I have just returned from a wonderful five and a half weeks in the US where I visited approximately ten museums of archaeology and anthropology.
I say ‘approximately’ because the final museum, which I visited three times, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, is considerably more than ten museums rolled into one! I had thought that it would be the greatest of all the museums I visited and while it takes the cake for the number of objects on display, all the museums I visited, large and small, had many things of value to view, think about and enjoy, not least the manner of their display.
When I left Australia, the purpose of my trip to America was primarily to attend the American Schools of Oriental Research annual meeting in San Diego. As I’ve written previously, this was a pretty big step for me back into archaeology. I’ll be posting about some of the sessions I attended shortly.
The idea of a tour of great archaeological museums occurred to me as an extension of that initial purpose. Australia has some wonderful museums of archaeology (link to websites) (and I’m even now thinking of taking some time to visit them), but the opportunity of being in the US opened the possibility of viewing some ‘old friends’ – familiar objects of study from my university days. My object was simple, walk slowly round the museum, enjoying the displays, particularly of figurines, take photos, reflect and re-immerse myself in the ancient world.
I chose the following museums and visited them in this order:
Of course, there are many others I could have chosen, but these were the nine that seemed to, well, come up on my google search, to be honest!
At first, my aims were simple, just to locate, ponder, photograph and basically enjoy the figurines I found on display. I used my camera and notebook to record what I saw, figurines as objects in a display cabinet. I read some of the information panels, but not all. The purpose was just to look at figurines with a view to researching the more interesting looking ones and possibly blog about them.
Some of the visits included personal trips down memory lane (Assyria to Iberia, a wonderful exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Here you can find the blog kept by the curators and I’ll soon be posting my own reflections on it.
Seeing once again objects from my undergrad days, such as the material from the UR III Tombs on display at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology was delightful.
There were also exciting first-time meetings (for example, the black figure vase showing women weaving kept at the Met) of objects I knew so well but had never seen. I was thrilled to be there, happy to be surrounded by fascinating archaeological artefacts once more.
As I moved down my list of museums, I found myself not only looking at the figurines, but in the manner of their display and the information provided to the visitor. I began to pay more attention to the information provided to the viewer about the figurines, the other objects they were placed with and the section of the museum they were housed in.
Some interesting ideas started to form in my mind. None of these ideas is as yet fully formed even now; I am still reflecting on them and will post in full soon.
Here is an incomplete list of some of these ideas:
Now, I am quite sure that the questions above are hardly original. But I am not a museum professional, just a museum visitor with a special interest in how figurines are displayed and the information offered to other visitors about them.
Regarding figurines, there does appear to be a disconnection between innovative interpretations of figurines being developed by archaeologists and either the knowledge of those ideas by museum professionals or the decisions made by curators or exhibition designers to offer these interpretations to the public. On the other hand, as the fertility cult theory is still so pervasive in Near Eastern archaeology, perhaps curators believe this is the current, unquestioned theory.
I’m wondering about how figurines displayed in museums relate to archaeological theory and practice.
Do you visit museums? Have you ever wondered about the information provided to you about objects or paintings? Have you ever come away from a display thinking ‘but why’?
Leave a comment and tell us of your experiences with figurines (or other objects) in museums!
From earliest times in the Near East, women were the producers of cloth for garments and usage inside the home. In ancient Mesopotamia activities relating to the production of cloth were ideologically linked with women and femininity. Some archaeologists suggest that increasing poverty due to the annexation of privately owned land left many families and women in particular, with no choice but to offer themselves for employment within (or be sent to) these powerful estates. Women were the acceptable labour force for the production of textiles as there was, within Mesopotamia, an ideology that linked women and cloth.
There are few representations of textile workers in the archaeological record of archaic Mesopotamia and the ones we do have are difficult to interpret. Figures are not always clearly depicted, and sometimes the types of activities are not always obvious. Objects such as cylinder seals, sculpture and other art forms all indicate those involved with textile production were women.
A number of 4th millennium cylinder seal impressions from Susa depict women undertaking a number of different tasks, including weaving: for example a woman with long hair tied back seated on a stool with her legs tucked under her, before a warping frame.
Early evidence for spinning includes a figurative scene on a vessel from Tell Agrab dating to the early 3rd millennium. Three figures are shown, and although neither their gestures nor their identity are clear, it is quite possible that they each hold a ball of unspun fibre in their right hand, from the base of which emerges a stick which could be interpreted as a spindle. Shown in silhouette, their body shape is feminine with narrow waists and rather wide hips.
A 2nd millennium mosaic plaque depicting pairs of spinners from Mari indicates that women worked in groups to wind the spun thread onto each others’ hands.
On a 1st millennium relief from Susa, a noble woman with highly embroidered clothes, an elaborate hairstyle and wearing a number of bracelets spins thread using a high-whorl spindle. She is perched on a stool, one leg tucked under the other, similar to the position shown on the much earlier Susa seal impression.
