The Art of Foreign Influence - Archaeology Magazine Archive

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The Art of Foreign Influence January 13, 2009
by Eti Bonn-Muller

An exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum illustrates how interconnected the great powers of the ancient Near East and eastern Mediterranean world were.

[image] Female Figure
Kültepe; Karum Kanesh Ib, ca. 1800-1700 B.C.
(Bruce White; Ankara Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, Turkey)


Falcon Pendant
Uluburun shipwreck; Late Bronze Age, ca. 1300 B.C. (Bruce White; Bodrum Museum of Underwater Archaeology, Turkey)


Thebes, Tomb of Ahhotep; New Kingdom, Dynasty 18, 16th century B.C. (Bruce White; Luxor Museum, Egypt)


Ring with Griffins
Mycenae, Chamber Tomb 68; Late Helladic II, 15th century B.C. (Bruce White; National Archaeological Museum, Athens, Greece)


Nude Female Figure
Uluburun shipwreck; Late Bronze Age, ca. 1300 B.C. (Bruce White; Bodrum Museum of Underwater Archaeology, Turkey)

Four millennia ago, desert caravan routes, treacherous mountain passes, and the shimmering Mediterranean Sea intimately connected the sprawling kingdoms and empires of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Anatolia, the Levant, and the Aegean. Goods and ideas flowed between these culturally distinct and faraway lands, not only by means of extensive trade networks, but also through diplomatic gift exchanges and booty obtained from conquests. The resulting interconnections, demonstrated by the fusion of artistic styles, are the subject of the exhibition Beyond Babylon: Art, Trade, and Diplomacy in the Second Millennium B.C., now on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The show brings together some 350 artifacts from a number of major sites—Mari, Ebla, and Byblos; Mycenae, Akrotiri, and Phaistos; and the Valley of the Kings, to name just a few—that clearly illustrate the extent to which artistic expression and craftsmanship were influenced by an increasingly international landscape.


Duck-Shaped Container and Female Swimmer
Egypt; New Kingdom, Dynasty 18, reign of Amenhotep III, ca. 1390-1352 B.C. (Réunion des Musées Nationaux / Art Resource, NY; Musée du Louvre, Paris, Département des Antiquités Égyptiennes)


Pyxis Lid
Syria, Minet el-Beida, Tomb III; Late Bronze Age, 13th century B.C. (Réunion des Musées Nationaux / Art Resource, NY; France, Paris, Musée du Louvre, Département des Antiquités Orientales)


Standing Figures
Byblos, Temple of the Obelisks, Champ des Offrandes; Middle Bronze Age, early second millennium B.C. (Tony Farraj; Direction Générale des Antiquités, Beirut, Lebanon)

The exhibition, a follow-up to the Met's 2003 show Art of the First Cities: The Third Millennium B.C. from the Mediterranean to the Indus, picks up the thread in the Middle Bronze Age (ca. 2000-1600 B.C.), when the demand for raw materials, such as copper, tin, ivory, and lapis, sparked the development of far-reaching trade routes. Silk-screened across an entire wall at the show's entrance is a satellite map that extends from the Mediterranean basin to the Arabian Sea. No modern borders are shown on it and the one site indicated, almost perfectly centered, is Babylon, where the exhibition begins.

On a purely visual level, Beyond Babylon instantly and consistently delivers, with impressive artifacts on loan from museums and institutions in a dozen countries, including Egypt, France, Greece, Lebanon, Syria, and Turkey. Although most of the objects are small in size—cosmetics cases, cylinder seals, furniture inlays, inscriptions, jewelry, pottery, and weapons—they are executed in exquisite detail and often on precious materials, such as ivory, rock crystal, and gold. The first galley displays a wide array of Mesopotamian objects. A bronze statuette of a worshiper, dated to about 1760 B.C. and crafted in a workshop in the Sumerian city of Larsa (in modern Iraq), whose bearded face and tiny fingers are still covered with delicate sheets of gold, kneels to visitors at the entrance. A vivid early second millennium B.C. wall-painting fragment from the palace of Zimri-Lim at Mari (Syria), which depicts a male figure leading a bull by its golden nose-ring to a ritual sacrifice, ushers people into the next room.

While each object is a masterpiece, the show's brilliance lies in its subtlety. Gallery by gallery, visitors are confronted with artifacts whose motifs and iconography are sometimes so similar, it's easy to forget how many different sites are represented in the show, how many different artistic traditions influenced each individual piece, and how far away from each other they were produced. But of course, that's the point.

In a gallery dedicated to the relationship between Minoan Crete and other regions of the eastern Mediterranean, for instance, is an assemblage of objects decorated with griffins, powerful mythological beasts with the head and wings of a bird of prey and the hindquarters of a lion. Ranging in size from two to ten centimeters, the pieces include an ivory furniture plaque, a gold ring, a red jasper stamp seal, and the flat lid of a pyxis, or small box—from Anatolia, Mycenae, Vapheio, and Byblos, respectively. Created hundreds of miles away from each other, in completely different materials, and over the span of 400 years (between the eighteenth and the fourteenth century B.C.), it looks as though the same hands could have executed the sprawling feathers, pointed beaks, and muscular paws on each of them.

