In memoriam Oscar White Muscarella (1931-2022)

Last night I received the sad news that Oscar White Muscarella has died. He was, without question, the conscience of the field of Near Eastern archaeology. At a time when it was rarely even discussed openly, he argued that the acquisition of looted and otherwise unprovenanced objects contributed to the destruction of archaeological sites and that museums had to be more responsible with their collecting practices. He also frequently pointed out that ascribed provenance was essentially worthless, and that many more objects in museum collections are modern forgeries than was previously admitted. And he put his career on the line for these ideas. I was always impressed by scholarship, especially by his detailed knowledge of so many different types of objects, even if his methods sometimes fell short.

Anyone interested in learning more about Muscarella should read the introduction to his collected essays (Archaeology, Artifacts and Antiquities of the Ancient Near East: Sites, Cultures and Proveniences, Brill, 2014) and the introduction by Elizabeth Simpson to the Festschrift in his honor (The Adventure of the Illustrious Scholar: Papers Presented to Oscar White Muscarella, Brill, 2018).

The Universe Hates Parthian Art

That, at least, is the only logical conclusion I can draw from the fact that I tested positive for COVID two days ago, right before I was supposed to give my talk on ‘Greek Style and the Problem of Parthian Art’ at ASOR. This was our third attempt to hold this panel, having twice before been delayed by the pandemic. This time around the panel finally took place, but without me.

“Six feet apart, dude!”

I am, fortunately, experiencing mild symptoms and am continuing to preach my pro-Parthian agenda to all who will listen. And although I am already overcommitted as it is, I do plan to publish a paper based on this (non-)talk some day. For now, however, I am just going to relax and maybe read some Spinoza or Roger Zelazny.

The Persian Pharaohs

I have just received the flyer for my lecture on Thursday night/Friday morning at Fudan University in Shanghai. It looks awesome, so, in the interests of shameless self-promotion, I post it here, in both its English and Chinese iterations:

The Scourge of the Bronze Age?

Some things never change. Today I learned of the discovery a truly remarkable artifact, an ivory comb excavated at Tel Lachish in Israel. The comb was actually discovered back in 2016, but it was only late last year that the shallow incised inscription on it was noticed and read. The inscription reads: “May this tusk root out the lice of the hai[r and the] beard.” And it seems it did, since the remains of lice were found between the teeth of the comb. The comb and inscription were recently published by Daniel Vainstub et al. with admirable thoroughness in the new open-access periodical, the Jerusalem Journal of Archaeology (from which I shamelessly appropriated the image below; hopefully the authors don’t mind, because I’m doing it to promote their excellent work).

Ivory comb, ca. 1700 BCE, excavated at Tel Lachish, Israel, (photo by Dafna Gazit published in Jerusalem Journal of Archaeology 2 [2022], 90, fig. 14).

Paleographers are excited about this discovery, because it is one of the earliest inscriptions in the Canaanite alphabet, from which the Phoenician, Hebrew and South Arabian scripts ultimately derive. But I’m excited about this discovery because it means that my experiences as a kindergartener were part of a long, unbroken chain of lice checks going back more than three and a half millennia.

Now for a confession. I did not find out about this comb because I was diligently checking the contents of new journals for interesting materials or because I was researching Bronze Age hygiene. Instead I heard about it while listening to Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me on NPR.

Actually, It Is Repatriation, and, More Importantly, It’s Better than the Alternative

In a recent opinion piece in Hyperallergic, entitled Sorry, But This Is Not “Repatriation”, Yannis Hamilakis lambasts the recent agreement between billionaire Leonard Stern and Greece to transfer ownership of his collection to the Greek government but to display it at the Metropolitan Museum for at least 25 years. (As with much of Hamilakis’ scholarship, we learn more about the author than we do about the topic at hand.)

A Cycladic harpist figure, ca. 2800-2700 BCE, already in the Met’s collection (47.100.1)

Hamilakis objects to this agreement, which was approved by the Greek parliament, because it involves the collection being displayed primarily in private museums, such as the Met and the Museum of Cycladic Art in Athens, and because the collection will be controlled (but not owned) by a private entity run by the director of the Museum of Cycladic Art and members of Stern’s foundation.

I’m not qualified to comment on the legal niceties of this arrangement, but I do concede that it is unusual. But perhaps this problem calls for an unusual solution. And, more importantly, the alternative would be for Stern (or his heirs) to auction off the collection and have it disappear into private collections all over the world. As is often the case, although it is very likely these objects were originally looted from archaeological sites, because it cannot be proven in court the Greek government has no legal recourse for seizing them. Surely the transfer of ownership to Greece is worth the objects staying in New York for another 25 or even 50 years, as well as the stroking of Stern’s (doubtless massive) ego, especially if the alternative is for them to disappear altogether.

