Thursday, April 3, 2014


Ortwin Dally, Susanne Moraw, Hauke Ziemssen (ed.), Bild, Raum, Handlung: Perspektiven der Archäologie. Topoi: Berlin studies of the ancient world, 11​. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2012. Pp. vi, 254. ISBN 9783110266337. $112.00.

Reviewed by Maria Kopsacheili, University of Oxford (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

The volume is the result of the 2009 conference by the same title, organised by the 'Images' and 'Acts' research groups of the TOPOI association. It consists of the editors' introduction and nine papers discussing specific case studies of pictorial representations as defining elements of their spatial context and in connection with the activities performed in such space. The relationship between images, ceremonial behavior and spatial context is the theme linking the contributions. Analysis focuses on the meaning and reception of images as well as on the kind of visual media used to convey the depicted message. The case studies range from Paleolithic Iberia and the Stone Age Middle East to Classical Greece and seventh-century AD southern Peru. The articles cover sculpture, geoglyphs, petroglyphs, coins and wall painting.

The Introduction by Dally, Moraw and Ziemssen presents the underlying methodological and interpretative framework using the most influential and recent works on agency and on the power of images. The editors draw on research in the fields of archaeology, art history, and anthropology emphasizing German bibliography. A fundamental notion is that the relations within the system 'image-space-action' function in two directions; therefore, the agency of images themselves is discussed in addition to the effect of spatial configuration and of intended activities on images. The volume lacks a comprehensive definition of the key notions, such as 'ritual' or 'spatial function' and such an addition would have been welcome in the Introduction.

Hölscher's contribution "The World of Images, Life Order and the Role of the Viewer in Ancient Greece" is a well-crafted methodological springboard for the analyses in the papers that follow. A selection of archaeological and textual evidence reveals that commission and setting of athletes' and prominent citizens' statues in sanctuaries and agoras followed norms regulating where, when and how they were to be placed. Such norms facilitated the use of sculpture for collective and individual display, consolidated a sense of shared cultural identity and resulted in a 'life with images' (p. 34). Hölscher suggests that display was not always the purpose of sculptural decoration: sections of the decoration in the exterior of the Parthenon and the Siphnians' Treasury in Delphi would have hardly been visible. This is a compelling observation, although a discussion on the issue of original color and visibility would have been welcome in the paper.

The remaining papers are arranged in four groups: 'Images and Natural Space, 'Images in Urban Space', 'Images as Elements of Interior Space' and 'Images as Elements of Ritual Activities'. These were the headings of the four sessions of the 2009 conference and they serve the approach of the volume, to study images in the context of their spatial surroundings, well. As only some of the conference papers were included in the book, the 'Ritual Activities' part is under-represented, with only one contribution.2

The first group includes two contributions, both of which evaluate the visibility of representations. Lambers compares geoglyphs in Southern Peru between the Paracas (350 BC-200 AD) and the Nazca (AD 120-620) periods. The earlier phase displays complex figural motifs that are located on slopes and resemble other iconographic media of the time. The location reveals that the artists intended the representations to be highly visible from a distance. The later Nazca geoglyphs are larger in size, located on plains and comprise primarily linear and abstract geometric motifs. Due to these features and to the votive finds within the space defined by the lines, Lambers compellingly suggests that the Nazca geoglyphs were themselves a physical space that accommodated ritual activities. In the second, particularly dense paper, Aubry and Luís discuss Upper Paleolithic open-air rock art in the Côa-Tal Valley, Portugal. The dating of the images relies on well-stratified sites from the valley and on stylistic classification of incised motifs on portable stone objects. View-shed and morphological analysis suggests that the Pre-Magdalenian petroglyphs were used for marking and monumentalizing the landscape. The late glacial examples present anthropomorphic as well as zoomorphic motifs. However, their small size and lack of emphasis on visibility and location indicate their role as markers of small-scale space.

