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Claire Russo Omur Harmansah Material Worlds: Art and Agency in the Near East and Africa 2 April 2007
A Cultural Biography Ain Ghazal’s Statues
Among modern archaeologists’ proposals of new manners of evaluating artifacts lies the concept of the object biography. As Igor Kopytoff points out in “The Cultural biography of things: commoditization as a process,” objects, just like people, can acquire very specific histories, or biographies, which “… concentrate on innumerable matters and events” encompassing the entire “life span” of an object (Kopytoff 1986: 66). Lynn Meskell, as well, agrees with Kopytoff and Appadurai’s argument that “ commodities have a life history…[and that]… no object is isolated, unconnected from other objects or a dense network of relationships…” This technique of “anthropologizing the embedded artifact, understanding the thing in itself,” can be applied to, hypothetically, any object, ancient or modern (Meskell 2004: 57).
Two caches of plaster statues unearthed recently at the Neolithic site of Ain Ghazal, near Amman, Jordan, appear to possess exciting and intriguing biographical possibilities. Simply put, to recount a “biography’ for this group of statues, to explain the development of their agency, the reasons for their creation, the means of their production, their successive uses, their eventual destruction, burial, and rediscovery, is to imbue these statues with a status equal to that of human remains. I will proceed, therefore, to trace the biographies, as best as can be proven and inferred, of the more than thirty full statues and smaller busts, in hopes of demonstrating the clarity that a biographical approach can bring to our modern understanding of ancient artifacts.
Ain Ghazal, a Pre-pottery Neolithic settlement active between 7250 BCE and 4500 BCE, saw a remarkable transition from hunting and gathering to farming during its very actively inhabited lifespan. Burial was an important aspect of life, as the multitude of well-preserved gravesites featuring sitting figures with plastered skulls reveals (Coogan, Green, Stager 2000:235).
Ain Ghazal’s pre-literate inhabitants created an extremely specific batch of statues and busts ranging from thirty to one hundred centimeters tall between 6750 BCE and 6570 BCE. By weaving together Phragmites and Arundo grasses, or reeds, picked from nearby marshes and wadis, artisans would form scarecrow-like skeletons, about which they wrapped coiled layers of twine and cordage for strength. Next, a plaster coating made of “powdered marl, lime, and vegetal fibers” would be applied to horizontal areas; the statues would be shifted accordingly, after proper drying, to ensure an even coating and hardening of plaster. Some figures, the largest and seemingly most important, received a thin outer layer of extremely white plaster; still others received striations, while another half remained smooth. The heads of the statues in both caches received careful attention to detail, including multiple layers of plaster, and large, white chalk eyes ringed in black and painted with pupils made of bitumen. Simply molded lips, brow lines, and chins completed the heads.
Neolithic peoples gave these statues definitive “use-lives;” they were created, fulfilled a purpose, presumably in some sort of religious or cultic ceremony, and then were destroyed and buried. Though dirt and paint samples retrieved from the bottoms of the statues indicate that they, at one point in their lives, stood freely, they were collectively buried in smashed pieces. At least those statues found in the first cache were surely adorned with clothing or fabrics, as imprints from woven articles can be seen in the plaster of a few of the statues. After having served their purposes, the statues were buried strategically aligned, east to west, in two “graves” and left to await archeological discovery many millennia later.
In the 1970’s, a public works highway construction project unearthed the site of Ain Ghazal; the country of Jordan immediately set aside the area for archaeological conservation. Discovered in 1983, the first cache of statues shocked a delighted group of archaeologists led by Gary Rollefson. Rollefson’s team immediately removed the broken statues and busts from their intentionally laid burial pit. However, Jordan’s harsh and hot climate took an immediate toll on the statues, cracking the plaster and exposing their fragile inner skeletons. Therefore, with the 1985 discovery of the second cache, the team determined to “blocklift” the entire pit to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C.; in other words, archaeologists transported the statues, busts, and surrounding sediments en bloc in order to further investigate and excavate the statues in appropriate laboratory conditions.
After their arrival in America, both caches of statues underwent radio carbon dating: the first cache, found to be older, dated to eighty years before or after 6750 BCE, while the second cache’s statues’ creation seemed to lie within eighty years of 6710 BCE. Later in 1985, Smithsonian scientists reassembled two standing statues and three two-headed busts from the first cache.
Since their full excavation in the late 1980’s, archeologists have begun to replicate the statues in order to better understand their means, materials, and processes of production. The original statues have also been coated with various acrylic-saline chemicals to preserve their components; this work by the British Museum, begun in 1994, continues today. The Smithsonian Institution, which also works closely with the statues, exhibited examples of both caches in the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery between July 28, 1996, and April 6, 1997.
Today, original and reconstructed statues reside in the Smithsonian Institute, and researchers study clues in order to understand their creation, destruction, and final burial. Archeologists believe that these statues were directly related to burials of humans whose bodies, after the complete decay of flesh, were exhumed in order to coat the skulls with plaster. The reburied skulls bear an uncanny resemblance to the heads of the statues, leading archeologists to suspect a direct correlation. The display and further study of the statues brings up interesting points when one considers their purposeful destruction and final burial by their creators after their having served specific purposes.
These statues, created over eight millennia ago by unknown craftsmen, have survived until today as examples of human ingenuity, spirituality, and technology. They do, indeed, possess a biography, a “life” history, a relevance just as important as the human remains found also in Ain Ghazal. Their biography, in turn, supports the object biographical approach to archaeology by demonstrating that a catalogue of chronological events of an object’s life can help modern humans better place that object’s role in the evolution of our species.
The biographies of these statues, however, are not yet complete; they will continue to accumulate a biographical and life historical data until their ultimate and final obliteration. We humans will begin to better understand the culture which produced the Ain Ghazal by continuing to ask questions posed by Kopytoff. Archaeologists have already begun to answer such questions as: “Where does the thing come from and who made it? What has been its career so far, and what do people consider to be an ideal career for such things? What are the recognized ‘ages’ or periods in the things’ ‘life,’ and what are the cultural markers for them?” However, only continued research and probing into the “lives” of these statues will reveal answers to questions such as: “How does the thing’s use life change with its age, and what happens to it when it reaches the end of its usefulness?...What, sociologically, are the biographical possibilities inherent in its ‘status’ and in the period and culture, and how are these possibilities realized?...” (Kopytoff 1986: 66-7). Archeologists now understand more thoroughly the statues’ creation, purpose, and use through a biographical evaluation of their “lives;” without a biographical approach, the statues would have remained much more isolated in archeological time than they are today.
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