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Imperial Matter: Ancient Persia and the Archaeology of Empires
October 2017 (121.4)
Imperial Matter: Ancient Persia and the Archaeology of Empires
By Lori Khatchadourian. Pp. xxxviii + 288. University of California Press, Oakland 2016. $34.95. ISBN 978-0-520-29052-5 (paper; e-book).
Imperial Matter is an important contribution to the study of the Achaemenid empire and provides a useful analysis of theories of materiality presented over the past 20 years. The book continues the work of Khatchadourian’s doctoral dissertation, analyzing the role of material culture (or “things”) in the functioning of the Achaemenid empire—and by extension ancient empires in general—with specific reference to the archaeology of the Tsaghkahovit Archaeological Project in Armenia. The book is divided into two parts: the first summarizes recent general discussions of materiality and then lays out a theoretical model of how these ideas can be applied to empires; the second applies this model to the archaeological remains of the Persian empire in Iran and Transcaucasia.
Khatchadourian positions herself in the theoretical tradition of Bruno Latour, as recast in the past 10 years by Ian Hodder and many others. The basic premise of this theoretical stance is that objects are as much vital agents in human social processes as are people, and although things may lack intention, they both affect and infect the political arena. The popularity of this “material turn” can be gauged by the proliferation of the closely related term “entanglement” in Society of American Archeology abstracts over the past decade; the word occurs six times in 2007 and 50 times in 2017. In fact, perhaps the term “turn,” which is now widely read as a change in theoretical perspective (or in the hoary old days of logical positivism what we would have called a “paradigm shift”), may best be understood in its original coinage by Bergmann (“Strawson’s Ontology,” The Journal of Philosophy 57  601–22) as “gambit,” or in the theatrical sense of a revue or act; the “material schtick” might be an alternate name for it. Of course, as Khatchadourian points out, the material turn is a gift to archaeologists whose work depends on understanding objects, although ironically archaeological theorists, who should be the ultimate specialists in studying materiality, have mostly borrowed their analytical language from other fields.
Khatchadourian’s aim is to apply theories of materiality to the “relationship between imperialism and things” (xxxiv) in the specific context of Achaemenid Persia. With an archaeologist’s inclination toward typology, Khatchadourian identifies four categories of imperial matter: delegates (which promote the imperial project while entrapping it into continued support of materiality—e.g., monumental architecture that must be maintained and reproduced), proxies (poor-cousin copies of delegates that can create their own relationships of power—e.g., ceramic copies of precious metal vessels), captives (both captured and copied objects that have been taken from “subjugated communities” to serve imperial hegemony—e.g., decorative motifs borrowed from conquered territories), and affiliates (everything else). She acknowledges that these categories not only can crosscut each other at any given time but also can morph into each other as they are taken up by human politics, and indeed they are defined only by their relationship to imperial systems. And this is where the problem with this approach lies: the properties described as inherent to objects are defined only by the human interactions with these objects. Following the current theoretical push toward acknowledging material agency, Khatchadourian is intent on isolating things, or assemblages of things, as entities that are discrete from human agents, but the forces she describes (e.g., concerning delegates, proxies) are the ways in which these objects shape human systems, not inherent properties of the things themselves as her typology would imply. In Hodder’s terms, these forces are the webs of entanglement, or dependencies, rather than the objects. These processes are critical to understanding human-thing interactions in the imperial sphere, and Khatchadourian’s book is significant in refining our understanding of them in the Achaemenid context, but I am not sure that the categorization of objects based on their human entanglements gets us much further with “decentering the human as the locus of all agency” (76). In fact, Khatchadourian’s frequent use of anthropomorphizing language to describe her material categories—proxies, for example, are “rapscallion siblings” (71) responsible for “roguery” (143)—while endearing, seems to grant objects the very intention that theories of material agency seek to avoid.
The strength of Khatchadourian’s work lies in her detailed analysis of the material of the Achaemenid empire. Although I would quibble about some of her conclusions (e.g., the date of Altıntepe, the function of Godin), her painstaking treatment of, for example, the role of silver vessels in creating and maintaining imperial power (127–40) adds a new twist to somewhat tired discussions of feasting by deftly incorporating the entanglements of the monetized value of silver and the ideological value of zoomorphs. Much of her analysis concerns the architectural phenomenon of the Achaemenid columned hall as it appears both at the center and at the peripheries of empire, and although I might question her designation of the columned hall form as a “captive” from Media, her analysis of the co-opting of the form at Pasargadae by the imperial project of Cyrus the Great and its relationship to the ideological subtleties of the “paradise” are insights that scholars will need to reckon with in any future discussions. Although she cannot solve the puzzle of the columned hall at Karačamirli—if it extends “to the Caucasus political practices of public gatherings that brought sovereigns and subjects face to face” (150), who were the sovereigns here and who the subjects?—her cogent perception that it is not simply a provincial copy of the centers at Persepolis and Susa is important and enlightening.
This book will be necessary reading for any scholar specializing in the Achaemenid empire, but graduate students and scholars in all related fields will appreciate the thorough and thoughtful discussion of the role of materiality in empires. Graduate students will particularly appreciate the fact that, thanks to financial support from Cornell, the monograph is published as part of the University of California Press Luminos program, which provides free open access to the digital volume.
Centre for Ancient Cultures
Book Review of Imperial Matter: Ancient Persia and the Archaeology of Empires, by Lori Khatchadourian
Reviewed by Hilary Gopnik
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 121, No. 4 (October 2017)
Published online at www.ajaonline.org/book-review/3515