Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.11.11

Giovanni Lanfranchi, Michael Roaf, Robert Rollinger, Continuity of Empire (?). Assyria, Media, Persia. Proceedings of the International Meeting in Padua, 26th-28th April 2001. History of the Ancient Near East. Monographs, V.   Padova:  S.a.r.g.o.n., 2003.  Pp. 468; pls. 22.  $100.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by J. D. Muhly, University of Pennsylvania (
Word count: 4260 words

Ancient Mesopotamia had a long, distinguished and very checkered history. The general pattern was for great cultural continuity, as witnessed by the practice of writing in cuneiform on clay tablets, a tradition that survived for over 3,000 years, amidst great political discontinuity. Various ethnic groups and political configurations came and went, often never to be heard of again. In the third millennium BC the major historical and linguistic division was between the Sumerians, who spoke a language of still unknown linguistic affinities, and the Akkadians, who spoke an East Semitic language. Around 2000 BC both of these languages ceased to be living, spoken languages and Mesopotamia was taken over by various groups speaking dialects of West Semitic. The two most important groups were the Assyrians in the north, centered around the city of Assur, their political and cult center, and the Babylonians in the south, with their major urban center at Babylon.

Historians recognize three major periods of Assyrian political unity: Old Assyrian (ca. 2000-1750), Middle Assyrian (ca. 1450-1100) and Neo-Assyrian (ca. 900-600 BC). A similar pattern exists for Babylonia: Old Babylonian (ca. 1900-1600), Middle Babylonian (1450-1200) and Neo-Babylonian (ca. 650-539 BC). All this came to an end with the spectacular rise of Persia in the mid-sixth century BC. Under the leadership of Cyrus II (the Great), who claimed descent from a shadowy ancestor named Achaemenes, Cyrus conquered the Medes (ca. 550), the Lydians (547-546) and the Babylonians (539 BC) and established an Achaemenid Empire that lasted to the conquests of Alexander the Great. Assyria had already been destroyed in the late seventh century BC, by a coalition of Medes and Babylonians.

Cyrus created the greatest empire the world had ever seen, but he was also the leader of a new linguistic group speaking an Indo-European language known as Old Persian, a language with close affinity to Ancient Greek and known, to some degree, by many fifth century Athenians (as we can tell from the comedies of Aristophanes). But, for administration the Persians made use of Aramaic, as had the Assyrians before them, written on leather or papyrus and using an alphabetic script. There were, in fact, many close parallels between Persian and Assyrian administration, political ideology and artistic iconography. But how were such parallels to be explained, since the Assyrians were virtually wiped off the face of the earth in the late seventh century and the Persians were newcomers who established themselves in the traditional lands of the ancient Near East only in the third quarter of the sixth century, some three generations after the fall of Assyria?

To explain this phenomenon modern historians have followed Herodotus in attributing great importance to a Median Empire, one that followed Assyria and provided the cultural link between Assyria and Persia. But what do we really know about this Median Empire, apart from the captivating account given by Herodotus in the first book of his Histories? And what sources did Herodotus have for his medikos logos? Can we really speak of Continuity of Empire in the mid-first millennium BC?

It was to answer these questions that a group of concerned scholars decided to organize the conference held in Padua, Italy, in April 2001. Now, only two years later, we have the published Proceedings of this international meeting, edited by an Italian, an Englishman teaching in Germany, and an Austrian. I can say at the outset that this is one of the best, most interesting and challenging conference volumes I have ever read. Padua in April of 2001 was a conference with a real purpose, a focus, a meeting called because there were vital questions that needed to be answered and it seemed to be the time to see what answers could be formulated. Why? Because during the second half of the twentieth century major progress had been made towards the serious study of all periods of the history of ancient Mesopotamia, but especially of the Neo-Assyrian period.

Much of this progress had been won thanks to several long-range international research projects. Pride of place must go to the CAD, the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary, edited at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. The first volume appeared in 1956 and with over twenty massive volumes the project is now nearing the end. I doubt that we will ever see anything like it again. We can now determine the meaning of words in all texts from all periods with a confidence never possible in the past.