Two contributions are included in the group 'Images in urban space'. The first by Gilibert argues that the large open spaces around monumental buildings in Syro-Hittite city-states of the early Iron Age were intended for ritual performances for large audiences. The iconography of the sculptural decoration (reliefs on orthostates of gates and buildings, building facades and free-standing statues) and the content of the associated inscriptions point to dynastic cult. The size, position, and visibility of the plazas and the objects and furnishings associated with libations and sacrifice support this theory. The paper shows how the analysis of art within its wider spatial context can elucidate the role of images as mechanisms to legitimize power and shape a collective identity.

The second paper is a skilful analysis by Ziemssen, who combines iconographic, archaeological and textual evidence to contextualize coin issues of Maxentius and to reconstruct their origins and meaning. Ziemssen highlights the innovative character of coins that illustrate the Emperor in the temple of Roma interacting with the goddess. This iconography, the author suggests, reflects wider practices of the time for establishing and legitimizing imperial rule. Such were the connection with the Divine and increased emphasis on public ceremonies that expressed traditional Roman values.

The first two papers of the group 'Images in interior space' deal with wall-painting in palace complexes of the Late Bronze Age Aegean. Günkel-Maschek suggests that the scenes depicted in the entrance space, the corridor and the throne-room in the western section of the Neo-Palatial palace in Knossos either illustrated activities that took place in these rooms in an idealized manner, or were icons of the ruler's presence. Orientation of motifs and direction of the movement in the scenes are indeed useful for reconstructing the visitor's visual experience within that spatial context. However, interpreting the iconography as illustrations of actual activities (particularly the procession scene) is questionable, and previous scholarly views should have been better taken into account.1 Thaler discusses throne-rooms of Mycenaean palaces, especially of Pylos and Tiryns. The paper includes a succinct analysis of spatial order and visibility on the basis of wall-painting scenes, furniture and columns. The author argues for a pattern of 'circular, clockwise movement around the hearth' (p. 196) to enter the room and reach the throne. The highly standardized spatial configuration of the Mycenaean megara, where the presence of the circular hearth in the throne-room was essential, is consistent with this view.

In the third paper Dally offers a fascinating spatial and visual tour of the so-called 'Thermae of Faustina' complex in Miletus. The author aims to partially reconstruct the user's experience by demonstrating routes of access and movement in the rooms of the complex. Their development is also discussed and appears to be predetermined by the design of the compound itself. Emphasis is on changes that occurred in the late 3rd and 4th centuries AD. Functional identification is discussed in an exemplary manner: it relies on the whole set of features present in each space and on types of pictorial evidence such as graffiti, which are often overlooked. The author keeps a watchful eye on ambiguous cases and material that was not found in situ.

The last paper of the volume is the only one in the category 'Images as elements of rituals'. Schmidt's case study is Göbekli Tepe in Cilicia, a site that elucidates the transition from the Epipaleolithic to the Neolithic period. The author focuses on the sculptural decoration of the T-shaped pillars that form circular compounds. The anthropomorphic shape of some pillars, reliefs with animal motifs, stone basins bearing a supply channel and waterproof floors indicate ritual activity that included the use of liquids. Schmidt draws attention to under-studied aspects of the building compounds, such as roofed or open space and the interpretation of the hand-gestures of the pillar-statues. He does not however address the question of openings and entrances, even though the exterior pillars of the structures were connected by a wall (p. 246).

Overall the book is a welcome addition to the scholarship that explores the significance of pictorial representations in ancient societies. Understanding the 'power of images' in close connection with their spatial context is not a new endeavor. This reviewer felt that a concluding chapter or a section in the Introduction focusing on general outcomes (e.g. fresh interpretation of objects when placed within a given context) and future possibilities for the concept would have better defined the role of the volume within current scholarly discourse. Nevertheless, the collection is valuable both for students and researchers, as it offers a cross-cultural perspective on ancient societies and visual culture. Errors and typos are limited.3 The quality of the images is very good, although in some cases architectural and city plans are too small. Finally, a summary in English accompanies each one of the contributions and is helpful to readers without advanced German language skills. ​


