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Testing the Canon of Ancient Near Eastern Art and Archaeology

Testing the Canon of Ancient Near Eastern Art and Archaeology

Edited by Amy Rebecca Gansell and Ann Shafer. New York: Oxford University Press 2020. Pp. xxxv + 418. $99. ISBN 978-0-19-067316-1 (cloth).

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This anthology offers a fresh approach to our understanding of ancient Near Eastern material culture. The editors have organized a series of essays that problematize and interrogate the idea of canons and the canon of ancient Near Eastern art and archaeology inherited by scholars today. In their introduction, they caution readers not to jettison the exercise of canon building entirely; rather, they see canon making as a process that requires dissecting and exploding. They “aim to embrace the Ancient Near Eastern canon as a well-worn artifact, fraught with limitations and even dangers, yet full of potential and benefits” (25). At the outset, the editors define a canon to include a set of objects and sites that are “broadly deemed to be of the highest artistic and technical merit, that are best known as representative of a culture and widely considered essential to one’s understanding of it” (2). And the essays here approach this concept of canon from diverse directions, ranging from objects specially valued in their own ancient time to museum curating in the present.

Since the book is not a “Greatest Hits” (2) of Mesopotamian art and archaeology, the editors acknowledge that their volume “is intended to be diverse, but not comprehensive [and that] many facets of the canon are left unexplored,” including the Parthian and Sassanian periods and the canon’s “prehistoric horizon” (25). To interrupt a canonical narrative governed by chronology or geography, the editors have organized their volume thematically into four (unequal) sections entitled “Boundaries,” “Typologies,” “Technologies,” and “Heritage Perspectives.”

The first part of the book, “Boundaries,” is a tightly conceived section, and the editors are to be applauded for keeping the contributors closely focused on four important tasks: (1) to define the geographic and temporal boundaries of their area; (2) to analyze how their area has been treated and what canonical objects have typically been included in both world art history surveys and in ancient Near Eastern art history compendia; (3) to suggest new objects to add to the canon; and (4) to suggest new methodologies (aside from technological or stylistic analyses) that could be useful in bringing objects into their canon. This section, therefore, extensively covers the historiography of the canon of ancient Near Eastern art and archaeology for specific geographic areas within the Middle East and North African (MENA) region (Rachel Hallote for the southern Levant, Marina Pucci for Syria, Susan Helft for Anatolia, Henry P. Colburn for Iran, and Elise A. Friedland for the classical Near East). These are somewhat arbitrary inclusions for subregions or time periods, but understandable in a moderately priced anthology of short length (418 pages). Historiographic themes that emerge include a documentation of the frustration that previous scholars have expressed in trying to fit objects from what may be considered peripheral areas or from Graeco-Roman classical antiquity into their compendia (see Hallote, Pucci, Helft, Friedland). All of the contributions mention the “Mesopocentric” (19) nature of previous compendia, and explore (some more extensively than others) the influence of Henri Frankfort and his seminal Art and Architecture of the Ancient Orient (first published in 1954, now in its fifth edition) to demonstrate how such a canon, still taught today in undergraduate courses on art and archaeology, is fraught with complications and Eurocentric assumptions. As for new methodologies, most contributors to this section critique the focus on stylistic or formal analysis so typical of earlier canons, and argue instead that local and microregional archaeological contexts should determine how their areas are represented and discussed in surveys and compendia, emphasizing the “and archaeology” in the title of the volume.

In the sections “Typologies” and “Technologies,” the editors clearly had an expansive definition of typology and “propose alternative conceptual categories” for the construction of canons (21). This expansion is an ambitious, yet promising, approach, as it promotes the idea that objects were canonized by ancient cultures due to aspects other than taste and aesthetics. Generally, the authors interrogate, either overtly or implicitly, whether all types in a canon must be identified by material or medium (e.g., stone) or scale (e.g., monumental or portable), as was the case for most earlier art historical and archaeological approaches. Contributors use iconography (Diana L. Stein), form or shape (David Kertai), and beliefs in the afterlife (Nicola Laneri) as comparative categories. In “Technologies,” the focus turns to how canons have been constructed in the past and the present. In perhaps the strongest piece in the entire volume, Davide Nadali suggests that the creation of memories and mnemonic types was a “technology of knowledge” (217) and argues that Neo-Assyrian kings preserved their predecessors’ cultural products and contructed their own new memories in images and texts in order to allow “several memories to live simultaneously” (226). Turning to modern periods of museum practices, Rachel Kreiter similarly suggests that “curating is a technology of knowledge production” (267) in her analysis of the display of objects from outside of Egypt found in ancient Near Eastern museum collections, which had a “hybridized style of art that heavily drew upon Egyptian sources” (260–62). Paul Collins echoes this idea in his review of the history of displays and printed guides from the British Museum.