Next in importance has been the RIM Project, the Royal Inscriptions of Mesopotamia, edited at the University of Toronto, the first volume of which appeared in 1987. RIM is in the process of providing text and translation for all our basic historical texts. It provides the "nuts and bolts" for the study of Mesopotamian history. It represents something like a "Loeb Library" for the ancient Near East, but on a much more elaborate scale. This is necessary because the problems involved in editing cuneiform texts are so much greater than those faced by any Classical scholar working with Greek or Latin texts. Then there is SAA, the State Archives of Assyria, a project at the University of Helsinki (Finland) devoted to editing all manner of texts produced during the Neo-Assyrian period. Simo Parpola, the founder and driving force behind this project, has turned Helsinki into the center for all Neo-Assyrian research in the world today. The first volume of SAA appeared in 1987 and now, after some 15 volumes in this basic series of texts in transcription and translation, we also have at least 12 volumes in the series known as State Archives of Assyria Studies as well as volumes in the State Archives of Assyria Cuneiform Texts, the Prosopography of the Assyrian Empire, and the journal State Archives of Assyria Bulletin.

It should come as no surprise to learn that this mass of new material has resulted in drastic revisions of almost everything we though we knew about ancient Mesopotamia. I have gone into this in some detail because it is important that Classical scholars come to appreciate the hard-won advances that have been made in the study of "Oriental" history in recent decades. Those who write about Near Eastern influence upon Archaic Greece and about the "Orientalizing Period" in ancient Greek art and archaeology will discover that there is a lot to learn.

For the study of the Persian Empire the main development in recent years has been the series of annual workshops on Achaemenid History, organized by Heleen Sancisi-Weerdenburg. The first volume of Proceedings appeared in 1987, but volume XIII, published in 2003, is a volume of essays published to honor the memory of the late founder and editor of the series who died, at the age of 56, in May of 2000. Virtually everything that could be said about the Persian Empire is to be found in the massive history by Pierre Briant, first published in French in 1996 and in an English translation in 2002. This is a monumental work, in every sense of that word, but it has to be admitted that it is also a history based almost entirely upon Classical sources. Future progress in Achaemenid history will come from scholars willing (and able) to take on the awesome task of utilizing the incredibly rich body of source material written in Neo-Babylonian and Neo-Elamite. One of the first Classical scholars to recognize this fact was the late David Lewis.

What the volume under review has managed to accomplish is to provide a comprehensive introduction to everything that we have learned about ancient Mesopotamia on the basis of all the recent work described above. For the Classical scholar looking for a reliable account of the world of the ancient Near East (including Iran but excluding Egypt), as described by Herodotus and Xenophon, this is place to begin. Indeed I would say that every Classical scholar, now engaged in reading and teaching the texts of Herodotus and Xenophon, has to keep a copy of this volume close at hand. It simply is no longer possible to read the Anabasis of Xenophon without constant reference to the paper by Christopher Tulpin?

So why the question mark in the title? In the preliminary announcements for this conference there was no question mark. After the conference it was felt desirable to add one. The reason was the elusive Medes. One of the main purposes of the conference was to bring together those scholars most knowledgeable about ancient Media, those who had done fieldwork in lands normally thought to have been part of the Median Empire. A special effort was made to include scholars who had conducted excavations at sites regarded as Median, that is as being occupied by the Medes in the seventh and sixth centuries BC: Hamadan (ancient Ecbatana), Nush-i Jan and Godin Tepe (forming what has come to be known as the "Median Triangle"). A central goal of the conference was to persuade all participants to make a serious attempt to base their arguments upon both the textual and the archaeological evidence. Philology and excavation were to be brought together in order to bring to light the reality of Median culture and the historical context of the Median Empire.

In order to give some idea of the contents of this volume I would like simply to give author and title of a selection of the papers contained therein: M. Liverani, "The Rise and Fall of Media"; M. Roaf, "The Median Dark Age"; R. Schmitt, "Die Sprache der Meder -- eine grosse Unbekannte"; J. Reade, "Why did the Medes invade Assyria?"; J. Curtis, "The Assyrian heartland in the period 612-539 BC"; D. Stronach, "Independent Media: archaeological notes from the homeland"; R. Rollinger, "The western expansion of the Median "empire": a re-examination". The paper by Stronach deserves special attention because he reports on recent excavations carried out by local Iranian archaeologists, especially at the site of Hamadan, ancient Ekbatana. These excavations are also dealt with in a contribution by the excavator himself, Mohammad Rahim Sarraf. Prior to the appearance of this volume these excavations had been discussed only in Persian, in publications not readily available outside Iran.

