Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 18, 2017
Ömür Harmanşah Cities and the Shaping of Memory in the Ancient Near East Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013. 372 pp.; 51 b/w ills. Paper $37.99 (9781107533745)
Ömür Harmanşah Place, Memory, and Healing: An Archaeology of Anatolian Rock Monuments New York: Routledge, 2015. 200 pp.; 68 b/w ills. Cloth $148.00 ( 9780415744881)

With the recent publication of two thoughtful and provocative monographs in rapid succession, Ömür Harmanşah has emerged as one of the ancient Near East’s most theoretically aware and intellectually ambitious scholars of art history and archaeology. Tapping into a wealth of cultural criticism and social theory concerning space and place, Harmanşah weaves this literature into case studies drawn from the second and first millennium BCE in ancient Anatolia and surrounding regions. In his first monograph, Cities and the Shaping of Memory in the Ancient Near East (henceforth Cities), the subject is a comparative analysis of the urban character of several cultures that existed during the Iron Age, or late second and early first millennium, including primarily the Syro-Anatolian (what Harmanşah, following many others, calls Syro-Hittite) city-states of the northeast Mediterranean and the Neo-Assyrian Empire of northern Mesopotamia. In his subsequent book, Place, Memory, and Healing: An Archaeology of Anatolian Rock Monuments (henceforth Place) Harmanşah pushes his analysis deeper in time to study the landscape monuments that were fashioned on the Anatolian plateau by the Hittite Empire and neighboring polities primarily during the Late Bronze Age, ca. 1500–1200 BCE. Although these two topics—cities and landscape monuments—might on the surface appear to have little in common, when read in conjunction they in fact reveal a consistent theoretical approach that dominates Harmanşah’s work throughout: an urgent concern for archaeologists and art historians alike to embrace the socially constructed nature of the built environment both past and present. This is a lesson all scholars of antiquity would do well to take to heart, even while still recognizing the genuinely significant advances of traditional positivist methods that typically characterize the discipline.

Cities is perhaps the more empirically oriented of the two works, deriving from Harmanşah’s dissertation and a series of subsequent publications. Although the title is geographically and chronologically expansive, Cities is in fact a case study of the urban character of northern Mesopotamia and southeastern Anatolia during the Early Iron Age, which Harmanşah defines as ca. 1200–850 BCE (2). The distinct Syro-Hittite, Urartian, and Assyrian cultures that existed in this time and place nevertheless share a number of visual and material features that justify Harmanşah’s consideration of them as an overlapping cultural koine, defined as “a shared network of ideas, practices, ideology, and material culture” (26), following Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell’s use of the concept in their influential The Corrupting Sea: A Study of Mediterranean History (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000).

In the opening and concluding chapters, Harmanşah lays out his theoretical approach, one that can be found in all of his writing: an insistence on the importance of the dialectical tension between space—in this work, urban space specifically—as designed and initiated by powerful elites on the one hand, and as lived in and transformed by their actual inhabitants on the other (5). Such an awareness leads to a highly particularistic attitude toward ancient societies, necessarily “sensitive both to the local politics of place-making in micro-regional contexts and to long-term changes and fluid connections in broader networks of settlement” (71). But beyond making the case for historical particularism, Harmanşah situates his writing squarely within the tradition of what I have elsewhere called “social landscape archaeology” (Parker VanValkenburgh and James F. Osborne, “Home Turf: Archaeology, Territoriality, and Politics,” in Territoriality in Archaeology, eds., James F. Osborne and Parker VanValkenburgh, Arlington, VA: American Anthropological Association, 2013, 9), an increasingly prominent school of thought in theoretically inclined archaeology, and one that is heavily influenced by the likes of geographer Edward Soja and French social theorists Henri Lefebvre and Michel de Certeau (107). One of the most significant lines of thought advocated by many of these thinkers is a critique of modernism’s notion of the landscape as a passive and static background, a context in which human history unfolds. Instead, Harmanşah proposes that landscape be regarded “as a concept that spans the continuum between nature and culture; it is a ‘mediation’ between these two inseparable, interwoven realms . . . it can never be a finished product, a static image, or readable text, but is more accurately a fluid and eventful environment that is always in the process of being made” (28–29).

There are methodological consequences to these theoretical positions. One is an emphasis on archaeological data that identifies human interventions in the landscape, especially in the form of settlements, over long durations of time. Another is a strong distrust of traditional quantitative archaeological methods created during the heyday of positivism. As Harmanşah states, “Quantitative and functionalist approaches to landscape tell us nothing about, for example, the experience of particular landscapes, stories circulating about a sacred mountain or precisely why caves and sinkholes were considered entrances to the underworld” (30; emphasis in original). That being the case, Harmanşah is necessarily drawn to evidentiary sources that express the mental perceptions and experiences of ancient peoples themselves, especially historical inscriptions and artistic productions such as wall reliefs and stelae.

