BMCR 2006.09.23

Diplomacy by Design: Luxury Arts and an “International Style” in the Ancient Near East, 1400-1200 BCE

, Diplomacy by design : luxury arts and an "international style" in the ancient Near East, 1400-1200 BCE. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006. xvi, 278 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations (some color), maps ; 29 cm. ISBN 0226240444 $60.00.

Marian Feldman’s Diplomacy by Design revisits a group of diverse but related art objects that are among the archaeological hallmarks of the period of the great international exchanges, the fourteenth and thirteenth centuries BCE, in the eastern Mediterranean and the Near East. Involved in this era of interculturalism are the great empires of Egypt, Hatti, Mitanni, and Assyria, and the other contemporary polities in the Aegean, Cyprus, and the Levant. The objects themselves are small works of art of an elite nature, fashioned out of precious materials such as gold, silver, ivory, and alabaster, bearing figural designs that have long been characterized as an “international style” of a flavor at once eastern Mediterranean and Near Eastern.

Feldman’s principal aim is to approach not only the imagery found on these objects but also the objects themselves from a novel perspective that goes beyond the kinds of questions posed by scholars so far: determining their places of manufacture and the identity of their producers. She instead advocates a multidisciplinary and contextual method whereby the relevant works of art could be thought of as testimonia to the idealized and formulaic courtly interactions among the great powers of the era and their lesser contemporaries, highlighting notions of “visual hybridity,” gift exchange, and an “anthropology of the object” that see the work of art as bearer of social and historical memory. The author hence coins the phrase “international artistic koiné” to characterize a subset of these luxury goods that reflect a consistently “hybrid” imagery “to avoid confusion with the more loosely applied term international style” (p. 10). It is the pieces belonging to this subset that Feldman would like to see as diplomatic gifts exchanged among the ruling elite of this international koiné. The book further aims at marrying two lines of inquiry that have so far been more or less separate, one that deals with the objects, the other with the contemporary texts. To that end, Feldman proposes a correlation between the Amarna letters and the works of art in terms of their efficacy in reflecting the social and diplomatic relations of this “supraregional community of rulers that coalesced as a distinct sociopolitical entity during the Late Bronze Age” (p. 8).

Feldman’s project is set back by a number of negative parameters all of which she puts to good use, rather than accepts as hindrances. One is the lack of definitive evidence that would speak to the involvement of the pieces of luxury art in diplomatic gift exchange (p. 129). Another is a discrepancy that emerges between the distribution pattern of the majority of the extant koiné objects, which “follows the coasts of the eastern Mediterranean: the Levantine littoral, the Egyptian delta and further inland, the southern coast of Cyprus, and the eastern mainland of Greece as well as perhaps some of the Aegean islands such as Delos” (p. 144), and the power centers of the contemporary “cuneiform culture,” primarily concentrated in the heartlands of western Asia. One could also mention the challenges that the imagery on the art objects poses to iconographic interpretation. With its absence of elements that would embed the designs in the visual grammar of any one established tradition, the imagery is characterized by a degree of fluidity and lack of “narrative,” which scholarship has viewed as “decorative,” but which Feldman emphatically understands as a product of a conscious “visual hybridity” in the service of “a general and generalized statement of kingship … that embraces the paired aspects of protection and benefaction” (p. 13).

The book is a dense read, rich in theory and terminology, at times challenging to grasp as a whole, primarily on account of the many threads of inquiry that Feldman explores in formulating her argument. The research is thorough and meticulous, and the writing refined. The chapters could have used subtitles that would have helped the text breathe and articulate the themes further, which would also suit the beautiful and inviting format of the book with its larger-than-normal size and copious illustrations, some of which are color plates.

A lengthy introduction defines the objective of the book and presents a condensed overview of Feldman’s main observations and arguments, which the rest of the study unfolds step by step. Attention here is drawn to the elite archaeological contexts of the relevant finds, the most spectacular collection being from the tomb of Tutankhamun, and the difficulty of identifying centers or locales of production for these objects. An interesting cultural analogue Feldman introduces here is the design of the euro banknotes with their rejection of specific elements belonging to individual countries, and their featuring instead anonymous visual (architectural) syntheses that express cultural and economic unity. Feldman finds comparable the Late Bronze Age koiné art’s “hybrid motifs” that “result from an intermixing of the constituent traditions such that the cultures of origination are obscured” (p. 11).

Beyond the introduction, Feldman’s work is comprised of three parts, “Images,” “Objects,” and “Contexts,” each consisting of thematic chapters. Within a brief review of the relevant scholarly literature, Chapter 1 invokes the limitations of the label “international style” inasmuch as the term’s “use has conditioned the scholarship of this group of objects in a manner that has lessened interest in their social role while heightening attention on acontextual issues of origin and stylistic development” (p. 25). Feldman defines her koiné objects as those that “exhibit complete hybridization such that no one ‘foreign’ culture can be said to predominate” (p. 30), remarking that this particular group by no means constitutes the entirety of artifacts produced during this period of cross-cultural connections. Then follows a basic visual survey of representative koiné objects, including vessels, weapons, bowls, ivory panels, from diverse sources, the tomb of Tutankhamun, that of Yuya and Tuya, the hoards at Tell Basta (Bubastis) in Egypt; from Kition and Paphos on Cyprus; from Delos on the Aegean; from Mycenae and Spata in Greece; and from Ugarit (Ras Shamra), Lachish, and Megiddo in the Levant.

In the second and third chapters of Part 1, Feldman elaborates her theory of a consciously configured hybrid imagery on the koiné objects for the construction of a common visual language that would help affiliate the participating powers with one another “while at the same time attempting to exclude those considered beneath them, drawing upon hybridity’s constitutive role of forging sameness from difference while simultaneously calling attention to difference” (p. 71). Feldman seems to formulate two kinds of visual hybridity, one in imagery, the other in iconography. As far as the former goes, she cites figures that are by definition composite such as winged lions, griffins, and sphinxes (p. 59). She sees the latter in the form of features belonging to two or more different iconographic traditions coming together in one design such as the voluted palmette, with the volutes evoking the Egyptian “lotus” and the palmette being more at home in western Asia. Feldman sees hybridity in a positive light, introducing a biological metaphor, that of hybrid vigor, “the phenomenon in which hybrid plants and animals grow stronger and faster than their parents” (p. 62). Feldman’s theory of hybridity is an elegant one, yet one also would have liked to see a more down-to-earth demonstration of the mechanics of this “visual hybridity” on the material illustrated and described in Chapter 1 in order to persuade the reader that “hybrid” here is a better way to characterize the koiné imagery than, say, “composite” or “eclectic.” One also wonders if one could talk about a degree of “neutralization” in this imagery with its suppression of individual iconographic traditions and its creating a uniformity, as is also the case in Feldman’s euro analogy.

The third chapter of Part 1, “Iconography and Meaning,” is one of the most powerful in the book. It lays out succinctly the major sources of the koiné iconography, with emphasis on the two great traditions, Egypt and Mesopotamia, and the two predominant themes, “animal attacks and animals at vegetation” (p. 74), which Feldman interprets respectively as standing for the martial and munificent dimensions of an international formulation of rulership. Feldman’s message is again one that defends the semantic integrity of the koiné imagery against tendencies that see it as “a meaningless mixing of unrelated motival elements:” “[i]t is precisely the weakening, not voiding, of semantics that is critical in allowing shades of the more culturally specific meanings to adhere to the imagery without cultural specificity intruding or drawing attention to itself” (p. 87). In the final chapter of Part 1, “Questions of Style and Production,” Feldman proceeds with her attempt to divert scholarly attention paid to the koiné material from “inquiries into artistic attribution” to “contexts of use” and “issues of patronage,” establishing a fine transition to her Part 2: “Objects.”

Permeating Part 2 is Feldman’s effort to situate the luxury goods within the culture of diplomatic gift exchange, with the emphasis centered on the material properties, and in general the “materiality,” of the objects, and the relevant textual inventories that list luxury goods, be they tribute, “gifts exchanged at the conclusion of interdynastic marriage negotiations” (p. 105), or “greeting gifts” that accompanied the so-called greeting letters found in the Amarna archive. Rather than ecphrastic descriptions concerned with imagery, these records mostly mention the type of object, its material, and other physical qualities such as weight. Feldman especially singles out the parallels between the precious materials mentioned in the texts such as gold, silver, lapis lazuli, ebony, ivory, and linen and the materials of which the koiné objects are made. Highlighting the metaphorical and poetic references to the value of such materials in the literary traditions of the relevant cultures as well, she argues for “a close correspondence,” though not “a perfect match,” “between the textual records and the archaeological finds” (p. 116). What one misses here is perhaps again a closer engagement with the actual objects discussed and illustrated in the book in demonstrating this correspondence.

