Obsidian yes, lapis luzuli no

Dictionary of the Ancient Near East
January 19, 2001

Dictionaries may be judged on the quality of the definitions and by the degree of inclusiveness of possible entries. To these ends, this dictionary succeeds admirably well in the former and less so in the latter. The entries selected for inclusion are succinctly written, informative and contain a well-chosen bibliography of primary references. Illustrations and photographs are similarly well chosen and of high quality, while the maps tend to be minimalist, often containing sites not mentioned in the text or vice versa. Unfortunately, no distinction is made in illustrating objects derived from the antiquities market and those from archaeological excavations. Even worse, objects derived from the antiquities market are given an archaeological provenance (for example, the bull from Marlik).

The editors define the ancient Near East to include Mesopotamia, Iran, Anatolia, the Caucasus, the Levant and Arabia, spanning the period from one and a half million years ago to 539 BC. Geographic coverage is good for the Levant, Anatolia and Mesopotamia, Iran's coverage is fair, but on the Caucasus and Arabia it is poor. Chronologically, the best coverage is on the Iron Age, then the Bronze Age, leaving the Paleolithic period poorly served.

Today, with the fall of the Iron Curtain and active collaborative research, most archaeologists would include Central Asia as part of the cultural-historical continuum of the ancient Near East. With regard to the coverage of important sites, object categories, methodological approaches, or theoretical perspectives, the dictionary falls short of comprehensive coverage. The well-crafted index helps salvage some of the unequal geographic treatment. Thus Marib, a most important site in Arabia, does not have its own entry but appears in the index where one is directed to read about it in the entry for Sheba. In the selection of object categories, there is an entry for obsidian but not for lapis lazuli. Again, guided by the index, one is offered a minimalist reading of the importance of lapis in the entry for jewellery. Neither entry nor index reveals the importance of such objects as the bevelled-rim bowl, psalia or the lowly mud brick. Horse and camel merit an entry but not cattle or pig; tin does, arsenic does not.

One can find radiocarbon and dendrochronology, but stratigraphy, seriation, carbon isotopes and a host of others are avoided. More disturbing is the absence of entries describing the significance of major sites such as Shahdad, Hili, Trialeti, Maysar, Hacinebi and Ubeidiya; and of important archaeological cultures: proto-Elamite, Kura-Araxes, Umm-an Nar. There are significant absences in the biographical entries of deceased archaeologists, Henri Frankfort, Anton Moortgat, Jacques De Morgan, Yigael Yadin and V. G. Childe. As with methodological concerns, so also theoretical or conceptual issues tend to be avoided. Such entries as "merchants", "shops and markets" and "social classes" discuss what the written texts have to say about such topics but fail to mention significant theoretical issues associated with such terms. There is no entry on diffusion or on its material manifestation, the much-discussed Uruk expansion, or on its theoretical frame of reference, core-periphery relations.

With regard to sites, the editors hoped to include "individual entries on all significant ones while striking a balance between area and periods". The dictionary is a useful guide to some sites. It does not, however, come close to including all significant sites or object categories. Nor does it offer a balance between different areas and periods. Until a fully comprehensive and scholarly dictionary of the ancient Near East appears, this one serves as an abridged edition.

C. C. Lamberg-Karlovsky is professor of archaeology, Harvard University, United States.

Dictionary of the Ancient Near East

Editor - Piotr Bienkowski and Allan Millard
ISBN - 0 8122 3557 6
Publisher - University of Pennsylvania Press
Price - £29.99
Pages - 342

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