Indeed, Harmanşah’s theoretically derived predilection for ancient narratives and visual and literary tropes is present throughout Cities, and these concepts get deployed in a multiscalar spatial analysis that begins with landscape and concludes with specific architectural features. The urban landscape of Assyria is described in chapter 3 partially through archaeological descriptions of capitals like Kār-Tukultī-Ninurta, but most evocatively by invoking similarities between the bronze door reliefs of Shalmaneser III at the urban site of Tell Balawat and the landscape reliefs at the so-called Source of the Tigris in southeastern Anatolia (93–99), similarities that, Harmanşah argues, were deliberately intended to appropriate distant landscapes into the cognitive map of Assyrian urban dwellers. Chapter 4 examines urban festivals using archaeological plans of Iron Age urban centers, but is most effective examining narratives like Ashurnasirpal II’s Banquet Stele, in which the Assyrian ruler describes a feast he held for 47,074 individuals to commemorate the foundation of the city of Nimrud (114–19), or the royal stele known as the Great Monolith that Ashurnasirpal erected before the Ninurta temple (126). The final case studies in chapter 5 analyze Iron Age architecture from the perspective of technological style, which recognizes the profoundly social character of object making at all stages of production (see, e.g., Michael Dietler and Ingrid Herbich, “Habitus, Techniques and Style: An Integrated Approach to the Social Understanding of Material Culture and Boundaries,” in The Archaeology of Social Boundaries, ed., Miriam T. Stark, Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1998). Harmanşah argues that the famous engraved orthostat reliefs that lined the walls of Syro-Hittite and Assyrian monumental buildings were not significant simply for the scenes they depicted, but that they also “acted as material components of an architectonic culture” (161; emphasis in original).

These themes surrounding the inescapably culturally embedded nature of the built environment are given fresh energy in Place. The case study is a few centuries earlier in time and a few hundred kilometers to the northwest, and the subject has moved from cities to landscape monuments, especially ones created in Anatolia during the floruit of the Hittite Empire. These monuments are carved into the rocky outcrops that are ubiquitous in Anatolia, and usually depict a ruler or elite individual with a divine figure and other religious symbols. Typically they are accompanied by inscriptions in the Luwian language, written with its idiosyncratic hieroglyphic script, and providing the identity of the individual(s) shown.

Although the subject matter has changed, the intellectual orientation of the two books is remarkably consistent. As with Cities, Place situates itself in opposition to the modernist stance adopted by most archaeologists who study these monuments: “I understand places as deeply historical, culturally contingent, and politically contested sites of human engagement, therefore they do not easily give themselves away through the standard methodologies of environmental research and regional survey. This book . . . tak[es] an avenue other than quantification-based studies of past environments. Instead, I root for effective collaborations with ethnography, ethno-history, heritage studies, and environmental sciences” (3). This type of collaborative endeavor illustrates what is perhaps Place’s primary theoretical point of departure from Cities: in Place we now find a deep commitment to the contemporary political ramifications of conducting archaeological fieldwork and coming to interpretations of the past. No longer content with analyzing politics in antiquity, Harmanşah engages with postcolonial and poststructuralist scholarship to argue forcefully that scholars must acknowledge the political ramifications of archaeology in the present, resulting in “a much more critical and politically engaged perspective on place, oftentimes overlapping with ecological activism and meaningful engagements with local communities around the world” (2). Concern for local stakeholders leads him to challenge the moral appropriateness of using satellite imagery to identify archaeological sites, for example, now almost a standard feature of the Near Eastern archaeologist’s toolkit, yet one that Harmanşah fears has profound ethical implications by virtue of its unsolicited prying into contemporary towns and villages and its close association with the military-industrial complex (10–11, n. 1–3).

Harmanşah’s suspicion of neoliberal economics and archaeology’s complicity with its consequences leads him to consider the past and the present together in his case studies of what are ostensibly ancient artifacts, developing a strategy in which scientific methods are brought in dialogue with local knowledge (12). Harmanşah refers to this relationship of place and contemporary political issues as “political ecology” (14, 2), and seeks to find a role for archaeology within that discourse. Provocative chapter titles align with this goal nicely, such as chapter 3, “Borders Are Rough Hewn: Politics of Place in Hittite Landscapes,” which proposes “a new definition of borderlands as place-based rather than linear, geologically grounded rather than politically imposed, and locally contested rather than imperially governed” (32; emphasis in original), and uses the Late Bronze Age landscape monuments to argue that point. Likewise chapter 5, “Rock Reliefs Are Never Finished,” which demonstrates how landscape monuments have episodes in the past two centuries that are every bit as fascinating and important as their original contexts over three thousand years ago. Rock monuments—like the material world in general—are thus long-term sites of engagement with local communities, and a scholarly obsession with the moment of their creation is thus an arbitrary selection (92–93). The same applies with chapter 6, “The Cultural Life of Caves and Springs,” which notes how natural landscape features may have long, varied, and dynamic relationships with the people around them.

As published monographs, Cambridge University Press’s Cities is a substantially superior product than Routledge’s Place, especially with regard to the quality of the illustrations. More significantly, in both cases, the volumes’ thematic essay structure makes it challenging for the reader to keep track of the overarching theoretical arguments. These critical points occasionally get lost in the many diverse examples provided by the various chapters, which of course are also making their own specific claims, and which the nonspecialist may find daunting. Nevertheless, reading Harmanşah’s two new titles in tandem provides what might be the most comprehensive introduction to postmodern archaeology in ancient Near Eastern studies. Strict empiricists will likely not find the works appealing, and it is sometimes the case that in encouraging the field to consider theoretical approaches that include ancient lived experiences and the political status of contemporary local communities Harmanşah’s emphatic insistence may in fact discourage disinclined scholars from doing so, aspirations of productive dialogue notwithstanding. Either way, Harmanşah has staked a space for himself as one of the Near East’s most articulate representatives of “postprocessual” archaeology to art history and archaeology at large. Cities and Place thus constitute critically important reading both for Near Eastern scholars and for any student of the past who is interested in engaging with the theoretical issues that Harmanşah advocates.

James F. Osborne
Assistant Professor of Near Eastern Archaeology, Oriental Institute, Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, University of Chicago