Three Upcoming Lectures

Once again I (happily) find myself busy with speaking engagements, including two next week. First, on Friday, November 18 (which will be the evening of November 17 on the eastern seaboard of the US) I am giving a (remote) lecture at Fudan University in Shanghai entitled ‘The Persian Pharaohs: Kingship and Imperialism in Achaemenid Egypt.’

Wooden naos door, ca. 521-486 BCE (British Museum EA 37496)

My abstract for the talk is admirably concise and suitably vague:

This lecture examines how the Achaemenid Persians used the Egyptian institution of kingship to rule Egypt during the 27th Dynasty, ca. 526-404 BCE. Rather than destroying or marginalizing the pharaonic office, the Persian kings, beginning with Cambyses, assumed the role of Egyptian king. This served two purposes. First, it supported Achaemenid ideology, which depicted the Persian ruler as ‘king of kings.’ For this ideology to be meaningful local institutions of kingship had to remain intact. Second, it provided a means of controlling Egypt without having to create a new administrative framework. In essence, the Persians inserted themselves into the highest level of Egyptian political authority and did not interfere with the rest. Yet the Persian kings went beyond simply filling the role of pharaoh and actively used Egyptian institutions, such as temples, to further their own imperial goals, such as controlling the Western Desert and acquiring silver for tribute. This practice accounts in significant part for the relatively invisible nature of Achaemenid rule in Egypt.

Second, on Saturday, November 19 I will give a talk at the ASOR Annual Meeting in Boston entitled ‘Greek Style and the Problem of Parthian Art,’ as part of a session on ‘Style and Identity in Ancient Near Eastern Art.’ My long abstract for the talk is here. Suffice to say, my talk considers why Parthian art might look the way it does. As a teaser, here’s one of the objects I plan to discuss:

Sealed bulla from Shahr-e Qumis, Iran, 2nd cen. BCE-1st cen. CE (Metropolitan Museum of Art 1978.93.29)

If that doesn’t pique your curiosity, then we probably shouldn’t be friends.

My third talk is on December 8 or 9 at the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters in Copenhagen, at a conference entitled ‘Palmyra in Perspective: Reflections on a Critical Decade of Scholarship (2012-2022).’ My paper is called ‘Palmyra and the Problem of Parthian Art’ (I detect a theme in my lecture titles).

Tomb relief from Palmyra, ca. 230 CE (Cleveland Museum of Art 1964.359)

Once again, my abstract is sufficiently brief to post here:

What can Palmyra tell us about Parthian art? The city was never under Parthian control, and previous scholarship on Palmyrene art has focused mainly on its interactions with Roman art and its influence on the art of Dura-Europos, its neighbor to the east. Yet it is undeniable that there are convergences in style and iconography between Palmyrene art and the art of the Parthian period in Mesopotamia and western Iran. These include frontal renderings of the human form, the presence of the Iranian riding costume and reclining banqueters, and even the treatment of bodily proportions. Rather than focusing on origins of certain motifs or the artistic influence of one cultural entity upon another, it is more useful to consider what these convergences might tell us about the nature of Parthian imperialism. Following Mikhail Rostovtzeff, I argue that Parthian art was a cogent – if currently unknowable – phenomenon, that affected other artistic traditions within and adjacent to the empire as people forged putatively ‘Parthian’ identities for themselves. In the case of Palmyra, ‘Parthian’ was one of many identities that the people there considered to be useful, appropriate or otherwise desirable, and this is reflected in the art they produced. Palmyra, therefore, is an essential part of the solution to the problem of Parthian art.

On Bellyaching

I recently read a short editorial by Richard Wilk, an anthropologist at Indiana University whom I esteem most highly, entitled ‘Why I have stopped doing free academic work.’ In it, Wilk rightly points out that his free labor on such things as book reviews, peer review, invited contributions to handbooks and so on, benefits others, such as publishing companies and universities, rather than himself. Given, he argues, the meager remuneration offered to professors by universities, he no longer feels any obligation to undertake such work, especially not at the expense of his own projects.

I am sympathetic to this view. I myself have been inundated with requests for essays, lectures and peer review of all manner of things (including, inexplicably, an article on Louis XIV). In my naiveté I typically acquiesce, because I am easily flattered and because I regard these invitations as challenges to do something interesting and different. But the difference between me and Richard Wilk is that he is an emeritus professor and I am an adjunct currently teaching at three different universities simultaneously. When I spend my time doing anything other than teaching, I am forgoing pay. He, on the other hand, has been paid by IU to do the work of a professor, which in my view anyway includes such things as book reviews, peer review and contributing to handbooks. That’s the job he was paid to do; I’m the one who’s actually doing it for free.

Wilk remarks “Do I feel like I owe a debt of loyalty to my university and my discipline? No. I had to get outside offers and take administrative jobs to get the paltry raises and promotions the university granted.” Fair enough, but at least he had a predictable salary! Wilks may not owe his university anything, but I think he owes it to the rest of us to recognize just how privileged he is and to quit his bellyaching.