‘Purveyors’ of Persian Art

Having a crappy day? I have just the thing: J. M. Rogers’ review of Surveyors of Persian Art: A Documentary Biography of Arthur Upham Pope and Phyllis Ackerman, edited by Jay Gluck, Noël Silver and Sumi Hiramoto Gluck (Ashiya: SoPA, 1996). As Rogers puts it:

“What did they do to deserve this volume, which at 680 pages is a severe test of one’s patience? Despite the inordinate length and the obtrusive egos of their self-obsessed informants, the repetitiveness, and the leaden, and often irrelevant interpolations by Jay Gluck they manage to present an unrelievedly disagreeable picture.”

He goes on to say:

“The scale on which Pope dealt — he claimed in 1932 (p. 167) to have purchased, i.e. sold, more than three quarters of a million dollars’ worth — suggests, however, that ‘Purveyors of Persian Art’ would also have been an apposite title for this volume.”


“Though Phyllis Ackerman’s papers are for the moment inaccessible in Shiraz she emerges as more awful than Pope. The marriage, which she appears to have engineered, may have been less fulfilling than she hoped, which may explain her almost comical obsession with sexual symbolism in middle age.”


“With friends like this enemies are superfluous, and Jay Gluck’s admission (p. 573) that everyone connected with the couple had a love-hate relationship with them almost suggests that it is unconscious revenge. As a work of reference, moreover, the volume suffers severely from an absence of explanatory notes and relevant bibliography. Few will need to peruse it, but for the present reviewer it has been a lowering experience.”

It brings a smile to my face every time I read it. The review is published in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Third Series 7 (1997), 455-8. Enjoy!

The Herodotus Encyclopedia

I am pleased to report that The Herodotus Encyclopedia, edited by Christopher Baron, is now in production, and is expected to be published in 2020. It will undoubtedly be an invaluable resource for anyone working on any aspect of Herodotus. If you really have nothing better to do you can see what articles I wrote for the encyclopedia on my publications page.

Getty Research Institute call for applications

The Getty Research Institute has released its call for applications for the 2020-21 fellowship cycle, with the themes ‘The Fragment’ and ‘Phoenicians, Philistines, and Canaanites: The Levant and the Classical World.’ I was a postdoctoral fellow at the GRI in 2015-16, and I can recommend these fellowships very highly for the opportunities and connections they provide, the geniality of the GRI and Getty Villa staff, the excellent accommodations, and the weather in Los Angeles.

These fellowships can be a little confusing (I was definitely confused when I applied), so here is some explanation which may help future applicants. First, there are two kinds of fellows, Predocs/Postdocs and Scholars. Predocs/Postdocs have fellowships lasting nine months (late September to June), whereas Scholars, who normally have permanent jobs and are at least a few years out of grad school, have fellowships lasting three months (late September to December, January to March, or April to June).

Second, all of these fellowships are managed by the Getty Research Institute, one of the branches of the Getty Trust, which is separate from the J. Paul Getty Museum (another branch of the Getty Trust). Yet the ancient theme (‘Phoenicians, Philistines, and Canaanites’) is selected by the Antiquities department of the Getty Museum, which is housed at the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades (near Malibu). All fellows working under either theme who deal with ancient art get offices at the Villa rather than the Getty Center in Brentwood (where the GRI and the rest of the Getty Museum are located). For example, during my fellowship the Villa theme was ‘Egypt,’ but one of my colleagues, also housed at the Villa, was a Roman art historian working on the ‘Materiality’ theme.

Confused yet? That’s understandable. I am happy to try to answer questions about the fellowship program, so please ask if you’re considering applying.

Research update

I finally got around to updating my research page to reflect what I’ve been up to lately, or more accurately what I’ve promised to get up to.

Provenience vs. provenance

Ever been confused about the difference between provenience and provenance? I still am. As I understand it, provenience refers to the specific location where an object was unearthed, whereas provenance refers either to an object’s ownership history, or to its geographic origins more generally (that is, roughly where it entered the archaeological record, not where it was made).

But I recently came across an article by Rosemary Joyce that adds some very welcome nuance to my understanding of these words. She makes several interesting points, which I summarize here in no particular order. 1.) Despite the commonly held view that ‘provenience’ is an Americanism for provenance, its use in an archaeological context is first attested in Britain. 2.) Although provenance seems to be more common term, based on searches in JSTOR both are used more or less equally. 3.) For geologists, provenance refers to where the materials that comprise a sample originated, whereas provenience simply refers to where the sample was collected. 4.) In Joyce’s view, provenience refers to a specific point within an object’s provenance, and it is not always the most interesting or important point.

