Episode 55. Agnès Garcia-Ventura: The historiography of assyriology: Transcript

0:13  JT

Hello, and welcome to the Thin End of the Wedge, the podcast where experts from around the world share new and interesting stories about life in the ancient Middle East. My name is Jon. Each episode I talk to friends and colleagues and get them to explain their work in a way we can all understand.

0:32  JT

What’s done is done, right? Assyriology moves on. As time passes, we know more and understand better. Old readings, early translations, and obsolete ideas are consigned to the past. Or are they? While it does sometimes take effort to make sense of old publications, knowing how scholars have interpreted material in the past helps us understand why we think what we do now. And we today are no less influenced by our cultural and historical contexts than our predecessors were by theirs.

1:12  JT

Casts of objects are not popular anymore. The originals are prized above all. And we take for granted the existence, or potential to acquire, high resolution photos of objects if we can’t see the originals themselves for whatever reason. What do cast collections tell us about how Assyriology used to be? And what’s the connection between that and how we read cuneiform texts today?

1:41  JT

Our guest has wide interests. She has established a name for herself with her gender studies-based research. More recently, she has been working on cast collections in Spain. What lessons can we learn from them?

1:58  JT

So get yourself a cup of tea, make yourself comfortable, and let’s meet today’s guest.

2:12  JT

Hello, and welcome to Thin End of the Wedge. Thank you for joining us.

2:15  AG-V

Hello to everybody. And thanks, Jon, for your kind invitation.

2:19  JT

Could you tell us please: who are you, and what do you do?

2:23  AG-V

Well, my name is Agnès Garcia-Ventura. I am a Ramón y Cajal fellow. This is a tenure track contract granted by the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation, which combines teaching and research areas. Now I am enjoying this contract at the Universitat Autònoma of Barcelona in Spain, in an ancient history department. And I have to say that this is really good for me, because I define myself as a historian, despite my training, as happens with all of us includes philology, archaeology, and also in my case, music as well. My main research interests link several of these elements of this training. I have been mainly dealing with women’s history, gender studies, the organisation of work, but also with musical performance in antiquity. And in recent years, I have been devoting more and more time to the historiography, so to the history of studies dealing with the ancient Middle East.

3:16  JT

Okay, so as you said there, you’ve worked on quite a variety of things. But that last one, that the history of studies, that’s a thread that connects a lot of the topics you’ve been working on. So the history of any field is, I think, a valid topic of study in its own right. It’s perfectly legitimate. But studying it can sometimes seem a little inwardly focused. It’s interesting to those involved, but doesn’t really have a great deal of relevance for the wider public or for current research. Why should anybody else care? Obviously, you wouldn’t agree ( nor would I, actually), but for you specifically, what is the wider impact of studying the history of assyriology?

3:59  AG-V

Well, first of all, I think that that helps to understand connections with other fields of study. And that’s important. And with a broader cultural context. And I think that in our case, this is especially important because assyriology is still a young academic discipline, if compared with others. So I think it’s also a sign of maturity of the field. So it’s important from this point of view. But second, I think this is also important for those who are within assyriology. So for the field itself. On the one hand, well, knowing the history of the field allows us to understand why some research questions were timely, and therefore why they were chosen time and long ago, as those to be answered. And at the same time helps us understand which was the Zeitgeist conditioning the answers giving to these questions?

4:47  AG-V

For me, all these factors are really impacting the research we are carrying out nowadays in the present. As thanks to the history of the field, we can acknowledge influences, but also biases. And then see what do we want to reproduce and what do we not want to reproduce? This is, for example, something important when we meet with gender studies, but also in other mileus. On the other hand, I think that unconsciously, we all make a history of the studies, every time we write a paper, every time we deliver a lecture. We would choose which are the relevant previous studies, for example. We contribute to the construction of a certain tradition, of a certain canon, if I may use this word here. The history of the field helps to better understand who is part of this canon. Also, sometimes to rediscover scholars who, for any reason, have been left out of this canon. So I think that we are all contributing to this history of the field, even if many times we are not doing it consciously.

