The archaeology of ancient borderlands has in the past been a study of the dynamics of communities which exist at the perceived edges of cultural and/or political entities—for example the limes of the Roman provinces, the borders of ancient city-states, or the edges of the ‘Hellenized’ world. This model depends upon a conflation of territorial and cultural identity as either relatively homogenized or as deeply centralized and therefore shaped by a fundamental core-periphery tension wherein core values and ideals are played out in diluted form, but carry similar meanings. In recent decades, however, scholars working at the margins of ancient (and modern) entities have fundamentally reoriented perspectives on these communities and focused not on a powerful core and receptive periphery, but rather on borderlands as “zones of interaction” (Lightfoot and Martinez 1995) where social identities are negotiated by individuals who navigate a range of intersecting social and cultural imperatives. Taking Upper Egypt as a case study, this short paper will offer some thoughts about the factors involved in the formation of borderland identities in Upper Egypt during the the Hellenistic Age and the challenges involved in understanding these complex formulations through the lens of the archaeological record. This material is part of a larger project examining the archaeology of community identity Upper Egypt in the Hellenistic era.
|April 5, 2012||Posted by Jennifer Gates-Foster under Art/Archaeology, Research Symposium|
|December 16, 2011||Posted by Jennifer Gates-Foster under Art/Archaeology, Blog|
At the moment, much of my reading and writing is focused on a project on the problem of how to deal with the question of ethnicity and identity in the material record. While this might, on the surface of things, seem quite separate from my larger project this year of examining Upper Egypt as a border zone where material culture played an important role in the negotiation of identities—Egyptian, Nubian, Greek—the topics are actually intertwined in important ways. Upper Egypt is a peripheral zone, in a certain sense, at the edge of the Egyptian polity in the Ptolemaic period. The deployment of certain ceramic forms, the consumption of canonical Egyptian religious imagery and the performance of loyalty to the dynasty ensconced in Alexandria are all aspects of life in this border community. My parallel interest in Achamenid art and material culture shares some of the same questions: how is it possible to see negotiations of status, class, gender and other aspects of identity operating in the material culture of the areas controlled by the Achaemenid empire?
In this instance, I’m working on an essay devoted to teasing out how ethnicity (a modern construct, surely) was operative in the material sphere of the Achaemenid empire between the 6th and 4thcenturies BCE. The Achaemenid Empire at its height was enormous, stretching from western Asia Minor to Central Asia. Its heartland was Fars in modern Iran and the empire was the direct inheritor of the great first millennium dynasties of Mesopotamia, especially the Neo-Assyrian Empire and their immediate predecessors, the Medes. These imperial powers, like the later Achaemenids, were faced with the challenge of making an empire out of a range of diverse regions with their own linguistic and cultural traditions.
The Achaemenid imperial centers of Susa, Persepolis, and Pasargadae were used as staging grounds for the creation of a visual and rhetorical articulation of ‘empire’ as a project that subjugated and incorporated a huge range of peoples and places. This is most clearly evident on the great procession friezes of the Apadana at Persepolis on which various cultural groups are shown bringing tribute to the Great King during a festival celebrating the new year.
This kind of image presents certain attributes of dress and commodity as symbolic of a particular place through a representation of its valuable resources and peoples. It is a kind of essentializing representation that borders on a notion of cultural stereotyping, but the picture is infinitely more complex than this.
My own work on questions of ethnicity and style has led me to a much more contextualized approach to questions of identity and the way that material objects can be understood to represent or construct identity. In an article now a few years old I examined a category of seal known as a “Graeco-Persian” that blends Achamenid and Greek aspects both in terms of style and subject. In this article, I argued that how a seal was actually used was a more important indicator of the meaning of certain aspects of style and iconography than were any preconceived notions about the nature of Greek or Persian tastes or capabilities. My current project on this topic works to understand a broader and more centrally-driven assessment of questions of ethnicity under the Achaemenids and how material like those shown above work alongside more personal markers of identity, such as seals. I’ll be presenting a short synopsis of this project at a conference in January at the University of Pennsylvania (http://www.classics.upenn.edu/conference/2012) with the paper published in a volume coming out of that gathering.
Stay tuned for more!
The Future of Hellenistic Archaeology In Egypt or: how I stopped worrying and learned to love the blog
|October 24, 2011||Posted by Jennifer Gates-Foster under Art/Archaeology, Blog, Epigraphy/Papyrology|
Since this is my first post, I thought I should use this space to introduce myself and to offer some insight into both the project that brought me here and other things that I’ve been working on since I arrived in Washington. I’m here at the Center this year to work on a project, tentatively called “Power Across Frontiers: Networks of Power in Hellenistic Upper Egypt.” This book-length project examines the material components of frontier culture in Upper Egypt during the Hellenistic era, particularly through the lens of pottery, trade patterns, religious practices and administration. Through these material markers, I examine the way that the Ptolemaic state and local actors negotiated power structures in Upper Egypt and, in particular, the importance of material culture in that process. This book is an extension of work that I began as a graduate student at the University of Michigan, where I developed an interest in Hellenistic and early Roman Egypt, particularly the desert region east of the Nile Valley. In the years since, I’ve continued to work in Egypt and to publish on material from the area in between stints working on material in Armenia and Syria. I’m also currently working two shorter pieces dealing with Achaemenid art, another passion of mine, although Egypt remains at the forefront of my research interests.
Since I arrived in Washington, I’ve been working on the book project, among other things, and thinking in particular about the role that archaeology plays in our understanding of Hellenistic Egypt. Last week I visited New Haven to take part in a seminar at Yale: “The Archaeology of Hellenistic Egypt: Current Trends/Future Prospects” (http://www.yale.edu/classics/news_conferences.html), hosted by Joseph Manning in Classics. While the meeting proceeded as a typical academic discussion with presentations by papyrologists and archaeologists of new material and new approaches to older material, it was clear that despite our attempts to focus on the academic questions at hand, much of what was on our minds was happening on the streets of Cairo and the Egyptian countryside. The “future” in the title was, at least for me, the most important part of the day’s mandate. The practice of archaeology is inevitably embedded in the politics of modern life, so the practice of any archaeology in Egypt is at the moment inextricably bound up with the rapidly evolving political and cultural situation in the modern nation-state of Egypt. For my part, the future of a project that Joe Manning and I have devoted considerable energy to try and bring about hangs in the balance. We had hoped to begin a program of field research at the important Upper Egyptian city of Ptolemais Hermeiou (modern al-Manshah, المنشاة) sometime in the next year, which looks increasingly unlikely.
This site, like many in the Nile Valley, lies under hundreds of years of later occupation including a large and growing modern settlement. The damage to the archaeology of the settlement is clear on the Google Earth images above, which show looting in the city’s center at the site of a previous archaeological excavation. This kind of damage is taking place alongside systematic renovations to older buildings on the ancient mound which also result in substantial destruction of the town’s ancient levels. The current political climate in Upper Egypt makes it unlikely that we’ll receive permission to work in the immediate future, but we continue to advocate for permission and to monitor the situation from afar. The future of many sites in Egypt hang in the balance and in places like Upper Egypt where sectarian violence is an ongoing problem, archaeologists must weigh the benefits of work during times of civil strife. Hopefully, I’ll have a positive update to this post sometime in the spring when elections have taken place and the fate of archaeology in Egypt seems more clear.