Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.01.30

Cynthia S. Colburn, Maura K. Heyn (ed.), Reading a Dynamic Canvas: Adornment in the Ancient Mediterranean World.   Newcastle:  Cambridge Scholars, 2008.  Pp. x, 230.  ISBN 9781847184061.  £34.99.  

Reviewed by Liza Cleland, University of Edinburgh (
Word count: 1731 words

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The legacy of early twentieth-century historical clothing studies is one of authors arguing often about details, while assuming a very great deal about clothing and adornment. Focus on the 'exceptional' (in the absence of systematic understandings relevant to each culture) has done the field few favours. Despite later advances, particularly increasing sophistication of theoretical and cross-cultural analyses, this legacy still casts a long shadow. Therefore, it is heartening to see this volume of essays, which is a valuable attempt to address the peculiar dynamism of adornment as an aspect of material and social culture. It is even better to see overt and carefully considered definition and use of comparative assemblages in doing so, rather than statements on exceptions. Further, the volume as a whole makes useful approaches to reading dress as a subject of art. Though the focus of the essays is tight, this enhances their relevance and utility, rather than detracting in any way from their contributions to the fields of clothing, material culture and wider scholarship. Clear arguments reach interesting conclusions, and in each case context is ably explained for non-specialists.

The slim volume is physically pleasing. The illustrations, though relatively sparse, are well placed, and the text is well produced, with only a few minor typographical errors. The index is effective. I should have preferred a balance between Harvard in-text references and footnotes, rather than the latter alone, and an integrated bibliography, but this is perhaps simply a personal preference. The essays themselves are, without exception, both innovative and carefully argued, and I very much look forward to extended treatments of all the subjects. Overall, the different subjects flow well and complement each other. Both the individual essays, and the subject in general, are ably introduced by Colburn and Heyn's introductory chapter, 'Bodily Adornment and Identity'.

There is no doubt that, as they claim, this volume fills (or rather, begins to do so) a gap in existing scholarship on the cultures of the ancient Mediterranean. This introductory chapter provides a good basic outline of general dress scholarship, as well as the themes explored in the volume. While assessment of the 'dynamic canvas' as less than easily legible is certainly accurate, more attention to the theoretical impossibility of definitive (or singular) readings of adornment would have been welcome. Indeed, this would have gone some way towards elucidating the unique theoretical and methodological challenges claimed (but not described) here. Nevertheless, this chapter is a good introduction, which accurately reflects the content of the volume.

Colburn's 'Exotica and the Body in the Minoan and Mycenaean Worlds' does well in outlining and elaborating upon the flexibility of dress and adornment as means of social construction and communication. The insistence on drawing a major distinction between extant evidence, and adornment in life, is perhaps natural to archaeology (and certainly recurs in these essays) but could well have been addressed as one of the unique challenges of this type of evidence and analysis. After all, evidence of memorialized adornment is better testimony to the conception of adornment by contemporaries (how people in the past addressed this dynamic canvas) than the inherently partial data provided by an ideal 'snapshot' of adornment in use. And there are theoretical problems with the very existence of such an ideal: even now, but certainly in evidence from the past.

Still, this is a minor quibble: this chapter effectively addresses its subject cultures, as well as more general considerations such as the importance of rarity as a signifier, and the potential of adornment to establish connections between cultures at the same time as carrying culture-specific meanings. It also makes valuable points about the capacity for imported technologies and techniques to remain exotic even once 'known'; evoking or symbolizing social memory. More could perhaps have been done to explore the adornment aspect; why was it important that these things were worn, as opposed to other types of display? However, this is probably as much to do with the fact that the argument led me to desire a deeper treatment than afforded by a volume of this size.

Similarly, the premise of Chapin's 'The Lady of the Landscape: An Investigation of Aegean Costuming and the Xeste 3 Frescoes' would be fascinating to see extended. The contention that dress (especially in art) can communicate privileged social status and distinct identity, without necessarily indicating exceptionally high rank, is a rare one. It should certainly be more commonly considered, particularly, as here, in relation to context within artistic programmes or projects. The illustrated typology of garment depictions is most welcome, as is the attention to how dress associates as well as differentiating. The recognition that costume distinctions generally express more than wealth is both refreshing and methodologically valuable. Aegean costuming seems a perennially disputed field: regardless, this argument deserves wide attention.