5:47  JT

Alright, so let’s explore this a little bit more detail then. So one topic that you’ve been working on recently is collections of casts of objects. Could you first just briefly explain please what a cast is?

6:02  AG-V

Well, a cast is replica. And then when we say a replica, it means that we conceive that there is an original object and then a replica. The word “cast” sometimes then is used as a synonym for “replica”, but also “copy”, “reproduction”, “artistic reproduction”, and even “facsimile”. So often, when we talk about plaster casts, what we are referring is that casts, so copies, reproductions, replicas, made of plaster; that is one of the main raw materials. The thing that casts, what we need is a mould. So we need the negative of the surface of an original sculptural relief. And if the negative is the mould, the positive would be the cast. So this is a long definition. But I hope that maybe it helps understand what’s going on. And also, we have another word. So we have cast, we have mould, and we have a third word, that is the one used for the first cast you obtain from a mould: that is model. For those of you interested on this topic that you see that has some of technical issues to be discovered here of casting and moulding, I highly recommend you to have a look on a catalogue of a temporary exhibition that was held in 2019/2020 at the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. The title of the catalogue has been translated in English as “Near Life. The Gipsformerei — 200 years of Plaster Casting”. And this is really interesting, because it helps to understand not only several case studies of these plaster casts, but also how a plaster cast and a cast is made.

7:39  JT

These kinds of casts, these copies, were quite popular in the 19th century and the early 20th century, weren’t they?

7:45  AG-V

Yes, casts, first of all, we have to say that they have a long history. So they are not a new thing of the 19th century and not a new phenomenon at that time. They are well documented in antiquity in Egypt, in Rome, and widely used also in the Renaissance. However, there is a shift in the 19th century and this is what is interesting here. First, at that time, casts began to be used not only to complement collections, primarily filled with originals … with the so-called originals … but also to create collections made exclusively of casts.

8:18  AG-V

Second in the 19th century, there was what we might call an encyclopedic eagerness, let’s say. There was an ideal of completeness of the collections. And cast collections were a means to achieve these ends. Third and last, education and outreach extended to broader layers of society during the 19th century. All these elements were an ideal breeding ground for the increase of popularity of casts at that time. And besides these, we have to say that well, photography was only at its beginning, was not as widespread as it was then during the 20th century. Most people were not traveling to visit museums; that happened later. So for many people, cast museums and cast collections were the only chance they have to experience firsthand and in three dimensions, artifacts such as sculptures, reliefs, also architectural sculptures, structures, elements.

9:11  AG-V

A good example of this is the one … nowadays is still something you can visit … at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. You can visit the cost courts. They were opened in 1873. This is one of the paramount examples of this trend and the popularity of these casts. And in 2018, they have been refurbishing these cast courts. Also to explain this history of casts in the 19th century and their popularity.

9:38  JT

You’ve published a couple of articles on cast collections in Spain. I think it’s fair to say that those collections are not very well known within the field. So the obvious first question has to be: where are these collections and what’s in them, please?

9:52  AG-V

These collections are not well known within the field, and are not known outside the field, let’s say. Because these are collections that have a difficult history, especially in one case. The two main ones are the ones in Madrid and in Bilbao. And the one in Madrid was closed in the 1960s; only recently has been relocated and opened again. So that’s why they are quite unknown. I am interested in these two main collections, the one in Madrid and the one in Bilbao. Because these are cast museums properly, and both included in their collections ancient Middle Eastern artifacts. And this is something exceptional. The kernel of the cast museums always and everywhere were copies of Greek and Roman sculpture, first. And second, also copies of Italian Renaissance sculpture. Then there were variations in several countries, but this was the basics. So carrying these ancient Middle Eastern sculptures and reliefs was something really exceptional.

