BMCR 2006.10.46

The World of Ancient Art

, The world of ancient art. London: Thames & Hudson, 2006. 406 pages : illustrations (some color), maps ; 26 cm. ISBN 0500238278. $65.00.

John Boardman’s (hereafter B.) interest in the spread of Greek culture began with his book, The Greeks Overseas: Their Early Colonies and Trade, London 1964 (new and enlarged edition, 1980). This investigation expanded with his Mellon Lectures, The Diffusion of Classical Art in Antiquity, delivered at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. in 1993 and published in 1994. The parameters of this study went as far east as India, south and west to Egypt and North Africa, then north to Italy and Spain with a little of the rest of Europe included at the very end. Now B. has extended his horizon by taking us around the world and it is quite a wonderful trip.

The Preface sets the stage, namely that this book is an account of ancient art worldwide, but is not a theory of ancient art. Rather, the focus is on how art is dictated by the problems and opportunities that encourage the development of human life and how environment determines the shapes of societies and the art they produce. An important point is that peoples sharing comparable climates, resources and environments have much in common with one another no matter where they live. Three geographical areas comprise the book: 1) the temperate zones of Europe and Asia in the Old World, Central and South America in the New; 2) the northern steppes, forests and deserts of Asia, Europe and North America, the homes of hunters and gatherers, later of pastoralists and nomads, eventually of farmers; 3) tropical South America, Africa and Oceania, the shortest section of the book. The chronological limit for the Old World is when Christianity and Buddhism begin to spread and for the New World when Europeans arrive. The preface closes with observations about the general dearth of world histories of art and the remark (p. 15) that “this is not meant to be in itself a ‘picture book’ so much as an illustrated history.” The copious illustrations and the lean but pithy text bear this out.

Chapter I, focused on Early Days and the Primitive, sets the stage. B. discusses the diffusion of human life from Africa to Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization, a time that witnesses the earliest creations of small images in stone, horn or bone and the beginning of painting on the walls of caves. This is a long period of time that ends with the transition to a Bronze Age which leads to a sophisticated urban society with its greater possibilities to share knowledge through observations of local environment, also by travel and commerce. The development of agriculture inevitably leads to a more “non-mobile” way of life. But B. is quick to point out that the “Neolithic Revolution” is not his subject.

Chapter II takes us on most of our journey. This is the core of the book and the longest chapter for it embraces the greatest geographical span—from China to Egypt, Greece and the Roman Empire in the Old World, Mexico and Peru in the New. In the first part of this chapter, B. focuses on the one common factor, environment, a temperate one offering the greatest possibility for communal living, developed agriculture and controlled irrigation, also for the extraction of available mineral resources. B. asks if there is a connection among peoples separated by geography, language and common views. The answer is yes. Organization is a factor in building cities, which require special buildings for administration and commerce, arable land and houses, sanctuaries and places of worship, fountain houses and baths, parks and roads, also workshops to produce goods, especially those made of metal. Cities also require the visual arts as a means to create images that define a nationality or class, record events and, at times, promote propaganda. The representational arts may be divine or secular, illustrating the actions of gods, adventures of heroes, and events of daily life, or artists may create images of monsters that reflect the dangers of a world not completely understood. In short, the figural arts are a means of communication in all societies and visual story-telling is practiced by all the cultures surveyed in this chapter. Artists are often innovative and imaginative but, with the exception of the Greeks, they are nearly always anonymous. In these early societies, figural arts shape and preserve a form of permanence in society that the spoken word and human memory cannot; thus, visual narrative is an essential form communication. These general remarks apply in different ways to the sections of this chapter that follow.

Our journey begins in China, unified by geography and language, where gradually foreigners became important and, in the fifth century B.C., part of the Great Wall was built to keep nomads out. With the coming of Buddhism, temples were required. Painting and calligraphy developed as major forms of artistic expression, and lacquer and silk were primary materials in the minor arts. Then we move to India and Central Asia (all Map ἰ, which embrace a hunting/pastoral nomadic society on the Steppes to the north and a more agrarian one in the rich Indus valley to the south. Influences from Persia, Greece and, later, Rome appear in the visual arts, but never were the local traditions obscured in the rendering of forms. Soon, we travel westward to Anatolia and Early Greece (Maps 3 and 7). B. discusses the links between these two geographical regions and emphasizes the rich and imaginative artistic legacy they have left us. Next comes Egypt (Map 4), the most distinctive and long-lived society, determined by the predictable annual flooding of the Nile. Like China, Egypt was unified by culture, language and art. B. gives a certain primacy to Greece in this part of our trip because of its emphasis on man’s response to his environment and his ability to express strong feelings and subtle thoughts in literature and art, in other words, the human condition. In Greece, it was especially the short-lived glory of Athens in the fifth century that produced the wonders we admire so much today and, together with the legacy of Rome, formed the basis of western civilization. The next part of our travel takes us in two directions, first east to Persia and the Hellenistic kingdoms, then west to Italy and the Roman world (Maps 3-4 and 6-8). This may seem puzzling at first, but it is important to remember that not just the Greeks established colonies in the western Mediterranean, but peoples of the Near East did as well, in particular the Phoenicians, who colonized much of North Africa, especially Carthage. Also, Alexander the Great conquered lands from India to the Aegean, so there are various subtle links here that might escape a less astute scholar than B. The Hellenistic kingdoms embraced three large areas: the Antigonids ruled in Macedonia, the Seleucids in Anatolia and Syria, and the Ptolemies in Egypt. In terms of artistic endeavor, this is the most diversified, eclectic period discussed in the book. Italy and the Roman world receive a rather brief discussion, with emphasis on the inventiveness of the Romans as architects of extraordinary buildings and creators of works intended for public display, frequently reflecting the themes of an emperor’s administration and often propagandistic.

