The Ugly Sister

Before anyone pillories me as a chauvinist pig on Twitter (or whatever it’s called now), I hasten to point out that a) I don’t have a sister, and b) I’m talking about an object that was made when my ancestors in Scotland were living in crannogs. The object in question is an ivory head (more of a face, really, since that’s all that remains) of a woman excavated at Nimrud in northern Iraq by Max Mallowan in 1952.

Head of a female or goddess wearing a necklace, Assyria, ca. ca. 9th–8th century BCE, excavated at Nimrud. Ivory; 13.6 × 8.1 × 5 cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art 54.117.2.

It was Mallowan who called her the ‘Ugly Sister,’ evidently in comparison with other more fetching ivories he had excavated. (I recently learned this, by the way, from an article by Henrietta McCall in New Light on Nimrud [2008].) I think this rather unfair. How good would you look if your nose, ears, eyebrows, pupils and part of your forehead were missing? More to the point, how could we know what the Assyrians considered to be beautiful? Based on their relief sculpture, I venture to say they were found of bulging biceps and men with birds’ heads.

Accordingly, I think the Ugly Sister needs a new name; Geraldine, perhaps.

Peer Reviewing Peer Review

After not attending for some time, I went to the AIA meeting in Chicago this past weekend. It was worse than I remember; almost every session was some variation on “Recent Fieldwork in Italy” or “3D Reconstructions of Something.” But I should have expected that. What really bothered me was a panel on peer review, which I attended only briefly. Yet in that time I heard several appalling things, of which I mention the two most heinous below.

  1. All of the panelists (made up of editors of journals and at academic presses) balked at the suggestion of paying for peer reviews. They insisted instead that they themselves were not paid for editing journals and that peer reviewing has its own rewards. I take issue with both of these points. First, journal editors are paid, in the sense that they are all tenured professors for whom this is part of their job description, the same way publishing scholarship. I, on the other hand, as an adjunct am literally only paid to teach. Second, while I agree that peer reviewing is good for me, what’s even better is to pay my bills. One editor said she was worried about exploiting contingent faculty. We’re already exploited! Paying us for peer review would be exploiting us a little less.
  2. One editor who shall remain nameless said that she only asked tenured faculty to review book proposals and manuscripts, on the grounds that they knew the process of publishing a monograph from personal experience. This may be the stupidest thing I heard anyone say that the conference, and since we’re talking about the AIA that is a pretty damning assessment. First, there are many, many professors who have received tenure without ever writing a book. Second, adjunct faculty write books too. I myself have published two, despite never having held a tenure-track job. Third, all this does is ensure that the press solicits the most conservative reactions possible. The last thing I want is for some silverback intent on protecting his turf to review my manuscript; instead, I want a reviewer who can recognize the cutting edge when she/he sees it. So I will not be submitting any proposals to the University of Michigan Press in the foreseeable future.

I didn’t say any of this in the panel itself, since no one listens to adjuncts, and I was late for a session on “Restating the Obvious.”

Foxy Grandpa

Before anyone gets too excited, the title of this post is a direct quote from a preliminary report on the excavations at Qasr-e Abu Nasr (in modern Shiraz, Iran) published in the Bulletin of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1934. Joseph Upton uses the term to describe this object, a bronze lid (?) in the form of a man’s head:

Cover in the form of a man’s head, Sasanian, ca. 3rd–7th century CE, excavated at Qasr-e Abu Nasr, Iran. Bronze; 3.81 x 3.81 cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art 34.107.72 (Rogers Fund, 1934).

I recently looked at it again because I’m planning to do some research on the metal objects from Qasr-e Abu Nasr, and my wife remarked that it looks like Oleg Grabar:

Photo from the New York Times obituary of Prof. Grabar, January 12, 2011

My wife would know, because she was fortunate enough to take a seminar with Prof. Grabar at Princeton (this was long after he had retired from the Institute for Advanced Study, of course). The resemblance is especially apt, since, in addition to his immense scholarly contributions to the study of Islamic art, Grabar also did important work on Sasanian art, notably his 1967 catalogue on Sasanian silver for an exhibition at the University of Michigan Museum of Art. Perhaps he felt at home with the subject because he had a distant ancestor at Qasr-e Abu Nasr.

