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Symposium: Iconoclasm and Text Destruction in the Ancient Near East and Beyond, Oriental Instutute, University of Chicago, April 8-9


Organizer, Natalie Naomi May
Post-Doctoral Scholar at the University of Chicago Oriental Institute
Tel. (773) 702-2589
1155 East 58th Street
Chicago, IL 60637
April 8-9, 2011


The purpose of this conference will be to analyze the cases of and reasons for mutilation of texts and images in Near Eastern antiquity. Destruction of images and texts has a universal character; it is inherent in various societies and periods of human history. Together with the mutilation of human beings, it was a widespread and highly significant phenomenon in the ancient Near East. However, the goals meant to be realized by this process differed from those aimed at in other cultures. For example, iconoclasm of the French and Russian revolutions, as well as the Post-Soviet iconoclasm, did not have any religious purposes. Moreover, modern comprehension of iconoclasm is strongly influenced by its conception during the Reformation.

This conference will explore iconoclasm and text destruction in the ancient Near Eastern antiquity through examination of the anthropological, cultural, historical and political aspects of these practices. Broad interdisciplinary comparison with similar phenomena in the other cultures and periods will contribute to better understanding them.

Conference Overview

Previous Research

Despite its importance, this subject has not received proper scholarly attention. In 1995 Bahrani defined the totality of relevant research as ‘three brief articles’: those of Nylander (1980), Beran (1988) and Harper (1992). We can now add to the list two articles by Bahrani herself (1995, 2004) 1, another contribution by Nylander (1999), an earlier one by Brandes (1980) and a recent article by Porter (2009). All these studies either treat particular cases of mutilation or certain aspects of its significance. Especially seminal in this respect is Bahrani’s discussion of mutilation of an image as a magical and performative act.

Nevertheless, mutilation of image and text as a phenomenon remains a field awaiting systematic research. The specific framework for the previous scholarship has been assault on royal and divine effigies, although the phenomenon was in fact much more universal.

1The main ideas presented in these articles were also elaborated in chapters 1 and 6 of Bahrani’s book Rituals of War (2008).

Reasons and purposes of iconoclasm

One of the main goals of the conference will thus be to establish which images were chosen for mutilation – a question naturally closely connected with understanding the purposes of the damage. The performative dimension underscored by Bahrani was important and probably even ubiquitous; but it was certainly not the only factor involved in the ancient Near Eastern destruction of images. The aims of such actions were multiple and interacted mutually in a complex manner. Consequently, the specific sort of damage and its possible relationship with the political and cultural setting has to be examined for each individual case.

Important to explore are parallels between the mutilation of humans and mutilation of images. As a parallel to the decapitation of flesh and blood enemies, statues were also beheaded and their severed heads mutilated. It was already Brandes who pointed to the severing of statues’ heads and extremities as a practice known from the very beginning of Mesopotamian history. The purpose of this practice was symbolic, magical and performative, resulting in loss of power by, and ‘murder’ and humiliation of the depicted person. Magical actions of this kind are well known in various sorts of apotropaic ritual (e.g. šurpu). Images were perceived as living objects, parts of gods or persons; damage to the images thus inflicting damage on the depicted, divine or human, alive or dead.

Another form of damage to an image was its effacement, more precisely erasing its mouth or nose. Such action was clearly tied to the essential role of these organs for the image as an animated and living substance. Mutilation of the nose and the mouth was thus an act antithetical to the mouth-opening ceremony that brought an inanimate object to life. In general, every kind of mutilation had multiple implications. Severing of ears was aimed therefore not only at humiliation tied to one of the legal penalties for criminal offences, but also at depriving the depicted image of a wisdom symbolized in Mesopotamia by wide ears. Mutilation of symbols of divinity and divine protection had special meaning.

Iconoclasm and aniconism

Through various periods of human history religious iconoclasm connects with the prohibition of figurative representation. Conception of aniconism in the ancient Near Eastern antiquity differs from the modern one. For instance there was no general ban on images as such. Nonetheless, anthropomorphic cult statues were often replaced by divine symbols.

