Empires on the Med

The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East
May 1, 1998

This ambitious work, produced under the auspices of the American Schools of Oriental Research, was originally conceived as a handbook of Biblical archaeology, covering the area of what are today the states of Israel, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon (in archaeological terminology, Syria-Palestine). In the preface the editor describes how the project was transformed into an even grander undertaking, the result being the decision to encompass a vast region delimited by Iran in the east and Morocco in the west, and stretching from Anatolia in the north down as far as the Arabian Peninsula. The chronological scope of the encyclopedia is from prehistoric times through to the crusades.

The resulting volumes promise, therefore, a treatment that differs in scope from that originally planned. It is worth stressing this point, because the many peculiarities in the work can very often be traced back to these historical circumstances of the encyclopedia's genesis. No existing modern work of reference can claim to provide such a degree of authoritative coverage of ancient Near Eastern archaeology, and for this reason alone the encyclopedia will find its way onto the shelves of libraries of archaeology and the ancient world (it is priced beyond the range of most students). However, the transition from a handbook of Biblical archaeology to an encyclopedia of the whole of Near Eastern archaeology has not been a smooth one. If this review emphasises its unevenness (an issue that the editor addresses in the preface), it is because the work will no doubt be widely consulted by students, and they do need to be aware that the information provided, while generally sound in itself, is not always the whole story.

The volumes contain some 1,100 alphabetically arranged entries contributed by 560 scholars from around the world. They are illustrated by 650 drawings, plans and photographs. The topics covered fall into five major categories: "Lands and people"; "Writing, language, texts"; "Material culture"; "Archaeological methods'' and "History of archaeology". The "Synoptic outline of contents" is very good, providing a useful overview of the topics covered and how they fit into the scheme of the encyclopedia. Each individual article is accompanied by a select bibliography, sometimes annotated, which will provide an invaluable starting point for readers wishing to pursue a subject. Archaeological sites form, as one expects, a major component, making up just under half of the total number of articles. They summarise both the history of the site's investigation and the results of the excavations. These factual articles, often contributed by the excavators themselves, constitute an extremely useful gazeteer for the principal archaeological sites of the ancient Near East. Regions, such as "Syria", "Mesopotamia", "Taurus" etc. receive in-depth treatment, thus enabling the reader to relate the individual sites to their wider geographical and historical context. In addition there are articles about many of the institutions and individuals who have played a significant part in the archaeological and historical investigation of the ancient Near East. Contemporary issues such as "Development and archaeology" and "Ethics and archaeology" also find a welcome place in the book.

In general, the range of subjects included in the encyclopedia is comprehensive. There is, surprisingly, no single article on the subject of trade, although of course a great many of the topics that are included have a bearing on this vast subject: "Transportation", "Ships and boats", "Kultepe texts" and the various kinds of provenance analysis, to name only a few. Some other omissions spring to mind: for example, the Rosetta stone; the site of Troy (although there is a biography of its most famous excavator, Heinrich Schliemann); a biography of Gertrude Bell. On the other hand, it is hard to see why such specialist material as the catalogue of Egyptian Aramaic texts needed to be included. Despite some idiosyncratic choices, however, on balance problems lie less with the range of topics covered than with the contents of individual articles. This applies not so much to articles based on a particular site or region, but to those with more broadly based themes. For example, the article on "Furniture and furnishings" draws almost exclusively on material from Egypt and Syria-Palestine. There is not even a mention of the most spectacular extant pieces of ancient Near Eastern furniture, namely those excavated in the 8th-century-bc burial mounds at Gordion in Anatolia. Similar observations can be made for many other articles.

Substantial articles are broken down according to chronological period or region, each section written by a different contributor, in order to receive the specialist treatment they deserve. A number of principal articles, such as "Cities" and "Writing and writing systems", ought therefore to provide an opportunity to draw together information from the entire region. However, this opportunity is sometimes lost. Turning to "Cities'', for example, the reader finds a useful overview at the beginning, but in the section entitled "Cities of the Persian period" the information is drawn almost entirely from Palestine. The subsequent section on "Cities in the Hellenistic and Roman periods" fails to do justice to the complex relationship between Greek settlers and indigenous Near Eastern populations, some grasp of which is essential for understanding the nature of urbanisation at this period. It is with key topics such as "Cities" that the editors should have taken especial care to integrate the coverage, because these major articles ought to provide vital context for so many of the other subjects addressed in the book.