The section entitled “Heritage Perspectives” is a lively compilation of short contributions by individuals from “communities of heritage” in the MENA region. The contributions in this last section eschew the typical heavily footnoted scholarly approach of the first three sections, offering instead impressionistic narratives of the ways in which the contemporary and the ancient meet for these authors in their experiences. The authors of these quick reads (2–3 pages each) consider questions of identity as practicing scholars, artists, and curators, but also as residents, refugees, and expatriates from MENA areas. Their narratives are sometimes quite personal and often postcolonial in nature, and they extend the critique of the Eurocentric canon of ancient Near Eastern art into contemporary artistic and heritage practices in order to “create a dialogue between the ancient and modern” and engage local communities (Tamara Chalabi, 307). While all of these contributions are thought-provoking, more notable ones include Monica Hanna’s suggestion that Egyptian antiquities looted recently are “blood antiquities” because child laborers often are used (317); Sargon Donabad’s cinematic short story about an Iraqi woman’s surreal dream of her homeland (311); and Zena Kamash’s discussion of “the gentle act of protest through crafting—craftivism” in which she “crafts her own canon” (319–20) with textiles.

The editors and authors of this anthology had two major goals for the canon of ancient Near Eastern art and archaeology: firstly, “to dig below the surface; open up the edges of the canon; explore nuance and dissipate its conventional boundaries and impairments; and at the same time, celebrate and reimagine its potential in the future as a more transparent window onto the past” (18); and secondly, to show how the canon can be used as a tool to give greater agency to scholars as a conduit to the general public. The first goal was certainly accomplished by the contributors, and is evidenced throughout the volume. The second goal—to justify and further the existence of the study of ancient Near Eastern art and archaeology—is more elusive. The “Heritage Perspectives” section does serve the purpose of connection to a wider audience, and is a welcome innovation to how the canon is considered. However, the majority of the volume is clearly aimed at a highly educated “community of scholars” (2),  with an assumption that readers are well aware of objects previously identified as canonical, and familiar with periodization and geographic terms for every region, as well as common archaeological and art historical methods. This expectation is most identifiable in Shafer’s chapter on pedagogy, which focuses on the teaching practices of a select group of art historians, largely from the area of New York City, whose students have access to excellent public transportation and world-class comprehensive museum collections. For art historians and archaeologists who want to make the canon relevant to the general public, this represents a relatively rare context of teaching. Pedagogy chapters on more broadly conceived topics would be much more helpful, as would those that examine the pedagogy and learning experiences of faculty who teach nontraditional college undergraduates in American communities (e.g., veterans of United States military conflicts in the MENA region) or at any institution where the ancient Near East (its art, archaeology, or texts) is allotted very little space in any department’s curriculum.

The volume is generally amply illustrated, with a series of regional maps at the beginning identifying named sites, several color plates grouped in the middle, and other black-and-white images throughout the chapters. As for textual content, I offer two general critiques of the volume. First, the editors and authors do not interrogate deeply the very use of the terms “art” or “works of art” in the context of the cultures of the ancient Near East. A few contributors dance around the topic, most notably Hallote (55) and Collins (234), but the emic understanding of material objects in the ancient Near Eastern cultures, and native ancient aesthetics, deserves more consideration throughout the volume. This is surprising considering that the world’s foremost authority on ancient Near Eastern aesthetics, Irene J. Winter, introduces the volume in the foreword (xiii–xxvii), and yet her work is not discussed extensively in the remainder of the volume. The attempt to understand “art” objects within their social and archaeological contexts suggested as a workaround for sites without texts (Pucci, Helft, Hallote) is a trend in the emic direction. Second, also missing in large part from the volume is a self-conscious consideration of the use of nonexcavated objects in the canons. Colburn’s analysis of Iranian art is the exception, as he strongly urges scholars to discuss provenance for many objects deemed stylistically Iranian but lacking archaeological provenience (117). Furthermore, the chapters by Pucci, Youssef Kanjou, Chalabi, and Hanna discuss looted objects and the problem of the canon. However, overall, the editors could have tasked each author to explicitly problematize the inclusion of unprovenanced objects in any canon.

Despite these criticisms, Testing the Canon of Ancient Near Eastern Art and Archaeology is a valuable contribution to the study of material culture for the region and its ancient cultures. The tightly edited volume brings strong critiques and relevant new insights to the study of canons in general and to the vast amount of source material that confronts the scholar of the ancient Near East. Most importantly, its historiographic narratives disrupt the notion that there ever has been or should be a single canon for the art and archaeology of the ancient Near East.

Allison Thomason
Department of History
Southern Illinois University Edwardsville

Book Review of Testing the Canon of Ancient Near Eastern Art and Archaeology, edited by Amy Rebecca Gansell and Ann Shafer
Reviewed by Allison Thomason
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 125, No. 1 (January 2021)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1251.Thomason

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