What was the significance of aniconism in the mutilation of ancient Near Eastern images? An attempt will be made to answer this question through exploration of Mesopotamian and Biblical approaches to aniconism and comparison of the role of aniconism in iconoclastic tendencies in Christianity and Islam.

Destruction of figurative complexes

The cases of systematic damage inflicted on a complex of images or statues are of particular interest. Those took place, for instance in the Assyrian palaces of Nineveh and, probably, Kalhu in the time of the Median-Babylonian invasion (612 and 614 BCE respectively). Destruction of the statues and steles of Gudea was similarly systematic. In the narrative reliefs of the Neo-Assyrian palaces, certain depictions or participants of certain scenes were selected for effacement. Sometimes objects along with human beings were chiselled out. The choice here was not casual but rather intentional. By investigating the motivations of those who carried out these actions, we can better understand the social, political, and ritual significance of the depictions themselves.

Iconoclasm and Spoliation

Very few intact divine statues have been found from the ancient Near East. Scholars have tried to explain this fact as the result of looting of precious materials or disintegration of perishable substances. But in fact all the discovered stone statues of gods suffered intentional damage. I believe that the absence among archaeological finds of cult statues or other divine statues in the round is, in first place, a result of their intentional destruction. This process is apparently tied closely with that of spoliation of the statues. In this project’s context, a salient problem that needs to be explored is thus whether there was a connection between the abduction of and damage done to divine statues during warfare, and both the suppression of the subdued nation’s cult and installation of the cult of the invader. Cogan (1974) takes the spoliation of divine images as a plain statement of divine abandonment. But in fact, in Near Eastern antiquity religious self-identification expressed through worship of a certain deity was a substitute for ethnic and national identity. Consequently the abduction and especially destruction of an opponent’s cult statues had effects reaching far beyond a simple demonstration of power, although the significance of these actions in various periods may well have differed. It should be noted that in Assyria the imperial cult was established in annexed provinces and probably in vassal countries. The subdued population was obliged to worship Assyrian gods. Were the local cults also limited by the demolition or abduction of cult statues? It seems to me that each case should be explored individually. The deportation of the statues of Marduk and other Babylonian deities by Sennacherib could not put an end to their cult. But the uprooting of entire peoples usually drove them to accept the cults prevailing in their new places of habitation—to assimilation with the Assyrians or other ethnic and religious groups of the empire, as was the case with the Israelite tribes. Josiah’s attempt to regain rule over all territories of Judah and Israel was accompanied by the installation of the cult of YHWH and destruction of cultic images of the other gods.

Not only divine statues were subject to spoliation and destruction. The choice of deported items is a clue to understanding the nature and purpose of the process at work here. Both textual and archaeological evidence shows that not all pillaged items were damaged. Thus the famous stele of Hammurabi, taken by the Elamites from Sippar to Susa, suffered practically no damage. Moreover, it became an object of reverence and pilgrimage at its new location. Sometimes the conqueror would incise inscriptions with his name or a dedication to his gods upon his booty. The Elamite king Inshushinak did this to objects he captured in Mesopotamia; as did Ashurbanipal to gods of the Arabs that then he returned to them. These acts of inscription served various purposes, but the primary effect was understood as performative. The inscribed object – divine statue, royal stele, and so forth – became subjugated to the king, whose name it bore through the magic power of the word.

Text destruction

Mutilation of texts was less common than mutilation of images—in most cases, monuments bearing the texts where simply annihilated. For example, only small fragments of the inscribed Assyrian steles were found in Ashdod and Samaria. The famous stele from Tel Dan that mentions the house of David, was also smashed, its fragments scattered on the gate square and probably beyond.

Nevertheless, it is common for monumental inscriptions to bear invocations against their destruction and curses against anyone daring to demolish them. In rare cases an inscription or a part thereof was erased while the monument was left intact, as with the Naram-Sin or Adad-nerari III steles.

Yet, “the possibly symbolic breaking, in front of the empty throne in the Nabu temple of humiliating Vassal Treaties forced by Assarhaddon on the Medes in 672″ was already noticed by Nylander (1980). I my opinion it was more than just a literal and symbolic breaking of Median vassal obligations to Assyria, but the destruction of the very grounds of the empire together with the all the possible guarantees – human and divine – of obedience, which these tablets contained.