10:53  AG-V

And I want also to highlight this here, because Spain has no tradition in cuneiform studies; no tradition in assyriology. So it’s especially important in this case. In any case, these two museums were museums in one case, in Madrid, open at the end of the 19th century. Then the one in Bilbao opened at the beginning of the 20th century. And in the first one in Madrid, the collection was about 3000 casts, so a big collection. From these 3000 casts only 14 were from ancient Middle Eastern pieces, mainly Assyrian reliefs, neo-Assyrian reliefs. In the case of the Bilbao Museum, the collection was about 200 pieces. And from these 11 were of Mesopotamian pieces. So as you see, these are really small collections between 10 and 15 artifacts. But at the same time, they are quite representative of something that is exceptional in its context.

11:52  JT

As you mentioned there, Spain was not one of the early participants in excavations, or in collecting or even studying ancient Mesopotamia. Why did anyone want to collect casts of this kind of material in the first place? And was there an audience for them in Spain?

12:09  AG-V

Well, this was indeed my starting point when I began with the research. So the question you’re posing was my first question. Why in Spain, a country without a tradition even nowadays in these studies? Well, there are several answers collected among them. And they are all always clearly linked to specific people involved in the projects in both Madrid and in Bilbao, that are the two cities I just mentioned before.

12:35  AG-V

The project of the cast Museum in Madrid was commissioned to one scholar. His name was Juan Facundo Riaño. Riaño was an Arabist, art historian. And he was a close friend of Austen Henry Layard, a well-known character in our studies. Layard was diplomat, traveler, archaeologist, and had for sure an influence in the knowledge Riaño had of the Assyrian reliefs from Nineveh and Nimrud. Moreover the reliefs were exhibited at the British Museum in London, and Riaño had also a close tie with the city and its museums. Because Riaño worked for many years as advisor for the then South Kensington Museum, nowadays, the Victoria and Albert Museum. Riaño therefore had a good knowledge of the Mesopotamian artifacts, which were news from that moment, because they were new at the end of the 19th century, let’s say. When Riaño was selecting pieces for the cast museum in Madrid, he always wanted to include not only pieces, which were considered canonic at that time, but also those which were new, and which allowed to take the pulse of the archaeological campaigns that were underway.

13:39  AG-V

So far, I answered why Mesopotamia had a presence in the shape of casts in Madrid. But what about Bilbao and the other city I also highlighted before? Here, the answer is easier. Bilbao, that is an industrial city in northern Spain took an inspiration from the Madrid museum. So from the beginning, they also considered meaningful to offer an image of antiquity that was not limited to Greece and Rome, but also open to Egypt and Mesopotamia as well. Taking into account the circumstances and moving then briefly to the other part of your question, there was an audience for this? Well, I may say yes, because there was an audience for cast museums. And once there they just found this and other pieces.

14:22  JT

So okay, they focus on Assyrian reliefs in particular, but how do they select which ones they want casts of?

14:29  AG-V

Well, on the one hand, there was an idea of canon of these museums, as I already said. Most of them not only in Spain, but in European countries and the US, commissioned the same pieces when they were launched. This was the case for those that were first opening with Greek and Roman and Renaissance sculpture. For example, of the Victoria of Samothracia [Winged Victory of Samothrace], marbles from the Parthenon, Laokonte [Laocoön]. These were pieces that were everywhere. So if you were launching a cast museum, these were musts. But on the other hand, there were the international connections. And these have an effect for the Mesopotamian artifacts. Depending on who was in charge on the museum, they tended to order casts to one country or to another; many times also conditioned for the language. So those fluent in French, for example, were commissioning casts to France; those fluent in English were commissioning casts to England.

15:23  JT

Hmm, are those the two options then? I guess, the British Museum and the Louvre? I mean, where was it possible to get these casts from? How does it work? Do you write to the museum with your, you know, a wish list: I’d like this object, please? Or do you have to pick from a catalogue?