Next, B. takes a detour and asks if we can justly admit discussion of the arts of the New World on the same footing as those of the Old World, noting that modern histories emphasize how different they are. B. remarks that it is not just a question of the arts, but aspects of life and technology, noting that the New World did not have the wheel and never developed a bronze or iron technology, yet there are monuments in stone that rival those of the Old World and there was ample production of food to support large populations living in close proximity. He stresses that in the New World all of the arts are readily paralleled in the Old, not at the same time, but at similar stages of cultural evolution. B. reviews a number of similarities and dissimilarities, as well as material and intellectual concerns. His principal aim in this section is to see what was shared in matters of perception, design and execution and what was not.

Now we cross the Atlantic to visit the New World, namely Central and South America (Map 10). The formative phase occurs on the Gulf coast, then moves inland to central Mexico, home of the Mayan culture, dominant in the first millennium, followed by the Aztecs, who ruled in the 12th-14th centuries. These cultures built major centers containing enormous structures that have more to do with ritual and burial than with administration. Human sacrifice seems to have played a major role. The principal modes of figural decoration were formal and hieratic on the one hand, realistic on the other, and some of the Aztec images are truly terrifying. Farther south, in Peru, the Incas were demonstrating skill in handling massive masonry and ingenuity in textile production.

In Chapter III, we travel to the northern climate, both east and west, where artists were fulfilling many of the same functions as their southern counterparts, with roughly comparable results, in a variety of mixed styles and subjects (Maps 1-2, 6 and 9). The question is the degree to which an artistic tradition could be adapted to something quite foreign without losing its essence. B. gives us the well known example of how the Classical tradition survives in the artistic hands of non-Greeks, how it is misunderstood sometimes, and how a subject well known in one culture may change into something quite different in another, the origins perhaps discerned only by a trained historian. This section of the book embraces the lands from Mongolia and eastern Siberia westward across the Atlantic, all having in common forests, deserts and grasslands. People living in this environment and climate were controlled much more by the seasons than people in more temperate zones; they were nomads and forest-dwellers rather than builders of cities. Artifacts tend to be small so they can be transported easily, and the subjects were often animals. B. notes that nomads move with a purpose (they are never tourists) and are often influenced by peoples they encounter. In the upper Balkans, central and northwestern Europe, the most important people are the Celts who occupied the westernmost area. In North America, the early hunter-gatherers are more elusive, but their art is similar to the Asian animal style. Materials are natural ones (wood, bone, ivory); metalwork is rare. Pottery and textiles changed little over centuries.

Chapter IV, the last leg of our journey around the world, takes us to the tropics. The arts in this part of the world present a special case and the term “ancient” rests on the assumption that essentially African and Oceanic art had changed very little over the centuries. B. observes that there is a certain unity from continent to continent, and the styles are rather sophisticated in terms of execution and design, though not in terms of technology. In South America (Map 11), the geography is complicated, though mainly torrid rain forest in the regions included in this chapter, and in the Amazon basin there were a large number of separate cultures. All the necessary techniques known to the Old World were discovered independently in the New. Animal and human subjects were treated in an original manner. B. notes that in Africa, the south Sahara was damper in antiquity than it is today (Map 5). He singles out the clay figures in Nigeria, the style of which echoes throughout the continent to the south, and the Sahara rock paintings, which often depict animals now extinct. In all of these cultures, weaving of cloth assumes importance, and the colorful results are noteworthy. Finally, we reach the small islands of the South Pacific whose people depend on the sea for their livelihood (Map 12). They are superb hunter-gatherers, and their culture is basically Neolithic. B. remarks that it is nearly impossible to distinguish African wooden sculptures from much of Oceanic. The massive stone sculptures of Easter island are a hallmark of this region.

An Epilogue reflects on the text. Man tried to control his world, and art was a form of communication designed by and for the human eye and brain. Most uniformity is perceptible mainly at its simplest and earliest; further differentiation caused by geography is the reason art took the forms it did. Thus, similar human experience determines common themes and functions. For many centuries art was functional and should be judged today with the understanding of what its purpose was, even if this is no more than observing that a certain image, form or style became established because it long remained acceptable. Judging ancient art in the manner proposed in this book brings out its uses and says something about the common aspirations of man as artist worldwide over millennia. Worthy of respect is the attitude shared by many ancient peoples that their past was in some form a guarantee of the future.

At the end of the text, before the maps and index, there is a useful bibliography for further reading. This is arranged to reflect the subsections of the text and is restricted almost exclusively to books written in English. This is not a criticism of the author or the publisher, since this format is customary for Thames and Hudson books, which are aimed at an intelligent, but not a specialized or multilingual audience. This large, handsome book will serve such an audience very well. The text is a well-organized introduction to a very large complex subject; the excellent illustrations complement it well; and the bibliography provides basic literature from which the interested reader may move on to the next level.