Goals and Aims of the Conference

The problems to be examined in the suggested conference can be summarized as follows:

  • the purposes of the mutilation, in the framework of the choice of images and texts meant to be damaged
  • the types of damage inflicted as a key to its meaning
  • iconoclasm and aniconism
  • the thoroughness of the injury inflicted on complexes of images and monuments
  • the significance of the destruction and spoliation of pictorial and textual monuments in respect to territorial domination
  • the significance of the mutilation and superimposition of texts
  • iconoclasm and text destruction in European and Oriental Middle Ages and beyond — legacy or universality of phenomenon?

The exploration of these problems is conceivably to be carried out through the synchronic and diachronic interdisciplinary comparison with iconoclasm and text destruction in other cultures and periods.


Friday, April 8

9:00-9:15 am: Opening by the Director of the Oriental Institute (Gil Stein)
9:15-9:30 am: Introduction (Natalie Naomi May – the Oriental Institute)

Session 1. ‘Iconoclasm Begins at Sumer’ and Akkad
Chair: Miguel Civil
9:30-10:00 am: Christopher Woods, The Oriental Institute “Mutilation of Text and Image in Early Sumerian Sources”
10:00-10:30 am: Claudia E. Suter, University of Basel, Switzerland, “Why Gudea of Lagash?”
10:30-11:00 am: Joan Goodnick Westenholz, New York University, Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, “Damnatio Memoriae: Destruction of Name and Destruction of Person in Third-Millennium Mesopotamia”
11:00-11:30 am: Coffee break

Session 2. Iconoclasm as an Instrument of Politics
Chair: Marian Feldman
11:30 am-12:00: Hanspeter Schaudig, University of Heidelberg, “Death of Statues and Rebirth of Gods”
12:00-12:30 pm: Angelika Berlejung, University of Leipzig and University of Stellenbosch, “Shared Fates: The Assyrian Religious Policy in the West”
12:30-1:00 pm: JoAnn Scurlock, Elmhurst College, “Getting Smashed at the Victory Celebration, or What Happened to Esarhaddon’s so-called Vassal Treaties and Why”
1:00-2:00 pm: Lunch break

Session 3. How the Images Die and Why?
Chair: Robert Biggs
2:00-2:30 pm: Natalie N. May, The Oriental Institute “Ali-talimu, or What Can Be Learned from the Destruction of Figurative Complexes”
2:30-3:00 pm: Seth Richardson, The Oriental Institute “The Hypercoherent Icon: Knowledge, Rationalization, and Disenchantment in Mesopotamia”

Saturday, April 9

Session 4. The Ancient Near East beyond Mesopotamia
Chair: Janet Johnson
9:00-9:30 am: Nathaniel Levtow, University of Montana, “The Life and Death of Images and Texts: Correlations and Social Relations in the Ancient Near East”
9:30-10:00 am: Betsy M. Bryan, Johns Hopkins University “Episodes of Iconoclasm in the Egyptian New Kingdom”
10:00-10:30 am: Petra Goedegebuure, The Oriental Institute “Iconoclasm in Hittite Society: Certainly not Present, and Perhaps Impossible”
10:30-10:45 am: Coffee break

Session 5. Classical Antiquity, Byzantium, Reformation
Chair: Richard Neer
10:45-11:15 am: Silke Knippschild, University of Bristol, “Performing the Frontier: The Abduction and Destruction of Religious and Political Signifiers in Greco-Persian Conflicts”
11:15-11:45 am: Robin Cormack. University of Cambridge, Great Britain, “Looking for Iconophobia and Iconoclasm in Late Antiquity and Byzantium”
11:45-12:45 am: Lunch break

Session 6. Reformation and Modernity
Chair: Walter Kaegi
12:45-1:15 pm: Lee Palmer Wandel, University of Wisconsin-Madison, “Idolatry and Iconoclasm: Alien Religions and Reformation”
1:15-1:45 pm: W.J.T. Mitchell, The University of Chicago, “Idolatry: Nietzsche, Blake, Poussin”
1:45-2:15 pm: Irene Winter, Harvard University – Respondent