15:38  AG-V

For the acquisition, selection, and where they were commissioned, yes, London was one of the main centres. And in London, the situation was a bit particular, because there was the British Museum, of course, a centre where some of these orders for the Mesopotamian materials arrived. But the production was not from the British Museum, but from a workshop that was the workshop by Domenico Brucciani, founded at the mid-19th century. This workshop was the supplier, the official supplier, for the British Museum. So those interested to commission one of these plaster casts, had two options: contacting directly Brucciani or the British Museum, and then they got these casts. In the case of Paris, the situation was different, and the situation was similar than the situation in Berlin, for example. This was the main three centres, so London, Paris, and Berlin. In Paris and Berlin, there was a workshop that was an official workshop, working, founded by the museums and working in close collaboration with these museums. So these were the three main options.

16:49  AG-V

In the case of the Spanish institutions, for example, when the Madrid museum was under the direction of Juan Facundo Riaño. As I said before, he had good connections with London, with the South Kensington Museum, with Henry Layard. So most of the pieces were commissioned to London. When there was another director with good connections with Germany, they came from Germany. In Bilbao, they had the difficulties to correspond in English, but not in French, something we know, for the archives or the archival documentation we are working with. So they commissioned the casts to Paris. Moreover, another good supplier was Italy; main supplier in this case with another structure of networks of artisan workshops, for example.

17:33  AG-V

And something we also need to take into account, because we are just saying few centres. And we have to imagine these casts traveling throughout Europe and also to the [United] States [of America]. It means that, well, it was end of the 19th century, beginning of the 20th century, the casts were traveling for a long time. There was always a huge anxiety for the arrival of these casts in good condition. They have to manage customs, it was really expensive. So it was not something easy, but something that was difficult. And that took time. In some cases, I can document that from the first interest of a museum of one of these cast museums sending a letter, for example, to London, saying, “We have seen in a catalogue that you have this cast, which is the price?” From this moment until the cast arrives to the museum, it could be a time lapse of one year, one year and a half, even two or three years in some cases.

18:31  JT

Is it always the case that you get, if you like, a fresh cast from the mould? Or is there another way of doing it? If you have relations with another institution that happens to have a cast already, can you get a cast of a cast? Is that like a budget option or a plan B?

18:46  AG-V

Yes, this is an option indeed. So there are different things here. For some institutions, and it’s something that we can also see, thanks to these archival documents, in some cases, they say “we want the best quality pieces, and only this”. So when they want the best quality pieces, it means they want casts only from these originals, so from the first model, as I said before. It also means that they want original size casts, because they were also some casts that were sold as reductions. So there were these two options.

19:24  AG-V

A third issue–colour. There were different colours, different ways you can commission these casts, different finishings, let’s say. And then it also affected the price. So depending on the priorities of the institution commissioning these casts, also depending on the budget you had, there were different options. But for some museums and for some institutions, or for example, for some of them was important to have best quality cast from the Parthenon Marbles, but not from the Hammurabi Stele, for example. And then they commissioned it to other people or with another budget, with a different quality.

20:04  AG-V

In the case of Spain, there is something interesting that at the end of the 19th century, arrived to Madrid the so well-known Assyrian relief of the bounded lioness or dying lioness. This relief had really a great success, good reception. And at the beginning of the 20th century, the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando decided to make a cast from this cast. And they began to sell these other casts. Nowadays, you can still commission these casts to the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando. So this is a good example of how you pick one piece there. And then maybe for a museum, or for this cast museum is not the ideal piece. For example, Bilbao decided to commission the piece to London, and not to Madrid, not to this Real Academia, because they wanted the best quality, right? But then for other institutions, for example, universities, using these casts for training in arts, for example, or history and archaeology, then for them, this was okay. So for them, the best quality cast was not an issue, but just the piece, to have the three dimensional model. And it works.