The treatment of chronology is particularly inadequate. This is another key subject, especially for students, who might justifiably feel bewildered by the ample and inconsistently used terminology that they will encounter in the study of the ancient Near East. After a useful introduction to the topic, the article on "periodization" summarises only those periods that apply to Palestine. The reader who is interested in other regions must turn to the "time line" in appendix two for further clarification. However, this diagram combines archaeologically or historically defined periods with peoples/cultures to whom articles are devoted elsewhere in the volumes. For example, the time line labelled "Sumerians" stretches from 4000 to 2000bc yet, as the article on "Sumerians" reminds us, the term is "a conventional designation for the people who lived in southern Mesopotamia (Sumer) during the third and early second millennia bce". The way in which peoples/cultures such as "Sumerians", "Akkadians" and "Eblaites" are included in this chart is both inaccurate and misleading; it would have been better to stick to purely chronological designations.

The treatment of Persian chronology is no less confusing. Iran before c. 650bc is represented on the time line only by the designation "Elamites" (from 4300bc on). On consulting the article on "Persia", the reader finds that two contributions by different authors ("Prehistoric Persia" and "Ancient Persia"), supposedly in chronological order, in fact overlap, since they both include prehistoric Iran down to c. 3200bc but using different chronological schemes, neither of which is represented on the time line.

There are many problems arising from the editing of the volumes; the examples discussed here are only a sample of the inaccuracies observed. For example, the George Smith referred to in the article "History of the field: archaeology in Mesopotamia" and in the biography of Rawlinson is incorrectly equated with George Adam Smith, whose biography is included in the encyclopedia. The first George Smith (1840-76) also merits a biographical article, since it was he who identified in 1872 the famous Deluge tablet (that is, the 11th tablet of the Epic of Gilgamesh) among the fragments of cuneiform tablets sent to the British Museum by Layard during the course of his excavations on the mound of Kouyunjik at Nineveh.

The editing of the illustrations is also inadequate. The photograph on page 344 of volume one needs to be rotated anti-clockwise through 90 degrees in order for the bone artefacts to match up with the caption. The article on the site of Nimrud is accompanied by photographs of Assyrian reliefs that actually come from Nineveh. The cuneiform tablet that illustrates the article "Tablet" is upside down.

The treatment of the maps (appendix 3) is problematic. The site of Ebla is marked in the wrong position. Cappadocia has drifted westwards, and on the same map the mountain-top site of Nemrud Dagi in south-eastern Turkey has been inexplicably relocated south of the river Euphrates to a rather flat part of the northern Syria. The river just to the east of Tarsus is marked as the Goksu River; in fact, it is the Seyhan River. The site of Abu Salabikh is misplaced. The map of the Akkadian empire that accompanies the article "Akkadians'' is also inaccurate; Tell Brak, Tell Leilan and Tell Taya are all in the wrong place. All of these errors should have been eliminated by careful checking.

Despite the reservations expressed in this review, the encyclopedia represents an enormous achievement, and there is much to commend it. The results of Near Eastern excavation are placed in context by relating them to the historical development of the discipline and by stressing methodological and ethical issues that are ignored by many more prosaic textbooks. Articles on sites and people provide an invaluable resource for students and scholars alike.

However, despite the enormous breadth of knowledge embraced by the large pool of specialist contributors, too many of the articles that ought to cover the whole of the Near East turn out to be based on evidence drawn from only one part of the region, namely, Syria-Palestine. I do not wish to imply that this is not an important region in its own right; however, a work of reference that claims to cover the entire ancient Near East ought to do precisely that. In this important respect the encyclopedia unfortunately fails to live up to its title.

Heather D. Baker is a research student in Assyriology, Wolfson College, Oxford.

The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East

Editor - Eric M. Meyers
ISBN - 0 19 506512 3
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £395.00
Pages - 2,600

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments