My research focuses on the art and archaeology of ancient Iran, and on the regions of the Near East, Eastern Mediterranean, and Central Asia that interacted with Iran prior to the advent of Islam. I am especially interested in reconstructing the social, cultural, political and even economic environments in which objects were created. In this respect I am inspired by the work of the art historian Michael Baxandall. I am also interested in how our modern knowledge of the ancient world was created, since this affects how we interpret objects and the conclusions we draw about the people who made them.
I have several active research projects at present, of varying scope, which I outline below. Some of these projects are integral parts of my curatorial work, which is discussed further in the Exhibitions tab.
Achaemenid rule in Egypt was the subject of my doctoral research, and my book on this topic, Archaeology of Empire in Achaemenid Egypt, was published in the series Edinburgh Studies in Ancient Persia in 2020. This book is a study of the experience of Achaemenid rule in Egypt, c. 526-404 BCE, using material culture to examine mainly social, cultural and economic conditions. I have already addressed certain aspects of this topic in various publications; this book draws all of this material together to consider both urban and rural experiences, the construction of identity in seals, statues and funerary monuments, drinking practices as evidence for cultural change, and the political economy of Achaemenid Egypt.
Although I had thought this book would be my last word on Egypt, I have continued to work on this topic. I have written a chapter on the 27th through 30th Dynasties for the new Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, as well as an entry on ‘Persians in Egypt’ for the Encyclopedia of Ancient History: Asia and Africa. I have also written and presented several papers exploring further aspects of Achaemenid Egypt not addressed in my book. One of these, presented at the Payravi Conference on Ancient Iranian History at the University of California, Irvine in March 2019, is entitled “‘The Spear of the Persian Man Has Gone Forth Far:’ The Achaemenid Empire and Its African Periphery.” It attempts to use world-systems analysis to understand the relationship between the Achaemenid Empire and Africa (i.e. Egypt, Libya and Kush). Another essay, “Udjahorresnet the Persian: Being an Essay on the Archaeology of Identity,” appeared in a special issue of the Journal of Ancient Egyptian Interconnections on ‘Udjahorresnet and His World’ in 2020. In essence my goal in that paper was to examine Udjahorresnet’s Persian identity, and in the process try to understand what such an identity entails.
Finally, I have two forthcoming papers, both based on lectures delivered a conferences at the University of California, Los Angeles, one in February 2020 and the other in April 2023. The first is provisionally entitled “Religious Innovation in Achaemenid Egypt: The Case of Kharga,” while the second, which is still in progress, is entitled “How (Not) to Find Persians in Egypt,” Both will appear in their respective proceedings.
The Prudence Harper Festschrift
In the fall of 2021 I joined the editorship of the Festschrift honoring longtime Met curator Prudence Oliver Harper, a foundational scholar in the realm of Sasanian art. I am happy to say that since that time we have brought the project to the proof stage, with publication imminent, as volume 3 of the Brepols series Inner and Central Asian Art and Archaeology.
As an offshoot of my work on the exhibition Animal-Shaped Vessels from the Ancient World: Feasting with Gods, Kings and Heroes, which opened at the Harvard Art Museums on September 7, 2018, I have prepared a brief study of what silver meant in the Achaemenid world, in social as well as economic terms. I presented this research at Harvard in November of 2018, and will present a revised and updated version at the British Museum in June 2023, entitled (by the museum staff, not me) ‘Persian Silver: The Power Behind the Throne.’ Another offshoot of my work on this exhibition involves the centaur rhyton from the Ashmolean, which Sir Aurel Stein acquired in Pakistan in 1942. I have written a paper, “On the Date and Cultural Context of Sir Aurel Stein’s Gilgit Rhyton,” for the Harper Festschrift mentioned above, arguing that this rhyton is best understood in an Achaemenid context (as I explain, the dating for it is ambiguous), and that it represents an important example of the spread of Achaemenid drinking practices to Gandhara, a very poorly understood part of the empire.
In the summer of 2018 I uncovered a letter in the archives of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Persian/Iranian Expedition which, to my mind anyway, shows that the Old Persian inscriptions on the famous Artaxerxes phialai could not have been forged by Ernst Herzfeld, as some have alleged. This has now been published in the Metropolitan Museum Journal.
I also wrote a short paper on the material correlates of Achaemenid drinking for a new semi-popular book series, published by the Jordan Center for Persian Studies at the University of California, Irvine, called Čistā: Studies in the History, Cultures and Religions of the Iranian World. This paper is based in part on talks I gave at UC Irvine in the winter and spring of 2018, the latter as part of a conference on food in ancient Iran. A fuller treatment of the topic can be found in Chapter 5 of my book.
I co-authored (with Dr. A M. Belis) an object study of an Urartian belt in the collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum, which appeared in the 2020 number of the Getty Research Journal. The belt, pictured above, contains an early instance of the Parthian shot motif, which our study traces. I have also published a study of a ceramic bowl in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art which may in fact be the only instance of a Parthian shot of Arsacid date.
These two object studies, as well as my work on the Met’s collection, have prompted me to undertake a major study of Parthian art, using Mikhail Rostovtzeff’s classic 1935 essay ‘Dura and the Problem of Parthian Art’ as its starting point. My goal is to republish this essay with additional chapters explaining how it continues to be the best lens for viewing Parthian art. This project was the focus of my 2021 fellowship at the Bard Graduate Center, and I expect it to be my next book. I presented a brief talk on this subject at a conference at Yale in April 2022, whose proceedings will be published eventually. This led to an opportunity to present at a conference on Palmyra in Copenhagen in December 2022, where I spoke about “Palmyra and the Problem of Parthian Art,” arguing that the use of ‘Parthian’ elements there is underlain to some extent by the attractiveness of Parthian identities. This paper will also be published in the conference proceedings.
I have also recently published an essay in a special issue of the Journal of Art Historiography on the historiography of Parthian art, from Winckelmann to Rostovtzeff, with a view towards understanding the frame in which Rostovtzeff wrote his essay.
The Met’s Illustrated Persian Manuscript
In 2019 the Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art at the Met acquired an illustrated Persian manuscript. The manuscript records a trip taken by Louise de la Marriniere, the French tutor to the Qajar princes, through Fars in southwestern Iran to visit the ancient sites there. She was accompanied by Ali Ackbar, a scribe, Ahmad Naqqash, an artist, and a donkey. Our manuscript is the record of their journey, which Madame de la Marriniere presented to Muhammad Shah Qajar, her former pupil, in 1838.
I am now leading a team of scholars to study and publish this manuscript. Navid Zarrinal of Columbia University is at work on a translation of the text and captions. Betty Hensellek, another former Met fellow, and I are studying the illustrations. Maryam Ekhtiar, Curator of Islamic Art at the Met, is researching Madame de la Marriniere and her connection to the Qajar court. After an energetic start, the project has been put in limbo by the COVID-19 pandemic (which also cost me my museum job). There is no longer a clear timetable, or even a clear plan, but I do hope to keep this undertaking alive if we can find funding and a publication venue. In the interim I have published a short discussion of the manuscript in a ‘Recent Acquisitions’ number of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin (with the wrong image, of course).