Adventures in Archaeology and Archaeological Theory in the Ancient Near East
It’s Christmas Day; I’m 16 years old. Having declared my intent to become an archaeologist my parents, Carter-like, cried ‘’Aha” and bought me The Adventure of Archaeology, by Brian M Fagan (National Geographic Society, 1985) a romp through the history of our profession. Global in its coverage and spanning centuries of interest in the past from ancient times to the then present day, The Adventure of Archaeology opened my eyes to the broad-ranging nature of the discipline. It also introduced basic concepts such as how archaeological sites are formed, how time is measured and to different ‘types’ of archaeology from maritime to historical. Finally, the coloured illustrations, historical drawings and photos of people ‘doing’ archaeology around the world thrilled and inspired me.
Australia has an ancient landscape and an indigenous culture dating back thousands of years. It also has a brief post-European contact history which we often visited on caravan holidays. Every small country town seemed to have its historical society and little museum filled with rusty agricultural equipment and the ubiquitous Cherry butter churn. But my heart was firmly in the ancient Near East and I blame the church. For this reason, I have chosen the Bible as my second book, especially for all those wonderful names: Nebuchadnezzar, Sennacherib, Assyria, Babylonia, Amorites and Elamites. My school Bible had a picture of three Arabs on the Mount of Olives, overlooking Jerusalem; I was helpless against the Hittites, feeble against Philistines, driven to donkeys and Damascus and dusty deserts.
Caravan holidays also included visits to second hand book stores and I was always on the look-out for 50c Agatha Christies. So when I discovered that my favourite author had been married to Max Mallowan and accompanied him on his excavations at Chagar Bazar, Syria, my excitement went off the Richter Scale and Come Tell Me How You Live (the Akadine Press, 2000) joined The Adventure of Archaeology on the bookshelves. It is a wonderful memoir of excavating in the Near East in the 1930s, described by Mallowan himself as ‘so happy a record of archaeology’. It’s very dated, of course, and for me perhaps its attraction was because it was written by Christie, but as a young would-be adventurer and archaeologist it continued my education about the Near Eastern ‘big-dig’. Two other similar and greatly enjoyed memoirs of field work include Clare Goff’s An Archaeologist in the Making (Constable, 1980) about her experiences of excavating in Iran in the 1960s and Digging Beyond the Tigris: An American Woman’s Story of Life on a Dig in the Kurdish Hills of Iraq, (Henry Schuman 1953) by Linda Braidwood.
Once I started my undergrad degree, James B Pritchard’s The Ancient Near East Vols. I and II (Princeton University Press, 1973 and 1975) continued to fire my imagination with their pictures of well-chosen artifacts and translations of significant texts from Egypt, Mesopotamia and Assyria. This collection of myths, as well as legal, personal and religious writings from the third millennium to the 5th century BCE formed an excellent resource to which I returned again and again even through my postgrad research.
Throughout my years at university I was nowhere more comfortable than in the basement of the library among the journals. Oddly enough, I went to uni to learn stuff, particularly archaeological stuff and I loved methodically going through the journals: Iraq, Anatolian Studies, the Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Iranica Antiqua, World Archaeology and so on. I realise it’s a bit cheeky to include entire series of scholarly journals in a steamer trunk (dolphins are now undergoing serious back surgery) but honestly, I spent so many hours in the basement of that library scouring those tomes that they are truly part of my archaeological experience.
In 1996 I began my journey as a PhD candidate investigating the Iron Age clay figurines from the Upper Euphrates site of Tell Ahmar. My supervisors were keen on a typology and I knew I would need to catalogue the assemblage, but somehow a typology did not a thesis make and thereby ensued some heated departmental debate about my sudden and unexpected interest in gender theory. You see, I had read an article, a dangerous article by Alison Wylie called “Feminist Critiques and Archaeological Challenges” (in D Walde and ND Willows (eds.) The Archaeology of Gender: Proceedings of the Twenty-Second Annual Conference of the Archaeological Association of the University of Calgary, 1991) which started all sort of brazen ideas about whether figurines were evidence of a fertility cult after all. Meetings were convened, phone calls were made, power relations played out in all their academic glory and eventually, a tentative agreement was made that I could pursue this trés unorthodox, off-the-beaten-culture-history-track theoretical framework.
It all seems so silly now, that the adoption of gender (and post-colonial) theory in archaeological interpretation should have been so feared. Nonetheless, the fertility cult theory still holds sway in a fairly gender-free Near Eastern archaeology even today, at least, in relation to figurines.
In a dream-come-true experience I studied figurines from other Euphrates sites held in the British Museum and on the final day, browsing the book shelves of the museum shop, came across a volume entitled Ancient Goddesses, edited by Lucy Goodison and Christine Morris (British Museum Press, 1998). I confess, I smirked as I opened the cover, but sarcasm was replaced by delight as I read the contents. Article after article of figurine studies questioning the figurine-as-goddess theory. Scholars who became my heroines were all there; Lynn Meskell, Ruth Tringham, Margaret Conkey and more. The significance of this book in my development as a theoretical archaeologist attempting to look at Near Eastern material in a new way is inestimable.
Similarly, Roberta Gilchrist’s Gender and Material Culture: The Archaeology of Religious Women (Routledge, 1997) was extremely influential as I continued to grope my way towards different ways of thinking about objects. One phrase really stood out for me “…it’s not a matter of [the archaeological data] being mute, but that we seldom ask it the right questions or understand its answers” (p.10) and caused me to stop and think about how I should be interrogating the figurines.
Because some of the figurines from Tell Ahmar represented horses and riders and were made at the time of Neo-Assyrian domination over the Upper Euphrates region, I spent considerable time browsing through photo books of the amazing sculptures found in the various capital cities of ancient Assur in search of evidence that my little clay figurines might actually represent the might of the Assyrian war machine. My favourite was Assyrian Sculptures by Julian Reade (British Museum Press, 1998). Beautiful photographs helped me compare the little clay horses with those fabulous images.
Finally, Domination and the Arts of Resistance, (Yale University Press, 1992) by James Scott was seminal in my interpretation of the figurines and my overall thinking about how people use material culture to manipulate social relationships both in private and public. I adopted gender theory with its accompanying theories of agency and individual identity to think about the figurine makers and through Scott’s ideas, post-colonial theory to guide my thinking about how the figurine makers and others might have used those little clay images to potentially recreated their realities. A much more exciting picture emerged, of resistance, subversion and feisty women unlikely ever to be encountered in the fertility cults of our own imaginations.
Victoria Clayton received her doctorate in Near Eastern archaeology from the University of Melbourne in 2001. Figurines, Slaves and Soldiers: The Iron Age Figurines from the Euphrates Valley, North Syria is the result of five years of research into the collection of figurines from the site of Tell Ahmar and explores issues of gender, identity and the negotiation of social relationships within a post-colonial context. She has excavated in Syria, Turkey, Tasmania and Victoria and is a keen traveller, having also visited France, Britain, Bahrain, Egypt, China, Vietnam and Laos. She blogs about Near Eastern archaeology and figurines at www.ancientfigurines.com.