21:24  JT

All museums, all collections, operate within their own historical context. What is the context for these Spanish cast collections? And what impact does that have on them?

21:36  AG-V

Well, we are talking about international networks. So of course, all these had an impact. For example, when we are saying that second half of the 19th century these cast museums were in full swing, it means that the Franco-German war of the 1870s had a big impact. Because we were mentioning Berlin and Paris as two main centres. You can imagine what it meant at that moment for this cast industry. For the specific case of Spain, I have a clear example. In Spain, there was the Civil War, at the beginning of the 20th century, 1936/1939. And after this, Europe suffered especially the Second World War until 1945. Then when the Bilbao museum tried to buy again casts from London and Paris at the end of both wars, it was difficult for two reasons.

22:23  AG-V

First reason, well, Spain has sided with Italy and Germany, therefore there was a difficult geopolitical framework. Second, there was a huge economic crisis, of course, and also a shortage of foreign currency. It conditioned orders of casts, centred in Spain from that moment on, so they only had the chance to order these casts from Spanish workshops. And Spanish workshops provided Roman sculpture, Italian Renaissance sculpture, local sculpture, but not Mesopotamian reliefs. The only chance was the one I mentioned before of this bounded lioness and the Bilbao museum already had the bounded lioness. So this meant the end of the collection of these casts of Middle Eastern artifacts. So the impact that this international situation had was really big in this case.

23:13  AG-V

The second topic that you’ve worked on over the years is gender studies. And the history of the field works out rather differently there. So I think it might be quite interesting to chat about that as well. There have been quite a few examples of depictions of people in ancient Middle Eastern art, where controversy has raged as to whether they’re male or female. And you discuss some remarkable examples of objects where how we interpret them is determined by what we’re primed to see. You know, it seems obvious and uncontroversial, until you’re confronted with another interpretation. Could you talk us through some examples of that please?

23:54  AG-V

Yes, sure. Here raise several issues. First, there is the definition of what is a female body and what is a male body? This is a changing definition. So here we have a first problem. It might seem it is clear, because we operate in this binary male-female framework, but this is not the case. For me, the most clear example is the debate about breasts, about chests. Breasts are considered one of the so-called secondary sexual attributes. They help them to identify if a body is male or female. But what is exactly a model breast? Even for us nowadays, this is a tricky question. How can we distinguish a breast or a chest considered masculine, so result of many hours in the gym, to say it in some way, from a breast considered feminine? And what about age, because age is also changing these breasts, which is the shape of the chest or a breast in different ages. Can we distinguish masculine and feminine? And what about class? Because being well-fed or suffering from malnutrition also changes the shape of the body. So if we keep in mind all these questions, we see that it’s quite tricky nowadays for us. Imagine when we are going to the past and we try to identify anthropomorphic images. Then it’s even more tricky.

25:11  AG-V

For me a good example of this is how the Shulgi foundation figurines, from the end of the third millennium BCE, were interpreted in several moments from the beginning of the 20th century, till the end of the 20th century. First, they were just interpreted as female figures and servants, because they have this somehow protruding breast. Afterward were read the inscriptions they had, some of them had at least, and they were interpreted as masculine and as images of the king. So quite different interpretation. In this case, the protruding breast was interpreted as an image of strength, work muscles. It has even suggested that some of these images which seem ambiguous to us, that are not fitting in this male-female binary, embody a third gender, are entities with both feminine and masculine attributes.

25:31  AG-V

So we have different interpretations here. And needless to say, nowadays, even the validity of this binary male-female, the starting point for the research and as useful too for analysis, is something that is put into question. So I think that all this helps us to see that well, from my point of view, we are really primed to see what we want to see or what we have in our mindset that we are going to see. And I think that it’s also good to have this in mind. Because what we are now interpreting is not the end of the story. Is another layer of this story. So interpretations for sure about these bodies, and about sex and gender will continue changing over time with next generations.