I believe it fair to say that, prior to the conference, no participant had any inkling of just how difficult it would be to "pin down" the Medes. The degree of exasperation this situation produced is evident in the tone of many of the published texts. Michael Roaf, for example, has to conclude that "This survey of the evidence, both textual and archaeological for Media between 612 and 550 BC has revealed almost nothing. Media in the first half of the sixth century is a Dark Age" (p. 19). John Curtis laments that "It has to be admitted at the outset that there is not the slightest archaeological indication of a Median presence in Assyria after 612 BC (p. 165) and this, of course, is the very period for which the Medes were supposed to have provided "continuity".

What about the Median state that we have always assumed, following Herodotus and the Babylonian Chronicle, played the central role in the destruction of the Assyrian empire at the end of the seventh century BC? David Stronach, who certainly knows more about the Medes than any other living scholar, states, early on in his essay, that "it may be enough to assert that there are, quite simply, no sound grounds for postulating the existence of a vigorous, separate and united Median kingdom at any date substantially before 615 BC" (p. 234). A cautious, very carefully worded statement coming from a scholar who realizes all too well the treacherous ground beneath his feet.

Some of his colleagues should pay heed. In recent years Geoffrey Summers, excavator of the fortified site of Kerkenes Dag, north of Kayseri, has argued for his site as 'monumental' evidence for the presence of a Median empire in eastern Anatolia. Christopher Tuplin, one of the main contributors to the volume under review, comes out strongly in favor of this identification (p. 354). Other contributors, notably Robert Rollinger (pp. 321-326) and David Stronach (p. 248) take serious exception to all of Summers' arguments, including those relating to the famous eclipse of 585 BC, which Thales could not possibly have predicted and which was, in any case, not visible from central Anatolia (for which see Mosshammer 1981).

Can this problem be approached in other ways? In 1962 Richard Barnett, then Keeper of Western Asiatic Antiquities at the British Museum, published an article on "Median Art", bringing together all the objects that he felt represented the material culture of the ancient Medes. In a 1987 article on "Median Art and Medizing Scholarship" Oscar White Muscarella demonstrated that not one of the objects listed by Barnett had an excavated context. They all came from the antiquities market and were of questionable authenticity. They were declared 'Median' simply because they did not seem to belong to the art of Achaemenid Persia. They could not be assigned a secure cultural and historical context and must, therefore, represent the art of the elusive Medes.

Nothing could better illustrate the "Black Hole" that this conference tried so hard to fill (with a notable lack of success). It has come to be the fate of the Medes, in terms of art and iconography, to be represented by objects illicitly excavated and therefore of questionable authenticity. This problem has come to the fore, once again, because of a flood of objects that came on the art market in the 1990's, all said to come from a cave in western Iran, the 'Western' Cave or the Kalmakarra Cave (see Souren Melikian, "Cultural Ecology: Saving the Past, Debate Rages over Antiquities," International Herald Tribune 10-11 January 1998, p. 7). It soon became obvious that many pieces said to be from this cave were, in fact, modern forgeries. What is even more disturbing is that a number of 'Cave' objects were inscribed with short epigraphs in cuneiform, in Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Elamite as well as alphabetic inscriptions in Aramaic. This material is dealt with in some detail by Wouter Henkelman in his contribution to this conference volume.

Are things as bad as they seem to be? Have forgers now mastered the art of writing in cuneiform? Is it accidental that Biblical scholars are now trying to decide whether a monumental stone inscription is actually a royal inscription of Yehoash, son of Ahaziah, who reigned as king of Judah from 835-801 BC, recording his repairs to the temple of Solomon, or an elaborate modern forgery. Is it written in Biblical Hebrew or in a pastiche of Biblical and Modern Hebrew? This stone inscription is not an isolated product, as numerous inscribed sealings or bullae and inscribed ostraca have come to light in recent years, many bearing the names of people prominent in the Hebrew Bible. Almost all of this material comes from the collection of a single antiquities dealer in London (for background see Hershel Shanks, "Edom or Adam? New Reading Bolsters Case for Jehoash Tablet," Biblical Archaeology Review 30/4 (2004) 46-55).

