Drinking like a Parthian?

The question mark on the title of this post reflects the fact that I’m not really sure how Parthians drank. Yet I will be speaking on this subject at the Getty Villa next month (one June 25), in connection with the exhibition Persia: Ancient Iran and the Classical World. The event is a small symposium (an apt term) on Royal Banqueting in Ancient Persia, and my fellow speakers Beth Dusinberre and Layah Ziaii-Bigdeli will address Achaemenid and Sasanian banquets respectively.

Parthian lynx (or more likely a caracal) rhyton, 1st cen. BCE. Gilt silver, 24.5 × 41.9 × 12.2 cm, 0.678 kg. Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum 86.AM.752.1.

In my defense, the reason I don’t know that much about Parthian banqueting is because we don’t know that much about Parthian banqueting. But there are enough tantalizing clues (crumbs, if you like) to paint a general picture, which is what I plan to do. The evidence is pretty weird, so even if my talk isn’t very informative, it should be interesting.

A Journal I Used to Respect

When I was a boy (that is, a graduate student) I used to hold the journal Current Anthropology, published by the illustrious Wenner-Gren Foundation, in high esteem. Of course in those days I was an ardent processualist, but even after my views began to moderate I continued to be impressed by the way the authors published in it could make sense of tricky higher-order issues in archaeological thought.

I am sad to say those days are over, thanks to an article published in the most recent issue (63.2): “Silencing the Past: Persian Archaeology, Race, Ethnicity, and Language” by Ahmad Mohammadpour and Kamal Soleimani. I encountered this article because it was announced in the Agade listserv, meaning (I hope) that I will not be the only one scrutinizing it.

The main thrust of the paper is that Iranian nationalism, especially in the twentieth century, has promoted a monolithic view of ancient Iranian history privileging an Aryan narrative. Doubtless this is true; Mohammadpour and Soleimani are not the first to make this argument in some fashion.

The problem, however, is how badly they misunderstand their topic. For example, on p. 191 we read:

“Also, the idea that the Achaemenid dynasty was a coherent and monolithic empire is not supported by the evidence presented. For instance, the Ka‘ba-ye Zartosht inscription, an ancient building at Naqsh-e Rostam, near Persepolis, portrays the rulers of 45 regions with kings of their own next to the King of Kings. Accordingly, while these kingdoms had loose ties to the Achaemenid Empire, they had their own independent polities.”

As anyone with even the slightest knowledge of ancient Iran would know, the Ka‘ba-ye Zartosht inscription is Sasanian, not Achaemenid. So it has no bearing on the nature of the Achaemenid Empire! They also claim (further down the page) that Ardashir I wrote inscriptions in Elamite. It is entirely possible, if not likely, that Elamite was still spoken during the Sasanian Empire, but there are no royal inscriptions in it from so late a date.

The Ka‘ba-ye Zartosht inscription (not Old Persian cuneiform!)

On the same page we have a very confused discussion of the invention of ‘Old Persian’ cuneiform:

“The archaeological remains, particularly the Achaemenid Kings’ inscriptions, are all written in cuneiform, demonstrating that Aramaic was their administrative affairs’ language (Ghirshman 1954:158). If, as claimed by Brandenstein and Mayrhofer (1964:17), the Farsi script was invented by King Dariush, how could it also be the common language of his contemporaries (Ghirshman 1954:158)? If the Achaemenid inscriptions were written in the invented language, what was their previous spoken language? The invention claim would be accurate only if we accept that the Arameans invented the Farsi script—“a Semitic-speaking” people from between the northern Levant and the northern Euphrates valley regions.”

How do we make sense of this mess? First of all, Brandenstein and Mayrhofer do not claim that Darius invented the Farsi script, only that he was the first to use cuneiform to write Old Persian. Darius makes this claim in the Bisitun Inscription and it is borne out by the absence of Old Persian inscriptions before his reign. Second, Farsi is written using the modern Persian alphabet, itself a variant of the Arabic alphabet. This did not exist in Darius’ time. So what could they possibly mean that it was invented by Darius or by Aramaic speakers? The authors are right that Aramaic was used as an administrative language in the Achaemenid Empire, but it does not follow that Aramaic scribes wrote Old Persian using the Aramaic alphabet. Certainly we have no direct evidence of this. The Aramaic alphabet was used (later) to write both Parthian and Middle Persian (i.e. the Pahlavi script); perhaps this is what they mean. But it’s anyone guess what this Joe Garagiola-esque muddle is meant to convey.

On the following page the authors seemingly dispute the fact (and it is a fact) that the Parthian Empire existed for about 500 years and that it was an empire at all. This is based on a late Sasanian text, the Kār-Nāmag ī Ardašīr ī Pāpakān, which narratives the rise of Ardashir, the founder of the Sasanian Empire. It is certainly not, as they claim, the “oldest surviving record of the founder of the Sasanian dynasty,” and, more importantly, it is fictional, or at least literary in nature.

This last point gets to a larger issue, namely that the authors are unable to distinguish between modern and ancient nationalism (so to speak). The erasure of the Parthians from Iranian history was the result of a very deliberate effort on the part of the Sasanians that served their own ideological goals. While the authors are certainly correct that the modern Pahlavi dynasty promoted a pro-Aryan nationalism and used the pre-Islamic past to do so, they entirely miss the fact that the Sasanians (and probably other ancient and medieval dynasties as well) had their own reasons for rewriting Iran’s ancient history.

I don’t really blame the authors for not knowing this stuff. Neither is an expert on ancient history or archaeology (one is a socio-cultural anthropologist, the other a modern historian), and their stated goal is to engage with historical scholarship, not with history itself (though how you can do that without knowing the history is beyond my ken). I do, however, blame Current Anthropology for not finding a qualified reviewer for this paper, which, frankly, is really the only job of a journal editor. Indeed, none of the published responses following the paper are by qualified experts, either. And because this rubbish was disseminated via the Agade listserv, home to many of the finest minds in ancient Near Eastern studies (and me too), the journal’s incompetence is apt to become common knowledge.

Here ends the rant. I have the get back to writing my own historiographical essay (on Parthian art) so that someday some other underemployed scholar can point out its shortcomings.

The bust that went bust

This morning as I was enjoying a bran muffin I read an article in the New York Times on an early imperial Roman bust purchased at a Goodwill store in Texas for $34.99. Apparently it had been at the Pompejanum — a full scale model of a Roman villa built by King Ludwig I of Bavaria in the 1840s — in Aschaffenburg, Germany, until World War II. It is now going on display at the San Antonio Museum of Art until 2023, in an exhibition curated by my friend Lynley McAlpine.

Safety first!

The real headline here is that Lynley has achieved true archaeological greatness: she is cited by name in the Daily Mail, a periodical so tawdry that it makes Fox News look like CNN by comparison. But, as a result, she has reached an audience which few, if any, academics will ever speak to. And isn’t that the reason we got into archaeology in the first place?