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Maquettes antiques d’Orient: De l’image d’architecture au symbole

April 2018 (122.2)

Book Review

Maquettes antiques d’Orient: De l’image d’architecture au symbole

By Béatrice Muller. Pp. 296. Picard, Paris 2016. €52. ISBN 978-2-7084-1012-1 (paper).

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This book is about a type of artifact common to many cultures of the Old World, the so-called architectural model. These occur over the longue durée across a vast geographic space extending from the Mediterranean (Greece, Crete, Cyprus, and the Levant) to Egypt and the ancient Near East (Anatolia, middle Euphrates, Mesopotamia, and Iran). A tentative corpus counts more than 380 examples coming from about 150 sites. The survey starts with the earliest occurrences in the Neolithic and ends with the Persian period at the dawn of classical Greece, when the activity of professional architects and specialists in masonry is well documented.

In addition to models, this book is also about the very act of construction, considered as a royal prerogative, and an art that reflects the order of the universe, created by an act of god. To understand the physical, technical, and symbolic essence of the act of building, the author raises the question of how these architectural models relate to “real” constructions (61–3). To what extent are they reliable images of actual monuments? Were they used to prepare the construction of a building or to submit a project to a sponsor? Certainly, complex temples and palaces were carefully planned before execution; chapter 1 deals with the rare textual and material evidence for the role of architects in the conception and execution of monuments and the possible use of miniature models for their craft. The fabrication of models themselves is examined with regard to conventions for the depiction of space, such as the synecdoche (pars pro toto) or the superposition of planes (storied perspective), that obscure their possible relation with actual building. 

The author then proceeds by moving back and forth between models and real architecture to inform the relationship between morphology and function. In chapter 2, the apparent profusion of model shapes is reduced to a few general characteristics: open and closed volumes, inhabited or not; the presence of openings; “scenic” tableaux depicting figures in front of architectural elements; isolated elements, such as a door or column; and complex volumes. The author thus proposes to distinguish six types: the aedicule is a simple closed volume, circular or quadrangular, generally with one opening; the “tabernacle” corresponds to a facade generally called naos or naiskos; the tower; the stepped model, frequent in third-millennium Assur and the middle Euphrates of the Bronze Age; the open-top model; and the model with multiple openings. Chapter 3 discusses the physical aspect of the act of building, including a survey of building materials (clay, wood, stone, and precious materials), craftsmen, workshops and teams, and commissions and sponsors. From there, chapter 4 acknowledges the limits of the realism in the models and assesses how problematic it is to interpret the function of the buildings depicted—houses, temples, silos? Egyptian wood models, easily recognizable reproductions of the living and working quarters of the owners, are a pleasant exception to the general ambiguity. However, “real” architectural details of construction appear on the models—such as awnings supported by pillars, half-timbering, stairs, doors, door sockets, windows, and merlons—that are probably reliable depictions of parts of actual buildings. Chapter 5, based on the physical characteristics of the models as portable artifacts, proposes possible functions and uses, practical or symbolic, such as offering tables, stools, altars, and ossuaries. In chapter 6, the decoration of the models—geometric or figurative, painted, incised or applied—provides clues to their significance. The ornaments on the models point to their being symbols of the household and lineage, of sacred enclosures and chapels; “walled” and crenellated models symbolize the city as urban center of power. Models appear to be endowed with a rich conceptual value. They are involved in rituals, might themselves be ritually buried, or might be used as substitute for an offering or sacrifice. In fine, architectural models are polysemic artifacts.

Chapter 7, in a useful geographic and chronological survey, takes notice of the permeability between different categories of production, such as stone vessels with images of architecture (third millennium, Syria to Iran), or the royal crowns in the shape of walled cities depicted on Assyrian and Persian reliefs. There was constant interaction between different areas and cultures. The predominance of Egyptian architectural shapes in the Levant and Cyprus is especially evident in the use of the “Egyptian gorge” molding or the outline of windows in the models. The history of architectural models also brings a new light to the history of rituals and beliefs: from the early phases of the Neolithic, the figurative models reflect the many avatars of the female and male religious principles (e.g., Mother Goddess, Master of Animals), surrounded by figures such as the bull, lion, birds, and snake. Architectural models, especially the “tabernacle,” may even reflect the occurrence of aniconism (as in the case of the “empty” shrines).

A useful index, maps, a list of artifacts with context, and a glossary are provided, and six synoptic plates illustrate a large selection of the different morphologic types, arranged by regions and date.

This book will provide an invaluable tool for the student of Aegean, Egyptian, and Near Eastern history and archaeology. Although it is written in French, the abundant illustrations and detailed table of contents should make it not too difficult for Anglophone scholars to find information.

Annie Caubet

Book Review of Maquettes antiques d’Orient: De l’image d’architecture au symbole, by Béatrice Muller

Reviewed by Annie Caubet

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 122, No. 2 (April 2018)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1222.caubet

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