Scholars trying to study the period of the Iron Age in the Middle East must now confront the problem of distinguishing between genuine Iron Age historical documents and objects that only appear to be of Iron Age date. Museum curators have always claimed that they can tell the difference, but what this really means is that they can pick out the obvious forgeries and even the not-so-obvious, but the very good fakes go undetected and end up on display in the museums of the world. This is true for every major museum, without exception. Early Iron Age western Iran has always been a favorite playground for craftsmen with real skill and creative imagination. This is why Median archaeology is such a mess.

Fooling the experts used to be the goal, but now even more important is selling to the wealthy collectors, individuals who are willing to pay serious sums of money for beautiful works of ancient art, especially if the piece in question seems to be of real historical value, i.e., it is inscribed. The escalating market price is the single most important factor in both the quantity and the quality of the objects now being offered for sale on the antiquities market. According to the New York Times (of 23 February 2004, p. A13) Paula Cussi, who is both a collector and a trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, paid $950,000 for a magnificent silver rhyton in the shape of a griffin, almost certainly from the Kalmakarra Cave. A beautiful silver beaker with gilt decoration of lotus buds and bearing a cuneiform inscription reading "Ampirish, king of Samati, son of Dabala", sold in auction at Bonhams in London (on 14 May 2003) for 950.000 pounds sterling. At today's exchange rates that is $1,738,500. Under such circumstances is it surprising to see supply meeting demand?

This silver beaker almost certainly comes from the Kalmakarra Cave. It is said to be of pre-Achaemenid date and that usually means 'Median', but what is the historical value of such an object? It is hard to argue with Michael Roaf who says of finds from the Kalmakarra hoard that "ignoring the possibility that they are modern fakes their dating and origin is [sic] so uncertain that they cannot be used as evidence for the artistic products of the Median period" (p. 21). We are only beginning to appreciate the magnitude of the problems we now face. I have no idea what the Miho Museum in Shigaraki, Kyoto (Japan) paid for the "Ashurbanipal beaker", in many respects the most remarkable of all the pieces said to come from the Kalmakarra Cave, but it is safe to say that only this museum could have afforded such an acquisition. In the past this silver beaker with gilt decoration would have been accepted without question as a genuine object of great historical value. Indeed, the distinguished art historian Dr. Erika Bleibtreu, of the Institute for Oriental Studies at the University of Vienna, has devoted an entire monograph published in 1999 to the beaker. The beaker has both Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Elamite epigraphs and, in a series of registers running around the body of the beaker, records the victory of Ashurbanipal over Ummanaldas, king of Elam, using an iconographic arrangement involving 130 incised figures. It is easy to see why the discovery of this object created such excitement within the field of Neo-Assyrian studies.

Then doubt began to set in. Was it genuine (but how could such a complicated artifact not be genuine)? What is the true historical value of such an object, one that came to light under such questionable circumstances, only to end up in a museum famous for its penchant for the purchase of gaudy artifacts of questionable authenticity? That, of course, is my own opinion. Other scholars would strongly disagree. Dr. Bleibtreu not only devoted a major monograph to the beaker, she also arranged for the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna to have a special exhibition devoted to the treasures of the Miho Museum. Other scholars, including Oscar White Muscarella, R. M. Czichon and P. Albenda have expressed doubts about the authenticity of the beaker. What needs to be appreciated, however, is that we are not dealing here with petty disagreements amongst competitive scholars. We are talking about how to evaluate objects with the potential for being major sources for the history of the ancient Near East in the first half of the first millennium BC.

The plight of the Italian Neo-Assyrian scholar Frederick Mario Fales illustrates the problem very well. His initial enthusiasm for the Ashurbanipal beaker soon became tempered. In an unprecedented note, at the beginning of his conference paper, he explains why he has removed from his paper the entire section dealing with the Ashurbanipal beaker. He says that "despite my original enthusiasm for this beaker ... it is a fact that, of late, the authenticity of the piece has been questioned from various points of view, and especially for the numerous elements of iconographic quaintness or incoherence that it presents" (p. 131). I can think of no better example of the problems created by such an object.

