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The Art of Contact: Comparative Approaches to Greek and Phoenician Art

July 2018 (122.3)

Book Review

The Art of Contact: Comparative Approaches to Greek and Phoenician Art

By S. Rebecca Martin. Pp. 282. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia 2017. $59.95. ISBN 978-0-8122-4908-8 (cloth).

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The Phoenicians have long hovered in the wings in accounts of classical art history, playing occasional walk-on roles at key moments in the story: Phoenician motifs in early Corinthian vase painting, Phoenician patronage informing the Alexander Sarcophagus and the supposedly “hellenizing” anthropoid sarcophagi of Sidon, and Phoenician cult underlying the famous “Slipper Slapper” from Hellenistic Delos. All these objects are familiar staples of classical art history and have been the focus of detailed studies describing them in terms of influences, orientalization, hellenization, and hybridity. In this exceptionally stimulating and innovative book, the author advocates a new approach, taking a selective but long-term view of “Greek” and “Phoenician” art and artistic interaction. The contacts that are the focus of Martin’s analysis serve to deconstruct these apparently stable categories of analysis, showing both traditions as continuously “in the making,” and to emphasize the agency of art objects, instead of resorting to often anachronistic ethnic labels that then overdetermine the explanatory frameworks we bring to bear.

Martin criticizes the overwhelmingly hellenocentric character of earlier approaches in terms of influence and acculturation, orientalization and hellenization, and their latter-day manifestations as “hybridity,” “syncretization,” and the like. Criticizing the assumptions about clearly defined preexisting boundaries that underlie these concepts and drawing on recent developments in material culture theory, she develops an approach focusing on the material agency of objects—“what it is they wanted” (178)—in relation to their functional contexts. She emphasizes the idea of “contact zones,” the middle grounds between and at the intersections of cultures. The high degree of variation in the character and the outcomes of interactions within such contact zones is illustrated by a well-chosen set of cases. The invention of the kouros type—borrowed from Egypt to create a distinctively Greek type of artifact (material attributes, contexts of use) but not as such a symbol of Greek identity (restricted geographical distribution)—is compared with the invention of the picture mosaic (with particular reference to the Ganymede mosaic from Morgantina and the mosaics of Delos), which seems to be a Mediterranean phenomenon, no more Greek than Phoenician nor Italian. Different types of contact are manifested by kouroi (circulating ideas), lyre seals (circulating objects), and anthropoid sarcophagi (circulating artists).

Building on Markoe’s and Feldman’s accounts of the difficulties in assigning “Phoenician” silver bowls and ivories to specific production sites and discussing the very limited character of any evidence for specifically Phoenician collective identity (as opposed to the specific civic identities of Levantine city states), Martin argues that (as she later summarizes) “Iron Age ‘Phoenician art’ is not just eclectic—it just isn’t” (173 [emphasis original]). Only in the period after the Persian wars does there emerge significant evidence of a distinctively Phoenician collective identity, and with it come characteristic types of monumental art and specific combinations of styles and iconographies that define a distinctive, shared and in some degree bounded artistic tradition (anthropoid sarcophagi, specifically Phoenician styles, and iconographies on coins). The author attributes this development to the shared experience of military forces from the Levantine cities in Achaemenid expeditions against the Greeks and the Egyptians, within the context of intensifying commodity exchange in the eastern Mediterranean (96–7). This fomented processes of peer-polity interaction, which promoted a deepening of shared culture and the crystallization of collective identity among Phoenician cities.

Further case studies focus on the Alexander Sarcophagus and the Slipper Slapper from Delos, which Martin uses as vehicles to explore the utility of concepts of “mixing” and “the middle ground” when examining relations between Greek and Phoenician art in the Hellenistic period. She places particular emphasis on “context-appropriate theorizing” (137) to address the small scales on which she sees such interactions occurring. This provides the basis for an extremely fruitful analysis of sculptural production on second-century B.C.E. Delos as a striking example of the combination of mixing and competitive differentiation that takes place in intercultural “middle grounds.” Comparing it with the portraits of mixed styles of Italic negotiatores like C. Ofellius Ferus and the Pseudo-Athlete, Martin sees the Slipper Slapper as the analogous result of cooperation between Greek sculptors and foreign patrons—in this case Phoenicians, involving identifications between Aphrodite/Astart/Isis and Pan/Ba’al Hammon.

This is a book that deserves to be widely read. It combines exceptional theoretical sophistication with detailed engagements with works of art, their material affordances, and the specifics of their contexts of production and consumption. It is chock full of new arguments and insights that specialists in classical and Mediterranean art will wish to engage with. The nice bite-sized exposition of individual case studies and the clarity of argumentation make individual chapters ideal for inclusion as stimulating and challenging readings for advanced undergraduate and graduate courses. University of Pennsylvania Press also deserves credit for producing a book of high quality (25 excellent color plates and 42 black-and-white figures, all very sharp and clear) and offering it at a price less than half of what one is often asked to pay for equivalent monographs issued by some of the older university presses.

Jeremy Tanner
Institute of Archaeology
University College London

Book Review of The Art of Contact: Comparative Approaches to Greek and Phoenician Art, by S. Rebecca Martin

Reviewed by Jeremy Tanner

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 122, No. 3 (July 2018)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1223.tanner

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