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Visions from Archaeology and Antiquity

Panel XI-29, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Sunday, November 5 at 8:30 am

Panel Description
  • Sean Silvia
    The Ottomans reused classical ruins in new buildings to construct heritage narratives that legitimized their empire as rooted in ancient civilization. They also repurposed ruins for practical reasons because they were conveniently accessible and affordable building materials. The increasing presence of western Europeans during the long nineteenth century transformed Ottoman sites of classical reuse into spaces of imperial conflict. Western Europeans claimed ownership of the sites for themselves as part of ‘western civilization’s heritage,’ and used their ownership claim to justify exploitative exportation of extracted artifacts. The Ottoman city of Bodrum was one such conflict zone, because it was partially built from ruins of a wonder of the ancient world, the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus. There was intense local resistance to British extraction of artifacts from Bodrum. Yet the accounts of the lead excavator, Charles Thomas Newton, tell a warped, self-satisfied narrative in which British money, gunboats, science, and technology won the conflict. The local Ottoman resistance receives little academic attention, despite the thorough details that Newton included about it in his accounts, even drawing maps of the land he dispossessed from Ottoman Muslims to make way for artifact extraction, with their names. Reading Newton’s accounts between the lines, one can gain insight into the effects of his imperial venture on the local Ottoman population and the actions they took in response. This paper inverts Newton’s books to recover the experiences of the community in Bodrum before, during, and after the conflict. There is extensive evidence of local engagement with classical antiquities as heritage, despite the ‘ignorant oriental’ stereotype propagated by Newton and authors at the time, a stereotype that persists in discussions of heritage in Anatolia today. During the excavations there were diverse reactions among the local community based on how the excavations affected them, from cooperation with excavations in their fields out of a shared curiosity about the ancient past to dead-set resistance from homeowners whom Newton wanted to evict to excavate below their houses. When the British left with the artifacts, they left behind radical, physical ruptures in the space of the Ottoman community. Despite stark power imbalances between the local Ottomans and western European extractors, the locals were active in the conflict over artifact exportation. In centering the story of the Ottomans of Bodrum, this paper engages broader conversations about the Middle East, including colonial extraction, ‘hierarchies’ of knowledge, historical memory, and identity.
  • The Transformation of Zarqā’ al-Yamāmah in the Poetry of Muḥammad ʿAbd al-Bārī There are a number of modern and contemporary Arabic poems which have used the pre-Islamic figure of Zarqā’ al-Yamāmah as a means to deliver warning, express fears, elegiac sentiments, and critiques of contemporary Arabic societies in specific moments in recent history. Modern and contemporary poets have taken advantage of the structure and trajectory of the ancient story of Zarqā’ al-Yamāmah, the Arab Cassandra, who warns her people of an imminent attack, only to be dismissed by the leading men of her tribe, to their great detriment. The impending attack arrives, the men are killed, women taken as booty, and Zarqa’ herself is crucified after having had her eyes plucked out by the conquering king. Poets have used this ancient myth to craft their own messages, often expressing despair, rage at leaders who do not heed obvious warnings, and to mourn destruction visited on the Arab societies to whom the poets direct their compositions. Muḥammad ʿAbd al-Bārī, the poet of Sudanese origin who has gained a remarkable reputation across the Arab World, and won several international poetry prizes over the last decade, has composed a Zarqa’ al-Yamamah poem which transforms the myth, and changes the trajectory of the poem and his treatment of the myth significantly. Muḥammad ʿAbd al-Bārī is known for his use of sufi and philosophical idiom, images, and metaphors. This recent poem is no exception, in which he constructs thoughts which Zarqā’ al-Yamāmah had not articulated in her clear-sighted and quasi-prophetic utterances to her people so long ago. This paper will examine this poem in detail, analyze its poetics, situate it in the larger body of ʿAbd al-Bārī’s body of work to date, and relate his work to the broader currents of transformation in Modern and Contemporary Arabic Poetry. The paper will also treat the use of the Zarqā’ al-Yamāmah myth, to see how ʿAbd al-Bārī has used the myth and transformed it in order to deliver his modern day message, and compare his work to the other instances of invocation of Zarqā’ al-Yamāmah by other modern and contemporary poets.
  • In this paper, I analyze two works in the Met collection: Rayyane Tabet’s Orthostates and Michael Rakowitz’s The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist, both in the Metropolitan Museum Collection. Drawing from the burgeoning fields of heritage studies and decolonization, I investigate the multiple and layered historical moments to which these works refer. The contemporary lens of these works articulate temporality through the entangled eras of ancient civilization, empires, colonialism, nationalisms, and interventionism. I ask how this diversity of temporal imaginaries and their various composites offer alternative modes of recalling and engaging violent pasts, particularly as a challenge to colonial, nationalist, and patriarchal official history. In doing so I propose the conceptual framework of heterochronic imagination, which pushes back against the temporal linearity of modern historiography, instead, attending to the ways past, present, and future are inextricably intertwined to inform our sensibilities, imagination, and interpretation. The multi-temporal emphasis of heterochronic imagination foregrounds the shifting histories and significance of objects, images, and stories through a proliferation of narratives regarding the past, such as archaeology, oral history, memory, genealogy, spectrality, critical fabulation, and speculation. I argue that such multi-temporality holds the potential of redressing not only historical violence but also the violence perpetrated, by official historiography in the present. The paper proposes heterochronic imagination as a curatorial strategy as well as an artistic practice. On an institutional level it asks after how curatorial collaborations, commissions, residency programs, and collecting priorities in the field of contemporary art and across departments might attend to the layered histories of material and epistemic violence that subtend the ways we view the past?