A striking illustration of a mixture of styles can be seen in an adjacent gallery, in a selection of artifacts from the so-called Tôd Treasure, a group of four copper chests filled with objects made of gold, silver, and lapis. Discovered in 1936 by French archaeologist Fernand Bisson de la Roque in the foundations of the Temple of Tôd, south of Luxor, the pieces date from about 1919 to 1885 B.C. The finely worked silver bowls and lapis-lazuli stamp seals and beads on view show artistic influences that extend from Afghanistan to Crete.

The exhibition continues on to the Late Bronze Age (ca. 1600-1200 B.C.), when more and more people—diplomats, craftsmen, and armies—began to travel. About midway through the show, the wall colors quietly change from desert tan to sea blue, as visitors enter a large exhibition space that features a small rectangular inner room, flanked on each end by the reconstructed bow and stern of a wooden boat. It is meant to represent the famous Uluburun shipwreck, excavated off the southern coast of Turkey in the 1980s. In total, 15,000 artifacts were found, including raw materials as well as finished goods that were being transported from the Near East to an unknown port in the Aegean, suggesting the ship was a trading vessel. The ship itself, 49 feet long and 16 feet wide, could carry about 20 tons of cargo—17 tons of which were brought to the surface—that has been attributed to 12 different Bronze Age cultures.

[image] Stele of an Asiatic Soldier
Tell el-Amarna (?); New Kingdom, Dynasty 18, reign of Akhenaten, ca. 1353-1336 B.C. (Jürgen Liepe; Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Aegyptisches Museum und Papyrussamlung)
Wall Painting Fragment
Thera, Akrotiri; Late Cycladic I, ca. 1625-1525 B.C. (Archaeological Society at Athens; Akrotiri Excavations; Archaeological Museum of Thera, Greece)

Visitors enter the ship's belly, which contains a phenomenal sampling of the wreck's artifacts. Highlights include turquoise and purple glass ingots, hippopotamus teeth, a perfectly preserved ostrich eggshell and the blue glass base that would have allowed for its display, fragments of two ivory duck-shaped vessels that likely contained cosmetics, and a Canaanite jar filled with thousands of beads. On one end of the mini-gallery, an image of a diver excavating the wreck repeatedly fades away to reveal weighty copper and tin ingots and a beachrock stone anchor. A particularly nice touch in a nearby room is the screening of a video about the discovery and excavation of the wreck. In one scene, a diver comes up to the surface clutching a gold cup on display in the Uluburun gallery.

The final section of the show is dedicated to "international age" objects from the Near East, Egypt, and the Aegean that inspired designs well into the following millennium: faience bowls adorned with petal motifs; rhyta (vessels from which libations, such as wine, were poured) decorated with marine life and bulls' heads; ivory plaques depicting the mistress of animals—a common Near Eastern motif featuring a seated female figure holding palm fronds and showing her mastery over a variety of flanking creatures—and animal combat scenes; and glazed tiles portraying Syrian, Amorite, Philistine, and Hittite leaders found in the mortuary temple of Ramesses III in Egypt.


Glazed Tiles with Asiatic Leaders
Egypt, Thebes Medinet Habu, Mortuary Temple of Ramesses III; New Kingdom, Dynasty 20, reign of Ramesses III, ca. 1184-1153 B.C. (© 2008 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Emily Esther Sears Fund)

Kneeling Worshiper
Mesopotamia; Old Babylonian, ca. 1760 B.C. (Réunion des Musées Nationaux / Art Resource, NY; Musée du Louvre, Paris, Département des Antiquités Orientales)

Beyond Babylon will captivate the ancient art lover. There are too many highlights to list, but standouts include: a steatite rhyton fragment incised with playful dolphins from Palaikastro on eastern Crete; ceramic vessels in the shape of boots with upturned toes from Kültepe in Turkey; an Egyptian game board inlaid with ebony, from which ivory pegs topped with the heads of hounds and jackals protrude as if the players were still mid-game; a colorful wall-painting fragment from Akrotiri, on the Greek island of Santorini, which depicts the boar's tusk helmet of a brave warrior.

It's easy to study history in a bubble and to place "Egypt," "Greece," "Mesopotamia," and so on, in tidy academic boxes. But this exhibition challenges visitors to think beyond such pigeonholes and begin to comprehend that the ancient world was not unlike our global landscape today—traveling across the Near East was perhaps even somewhat easier 4,000 years ago. But at least for the next few months, you don't have to journey too far to see some of antiquity's greatest treasures all in one place.


Game Box with Chariot Hunt
Enkomi, Tomb 58; Late Bronze Age, ca. late 13th-12th century B.C. (© The Trustees of the British Museum; The Trustees of the British Museum, London )

Kassite Style Cylinder Seal and Modern Impression
Kassite, reign of Burnaburiash II, inscription of Kidin-Marduk, ca. 1359-1333 B.C.; Thebes, Palace Workshop; Late Helladic IIIb context, 13th century B.C. (Archaeological Museum, Thebes, Greece)

Beyond Babylon: Art, Trade, and Diplomacy in the Second Millennium B.C. is on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York through March 15. The catalogue provides an especially worthwhile chapter on the Uluburun shipwreck, written by its excavator Cemal Pulak.

Eti Bonn-Muller is managing editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.