Abstracts and Bios

Angelika Berlejung, University of Leipzig and University of Stellenbosch, “Shared Fates: The Assyrian Religious Policy in the West”

The material remains of the Assyrian presence and religious policy in the West prove that they were not interested in the beliefs of the subjugated peoples but only in their taxes. Referring to the deportation of state gods, kings, and elites, the idea of this paper is that they shared the same fate: only the ruling divine and human elites, e.g., the state gods, kings, and ruling classes were deported while the local and family gods, as well as the majority of the non-ruling classes could live their usual life under Assyrian domination — as long as they did not start any anti-Assyrian activities.

Angelika Berlejung is professor for History and History of Religions of Ancient Israel and its neighbors in Leipzig, Germany, and professor extraordinaire of Ancient Near Eastern Studies in Stellenbosch, South Africa. She is co-director of the excavation in Qubur al-Walaydah, Israel. She is specialized in the history, religions, and cultures of Syria and Palestine in the first millennium B.C. She is the author of Die Theologie der Bilder (1995) and of an “Introduction into the History and History of Religions of Ancient Israel,” inGrundinformation Altes Testament (2010, edited by J. C. Gertz). She is currently working on a book on the Assyrian presence in the West during the Neo-Assyrian period, and on a catalog of epigraphical amulets of the first millennium BC.

Betsy M. Bryan, Johns Hopkins University, “Episodes of Iconoclasm in the Egyptian New Kingdom”

Iconoclasm, when defined as the mutilation or destruction of images or texts, can be identified in a wide variety of settings in ancient Egypt. Only several papers could begin to represent the breadth of time periods and environments that provoked iconoclastic behaviors. One of the best attested types of evidence derives from tomb texts and is seen in mutilated hieroglyphs, principally of animals, drawn and carved with physical impediments that prevented their potential danger to the deceased. These glyphs were so conceived already in the Old Kingdom and continued to appear in the Middle Kingdom and later (Orly Goldwasser, From Icon to Metaphor. Studies in the Semiotics of the Hieroglyphs). This class of examples will not be covered below but should be considered within the overall topic. Here, rather, episodes of iconoclasm as defined by the destruction or damage to images and texts already in use will be considered, and the examples derive from the New Kingdom, ca. 1500-1300 B.C. The paper will discuss both two- and three- dimensional examples of destruction and will attempt to evaluate the reasons for differences in the treatment of the materials. Further, some discussion of making images effective and then reversing the process will be in order and then it will be set next to the visual remains. Primary eras to be considered will be the mid-18th Dynasty (Hatshepsut and her contemporaries) and the Amarna period — including mutilation by the Atenists and to their monuments afterwards.

Betsy M. Bryan is the Alexander Badawy Professor of Egyptian Art and Archaeology at Johns Hopkins University, where she has taught since 1986. Bryan specializes in the history, art, and archaeology of the New Kingdom in Egypt, ca. 1600-1000 BC, with a particular emphasis on the Eighteenth Dynasty, ca. 1550-1300 BC. Bryan’s research interests include the organization and techniques of art production as well as the religious and cultural significance of tomb and temple decoration. As part of this research she has studied the unfinished elite painted tomb of the royal butler Suemniwet, ca. 1420 BC and is publishing it as a study in painting and its social meaning in the mid-Eighteenth Dynasty. Her current fieldwork is in the temple complex of the goddess Mut at South Karnak which she divides with the Brooklyn Museum’s expedition.

Bryan has also been interested in the presentation of Egypt’s visual history to the public and has curated two major loan exhibitions: Egypt’s Dazzling Sun, on the art of the reign of Amenhotep III, as presented in Cleveland won the Apollo Award as best exhibition of the year. Bryan also worked with the National Gallery of Art for the traveling exhibition from Egypt, The Quest for Immortality. That exhibition featured art illustrating the New Kingdom concepts of afterlife.

Books by Dr. Bryan include The Reign of Thutmose IV (1991), Egypt’s Dazzling Sun: Amenhotep III and his World (1992), The Quest for Immortality: Hidden Treasures of Ancient Egypt (2002), and a children’s book entitled You can Be a Woman Egyptologist.

