University of Pennsylvania Press

Archaeology, Culture, and Society

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Archaeology, Culture, and Society

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The Graven Image

Representation in Babylonia and Assyria

By Zainab Bahrani

Mesopotamia, the world's earliest literate culture, developed a rich philosophical conception of representation in which the world was saturated with signs. Instead of imitating the natural world, representation—both in writing and in visual images—was thought to participate in the world and to have an effect upon it in natural, magical, and supernatural ways. The Graven Image is the first book to explore this tradition, which developed prior to, and apart from, the Greek understanding of representation.

The classical Greek system, based on the notion of mimesis, or copy, is the one with which we are most familiar today. The Assyro-Babylonian ontology presented here by Zainab Bahrani opens up fresh avenues for thinking about the concept of representation in general, and her reading of the ancient Mesopotamian textual and visual record in its own ontological context develops an entirely new approach to understanding Babylonian and Assyrian arts in particular.

The Graven Image describes, for the first time, rituals and wars involving images; the relationship of divination, the organic body, and representation; and the use of images as a substitute for the human form, integrating this ancient material into contemporary debates in critical theory. Bahrani challenges current methodologies in the study of Near Eastern archaeology and art history, introducing a new way to appreciate the unique contributions of Assyrian and Babylonian culture and their complex relationships to the past and present.

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Race and Practice in Archaeological Interpretation

By Charles E. Orser, Jr.

Scholars who investigate race—a label based upon real or perceived physical differences—realize that they face a formidable task. The concept has been contested and condoned, debated and denied throughout modern history. Presented with the full understanding of the complexity of the issue, Race and Practice in Archaeological Interpretation concentrates on the archaeological analysis of race and how race is determined in the archaeological record.

Most archaeologists, even those dealing with recent history, have usually avoided the subject of race, yet Charles E. Orser, Jr., contends that its study and its implications are extremely important for the science of archaeology. Drawing upon his considerable experience as an archaeologist, and using a combination of practice theory as interpreted by Pierre Bourdieu and spatial theory as presented by Henri Lefebvre, Orser argues for an explicit archaeology of race and its interpretation.

The author reviews past archaeological usages of race, including a case study from early nineteenth-century Ireland, and explores the way race was used to form ideas about the Mound Builders, the Celts, and Atlantis. He concludes with a proposal that historical archaeology—cast as modern-world archaeology—should take the lead in the archaeological analysis of race because its purview is the recent past, that period during which our conceptions of race developed.

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Thinking Through Material Culture

An Interdisciplinary Perspective

By Carl Knappett

Material culture surrounds us and yet is habitually overlooked. So integral is it to our everyday lives that we take it for granted. This attitude has also afflicted the academic analysis of material culture, although this is now beginning to change, with material culture recently emerging as a topic in its own right within the social sciences. Carl Knappett seeks to contribute to this emergent field by adopting a wide-ranging interdisciplinary approach that is rooted in archaeology and integrates anthropology, sociology, art history, semiotics, psychology, and cognitive science. His thesis is that humans both act and think through material culture; ways of knowing and ways of doing are ingrained within even the most mundane of objects. This requires that we adopt a relational perspective on material artifacts and human agents, as a means of characterizing their complex interdependencies. In order to illustrate the networks of meaning that result, Knappett discusses examples ranging from prehistoric Aegean ceramics to Zande hunting nets and contemporary art.

Thinking Through Material Culture argues that, although material culture forms the bedrock of archaeology, the discipline has barely begun to address how fundamental artifacts are to human cognition and perception. This idea of codependency among mind, action, and matter opens the way for a novel and dynamic approach to all of material culture, both past and present.

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