Saturday, January 21, 2012


Alessandra Gilibert, Syro-Hittite Monumental Art and the Archaeology of Performance. The Stone Reliefs at Carchemish and Zincirli in the Earlier First Millennium BCE. TOPOI Berlin Studies of the Ancient World vol. 2. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2011. Pp. 223, figs. 100. ISBN 9783110222258. $150.00.

Reviewed by Nicola Laneri, University of Catania (

Version at BMCR home site


The book is based on a 2008 doctoral dissertation (Freie Universität, Berlin) and deals with the Syro-Hittite monumental art unearthed at the Iron Age (ca. 1200-700 BCE) ancient city-states of Carchemish and Zincirli (ancient Sam'al) in southeastern Turkey. Gilibert aims to approach the subject using not only an art historical perspective, but also to enlarge it into a more thorough vision that includes insights "into the complex web between images and modes of their consumption" (p. 3). In particular, the author focuses on the role played by monumental art in the enactment of ceremonial performances and on how this process achieved the objectives of the elites by materializing their ideological power. The theoretical premises on which Gilibert's study is based are briefly stated in a short introduction (Chapter 1), whereas Chapter 2 is dedicated to a geographical and historical introduction to the region during the Iron Age and especially to the sites of Carchemish, located on the right bank of the Euphrates at the border between Turkey and Syria, and Zincirli, about 100 km northwest of Carchemish.

In Chapter 3, the author concentrates her attention on the city-state of Carchemish with a specific focus on the monumental art of two city gates (the South Gate and the Water Gate) and on the ceremonial area located in the inner city at the southern foot of the main mound. The South Gate is a large rampart that divides the architectural plan by separating the 'inner' and the 'outer' towns, and is composed of a monumental entrance, two broad-rooms (Breiträume), and a stone-paved passageway leading to the inner city. In terms of monumental art, a basalt portal lion was found outside, whereas inside the rooms a funerary stele and the remains of a statue of a man, probably representing "a deceased ruler of the city" (p. 23), were brought to light.

However, it is in the northeastern corner of the inner city that the largest amount of monumental art was discovered. This area consists of an entrance to the inner citadel from the Euphrates side (the Water Gate), a long street running east-west, a large plaza the Lower Palace Area) that is enclosed by the precinct of the temple of the Storm God and the Great Staircase at the northwestern corner and by the Herald's Wall on the south, and is connected to another large outdoor space (King's Gate Area) that links this wide open area to other buildings located to the south (e.g., the Hilani).

In this area, the monumental art consists primarily of carved basalt and limestone orthostats covering the outer face of the walls as well as portal lions flanking the building's entrances and a few inscriptions. Within this context, an impressive visual impact is created by the series of orthostats that form a consecutive line along the Long Wall of Sculpture, the eastern façade of the temple of the Storm God. In this case, the stone slabs created a single 36m long figurative scene representing processions of gods and goddesses, warriors, charioteers, rulers and a long inscription by king Suhis II (ca. late tenth century BCE). The southern façade of the wall leading to the King's Gate complex, the entrance at which a monumental seated statue of a male figure on a double-lion basis (early ninth century BCE) was located, has a complex life-history that began in the early tenth century BCE and ended in the seventh; the wall was decorated with a unique series of basalt and limestone orthostats representing hunting scenes, mythological themes, processions, and an inscription by Yariris (ca. 790 BCE). As the author points out with insight, this decorative pattern "privilege[d] the chromatic alternation basalt/limestone over thematic consistency" (p. 43).

The whole section dedicated to the monumental art of Carchemish is brilliantly analyzed by Gilibert who combines good art historical scholarship of Syro-Hittite monumental art with an emphasis on reconstructing the visual impact the monumental art had on the people approaching the ceremonial open area.

The Iron Age settlement of Zincirli is investigated in Chapter 4. During this period the site is marked by two concentric fortification walls; while the outer one is marked by the presence of three double gates, the inner one has only one entrance leading to the mounded citadel. The author's decision to focus solely on analysis of the relationship between architecture and monumental art, leaving aside all the other subjects (e.g., the development of the inner citadel) that have been widely discussed by other scholars, makes this chapter an important contribution to the field. In her contextualized analysis of the monumental art of Zincirli, Gilibert starts from the Southern City Gate, "most imposing of the three city gates" (p. 58), which is also the only one providing us with monuments. More specifically, the monumental art recovered at this city gate appears to belong to the site's most ancient phase of occupation (i.e., late tenth century BCE) and consists of the remains of two large portal lions and a series of orthostats representing mythological figures, a warrior holding the head of an enemy, a ceremonial scene with two men drinking from cups and scenes from hunting wild game. In her analysis Gilibert then moves towards the citadel, investigating first the access to the inner fortification wall that is composed of two gates, one of which (the Outer Citadel Gate) was embellished with an extraordinary decorative pattern composed of a series of carved and aniconic (in the inner court) basalt orthostats placed to cover and sustain the fill of the wall, and an open area enclosed by the fortified walls and the two gates in which five monumental basalt portal lions were found intentionally buried in a pit at the end of their life-histories.

