Unpleasant Ur-kitsch

Ancient Near Eastern Art - Babylonians
April 5, 1996

Although they are both from the same publisher, produced at the same time and overlapping in content these are two very different books.

Babylonians is aimed at the general reader or undergraduate student, and is an authoritative introduction to the civilisation of Babylon, with a brief introduction to archaeological and linguistic research in the area. As one might expect from an authority on the ancient languages, there is a useful summary of linguistic developments and decipherment, set in the context of the earliest archaeological discoveries.

Students will find the book useful, since the themes covered are very much those highlighted in courses in Near Eastern history and archaeology. The approach is very much more historical than archaeological, however, and at times I would like to have seen more use made of the archaeological evidence. The text is well written and informative, and likely to serve as a much appreciated quarry for student essays for some time to come.

Such shortcomings as the book has are not so much in its content as in its design. Numerical references to notes, rather than given as footnotes on the same page, are removed to the end of the book, something I find particularly irritating. I would prefer genuine notes given on the relevant page and references given at the end of the book. Although I can see why the Harvard system of referencing is avoided in a general book, the alternative, which needs to use numbers and to have separate references for each chapter does, perhaps, suggest that it is time the Harvard system was more widely adopted.

The use of this form of notation is, however, consistent with the design of the book, which is very traditional, with colour photographs confined to specific colour sections rather than interspersed with the text as are the monochrome illustrations. The illustrations are generally good, but scales are omitted in photographs and captions, and, even in semi-popular texts, I prefer to see the museum name and object number given. Publishers tend to underestimate the enthusiasm of the general reader, and this kind of provenance information can be a valuable aid to study.

The index of biblical references will be useful to many readers, though the chronological chart is less satisfactory, and I would have liked to see more of the individual rulers listed.

Dominique Collon is the niece of a great Near Eastern scholar, and in Ancient Near Eastern Art her enthusiasm for her subject is very clear. The text is lively to read and lacks the awed tones of some other art books, thus we are informed that "not all inlaid objects from Ur were successful, however, and a series of ostrich eggs decorated with inlaid rims and feet are particularly unpleasant examples of kitsch". This is much more than a textbook on art; the topics are, again, treated thematically but are broad in scope. For example, the chapter on "Trade and diplomacy in the second millennium bc" gives a concise overview of the contacts between regions at the time, and introduces new developments in materials and technology, such as the discovery of glass. Although the book does not try to be a catalogue, it does give useful cross-references (by British Museum accession number) to relevant pieces not illustrated in the text. Collon's written style, along with the combination of art, archaeology and technology, will give the book wide appeal.

While, like Babylonians, the text is scholarly and informative, the design is much better. Illustrations have the scale given in the text, though, as with the previous book, object numbers have to be gleaned from a separate list. Colour illustrations are interspersed with black and white, while the chronology section, by C. B. F. Walker, is much more detailed and consequently more useful. There are no notes of any kind, nor references, although a useful list of "further reading" is given.

I frequently found myself cross-referring between these books, since neither quite provided all the general information one might require. For example, the well known copper frieze from Tell el-Ubaid (BM WA114308) is discussed in Collon, but the deities represented are to be found in Saggs. Although I enjoyed both books and will continue to use them together, I suspect that most readers with Pounds 17.99 to spend will choose Collon's book, not because it is more reliable or the text more general, but simply because it is better produced.

Paul Nicholson is lecturer in archaeology, University of Wales, Cardiff.

Ancient Near Eastern Art

Author - Dominique Collon
ISBN - 0 7141 1135 X
Publisher - British Museum Press
Price - £17.99
Pages - 247

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