A dawn that truly dazzles

Art of the First Cities, The Third Millennium BC from the Mediterranean to the Indus

November 7, 2003

Colin Renfrew is filled with wonder by the art of the first civilisations

The dazzling exhibition containing many of the great treasures of Sumerian civilisation, originating principally in Iraq, of which this volume is the sumptuous record, opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in May 2003. By one of the ironies of history, the war in Iraq and the looting of the National Museum in Baghdad had occurred only a few weeks previously, so that no visitor to the exhibition could avoid the uncomfortable awareness of the unstable situation in that homeland of civilisation, and the knowledge that many of its remaining antiquities were the object of ongoing looting. The book, which is much more than simply an exhibition catalogue, inevitably prompts some reflections on the state of the world of archaeology. But although a few of these may be cautionary, the reader's first response - and I think the right one - is an expression of wonderment at what was achieved in Mesopotamia during the extraordinary florescence of the 4th and 3rd millennia BC, and of gratitude that so much well-documented material is available to the scholarly world and to the public, even though the rich collections still curated in Iraq itself could obviously not be included. (An important group of objects from the National Museums in Aleppo and Damascus are included in the catalogue although I think that political events may at the last minute have prevented their inclusion in the exhibition.) This book and the accompanying exhibition have been many years in the planning. The book includes a full and lavishly illustrated catalogue of every piece in the exhibition, but is at the same time much more than this, having a thematic structure with introductory essays written by international authorities on each main theme. The introductory essay is by Joan Aruz, the volume's editor, who is curator in charge of the Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art at the Metropolitan Museum. The first main section, "Cities of the south", is introduced by Hans Nissen of the University of Berlin, who deals with the great Sumerian city of Uruk, with a concise and readable text on the general question of the formation of the city. Subsequent essays cover some of the most important sites and themes, such as stone sculpture production and metalworking techniques.

These contributions are, in the main, written by members of staff of the great institutions worldwide that have contributed to the exhibition, including the Louvre, the British Museum, the University of Pennsylvania Museum at Philadelphia, the Ankara Museum of Anatolian Civilisations, the National Museum of Pakistan in Karachi, the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg and the Staatliche Museen in Berlin, among many others.

An important part of the perspective of Aruz is the extent of international interactions during the 3rd millennium BC, so that finds from as far afield as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are included. This must be the first time that so wide a range of material has been brought together in this way, and the high quality of the plates, all of them in colour for the catalogued pieces, makes this a wonderful book to browse if one is interested in the arts of the first cities as well as an important document of record.

The reader, particularly in the aftermath of the recent Iraq war, may at first wonder how so rich a body of material can be brought together without drawing on the resources of the National Museum of Baghdad or the museum of Mosul. Happily, there is a positive answer here that may carry an informative moral. For, in the main, this is not a collection of unprovenanced artefacts, divorced from their archaeological contexts and acquired in perhaps dubious circumstances on the international market. Such assemblages bring no credit to the institutions that exhibit them. On the contrary, the majority of the objects on view have been borrowed by the Metropolitan Museum from major institutions that have formed their collections through well-conducted and well-documented archaeological excavations. An outstanding example is offered by the chapter titled "Ebla and the early urbanisation of Syria", which is, appropriately, written by Paolo Matthiae, himself the excavator of that great site. In it he claims:

"Arguably, the state archives of Early Syrian Ebla are the most important archaeological discovery of the second half of the 20th century", and he goes on to substantiate that view effectively. The catalogue illustrates 17 well-chosen pieces from Ebla in the National Museums in Aleppo and Damascus.

The chapter on "The North Caucasus" introduces some of the celebrated finds from the great kurgan or tumulus at Maikop, now conserved in the State Hermitage Museum. The section on "The Gulf: Dilmun and Magan", by D. T. Potts of the University of Sydney, introduces finds from well-documented excavations in Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The excellent chapter on "The Indus civilization" by Mark Kenoyer of the University of Madison, again a recognised authority, introduces important materials from well-documented excavations in Pakistan, lent by museums in Harappa, Islamabad, Karachi, Lahore and Mohenjo-daro.