26:46  JT

Do we know actually how many genders there were thought to be in ancient Iraq?

26:52  AG-V

Wow, this is a really tricky question. {LAUGHS} It’s difficult to say, because then, first we have to discuss if we are operating within this sex gender system. Then if we assume that we have two sexes, or more sexes, that we can translate, let’s say, in different genders. And it’s something that nowadays is into question. So, this is one of the issues. If we accept this, so, if we say that we operate in this sex gender system, and that we are going to interpret it from this point of view, then you have the hypothesis of two basic (male-female) and then third gender. This is one of the possibilities.

27:36  AG-V

Then you have other scholars defending that if we are talking about a third gender, it means that we are accepting that the male-female is so fixed so that the binary is valid, as I was pointing out before. So it means that then we can identify several genders, depending on the context. But to identify these genders, we also need to take into account an intersectional approach. What we may say, an intersectional approach, combining class, age, and so on and so forth. So, just having an answer of how many is difficult. That depends also on the kind of theoretical approach you have. If you give validity to the binary is one discourse, then you might want to talk about a third gender or not. If you are not giving validity to this binary as a starting point, then you open up here more possibilities.

28:32  JT

These kinds of frameworks of what we expect to see, also operate in textual studies as well, don’t they?

28:38  AG-V

Well, yes, of course, they operate in all kinds of studies. This is particularly clear to me when dealing with Sumerian language for example, because in the Sumerian language is more elusive. This binary we were discussing is clear with personal names, that in some cases is difficult for us to fit these names in a binary. And also with nouns, where we do not have the grammatical gender. So in this case, I think is a clear example.

29:04  AG-V

But we also have the issue of the translation of some words in Sumerian, but also in Akkadian. Most of them are still under debate, and is quite easy then to have the influence of our own biases, without being aware of how these biases operate when we are proposing a translation for a word. A good example of this might be, for example, the so well-known Akkadian word harimtu. This harimtu has been the main character, let’s say, of a big debate from the 1990s mainly. And translations here range from prostitute to free woman. Well, needless to say, prostitute and free woman, maybe someone sees a connection, but are completely different points of view. So in each case, I think that it’s clear that we have philological arguments, historical arguments, but also different standpoints. So I think that what we have in these studies, also in textual studies, is different standpoints that are influencing then the philological and historical arguments we are picking.

30:08  JT

An obvious lesson to draw from these examples where scholarship is shaped by contemporary assumptions and interests, is that the same must apply today. And gender studies is perhaps one of the clearest examples of that. If you were approached for advice about this by someone starting out in the field, what would you say are the opportunities that this realisation offers? And how would you suggest they manage the challenges that it brings?

30:35  AG-V

Well, there are many opportunities, because as I pointed out before, our interpretations change with the passing of time, not only because we gain more knowledge of the primary sources, but because the context in which we produce this knowledge is also changing. So there are lots of opportunities. Then for me being self-reflexive about the way one approaches the own research is something fundamental, for sure. This is the first advice about how to manage the challenges, because challenges and opportunities are always tied together. For example, when I pick a topic of a study, think about how to formulate a research question, I devote some time to reflect about why I want to develop this. Why is this topic a trending topic? Or a completely forgotten one? Because you can decide to embark on a new topic of study for both reasons, because there is something that you can get money to do this, because everyone is doing this and it’s easy to do this, or because no one is doing this. Why does it happen? I also think about who else is working on this? Why? In which context? And as I was saying, also, funding is an important issue. So I always think about why funding is easy, let’s say, for some projects and difficult to get for some other projects. This is a challenge we all face. And I think that is important also to take into account, because it helps also to see which kind of mindset is also there, is operating when funding or not certain research.

32:05  JT

Okay, well, thank you very much indeed.

32:08  AG-V

Thank you.

32:09  JT

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33:22  JT

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34:00  JT

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