Of Names

I read recently that my old graduate program, Michigan’s Interdepartmental Program in Classical Art and Archaeology, has changed its name, substituting ‘Ancient Mediterranean’ for ‘Classical.’ The new acronym is certainly an improvement: ‘IPCAA’ sounds like something taken to induce vomiting, whereas ‘IPAMAA’ sounds like a Quechua word for a large jungle cat. Acronyms can have a tyranny of their own, especially when an organization takes extreme measures to retain theirs, such as in the case of the American Society of Overseas Research (which sounds like it arranges educational tours for senior citizens, which in a way I suppose it does). So I am glad to see that IPCAA, er, IPAMAA, has prioritized content over form.

But what of the new name? I think it’s an improvement too, not least because ‘Classical’ is a spectacularly unhelpful term. It derives from the Latin classicus, meaning ‘belonging to a class,’ that is, the first class, akin to the English word ‘classy.’ Thus it contains a value judgment. Classical antiquity is so-called because, in the eyes of early modern Europeans anyway, it was so much better than the Middle Ages that followed it. Similarly, the Classical Period in Greece was the age of democracy (never mind that it first appeared in the Archaic Period), freedom (except of course for all the enslaved people), and great literature (true, but Homer and Hesiod aren’t too shabby, either). Of course it was also the period of Athenian imperialism, plague, and a very long and devastating war. I’m guessing the Melians didn’t think this was a very classy period. The point is that using a value judgment as the name of a historical period is stupid. Names have power, in part because they are repeated over and over again. Effectively, one has to compliment the ancient Greeks merely in order to talk about them!

Moreover, everyone has their own classics. There’s Classical Hebrew, Classical Arabic, Classical Chinese, Classical Sanskrit, to give a few salient examples. Classical Greek doesn’t even have the oldest classics. More importantly, referring to Greek and Latin literature as ‘The Classics’ without further qualification implies that they are the original and best of all the various classics. The great works of ancient Egyptian literature predate Homer by a millennium or more, as do the earliest versions of Gilgamesh and Atrahasis. And some so-called Classical literature is terrible (like Silius Italicus’ Punica). There’s simply no reason why the Greeks and Romans are any more classical than anyone else.

‘Ancient Mediterranean’ is better simply because ‘ancient’ and ‘Mediterranean’ refer to a more-or-less specific time and place. They’re not perfect terms by any means, but they’re far less judgmental. They also imply that the program deliberately includes the study of all the peoples of the ancient Mediterranean, not just the Greeks and Romans. To be fair, IPCAA has a history of supporting such research, such as my own dissertation on Achaemenid Egypt. But those of us who worked on these non-Greek and Roman topics often felt ourselves to be marginalized, and accordingly sought guidance and companionship from other departments, like Near Eastern Studies (also since renamed) and Anthropology. The program always placed Greek and Roman (especially Roman) archaeology at the center and everything else was regarded as a fringe topic.

There is a good reason for this: one of the program’s sponsoring departments is the Department of Classical Studies (not yet renamed, as far as I know). Indeed, IPAMAA very reasonably supposes that it is training people for jobs in other Classics departments. It is hard enough to find a job as a Greek archaeologist; finding work as a pre-Greek or Greek-adjacent archaeologist is nigh on impossible. Imagine, for example, an expert on Cypriot prehistory trying to convince a scholar of Ovid to hire him//her. There would likely be no overlap at all between their interests, and a huge conceptual gulf between them as to what constitutes scholarship. Even the vocabulary that each would use to describe their respective research is largely mutually unintelligible (strontium isotope analysis, anyone?). All other things being equal, the Ovid scholar would presumably feel much more in tune with someone who wrote a dissertation on a Hellenistic pit in the Athenian agora or on hairstyles on Attic red-figure pottery. The more tangential an archaeologist’s research is to that of scholars of Greek and Latin texts, the less likely he/she is to be hired by a Classics department.

