Tracking artistic influence through eras when artists in different cultures had limited access to one another's work is not easy. Joanna S. Smith ran into this problem while teaching the art and archaeology of the Bronze Age to undergraduates, who consistently assumed that since her course was art history, the claims their books made about influence must be grounded in direct and documented connections. "With Rembrandt, you can make specific connections that he had seen the works of Raphael," Smith says. "We can say that there are histories of art of the Bronze Age. But my question is, when there's little physical evidence for a causal connection from one place to another, how is it that people communicated artistic ideas to one another? Did people have a sense of the huge sweep of image making from their own past, a sense of the concept of image making over time?"
Smith, a member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., is writing a book that attempts to standardize terminology for tracing forms of artistic interconnection in the Bronze Age Mediterranean (3000-1000 B.C.). Before 2000 B.C., few records existed to tell us what pet pie thought about the images they saw. Indeed, records that do exist often describe kinds of reception and influence that in modern terms seem gallingly indirect. The terms that Smith has chosen distinguish four kinds of ancient images, each with its own functions and oblique channels of influence.
First are "lost images," ephemeral artworks, such as textiles and tapestries that are among the most valuable possessions in their own day but rarely survive for present-day scholars to examine. Second are "buried images," objects that were designed to be buried, for example in a tomb or in the foundations of a building. Third are "layered images," objects that have passed through the hands of...