From a grave of 8th to 7th century Marash comes an Aramaic relief showing a woman seated on a backed chair, holding up a spindle upon which is wound a length of thread. A smaller figure stands facing her, and is identified as a scribe.
Pictorial evidence from Egypt and the Aegean also strongly indicates that in ancient times spinning and weaving were activities associated with women.
A number of Athenian vases depict women spinning, using dropped, low-whorl spindles as well as weaving on warp weighted looms.
The uniqueness of each Tell Ahmar figurines with their personal features of ornamentation, hairstyle and the presence or absence of a child suggests individual manufacture within figurine-making conventions.
In the absence of solid evidence to the contrary, it appears most likely that the figurines, found in an industrial context, belong to the material culture of the people involved in this work. Workers involved with fabric manufacture in the ancient Near East were women.
I believe that the figurines from Iron Age Tell Ahmar represent a class of objects created by female textile workers and that the figurines were used to make a statement about the social structures that characterised their lives.
A very good question…
As mentioned in previous posts, the context in which artifacts are found is crucial to their interpretation. Of all the sites in the Upper Euphrates Valley where figurines of the 7th century have been found, only Tell Ahmar provides, to date, a stratigraphically secure and well-documented deposit. Unfortunately, the circumstances under which the figurines from Deve Hüyük, Kefrik and Merj Khamis were acquired prevent contextual analysis, while the excavation reports of the Yunus Cemetery and Carchemish mention only briefly the find spots of their figurines.
More recently, excavations in the middle-city of Kar Shalmaneser (ancient Tell Ahmar) have yielded Neo-Assyrian remains. A complex of buildings have been revealed, labelled C1 and C2, the former being slightly earlier in date. There is no evidence of occupation below the Neo-Assyrian levels. Therefore, we have an undisturbed period of time, around 50 years, in which to investigate the material culture, including the figurines.
Tablets found in Building C1 Room XII mention the name Hanni. The dates of the Assyrian kings recorded in the texts range from 683 to 648 BC. The tablets appear to be a business archive of Hanni, suggesting that he is the owner of these buildings. They also suggest he was a person of some wealth. The final abandonment of the building probably occurred in the first half of the 6th century. I refer to building C1 as Hanni’s Workshop.
Believed to have been initially constructed as a residence, Hanni’s Workshop appears to have become an industrial site where textile manufacture and craft production took place. Large numbers of loom weights and spindle whorls found in these rooms suggest that large-scale weaving may have taken place. Residential and reception suites were then constructed to the north.
The production of textiles seems to have centred around two parts of the building. The first is within the rooms to the south of the main courtyard, namely Rooms X, XI and XV. The second centre is located in Room I of Hanni’s Workshop, and Rooms I and II of the second building, which seem to be incorporated into a single architectural unit.
Around sixty loom weights were found in Room X. There are four basic shapes: cylindrical (sometimes slightly ovoid), ‘hourglass’ (or ‘diabolo’), thick, discoid with a central perforation (‘dough nut’ shaped) and bell-shaped. The first form was most frequent. It is possible that at least some of the discoid shaped weights were used with spindles, but only those of very even shape and well-centred perforation would be appropriate.
Numbers of bone spatulae may have been used in the textile process as well. Other types of objects included the occasional bead or perforated shell, as well as bronze fibulae fragments. Also found were a number of basalt pestles and basins, possibly used in cooking.
To the north, Room I of Hanni’s workshop contained over one hundred and fifty loom weights and several spatulae, while five stone spindle whorls, one with decoration on the base comprising five concentric circles and another disk-shaped, attest to spinning as well as weaving. In addition, a considerable number of basalt objects, including grinders, pestles, bowls and platters were found.
Rooms I and II of Hanni’s workshop each yielded five spindle whorls, all except one of which were made of polished steatite and abut 4cm high. Basically hemispherical in shape with very smooth sides and a rough base, two were decorated on the base, one with sixteen circles each with a central ‘dot’ (shallow perforation) and another with five plain circles. A conical stone spindle whorl was found in Room I, Building C2, while an unusual whorl of ivory, broken but fortunately reconstructable, was discovered in Room I, Building C1, although there is no evidence for ivory carving in this room.
Room XI contained further evidence of weaving activities. A mass of over seventy loom weights, several spatulae and items that might conceivably have functioned as spindle whorls, such as stone and bronze disks, were recovered. The object assemblage also included, as in Room X, beads, pins and fibulae. Evidence for textile production was also recovered from Room XV, where over one hundred and fifty loom weights were recovered. A spindle whorl and spatulae were also found, as well as the ubiquitous beads, pins and fibulae. A large amount of burnt wood may represent the remains of a loom lay across the room.
The standing figurines and most of the horse and riders are closely associated with areas where there is substantial evidence for textile production.
Who lived and worked in Hanni’s household?
Did they make the figurines?