Obviously I don’t expect IPAMAA to fix this on its own, and certainly not with a name change. The problem, I think, is the discipline of Classical Studies. Fundamentally, it is the study of Greek and Latin texts, as this is what the majority (I imagine) of faculty in Classics departments do. Archaeology and ancient history are part of the discipline only because they were originally studied by philologists who relied primarily on texts. Thus, what makes one a classicist is not the methodology employed, as is the case for many other disciplines, but the relevance of one’s research to these texts. This is an absurd situation. An ancient historian in a history department is judged according to the methods of the discipline. A scholar of Marxism or Apartheid, for example, is better equipped to judge a historian of the Ptolemaic economy than our hypothetical Ovid scholar is to judge our Cypriot prehistorian, even though the latter two supposedly belong to the same discipline! It would be like asking an expert on the work of Victor Hugo to judge a specialist on the cave paintings at Lascaux (they’re both French…sort of).

The solution to this problem is sufficiently drastic that I hesitate to mention it, especially in this age of university streamlining wherein the customer is always right and critical inquiry has become a privilege rather than a basic tenet of higher education. But I digress. That solution is nothing less than the dissolution of Classics as a discipline. Let me be clear: despite my professional and intellectual frustration with the field, I still love it. I first learned Latin in high school, and it made me the person I am today. I still consider myself a classicist (among many other things, naturally), and I take every opportunity to share my knowledge of that field with my students. This past fall, for example, I had the opportunity to lecture on Lucian’s A True Story at the Rabinowitz Honors College at Hofstra. This is a text I first encountered twenty years ago (back when we thought George W. Bush was the worst president imaginable), and though I had not looked at it since I was an undergraduate my enthusiasm for it was undiminished. I found that my understanding of the text had transformed in interesting ways. But for all that, I think the Classics would be a stronger field intellectually if classicists of all sorts were accountable to their methodological peers in comparative literature, history, anthropology, etc. Of course I recognize that this cure may be worse than the disease, in that it would further erode the field’s already tenuous position in American academia. Perhaps instead the Classics tent must be made larger. This has already happened at many institutions, but generally for administrative rather than intellectual reasons. And another risk of such an approach would be the training of graduate students with potentially uncategorizable degrees (like ‘Ancient Mediterranean Cultures’ or ‘Old World Studies’).

Thus, on an institutional level the problem is intractable. My only useful suggestion (and ‘useful’ is probably too generous) is for individual classicists, howsoever defined, to think differently about their field. In particular, I would like them to think of it not as studying ‘classics’ of any kind, but rather an entire ancient world. This is hardly a novel suggestion; I personally know many classicists who do this already. But I think it would be very good for the field if they all did. I mean, if we all did. (I can never decide if I’m outside the House of Classics looking in through a window, or inside but seated at the kids’ table.)

To return to IPAMAA, I applaud this decision. It was taken in conjunction with several other measures intended to make the program more accessible. I could discuss those at length, but I don’t care to at present. In fact, I’ve got a lot of grading to do, so I need to wrap up this exercise in procrastination. I hope everyone has a nice Saturnalia.

The Not-So-Deep History of a Fashion Faux-pas

Anyone who has ever laid eyes on me will know that I have as much fashion sense as a medieval court jester. But even I know not to wear socks with sandals. But the other day, when I went to see the new exhibition Africa & Byzantium at the Met (which I quite liked, especially the ancient stuff), I learned that this fashion felony did not originate in any of the more obvious places (e.g., England, Germany, your uncle’s house) but in Late Antique Egypt. Behold:

Shroud of a Woman Wearing a Fringed Tunic, ca. 170-200 CE. Linen, paint; 230.2 × 110.8 cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art 09.181.8 (Rogers Fund, 1909).