The core of the exhibition, however, is constituted by the finds from the Royal Tombs at Ur, excavated by Sir Leonard Woolley between 1926 and 1930, and lent by the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. This was one of the most important discoveries of the first half of the 20th century, ranking alongside the opening of the tomb of Tutankhamun in Egypt. The excavation was fully documented and published so that Julian Reade of the British Museum can offer new interpretations in his introductory chapter. Their loan from London and Philadelphia is possible purely as a consequence of the partage system that was widely applied in the 1920s. With the approval of the Iraqi government of the day the academic institutions sponsoring the excavation were permitted each to receive a proportion of the finds, while the first component of the partage remained in the National Museum in Baghdad (where it is believed to have survived the recent looting). I now wonder if there is not a good case for the revival of this system. As well as avoiding the risk of curating all the finds from some great discovery in a single place, which events in Baghdad serve to highlight, this procedure ensures that knowledge of the finds and of their parent culture is widely disseminated.

This orderly system is in stark contrast to the illicit trade in antiquities, where private collections and museums purchase illegally excavated and unprovenanced pieces, thereby contributing to the looting process in which sites are ransacked and all hope of reconstructing the past through the study of context is lost. In general, the organisers of this important exhibition are to be congratulated in putting together a coherent assemblage, drawing on collections from reputable and well-published excavations. In this they have been generously supported by the lending institutions.

It is painful to report, however, that as already noted in a critical review by Martin Gottlieb and Barry Meier in The New York Times ("Ancient art at Met raises old ethical question", August 2 2003), the organisers have in a few cases fallen well below the high ethical standards that the exhibition in general maintains. My attention was caught by several pieces in the "Pathways across Eurasia" section, including a silver vessel lent by the Miho Museum, Japan (Number 253) and an impressive and richly decorated silver vessel illustrated by a full-page colour plate with the byline "The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Lent by Shelby White and Leon Levy" (Number 254). These are followed by two more unprovenanced pieces lent by the Miho and a gold trumpet with bison heads (Numbers 255-7). None of these objects is accompanied here by a reputable provenance, and the absence of published documentation in the catalogue hints that they may have been purchased recently on the market. How can the inference be avoided that these antiquities, prior to their recent purchase on the market, may have been dug by looters from archaeological sites in Eurasia and illegally exported from their country of origin? What due diligence has been undertaken by the museums in question? Many reputable museums today, such as the British Museum, would find themselves unable to exhibit such pieces unless these questions could satisfactorily be answered. The catalogue entries, by Aruz herself and her colleagues at the Met, do not give an adequate answer. Their inclusion in this distinguished exhibition seems a notable lapse from a generally high ethical standard, and suggests a return to the days when recently acquired unprovenanced (and therefore quite possibly illicit) antiquities could be publicly exhibited without embarrassment or shame. Their inclusion in this handsome and well-researched catalogue constitutes a significant blemish on an otherwise-admirable product.

Overlooking this embarrassing lapse, one can recommend this beautifully produced book as an attractive introduction to the remarkable art and archaeology of Iraq and neighbouring lands in the 3rd millennium BC.

Admittedly the treatment of Egypt is sketchy, so that Egyptian urbanism, represented by just two artefacts, is scarcely considered. Nor is the claim to represent the Aegean very much better sustained, with Minoan Crete represented by a single object of doubtful relevance. In reality, this is a book about the art and society of the great civilisations of Sumer and Akkad and their neighbours. As such it is full of good things, with concise and readable essays by some of the world's most distinguished scholars. It is a work of real value in its own right and a fitting testimony to one of the most impressive international exhibitions of recent years.

Lord Renfrew is professor of archaeology and director of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, University of Cambridge.

Art of the First Cities, The Third Millennium BC from the Mediterranean to the Indus

Editor - Joan Aruz with Roland Wallenfels
Publisher - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and Yale University Press
Pages - 540
Price - £55.00
ISBN - 0 300 09883 9

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