An Archaeology of Images: iconology and cosmology in Iron Age and Roman Europe, by MIRANDA ALDHOUSE-GREEN
Sculpture and other images, like written sources or burials, potentially give us a chance to see how ancient peoples saw themselves and the world they inhabited or imagined. The problem, however, is to understand the message (or messages) that the sculptor or client wished to communicate, how well it was achieved, and to what extent any contemporary viewer might have succeeded in reading it, especially if the message was coded for special initiates (e.g. the fish in Christian iconography). How much more difficult for us, from another time and another culture. An obvious case, as the author points out, is the common misreading of many Gallo-Roman and Romano-British sculptures as failed attempts to copy classical Greek and Roman forms and norms.
Over recent years Miranda Aldhouse-Green has established herself as the leading expert on Iron Age and Roman sculpture in the western provinces, with a number of books and papers tackling the subject from various different view points. In this volume she takes a number of themes, exploring them by taking examples mainly from Britain and Gaul, and discussing their potential meanings. Thus we have a chapter on Image and Identity which looks at topics such as dominance and submission and the way dress code provides an identity for the person depicted (status as demonstrated by the wearing of a torc, pilgrims and travellers, etc.). Other chapter topics cover Gender, Materiality and Meaning, Beasts, Monsters and Shape Shifters, Paths of Perception, and Resistance Iconographies. This is a fruitful way of looking at familiar objects in new ways, and opening up new avenues of seeing the variety of possible interpretations, though one has the slight feeling that she ahs brought together a number of themes which are not quite as cohesive as some of those tackled in her previous books.
Her methodology is mainly to take a specific object and look at the possible different meanings which can be given to the object, using parallels from other cultures, both ancient and modern, and from elsewhere in the Iron Age and Roman periods in Western Europe. The second approach is contextual, both the situation in which the object was found or used, if that is known, and other archaeological information such as deposits of animal remains on sanctuary sites, which can also give a clue on ancient ways of thinking, though this can on occasion lead her off at a tangent where one loses the thread of the discussion. The problem, of course, is that there are myriad explanations within the ethnographic record, and also we are not dealing with homogenous societies either chronologically (the Hallstatt Iron Age is very different from the Gallo-Roman period), or geographically as there and very different contemporary societies, especially in the use which is being made of images, say, between Roman Gaul and contemporary northern Europe or central Europe outside the Roman Empire. Even within an individual province there are very local characteristics, perhaps even unique to an individual sanctuary site. The result is that we are not left with anything like a synthesis or overview, but rather a series of snap-shots and possibilities (not a criticism, rather something dictated by the nature of the data), but it is important to have both perspectives; on the one hand the widespread repetition or occurrence of specific motifs, attributes or representations, and on the other their specific local or contextual meaning.
On the negative side, I am not sure why none of the drawings has a scale; in some cases such as coins, it is clear, as it is with familiar objects, but some are less well known. When thinking in terms of the potential audience, size does matter; a personal ornament which can only be seen in close proximity to the person wearing it; small scale objects may be for display in a private context such as a shrine in a house; medium sized objects which are often for public display in a sanctuary or a confined space; and monumental objects are meant to be seen from a distance and/or by large groups of people. In one or two cases the information about the context is inadequate; the importance of the layout of objects in a temple such as the Source of the Seine is quoted, but we do not see the evidence of how this actual works on the ground (e.g. by a site plan). In one or two case the information is wrong; the verracos of central Spain can at times mark territorial boundaries (such as those from Guisando), but most seem to mark areas of high quality pasture, and some have been found at the entrances to major settlements or inside a site (the one illustrated on Fig. 5.1 does not come from Ávila, but from the entrance to the oppidum of Las Cogotas and has been moved, as most of them were, to a more accessible location in the 19th century and 20th centuries, in this case first to Madrid and then back to Ávila). Sometimes the English is a bit too convoluted or pretentious (e.g. rupestrine art for rock art), and this sometimes gets in the way of an easy reading of the text. There is also a tendency to quote secondary sources rather than the primary publication of the object.
In summary, this is a useful compendium of thoughts and ideas, but with no intention of being all-inclusive (on a personal note, there is for instance, no mention, under the ‘Monsters and Shape shifters’ of the bird-headed horses we are now familiar with on the Late La Tène painted pottery of the Auvergne), but it is nonetheless an interesting and informative overview. As with many more specialised Routledge publications, the price will dictate this is a book for libraries and specialists rather than the wider public.
Prof. Emeritus John Collis
Review Submitted: December 2005
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