Many posts on archaeology will show exciting excavations and groups of people holding up new finds – what people think archaeologists do. This is, of course, part of what archaeologists do, but as Indiana Jones apparently said: “Seventy percent of all archaeology is done in the library.” Which is only partly true, as more than a little is done, now, in front of computers in front rooms, offices, cafes, working on paper work of some kind or another, whether payroll, reports on the field work just done, grant applications for next year’s field work or, and especially if you are an academic, and it’s ‘holiday’ time, thrashing out that book or paper for which the deadline was last month. Or year. Or whatever.
And so it is today that I am placed before the large table in my front room, banging on about some tomb or another for a book I am writing on memorial images and identities in Asia Minor in the first one hundred years after its conquest by the Achaemenid Persians. If my tone sounds sardonic, that is because we can have the same problems sitting still, not checking email hundreds of times, looking at Facebook and baking unnecessary amounts of pies that other writers experience. Productive procrastination abounds. This post is, of course, excluded from that.
A sardonic tone might also imply that my book is boring. And while many many writers would confess that they find writing itself boring, the subject matter is not: in the period that I am writing about, following its incorporation into the Achaemenid Persian Empire, Asia Minor experienced cultural and social change which is all the more fascinating to unstitch because these changes are not ‘in your face’, archaeologically. In fact, the impact of the Empire has been considered to be quite low. But for me, in studying images used on tombs, this is a rich period, since it is around the time of the conquest that burials of differing types start to increase in number, among them some with rich (if often badly preserved) images in paint or sculpture.
Thinking about the kinds of images used can lead to insights about the ways that people in different parts of this territory wanted to be identified in death (NB. this is NOT straightforward) and show regional patterns in the kinds of choices made in iconography, monument type, spatial display and techniques. This highlights different reactions and behaviours in different micro-contexts, which may have been affects by contacts, economy, climate and other factors.
Naturally this opens up further avenues for thinking about these contexts and aspects of these areas that haven’t been explored, especially communication routes and economy. In rural areas, where many of the tombs I am treating are found, this involves asking questions about agriculture (what kind of farming? If pastoral, what breeds? How were animals kept and managed? What specialist work is involved? What products were traded and with whom? How?).
In the Iranian heartland, where clay tablets preserving economic transactions have been found at palaces such as Persepolis, such issues are more accessible than in areas where written records are lacking, yet if one thinks about the profound impact of Rome on agriculture in its provinces, it may be in this sphere that the Achaemenid Empire most impacted its provinces. The low archaeological visibility of this sphere, though, begs further questions: what techniques can be used to explore this? Surveys, which have tended to focus on distributions of monumental and built remains, might try to be more explicit about agriculture. Combinations of attention to unbuilt land and coring may provide some insights – but then this is where I reach the end of my expertise and have to rely on my colleagues who are expert in this sort of thing – including my friendly neighbourhood prehistorian colleagues at Durham University.
For I, let me not forget, am writing a book about art on tombs, and for now I shall return to that, and write a bit more about a particularly beautiful sarcophagus with mythological images on it, and what this choice of imagery implies about society and identity in the Northwest part Asia Minor. NOT straightforward. Sometimes hard to sit still with. But ultimately very rewarding.