I have always eschewed the term provenience in favor of provenance, which I use in its most general sense. Joyce’s paper seems to justify this usage. She suggests dispensing with both terms in favor of such things as ‘object itineraries,’ but I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

The article, which I highly recommend, is R. Joyce, “From Place to Place: Provenience, Provenance, and Archaeology,” in G. Feigenbaum and I. Reist (ed.), Provenance: An Alternate History of Art (Getty Research Institute, 2012), 48-60.

Classics and misogyny

I highly recommend Ellen Muehlberger’s review of Donna Zuckerberg’s book Not All Dead White Men: Classics and Misogyny in the Digital Age. I haven’t read Zuckerberg’s book yet — I don’t know when I’ll have the time — but the review does an excellent job of explaining why, even if the book has some shortcomings, it sheds light on an essential topic.

Baxandall and Athenian painted pottery

I have just read Guy Hedreen’s review of Robin Osborne’s recent book The Transformation of Athens: Painted Pottery and the Creation of Classical Greece (Princeton University Press, 2018). I’ve always had a soft spot for Athenian painted pottery, as it is such a large and rich corpus of evidence, waiting to be interrogated by scholars interested in more than, for example, the chronological development of the Amasis Painter’s elbow dimples. Similarly, I also have a significant appreciation for Michael Baxandall, whose work (especially Art and Experience and Patterns of Intention) has been fundamental to my own attempts to write social history from art. According to the review, in this book Osborne combines these two enthusiasms of mine. Hedreen’s view is that the attempt is not altogether successful, which is too bad. I haven’t read the book myself (and may not for some time, given how much is on my plate right now), but the review is stimulating and brought me back to material I haven’t thought about for some time.

‘Classics for Everyone’

I highly recommend Dani Bostick’s recent post at Sententiae Antiquae, ‘Classics for Everyone’ Must Be More Than a Slogan. Although directed specifically at materials disseminated by the American Classical League, it is an excellent entrée onto how the Classics are still used to make arguments about cultural superiority. Many classicists find such accusations ridiculous, but, as Bostick points out, because classicists are not offended by such arguments does not mean that they are not offensive, especially since Classics is an extremely white field.

Depressing yet necessary reading

An opinion piece by Herb Childress in the Chronicle of Higher Education from March 27 really hit home for me. It’s about how academics without tenure track positions are, often implicitly, regarded as failures, despite the fact that the job market is so atrociously bad that finding a job has as more in common with winning the lottery or being struck by lightning than it does with any merit-based process. Simply put, grad school conditions us to define success and failure in extremely specific ways, and to place the cause for that failure solely with the candidate.

I certainly blame myself for my inability to find permanent work. It is true that I blame other people too, but primarily I blame myself for the decisions I made about what I chose to study. I was hellbent on being an archaeologist, but because I was interested in Iran fieldwork was not really an option for me. I have always been trained in classics departments, yet I set out to study the Persians rather than the Greeks or Romans. I could justify this decision to myself: the study of the Achaemenids has never belonged to a single academic field, the skills necessary to studying material culture are transferable, I was studying under the doyenne of Achaemenid art, etc. But in hindsight these justifications seem meaningless and empty; all I can think of are the decisions I should have made that would (surely!) have gotten me a job by now.

But, honestly, even if I had different decisions, nothing would have changed. Early in grad school my adviser suggested I write a dissertation on Seleucia-on-the-Tigris, where the University of Michigan carried out excavations in the 1930s. It would have been perfect; it’s both Greek (Hellenistic/Seleucid) and Iranian (Parthian), it involves a archaeological excavation without necessarily have to spend years in the field in a politically unstable environment, and the site is chock full of coins, one of my favorite types of things. In my youthful stubbornness I rejected the idea. During the darkest days of my job search I would lay awake at night, wondering what would have happened if I had gone that route. Frankly I don’t think anything would have changed. I’ve mostly lost jobs to people working on mainstream Roman archaeology, and one or two people working on archaic and classical Greek (and at least one Aegean prehistorian, but I don’t begrudge her that!), not to Hellenistic Near Eastern archaeologists. And I wouldn’t have done all of the weird and interesting work I ended up doing, and carved out the (admittedly unprofitable) niche for myself that I now have on the academic landscape.

I don’t know the particulars of Herb Childress’ career. It’s quite possible that he too made some bad choices along the way. I also don’t agree with his facile discussion of what led to the current paucity of permanent academic employment. But I completely agree with him that the apparent ‘success’ or ‘failure’ of a given academic is the result of grad school conditioning, not merit. My view is that it is crucial to lay the blame where it belongs — on other people.

Book update

I am very pleased to report that my book Archaeology of Empire in Achaemenid Egypt is expected to be published in November, 2019!