This is a linen burial shroud, very likely from Egypt, with a painting of a woman, presumably meant to represent the deceased. She wears a fringed garment and, horrifyingly, red socks and sandals.

But it gets worse. This is not simply a case of an artist playing a cruel posthumous prank on the dearly departed by depicting her as a summer camp music teacher. The Egyptians actually dressed this way, as proven by the fact that such socks actually exist. In fact I found a red pair in the Victoria and Albert Museum, excavated at Oxyrhynchus:

Pair of Socks, ca. 250-420 CE, excavated at Oxyrhynchus, Egypt. Wool; 25.5 x 18 cm. Victoria and Albert Museum 2085&A-1900 (given by Robert Taylor [Major Myers collection]).

It chills my blood just to look at them.

My Review of Aršāma and His World

On the whole I prefer not to review books–ever. It is a great deal of work to do well, and there is always the risk of annoying someone by pointing out the shortcomings of their scholarship. If I am going to review anything, I prefer it to be manuscripts submitted to journals or publishers, where I can point out potential problems beforehand. But once in a while I must make an exception, and this was certainly the case for Aršāma and his World: The Bodleian Letters in Context, edited by Christopher Tuplin and John Ma and published by Oxford University Press in 2020. This is a long-anticipated three-volume work on the Aramaic correspondence of Arshama, the Achaemenid satrap of Egypt in the second half of the fifth century BCE. Despite being satrap, it seems that Arshama was usually somewhere else, and therefore had to manage his province by mail, of which this is a very small sample published in a very big way.

The first volume contains texts and translations of the letters, and a very extensive commentary. The second discusses the sealed bullae that were acquired with the letters, though it goes well beyond that. The third volume has essays contextualizing the letters. I provide further detail in my review, in Ancient West and East 22 (2023), 486-9. 2020 was definitely a banner year for the study of Achaemenid Egypt, thanks in large part to this book, which I recommend unreservedly to anyone interested in this period.

Yet another review of my book

A few weeks ago I saw another review of my book, this time by Christopher Tuplin in the Journal of the American Oriental Society (143.3, 726-8). Like all of Tuplin’s scholarship, it is balanced and thoughtful, and his criticism is fair, as it gets at the main difficultly of any study of Achaemenid Egypt: identifying the material. I appreciate that he took the time to write this.

The Coins from Qasr-e Abu Nasr, Iran

Now the latest news from the world of shameless self-promotion: my paper on the coins in the Metropolitan Museum of Art excavated at Qasr-e Abu Nasr (Old Shiraz) in the 1930s has now been published in Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences! This paper was the brainchild of Omid Oudbashi, a scientific research fellow at The Met (and now a lecturer at the University of Gothenburg). He’s the one who carried out the technical analyses that are the raison d’être of the paper; I merely supplied the archaeological and numismatic discussions.

I like this paper in part because these coins were excavated ninety years ago, and yet now, thanks to Omid, they have something new to say. Some of the coins are pretty wild, too, especially this one:

Arab-Sasanian bronze coin minted at Bishapur, seventh to eighth cen. CE,
excavated at Qasr-e Abu Nasr, Iran. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 36.30.335.

There’s also a gold Byzantine solidus that was converted into a pendant, and probably came to Iran in that form, and a Chinese bronze cash of the Song Dynasty, which probably came by sea via Siraf on the Persian Gulf.

It’s been great fun reexamining these excavated but long-ignored objects. As Indiana Jones said, this “represents everything we got into archaeology for in the first place!”

On the Importance of Books

I am very pleased to report that both of our kittens have developed a fondness for books, despite spending their formative weeks at a truck stop in the wilds of eastern Pennsylvania. Here’s Hilda getting into ancient Greek sculpture:

And here we see Iris using literature (looks like some spy fiction and memoirs) to elevate herself:

This, more than any course evaluation, is the clearest evidence for how great a teacher I am.