It would seem that no good can come from anything associated with the Kalmakarra Cave. Henkelman devotes some of his conference contribution to the private collection of Houshand Mahboubian (pp. 217, 220, and notes 131, 143,145,151,154 and 155) and to his privately-printed exhibition catalogue, Treasures of the Mountains. The Art of the Medes (London 1995). I have not seen this publication, but I have read Mahboubian's lavish picture book on Art of Ancient Iran. Copper and Bronze (London 1997). Mahboubian claims that most of the objects in what he calls The Houshang Mahboubian Family Collection were, in fact, excavated by his father, Dr. Benjamin Abolghassen Mahboubian, who died in Tehran in 1968 at the age of 100. Henkelman is properly sceptical (p. 217, n. 131), as many of the objects look very much like objects from the Kalmakarra Cave, and even have identical inscriptions. But Henkelman does not realize the extent of the problems connected with Mahboubian. He has long been known as an antiquities dealer of questionable integrity, operating out of Tehran, London and New York City. He also happens to be a convicted felon who, in June, 1987, was given one to three years in prison by an Appellate Division judge in New York City, having been found guilty of insurance fraud.

The jury trial of Mahboubian went on for months, with many experts being called to testify. It is one of the most remarkable episodes in the whole history of the looting of archaeological sites and the trade in smuggled antiquities. Yet it is virtually unknown. We would know nothing about it were it not for the fact that it attracted the attention of Calvin Trillin, who published an account of the whole affair in "American Chronicles: Frenchy and the Persians," The New Yorker, 29 June 1987, pp. 44-67. What happened is that, although Mahboubian and his confederates were ostensibly on trial for trying to defraud Lloyd's of London, the firm that insured Mahboubian's collection for twenty-three million dollars when it was shipped from Tehran to New York City, the hearings at the trial soon focused on the question of authenticity. Were the artifacts in Mahboubian's collection genuine antiquities, worth twenty-three million dollars, or were they modern fakes? Discussion in the courtroom went on for weeks, with many of the leading experts in the field summoned to testify. Never before has there been such a public, technical discussion of how to tell genuine from fake, how to go about making a fake antiquity, where such objects were manufactured and why. This testimony should be of great interest to all scholars working in the field, yet, to my knowledge, Trillin's New Yorker piece remains the only published account of the Mahboubian trial. Why?

And this is not the end of it. According to The Art Newspaper (no. 150, Sept. 2004, p. 5) the griffin rhyton sold to Paula Cussi for $950,000 almost certainly came from the Kalmakarra Cave. The dealer involved, Hicham Aboutaam, was fined $5,000 by a Manhattan federal court for declaring, on a U.S. Customs form, that the rhyton came from Syria (and not from Iran). The rhyton itself is now in the custody of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Ms. Cussi seems to have been given a refund. Rather a sordid tale, but Hicham Aboutaam who, together with his brother Ali, runs the Phoenix Ancient Art Gallery in Geneva, has also recently sold to the Cleveland Museum a life-sized bronze statue of Apollo Sauroktonos (the "lizard slayer"), said to be the work of Praxiteles himself. The statue, in its present state, is armless but the pieces making up what was sold to the Cleveland Museum do include a left hand as well as a lizard (for photographs see Corpus, No. 64 (October 2004) pp. 14-15). The whole improbable tale about this statue, said to come from an old family estate in the (former) East Germany, is related in The Art Newspaper (no. 150, Sept. 2004, pp. 10-11). There the Greco-Roman curator of the Cleveland Museum is quoted as saying that the officials of the museum "have guarantees that everything the Aboutaams told us was in good faith and true".

As Hicham Aboutaam has recently been convicted by a federal court in Manhattan, and his brother Ali has been sentenced (in absentia) to fifteen years imprisonment by an Egyptian court on charges of smuggling antiquities, it might be time for the city fathers of Cleveland to raise some serious questions regarding proper expenditure of public funds. For background on Hicham and Ali, and Phoenix Ancient Art, I would recommend B. Meier and M. Gottleib, The New York Times, 23 Feb. 2004, pp. A1, 12-13. As for Houshand Mahboubian he is still very much in business in New York City, with a great collection of objects from the Kalmakarra Cave. Median Art continues to thrive, at least on the antiquities market.

The situation regarding historical inscriptions in the State of Israel seems to be deteriorating badly. It is now being claimed that some thirty to forty percent of the inscribed objects in the Israel Museum are modern forgeries (see article by Ann Byle, Biblical Archaeology Review 30/5 (Sept./Oct. 2004) 52-53). Clearly we face a crisis situation, but there is no great enthusiasm for taking serious steps to deal with the problem. Most likely because no one knows what steps to take.1


1.   References mentioned in text of review are all to be found in the excellent Bibliography of the conference volume.

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