Review of 'Ain Ghazal Excavation Reports: Symbols at 'Ain Ghazal - VOLUME 1



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'Ain Ghazal Excavation Reports: Symbols at 'Ain Ghazal - VOLUME 1

This work is essentially an on-line preliminary draft/summary of the final report of the figurines from 'Ain Ghazal, which will be published as Symbols at 'Ain Ghazal - VOLUME 1 by Yarmouk University Press, Irbid, Jordan. No anticipated date of publication is given. The following review first discusses the scholarly content of the site, then by the success of the site as a web based publication.

Scholarly Content:

The introductory chapter: "The Town of 'Ain Ghazal" by the excavators, Gary Rollefson and Zeidan Kafafi provides clear background information on the site, including chronology, ecology, economy, architecture and social organization, and architectural evidence for ritual. It is a little puzzling that the architectural context of the figurines was not discussed here, at least in brief. There are a few typos and grammatical errors that should have been picked up by the editor. There is a full bibliography up to 1997, which seems to be the date of the article.

CHAPTER 1: Tokens: A Formal and Technological Analysis by Harry Iceland; Tokens: The editor has a long-standing interest in the subject of tokens, so it is not altogether strange to find them presented here in a publication otherwise devoted to figural images. The typology, chronology, and architectural contexts of the 'Ain Ghazal tokens is presented by Iceland, along with a comparison to several other Neolithic sites. The results of Petrographic and X-Ray Diffraction are presented. In other words, this is a descriptive catalogue and analysis of the token material. A link is provided to a catalogue of all 137 tokens from the site. The latest item in the bibliography is 1996.

The Cognitive Significance: by Denise Schmandt-Besserat. This sub-chapter is a reprint of an article published in 1999. The article does not address specifically how the 'Ain Ghazal tokens were used, or what individual shapes signified, but is a more theoretical exposition on how the development of tokens helped shaped human cognitive and communication patterns. While an interesting exercise, it is not really relevant to the focus of the publication/site. The reader would be better served by an article which seeks to explain the functional use of each of the token classes, which is desperately needed to give Iceland's study a broader social context.

CHAPTER 2: Animal Figurines by Denise Schmandt-Besserat; Catalogue: Denise Schmandt-Besserat and Lisa King. This chapter was published separately in 1997. This chapter presents all the data on the assemblage of animal figurines from 'Ain Ghazal: "the species represented, the style, manufacture, the context in which they were recovered, their place in the iconography and finally, the role [of] animal symbolism." The figurines are small and were made in much the same fashion over the millennia of the site's habitation. Possibly the most intriguing aspect of the figurines is the preponderance of bull images over those of sheep and goats. Does this reflect a different climate in the region in the past, which more favored the presence of cattle around the site, or did the sculptor choose the bull for other, more symbolic reasons? There are good general discussions of the manufacturing techniques involved in producing the figurines and the contexts in which they were found. There follows a far too brief summary of animal iconography in the ancient near east, which merely attests to its existence around the region. Much more useful is the attempt to relate animal figurines found in excavations to cuneiform records from the historical periods that relate how such figurines were used in various rituals. The author concludes by suggesting that the 'Ain Ghazal figurines may have been used for magic rituals. This reviewer was left wondering if the author believed the figurines were representations of the gods or were votive objects for the gods.

CHAPTER 3: Human Figurines by Ellen McAdam; Catalogue: Denise Schmandt-Besserat and Lisa King. Currently there is no link to a chapter analyzing and discussing the human figurines, nor an indication of when this material will be added. The catalogue provides a summary of the 49 figurines in 5 tables on separate pages. The images are fairly small files, and it would have been better to have one combined table on one page, even if it took a bit longer to load.

CHAPTER 4: A Stone Metaphor of Creation by Denise Schmandt-Besserat. This article was published separately in 1998. This chapter treats a single pregnant female stone figurine found in 1994. The first section discusses its context, aspects of its manufacture, and style (mainly illustrating how the emphasis of the figurine is on the swollen womb). The second half of the article compares this figurine with the clay sculptures from 'Ain Ghazal, Neolithic sculpture from the rest of the Near East, and then suggests possible connections to known mythology. These studies show that the 'Ain Ghazal figurine was probably used for public display, that the holding of the womb was a departure from earlier stone figurines, and that it may be connected with divine creation and fertility. It is interesting that this stone figurine is from a PPNC context when environmental degradation was setting in, whereas the clay figurines are from the earlier PPNB, when the site was thriving. A question unasked is whether the special material and context of this figurine is related to these worsening conditions? Did the people believe they needed to do more to appease their gods in this later era? There is a variety of grammatical errors that the editor should have caught.