Of great interest in Part 2 is Feldman’s discussion of the two rather elusive members of the “club of the great powers,” early Assyria and the Mitanni, and the effectiveness with which this discussion helps put this phase of ancient Near Eastern art and archaeology in context. Especially as far as Assyria is concerned, Feldman tends to see this power as somewhat of an “awkward partner” that was not initially taken very seriously by the senior members of the club, but one whose ruler ultimately attained the status of Great King. Feldman points out the few ivory luxury objects found in a vaulted tomb in Assur (Tomb 45) and their unique qualities as reflecting this “unconventional” participation of Assyria in the international community of Great Kings. The author also pinpoints elements of both Mitannian (Nuzi-ware) and Hittite art (Alaca Höyük hunt reliefs) as syntheses of “various indigenous traditions and that of the koiné” (p. 136), again revealing how the extant “primary” koiné objects are ironically those that come from outside the major political centers of western Asia. Here one also would have liked to see what Feldman would make of the Middle Assyrian cylinder seals, even though they are not luxury objects, and their imagery, which might also be thought of as drawing at once on indigenous and koiné traditions. Elements of what Feldman would designate as “visual hybridity” and the question of “loss of meaning” attached to this figural repertoire would have made worthwhile its incorporation in the book.1

Part 2 ends with a discussion of the greeting letters from the Amarna archive, all written in Babylonian cuneiform on clay tablets, as material artifacts. The main argument here is that just as the letters, being concrete objects, constitute “important items of exchange linking the rulers to a common community,” so may the koiné objects “be seen to have played a comparable role, with one form occupying the verbal and the other the visual realms of interaction” (p. 146). The parallelism drawn here between the “materiality” of the letters and the koiné objects has an almost ludic quality. Feldman engages more with the letters as texts than with letters as physical objects, the physicality of the letters being translated into a metaphorical correspondence between the letters and the koiné objects in the form of content/iconography, literary characteristics/visual composition, language and script/material and medium, and so on. What further strengthen the parallelism are of course the royal scribal milieux and what might have been palace workshops that produced the letters and the koiné objects respectively.

In Part 3, “Contexts,” Feldman delves deeper into an anthropological and historical assessment of the koiné material, furthering her argument that the intended context for the works of art was “the reciprocal exchange network of the Great Kings” (p. 157). Maintaining her focus on the greeting letters, the author sees the exchange network as a means to cement the parity relationship among the Great Kings, and the formulaic language of the letters as a testimony to “a utopic image of peace and friendship” (p. 160). One of the most revealing aspects of Feldman’s study is in fact her emphasis on this very artificial and utopian rhetoric of idealized parity and friendship found in the letters, a rhetoric that builds its own historical tradition: “[j]ust as things were in the past, let them be that way now and forever is the constant refrain reverberating through the correspondences” (p. 166). The author also sees the koiné objects as both products and producers of such social and cultural traditions. The last chapter of Part 3 (and the book) is hence a plea for the efficacy of the koiné objects in helping construct the political and cultural status of a somewhat lesser participant in the great interpalatial system of the Late Bronze Age, Ugarit. Feldman this time points out Ugarit’s almost “hybrid” political status, oscillating between that of Great Kings and that of true vassals, arguing that just as Assyria made its way to the level of Great Kings by means of “skillful political and diplomatic maneuvers that included the military arena,” Ugarit, with its valuable geopolitical situation, may have engaged in such status negotiation, its success perhaps proven by its consumption of koiné objects as “indices of international prestige.”

The book ends on the note of how, with the advent of the Iron Age, “many of the forms and motifs characterizing the international artistic koiné reappear in Phoenician and Syrian metal bowls and ivories, North Syrian carved stone reliefs, and Greek Orientalizing pottery,” and how this survival of the koiné forms may have “something to do with a collective memory of the Late Bronze Age palace system, evident also in the Homeric epics” (p. 195).

Throughout Diplomacy by Design, Feldman does not lose her strong grip on the theoretical, contextual, and multidisciplinary scholarly apparatus with which she examines this complex material from an updated perspective. The only enhancement that this reviewer would have liked to see in the book would be a greater integration of the actual objects themselves into the construction and demonstration of arguments, especially in Parts 2 and 3. Two minor technical gaps may pertain more to the publisher than to the author. The first is the lack of basic dimensions for the objects in the figure captions. The second is that whereas all the captions cite the museums in which their objects are located, sometimes with acknowledgment, the captions for the reliefs from Alaca Höyük, Figures 68-72, do not at all mention their home institution, the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara.

With its dense scholarly fabric, Diplomacy by Design is certainly not for the general reader, even one who has some vague interest in the ancient Near East, notwithstanding the book’s picturesque format. It is a wonderful resource not only for scholars specializing in the particular questions the book probes, but also for scholars and teachers of the ancient Near East at large in putting together the many pieces of one of the most complicated eras of ancient Near Eastern history. Feldman brings together within her expertise elements belonging to the study of Egypt, Assyria, the Hittites, the Aegean, each a discipline in its own right, and does not come across as amateur in any of them. The book certainly goes beyond the luxury objects it examines, becoming an authoritative study on the social, cultural, and intellectual history of the period.


1. See, for instance, Donald Matthews, “The Random Pegasus: Loss of Meaning in Middle Assyrian Seals,” Cambridge Archaeological Journal 2 (1992): 191-210.