Guralnick's 'Fabric Patterns as Symbols of Status in the Near East and Early Greece' has a similarly detailed argument, making good use of cross-cultural evidence, and of the analytical potential of depictions of complete hierarchies to illuminate their individual members. There is a very welcome outline of the complexity of fabric techniques, although more on the varied uses of common techniques in different social contexts would have been welcome. Although the comparative material from Early Greece is useful in making this point, it suffers somewhat in the comparison, as its artistic context, and nature as a body of evidence, are so different. Guralnick is quick to call Greek patterns decorative rather than meaningful: I should have preferred a more detailed argument on this point, embracing the programmatic differences between the earlier and later examples used. However, the arguments from the Near Eastern evidence are all one could want.

Castor's 'Grave Garb: Archaic and Classical Macedonian Funerary Costume' engages with the idea of the adorned corpse as 'canvas' (rather than problematic source) and makes some excellent comparisons between the Macedonian material evidence and the Attic artistic corpus. These should invite much further study and thought. Again, the outline of the context for non-specialists is excellent, while the attention to the use of grave assemblages to ascribe gender is welcome. The detailed case study of a grave grouping reflecting ritual status is well considered and very useful. Material like this chapter will be instrumental in moving the study of adornment 'beyond the gleam of gold . . . to explore the changing ways . . . elite[s] signaled their cultural identity and alliances' (p.141).

Gawlinski's '"Fashioning" Initiates: Dress at the Mysteries' effectively introduces the flexibilities of dress. It also makes excellent use of wider material and scholarship to illuminate a specific piece of direct inscriptional evidence, while making important points about the potential of dress and adornment to signal different types of status simultaneously, and of appearance as a visible index (accurate or otherwise) for behaviour. Meanwhile, it also manages to convey the interconnectedness of dress with other forms of culture (e.g. links between lamellae and wreaths, binding and magic). It very usefully emphasizes and integrates the concept of dynamism as fundamental to how adornment can and should be considered as evidence.

Heyn's 'Sacerdotal Activities and Parthian Dress in Roman Palmyra' properly rejects ideas about 'fanciness' as the operative aspect of dress, in favour of its 'complex social situation in a cross cultural world', p. 171. It also makes the valuable point that seeing dress purely in terms of ethnic identity is an equally facile approach. However, it might have been worth exploring how both these 'motives' for dress, actually privilege, and so attract, the outsider perspective of modern scholars. It is often hard, but always valuable, to recognize how little we know: few sources confront us with this as much as dress in art. The close attention here to context, to programmatic features of the assemblage of evidence (funerary reliefs depicting 'banquets') and to specifics rather than blanket generalities, goes a long way towards remedying this.

Finally, Rosten's 'Appearance, Diversity, and Identity in Roman Britain' is an exceptional, detailed examination of different assemblages of extant evidence, and their potential when analysed in logical, consistent, yet creative ways. The emphasis on 'scales of approach', on artifacts as contributory to overall appearance, and on inter-relationships between loss and depository contexts, should make a vast difference to how we consider Roman evidence. This essay counters the persistent tendency to concentrate on one aspect (e.g. regional identity) of this inherently multivalent material. However, while the converse can hardly be established, I feel it would be hard to argue that adornment can be used only for self-decoration, past or not.

This final point indicates my only real concern with the volume as a whole. This is simply that I find these essays making more of a contribution to the wider field of clothing studies (textiles, jewelry, grooming; representations and remains) than they themselves claim or indeed allow. In every case, the closely argued conclusions could usefully have been extended to wider aspects of scholarship, to the benefit of both. Instead, underlying assumptions (about the role and basic nature of adornment, a dynamic canvas to be read) seemed rather tentative. This is a shame, if only for the fact that this accessible and useful volume itself deserves to be widely read, by students as well as researchers, in various fields. In any case, I should have welcomed an afterword, drawing together the wider issues both posed and resolved by the essays taken together. But again, this is perhaps simply reflective of the fact that this is an interesting volume, which whets the appetite for more from its editors and contributors.

Table of Contents

List of Figures
List of Tables
Map of the Aegean and Near East
Bodily Adornment and Identity
Cynthia S. Colburn and Maura K. Heyn
Chapter One, Exotica and the Body in the Minoan and Mycenaean Worlds
Cynthia S. Colburn
Chapter Two, The Lady of the Landscape: An Investigation of Aegean Costuming and the Xeste 3 Frescoes
Anne P. Chapin
Chapter Three, Fabric Patterns as Symbols of Status in the Near East and Early Greece
Eleanor Guralnick
Chapter Four, Grave Garb: Archaic and Classical Macedonian Funerary Costume
Alexis Q.Castor
Chapter Five, "Fashioning" Initiates: Dress at the Mysteries
Laura Gawlinski
Chapter Six, Sacerdotal Activities and Parthian Dress in Roman Palmyra
Maura K. Heyn
Chapter Seven, Appearance, Diversity, and Identity in Roman Britain
Judith Rosten
List of Contributors
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