CHAPTER 5: Decorated Skulls - Three Plastered Faces by Patricia S. Griffin, Carol A. Grissom, Gary O. Rollefson; The Red Painted Skull by Gary O. Rollefson, Denise Schmandt-Besserat, J. C. Rose; The Modeled Skull by Denise Schmandt-Besserat. Only the section on the red painted skull is currently available, with no indication of when the other sections will appear. The article is no earlier than 1997, when the skull was cleaned in a lab. The context and treatment of the skull is presented first (it appears to have been decorated with ochre and possibly bitumen), then a discussion of burial practices at 'Ain Ghazal in general (some of this repeats material in the Introduction). The most interesting section is on the skull cult in the Levant and how the treatment of the dead seems to differ in Mesopotamia. Unfortunately there are no illustrations for this article, not even for the skull itself. 'Ain Ghazal is consistently ëAin Ghazal due to poor editing after the original document was converted into HTML; the apostrophe is consistently í for the same reason.

CHAPTER 6: The Monumental Statuary: A Stylistic Analysis by Denise Schmandt-Besserat; Cache One, C.W Tubb; Cache Two, Carol A. Grissom; Catalogue: Carol A. Grissom. The article was published elsewhere in 1998. Cache One is currently not available; no indication of when it will be on-line is given. The catalogue of Cache Two is an extremely well done description of the relevant material. My only caveat is on the size of the illustrations. Since each is on its own page, it would have been helpful to have larger images in order to see the details more clearly. The article on Cache Two discusses the context of the statues, how they were constructed, and how they were conserved. The stylistic analysis discusses the general characteristics of the large scale anthropomorphic plaster sculptures and then compares them to the plaster skulls from 'Ain Ghazal and similar objects from around the Levant. The article concludes with a discussion of whether the statues represent ancestors, or deities (the author favors the latter theory).

CHAPTER 7: Painted Wall and Floor Patterns and CHAPTER 8 : Symbolism at 'Ain Ghazal: the Socio-economic Significance, both by Denise Schmandt-Besserat. There are no links to these chapters, and no indication when the material will be added.

Web Presentation:

Navigation around the site is a bit clumsy. The reader must always return to the Contents page in order to go to any other part of the site, and returning to the Contents page must be done with the browser's BACK button, since there are no links to any part of the site except illustrations from within any article. It would have been far better to have a series of buttons/links at the top and bottom of the page which could take the reader directly to any other page. Another alternative would be to have parallel frames, with the table of contents of the left, and the page contents on the right.

The images/illustrations in many of the articles could have been better handled. In several of the articles there were 15 or fewer illustrations. Instead of making the reader go to 15 individual pages to have any idea of what each illustration is, a modestly sized thumbnail (say 15-20 kb) for each image, integrated into the flow of the text, would been more helpful. Some of the images provided by the links are far too small to be useful; the token illustrations in Chapter 1 are good examples of this. The same is true for the images in the catalogue for Chapter 3. Each record in this catalogue should link to a page with a larger clearer illustration than the image provided in the base catalogue. In the Introduction there are 24 illustrations, mostly color photographs of the site and its finds, at the bottom of the page. There are also links to the illustrations scattered throughout the page, though these do not take you to the bottom of the page, but cause the same requested small illustration to load in the window. This is somewhat clumsy. It would have been better to have thumbnails integrated directly into the discussion and larger images on separate pages.

Finally, this reviewer found the background pattern distracting. A background design should ideally be an image or pattern related to the content of the site, or, failing that, be a pleasant, but non-obtrusive color/pattern that does not draw the reader's attention away from the material content of the site. The background pattern of this site I think would be better if it were lighter and more transparent.

Conclusion:

Web authoring is a new forum for publication, and the programs and technology required to carry out such projects are changing and advancing almost daily. E.g., faster machines and connections now make it more viable to include a reasonable number of images on a web page than was thinkable just a year or two ago. While the site's date of creation is not stated, it may be as much as two years old. A great deal now can be done to improve its appearance on the net that was difficult to implement at that time. On the other hand, there are some aspects of presentation (e.g. copy editing) that span all media and require attention to detail, not high technology.

The site reviewed is very much a work in progress. There is some interesting material here; unfortunately much of it is at present only in catalogue form, without a general analysis or discussion. A time line indicating approximately when the other sections will be available would be helpful. The post HTML conversion editing could have been better. There needs to be greater effort to standardize presentations. Some articles use formal endnotes, others embedded notes. Some articles have illustrations on the main article page, others have only hyperlinks. A uniform use of thumbnails linked to larger images would have been more user friendly. Because of this lack of standardization and inadequate editing the site feels like it was put together very quickly, perhaps mainly to give the program a presence on the Web. A number of the articles, especially those of the editor, have appeared in print elsewhere, and so, all told, relatively little new material is presented in this site. Finally, it is a bit frustrating that contact information for the authors is not presented in one location. Only the article on the red skull has any of this information.



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