The Plague Years – Person, Place, Thing with Randy Cohen

I had the opportunity — amidst this pandemic, amidst this sheltering, amidst these daily circumstances of challenge, frustration, and disappointment — to write a very short piece for Randy Cohen’s Person, Place, Thing Plague Years Series. At first I didn’t think I had anything to say. Why me? Then I thought into it. And I stopped thinking about me. I thought about our world, and all the ways we are all connected through things, across places, and across time. I hope these thoughts (which I re-post here) bring someone some comfort, some inspiration, some interest, some joy.

Person ­­– Queen Hama

gold crown of flowers and female figurines
Crown belonging to Queen Hama of Assyria, Northwest Palace, Nimrud, mid 700s BCE (Baghdad, Iraq Museum)

She was laid to rest in Iraq almost three thousand years ago. (Pictured: her crown.) When archaeologists discovered her tomb, in 1989, her identity, her story, her place in history, returned to the world of the living. We believe Hama came to Assyria as a teenage bride from the Levant. She perished just a few years later. She lived and died away from her homeland, away from her family. Then, like most individuals, especially women, she disappeared from memory, from history. When I think about this pandemic, I believe we will remember it for a very long time, but one hundred, one thousand, even three thousand years hence, will we remember the names and stories of any of us who lived or died in it?

Place – her garden

grass yard with small square garden enclosed by wire fence I’m not alone as a novice gardener this spring. Seed delivery is so delayed that we are missing the sowing season, while tomato stakes are strangely sold out. But feeling solidarity with my grandmothers, who created victory gardens during their own stressful and uncertain times, and finding comfort in childhood memories of planting peas with my mom (whom I cannot see as we shelter in different states), I, too, am making a garden. I’ve turned and tilled the soil and built a wonky fence. I want to show my daughter how the dirt will grow green, how seeds become plants. I want to give her the joy on a hot summer day of picking that fat red tomato and biting into it, barefoot in the soil.

Thing – these artifacts

cardboard box of dirty broken nails and bottles - artifacts Can you believe I found all this stuff while digging the garden? Rusty springs, corroded nails, broken bottles, a nylon stocking. They’re filthy and fragmented and beautiful. And they were gone, almost forever, crushed just inches beneath the surface. These pieces of things, a thing someone used, a thing someone touched, are treasures, salvaged artifacts of humanity. I don’t know if I’ll be able to fit any of these pieces together or find some archaeological meaning in them, but, at this moment, they remind me of all the someones who were here before, and that we are each a small part of a much bigger world.

New Book: Testing the Canon of Ancient Near Eastern Art and Archaeology (OUP, 2020)

Testing the Canon of Ancient Near Eastern Art and Archaeology, edited by Amy Rebecca Gansell and Ann Shafer (Oxford University Press, $99).

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book cover showing ancient Near Eastern art and archaeology
Cover art by Jessica Levine, 2019.

With this volume, Gansell, Shafer, and their expert contributors confront canons, as established icons of culture, and ask how they come to be, of what use they are today, and whether they might transform or disintegrate in the future. In particular, this book investigates the ancient Near Eastern canon (Hammurabi’s Code, the gates of Babylon, the biblical sites of Ur and Nineveh…) from academic and native, Middle Eastern perspectives. Ultimately, it proposes to expand and transform the canon from a colonial artifact into a global tool for sharing, celebrating, and preserving the region’s diverse cultural heritage. We hope that this book offers not only seminal academic papers, but hope and a path to peace between people and cultures.



Foreword Irene J. Winter

Chapter 1: Perspectives on the Ancient Near Eastern Canon: More than Mesopotamia’s Greatest Hits Amy Rebecca Gansell and Ann Shafer

Chapter 2: The Southern Levant and the Ancient Near Eastern Canon Rachel Hallote
Chapter 3: Archaeological Research in Pre-Classical Syria and the Canon of Ancient Near Eastern Art and Archaeology Marina Pucci
Chapter 4: The Past, Present, and Future of the Canon of Ancient Anatolian Art Susan Helft
Chapter 5:The Canon of Ancient Iranian Art: From Grand Narratives to Local Perspectives Henry P. Colburn
Chapter 6: “Classical” vs. “Ancient” in the Near Eastern Canon: The Position of Graeco-Roman Art from the Levant, c. 330 BCE-636 CE Elise A. Friedland

Chapter 7: Defining the Canon of Funerary Archaeology in the Ancient Near East Nicola Laneri
Chapter 8: The Canon of Ancient Near Eastern Glyptic on a Roll: Leaps, Hurdles, and Goals Diana L. Stein
Chapter 9: The Canon of Ancient Near Eastern Palaces David Kertai

Chapter 10: How Ancient and Modern Memory Shapes the Past: A Canon of Assyrian Memory Davide Nadali
Chapter 11: Museums as Vehicles for Defining Artistic Canons: The Case of the Ancient Near East in the British Museum Paul Collins
Chapter 12: Beyond the Canon: The Future of the Past in Museum Exhibitions of Ancient Egyptian and Near Eastern Art Rachel P. Kreiter
Chapter 13: The Ancient Near Eastern Canon in the University Classroom, and Beyond: My Colleagues Speak Ann Shafer

Heritage Perspectives
Chapter 14: The Lucrative Business of the Cyrus Cylinder: Commodification of an Iranian Icon Kamyar Abdi
Chapter 15: Between Hazor and Masada-Iconic archaeological sites as symbols of collective memories in modern Israeli identities Gideon Avni
Chapter 16: Past Resurrections Tamara Chalabi
Chapter 17: Earth, Rocks, and Blood: A Wandering Home Sargon George Donabed
Chapter 18: 6,000 Years Maymanah Farhat
Chapter 19: Cultural Heritage Attrition in Egypt Monica Hanna
Chapter 20: Crafting the Ancient Near Eastern Canon: A Personal Reflection Zena Kamash
Chapter 21: The Consequences of the Destruction of Syrian Heritage on the Syrian Identity and Future Generations Youssef Kanjou, translated from Arabic by Nadia Barakat
Chapter 22: Contemporary Art and Archaeology in the Arab World Salwa Mikdadi
Chapter 23: The Assyrians-Then and Now Ramsen Shamon
Chapter 24: Bringing the Past to a Living Room Near You: The Archaeological Heritage of Anatolia on Glass Oya Topçuoglu