age Levant, by Marian H. Feldman

Reviewed by Erika Fischer and Dirk Wicke

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 120, No. 4 (October 2016)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1204.FischerWicke

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