  • The 8th century inlaid wooden panel currently on display in the gallery, “Arab Lands and Iran under the Umayyads and Abbasids, 661-1258”, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is an object that offers broader cultural, social, and artistic value than its limited geographically and temporally centered gallery moniker implies. The wooden panel sits in an artistic landscape that is not inherently bound to strict cultural or religious structures, but instead represents a diachronic desire to invoke ideas of contemplation, transcendence, and otherworldly insight through material forms. This paper marks a shift in the interest in this object starting not from its Islamic nature, but rather its intended function. However, the function of this object is not entirely conclusive. Based on its findspot in ‘Ain al-Sira cemetery near Fustat (or Old Cairo) in Egypt, it was readily attributed as a cenotaph panel. Yet, closer analysis, particularly work from the object conservation team at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, reveals that it was likely a portion of a chest containing sections of the Qur’ran. If such an assertion proves true, Islam is certainly a defining characteristic of the panel’s social narrative, yet it is not the subject of that story, nor its author. Instead, the panel is connected across temporalities to concerns of how divinity and its associated materials are invoked, physically contained, mediated, and accessed. This paper uses the multi-temporal production of divinely-centered imagery as a launching point where analysis from close-looking, semiotics, and historiography are applied to the specific design and orientation of the inlaid wooden panel. The conclusions posed in this paper urge us to question concepts of periodization and canon formation ideologically in disciplines such as art history and pragmatically through museums and in gallery spaces. What does it mean for objects like this panel to be placed in a gallery solely defined through an Arab perspective? How can this disrupt the relational cultural and religious historicities present within it? These are the questions that I hope this work introduces, problematizes, and subsequently unpacks across disciplines.
  • How have mainstream representations of iconic Pharaonic objects been shaped by Egyptian anti-imperial efforts? This paper examines the grassroots efforts that led to Egypt’s retention of the contents of Tutankhamun’s tomb, and the way those efforts shaped popular conceptions of the discovery. Through a close analysis of media coverage of Tutankhamun’s ‘treasures’, this paper argues that Egypt’s retention of this find contributed its allure, controversy, and by extension, perceived value. This allure underlay the unprecedented success of the 1970s’ Treasures of Tutankhamun exhibition tour, a new kind of blockbuster exhibition which defined its genre. It sought to recreate for its audience the experience of ‘discovery’; that is, by catching a glimpse of a heretofore-unseen treasure trove, one could sympathetically access a sliver of Howard Carter’s experience when he first saw those “wonderful things.” Egypt’s firm hold on the objects until well past the 1952 revolution contributed to Western museums’ fervent desire for these inaccessible ‘treasures’, so that the retention of the Tutankhamun find – a defining political success for the Egyptian nationalist movement – creeps into the artifacts’ discursive framing as ‘treasures’ to be beheld for the first time by a rapt Western audience. Thus, the genre of the ‘treasures’ exhibition – a staple of the contemporary museum – comes to be shaped by indigenous contestation and claims-making processes, thereby complicating the trajectories of desire and valuation that underlie the artifact’s role as a trophy of coloniality.
  • This paper investigates the as-yet unexplored relationship between textual and material evidence of medieval Islamic diagnosis and treatment of the evil eye, the belief in a constellation of ideas regarding the capacity of the gaze of envious individuals to inflict bodily harm, misfortune, and even death on others. This comparative approach identifies the role of embodied engagement with artifacts in healing, its conceptual associations with other ailments, and the ways in which therapeutic treatments reflect its pernicious ability to evade diagnosis. On Islamic artifacts from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the cluster of beliefs comprising the phenomenon of the evil eye are most evident in the inscribed Arabic words that signify it: al-‘ayn (the Eye) and al-naẓar (the Gaze). Most of these inscriptional references to the Eye and the Gaze occur in relatively standardized therapeutic formulae engraved into brass and bronze magic-medicinal bowls, hemispherical vessels whose inscriptions claim curative efficacy against multiple ailments. Never appearing in isolation in these therapeutic inscriptions, the Eye and the Gaze are always treated along with other ailments and their specific effects on the body are never elaborated explicitly in the formulae. The lack of consistent characteristic symptoms associated with affliction by the evil eye raises questions around its diagnosis and the identification of its effects. One eleventh century text from Nishapur, ‘Abū al-Faḍl Muḥammad al-Ṭabasī’s (d. 1089 CE) grimoire, Shāmil fī al-baḥr al-kāmil (The Comprehensive Compendium to the Entire Sea), provides a rare glimpse of a diagnostic method for the effects of the Eye. The relevant section describes a technique for distinguishing between three supernatural causes of illness: the Eye, sorcery, and spiritual possession. This paper examines a manuscript of al-Ṭabasī’s grimoire in the Princeton University Library (Ms. Codex 160) as well as a selection of other relevant medieval Arabic texts, in the context of diagnosis and treatment of the Eye and the Gaze and their conceptual relationships to other ailments. These texts will be compared to a group of thirty-nine magic-medicinal bowls (including two unpublished examples) from a range of museums and private collections, all bearing therapeutic formulae declaring their treatment of the Eye and the Gaze alongside other ailments. This analysis suggests that the textual framing of the effects of the evil eye as ambiguous and elusive can be corroborated by the inscriptional references to broad spectrum healing for a range of possible ailments, including the Eye and the Gaze.