Diplomacy by Design: Luxury Arts and an 'International Style' in the Ancient Near East, 1400-1200 BCE.

Author:Harmansah, Omur
Position:Book review


Diplomacy by Design: Luxury Arts and an "International Style" in the Ancient Near East, 1400-1200 BCE

Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006. 278 pp.; 18 color ills., 77 b/w. $60.00

Marian Feldman's copiously illustrated, exquisitely produced monograph Diplomacy by Design investigates a small, carefully selected corpus of prestige artifacts from the eastern Mediterranean world, all dated to the Late Bronze Age (ca. 1400-1200 BCE). Feldman situates these objects, which feature complex pictorial representations and a common vocabulary of hybrid imagery, in the realm of diplomatic reciprocity and gift exchange among the "Great Kings" of the time, who shared a rhetoric of "brotherhood" in their correspondences. Art historical studies of ancient Near Eastern material cultures have been remarkably rare in the last couple of decades, especially if one looks for monographs of ambition and meticulousness comparable to Feldman's. The book's dense text, complex argumentation, and some thirty-five pages of endnotes prove that the volume is the fruit of many years of research, including Feldman's 1998 dissertation, entitled "Luxury Goods from Ras Shamra-Ugarit and Their Role in the International Relations of the Eastern Mediterranean and Near East during the Late Bronze Age," completed at Harvard University. Feldman presented the main premise of her book a few years earlier in the pages of this very journal. (1)

Diplomacy by Design is timely, not only as a fresh look at the extraordinarily rich world of interregional contacts around the eastern Mediterranean in antiquity but also as an attempt to rethink the status of art historical inquiry into the ancient world, precisely when traditional art historical methodologies are being challenged by interdisciplinary approaches and postcolonialism. Even though the latter has been accomplished in the book with mixed success, Diplomacy by Design is a valuable and significant addition to the field of Near Eastern studies.

The two long centuries of the Late Bronze Age are considered a culminating period of intensive cultural interactions in the eastern Mediterranean. It saw the formation of a closely knit supraregional network of maritime connectivity and commercial exchange, in which a variety of polities and cultures from the Aegean to the Anatolian coast, the Levant, Cyprus, inland Syro-Mesopotamia, and Egypt all participated. This network was enhanced by new seafaring technologies, notably, the development of true seagoing vessels, but, more important, by a balanced economy of entrepreneurial and palace-sponsored trade of agricultural products, raw materials, especially metals, and finished goods. (2) This expansive world of commercial interactions was supported by an increasingly complex industry of craft production in the emerging urban centers of the Mediterranean, such as Ugarit, Enkomi, Kommos, and Ura/Tarhuntassa. With the help of excavated shipwrecks, especially those at Cape Gelidonya and Uluburun in southern Turkey, a counterclockwise route for merchant vessels has been reconstructed linking Crete to Egypt, the Levantine coast, the southern Anatolian coast, and eventually the Aegean (this is what the undercurrent regimes of the sea and the supercurrent regimes of the merchants allowed). Also ubiquitous for this time period is abundant diplomatic correspondence, the "greeting letters" (Akkadian sulmanu) among the "Great Kings" of this world, especially the Hittite, Hurrian, Assyrian, and Egyptian. One should also acknowledge their correspondence with minor, vassal kings. These letters exhibit a formalized rhetoric of "brotherhood" among kings of equal rank and provide evidence for the reciprocal exchange of prestige gifts and intermarriages among the dynastic families.

In the context of such extraordinary connectivity and reciprocity, the material world of the eastern Mediterranean emerges with its markedly hybrid objects, traveling across the sea with ease and an impressive fluidity. The eclecticism of prestige artifacts (including vessels, furniture, textiles, weaponry, and cultic paraphernalia) in their iconography, style, technology, and materials has troubled traditional art historians of the 1950s and 1960s, whose main concern, according to Feldman, was to locate the objects' places of manufacture and cultures of origin (p. 89). Out of this frustration emerged the ambiguous term "international style," with connotations of a "degenerate art" that had deteriorated from its cultural purity and integrity, contaminated by foreign elements. Art historians who study the ancient world frequently take refuge in such terms when their stylistic-formal analysis fails them in locating the object's maker. (3) The paradigms of this scholarly field involved the assumptions that the Hittite Empire, Egypt, Assyria, the Levant, and the Aegean were isolated from each other, thus remaining well-defined and "pure" cultural units, which had distinctive "artistic" traditions that maintained no hybridity, but rather a substantial level of homogeneity. Feldman attempts to critique such narrow, methodologically problematic approaches to hybrid objects of the Late Bronze Age in the scholarship and revisits what is ambiguously termed "international style" to redefine it by way of engaging intimately with a small corpus of elite products exhibiting complex figural representations. Her main contributions lie in her contextualized, detailed discussion of objects and in the way she brings new perspectives into art historical inquiry, particularly from the fields of material culture studies and anthropology of art. Perhaps the strongest argument in the book concerns the mediating power of the diplomatic gifts and their agency in the world of human relations (p. 17). Feldman's argument would have been even more interesting if she had not cast the agency of objects as functioning solely through representational properties but had also examined the way they worked through their "enchanted" technologies of production (to use Alfred Gell's term) and performativity. (4) Throughout the book, Feldman implicitly suggests (but never overtly states) that her chosen objects of inquiry might actually correspond to the "greeting gifts" mentioned in diplomatic correspondences.

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