Regarding the citadel, Gilibert focuses her attention on the portal lions flanking the sides of the entrance to the palatial complex (i.e., Gate Q), the colossal statue of a standing bearded man dressed with a long skirt found outside of Building J, the Kulamuwa orthostat (ca. 840-810 BCE) that presents the ruler next to a 16-lined inscribed text written in the Aramaic alphabet and using a North-Phoenician language that was located at the entrance to the same building, and the decorative elements associated with the Hilanis (buildings with a columned porch at the entrance). Within this context, the author correctly highlights the embedment of monumental art, inscribed texts and the cult of the royal ancestors in the process of materializing the ideological power of the Syro-Hittite elites during the Iron Age. Based on iconographic comparanda with other contemporaneous examples bearing funerary inscriptions, the author interprets the colossal statue as commemorating a "deceased ruler" (p. 77); whereas the presence of circular depressions ("cup-marks") on top of the heads of the lions and the male figure represented on the base of the statue are interpreted as locales for holding ritual offerings. For the Kulamuwa orthostat, the iconography of the ruler holding a flower while pointing his finger to a series of symbols and the written text belongs to an iconographic tradition of the Late Bronze and Iron Ages in which "the person holding the flower is deceased" and, "thus, the portal orthostat bears the image of the deceased Kulamuwa communicating with gods" (p. 82). To add more to this picture of memorialization of the ancestors, the colossal statue was found ritually buried in a cist grave, next to its own base, confirming the use of rituals connected with the end of the life-history of important monumental objects. The pivotal role played by the cult of the ancestors at Zincirli is also recognizable in the intra muros cist graves found in the citadel as well as by the presence of funerary stelae with a banquet scene found both in the citadel, next to a cist grave and adjacent to Hilani I, and, more recently, in a building of the north lower town, thanks to excavations led by the archaeological team of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.

Chapter 5 is the most important and successful section of the book. It is in this chapter that Gilibert redefines the visual impact of Syro-Hittite monumental art to consider it as part of a more complex built environment in which the decorated slabs, the statues, the inscriptions, the outdoor space, and the architecture were all part of a network of significance that "contributed together to the creation of a specific sense of place" (p. 97). In particular, monumental art at the Iron Age sites of Zincirli and Carchemish had a specific performative functionality as is clearly evident from the location of orthostats, statues and portal lions in open spaces outfitted with installations for ritual acts, and also from the depiction of ceremonies in the iconography and by the presence of written sources describing ceremonies and rituals. The presence of these three elements in the architectural context, as well as the iconographic and written evidence, allows the author to emphasize the performative relationship between the locale and the monumental art at these sites in a way that served "to mark out ceremonial spaces for ritual performances" (p. 112). Within this perspective, the ritual performances were most likely dedicated to the commemoration of the past, for the legitimisation of the ruling class and for the reinforcement of the collective identity.

In Chapter 6, Gilibert applies a diachronic perspective in the process of reconstructing the development of the relationship between monumental art and ritual performances. The author defines four phases in which a transformation in the relationship between art, ceremonial practices, and forms of power among the Iron Age Syro-Hittite elite are recognizable: "the archaic transitional period" (twelfth to mid-tenth century BCE, pp. 115-119) to which belong the earliest examples of monumental art at Carchemish characterized by an artistic "formal language" (p. 119); "the age of civic ritual" (late tenth to early ninth century BCE, pp. 119-125) that is marked by a composition of the scenes whose format can be classified as "public spectacles" (p. 119) among which the "public staging of the royal ancestor cult" (p. 120) appears as one of the prominent performances enacted in open spaces; "the mature transitional period" (870-790 BCE, pp. 125-128) that sees a continuity with the previous period as well as an increase of "non-royal funerary stelae" (p. 126); and, finally, "the age of court ceremony" (790-690 BCE, pp. 128-131) that sees an "enhanced role played by non-royal officers" in the figurative representations.

The final Chapter 7 is dedicated to the concluding remarks whereas the catalogue of all the orthostats, statues, stelae, and inscriptions mentioned in the text is located at the end of the volume. In conclusion, despite the absence of a chronological chart at the beginning of the volume that would have been helpful to the reader, Gilibert's book is a solid work that embeds a traditional art historical perspective into a more dynamic way at looking at the relationship between visual art and archaeological contexts in the process of reconstructing ancient ceremonial performances. This perspective is very innovative, especially for the study of ancient Near Eastern societies, and gives a multidimensional perspective on archaeological material that is now envisioned as part of a broader network of signifiers in which the material culture, the landscape, and the architecture are all connected in the cognitive schemata of the ancient people.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.