1.   For example, it is perhaps useful to examine whether the changes that occurred in the decoration of the Corridor of the Procession (p. 177) can have reflected modifications in ritual performance, or how they would have impacted on the viewer's visual experience. For the date of the wall decoration see Hood, S. 2005. 'Dating the Knossos frescoes'. In Aegean wall painting: A tribute to Mark Cameron (British School at Athens Studies, Vol. 13), 45-81.
2.   Some overlap between the categories is also observed. For example, most of the other seven contributions could have been classified under the heading 'Images as elements of ritual activities'.
3.   In pages 42-44 the bibliographic references only partially follow an alphabetical order, while the cardinal points of the plans in pages 222-223 are depicted incorrectly. These errors, however, do little to distract the reader.

1 comment:

  1. Since the possibility is given in this blog, I should not leave uncommented the three sentences dedicated to my contribution to the reviewed volume.
    Basically, the informative value of the author’s footnote no 1 on “previous scholarly views” is questionable. Anyway, it would be interesting to know which scholarly views the reviewer is thinking of: regarding the phenomenon of wall paintings reflecting the activities performed in the decorated areas, it has been convincingly argued by scholars such as Robin Hägg, Clairy Palyvou, Nannò Marinatos, Diamantis Panagiotopoulos and others, that particularly the procession scenes decorating the walls of Minoan corridors, stair-cases and the like were indeed reflecting the actual activities in the respective areas (see, e.g., R. Hägg, “Pictorial Programmes in the Minoan Palaces and Villas?” In: Darcque and Poursat, L’iconographie minoenne 1985, p. 210; Palyvou, Akrotiri Thera. An Architecture of Affluence 3,500 Years Old 2005, p. 167-68; Marinatos, “The Function and Interpretation of the Theran Frescoes.” In: Darcque and Poursat, L’iconographie minoenne 1985, 220; Panagiotopoulos, “Aegaen Imagery and the Syntax of Viewing.” In: Panagiotopoulos and Günkel-Maschek, Minoan Realities 2012, 72-73).
    Regarding the “changes that occurred in the decoration of the Corridor of the Procession (p. 177)” it can be noticed, that reference is made on the same p. 177 to the hitherto unnoticed step in the ground line of the scene, to the significance of this step for the understanding of the whole preserved composition, and, finally, to further reading on exactly this important detail of the painting. As written on the same page and in the given literature, the change in the direction of the figures is dictated by this step in the ground line and marks the little group of figures as receiving the incoming participants of the procession. Regarding the reflection of possible “modifications in ritual performance” associated with this scenario, it can be stated that the same issue as well as the impact on the viewer’s visual experience are also discussed in the given literature.
    Since possibility for discussion is provided here, I may, however, add, that, in view of the architectural situation preserved in this area – a corridor –, it appears difficult to imagine a significant change in the main ritual performance, the procession, to have happened at this specific locality. The offering scene between the participants of the procession and the palatial officials receiving them rather seems to have reflected the central motif behind the whole important ritual: the bringing of goods into the palace. Their impact “on the viewer’s visual experience” would have mostly been informative and short, especially when the participants’ situation during the performance is taken into consideration: walking through a rather badly lit corridor and in between further participants in front and behind, the view would have been limited to the sides, even to only one side, if the participants were walking side-by-side in groups of two. In view of this evidence, it can be concluded, that the change in ritual performance floated by the reviewer (based, perhaps, on Boulotis, “Nochmals zum Prozessionsfresko von Knossos: Palast und Darbringung von Prestige-Objekten.” In: Hägg and Marinatos, The Function of the Minoan Palaces 1987, 148-51) can rather be refused.
    Finally, the reference made in the same footnote to literature on the date of the wall decoration is redundant since the chronological framework of the visibility and consumption of these and the other paintings in discussion is given in my text on p. 168 (the precise reference is Hood, “Dating the Knossos Frescoes.” In: Immerwahr, Aegean Wall Painting 2005, pp. 55, 66 with cat. no. 15).