Robin Cormack. University of Cambridge, Great Britain, “Looking for Iconophobia and Iconoclasm in Late Antiquity and Byzantium”

In 1973 Peter Brown famously said “Altogether, the Iconoclast controversy is in the grip of a crisis of over-explanation.” But the debate about the nature and significance of Christian iconoclasm still rages today across a broad band of interpretations, ranging between the extreme views that, on the one side, Byzantine iconoclasm was the crisis that changed Byzantium from being the continuation of the ancient Roman empire into becoming a medieval Christian empire in the east Mediterranean and at the other extreme that iconoclasm as a movement in the eighth and ninth centuries was virtually non-existent and passed unnoticed in its time.

But a Christian religious society that was based on Judaic traditions and the Ten Commandments inevitably was challenged to question the production and use of images — is it idolatry and so banned in the Old Testament? Can God be represented in art? There are from early on in the history of Christianity piecemeal episodes of hostility to the display of images in churches and of the destruction of images on pagan temples, such as some of the sculptures on the Parthenon in Athens when it was converted into a church. But a key question is whether, and if so when, the early church developed a coherent agreed “image theory.”

Recent investigations of the outbreak of active iconoclasm in Byzantium around 730 and the continuation of state policy banning icons until 843, when the Triumph of the Church declared that the veneration of images was Orthodox doctrine, have been highly revisionist. The key studies are by Dagron, Decrire et peindre (2007); Brubaker and Haldon,Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era c. 680-850 (2001, 2011); Noble, Images, Iconoclasm, and the Carolingians (2009), and Brenk, The Apse, the Image and the Icon (2010). The growing consensus is that opposition to images has been exaggerated in previous histories and that interest in the question of the legitimacy of art was limited to a small circle of thinkers, mostly in Constantinople, and that thinking about art was different in Byzantium from the West. The problem lies in the nature of the evidence. The texts are few, and both ambiguous and deceptive as well as limited to the elite. The surviving images and examples of destruction are more direct to see, and the images are aimed at all levels of society, but they are equally hard to interpret. The aim of this paper is to react to the current literature and assess the character of “iconoclasm” in Byzantium.

Robin Cormack is emeritus professor in the history of art, University of London, research fellow, Courtauld Institute of Art, London, and lecturer in classics in the Faculty of Classics, University of Cambridge. He is currently a visiting scholar at Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, DC (spring 2011).

In his numerous publications he explores Byzantine art and the iconoclasm in Byzantium (“The Arts during the Age of Iconoclasm” and “Painting after Iconoclasm,” both 1977; “The Road to Byzantium,” 2006). His selected publications include numerous books on Byzantine art: Writing in Gold: Byzantine Society and Its Icons (1985); Painting the Soul: Icons, Death Masks, Shrouds (1997); The Art of Holy Russia: Icons from Moscow 1400-1660 (1998, edited with Delia Gaze); Byzantine Art (2000); Through the Looking Glass: Byzantium through British Eyes (2000; edited with Elizabeth Jeffreys); Icons (2007); Sinai, Byzantium, Russia at the Courtauld, (Exhibition Guide, 2000); Handbook of Byzantine Studies (2008; edited and contributor with Elizabeth Jeffreys and John Haldon).

Robin Cormack is an editor for the Oxford Handbook of Byzantine Studies. He was curator of the highly successful exhibition Byzantine 330-1453 at the Royal Academy, London, in 2008/9.

Petra Goedegebuure, The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, “Iconoclasm in Hittite Society: Certainly not Present, and Perhaps Impossible”

There is no evidence for iconoclasm in Hittite society. The non-survival of especially larger-scale statuary makes an archaeological and iconographic approach very difficult, but textually there is not much material either. Hittite texts do not mention the intentional destruction of images, be it divine or human, not even of texts or inscriptions. The Bronze Tablet, a treaty between Tudhaliya IV (1239-1209 BCE) and his cousin Kuruntiya of Tarhuntassa, was found buried under the pavement near the Sphinx Gate rather than melted down, presumably after Kuruntiya had temporarily usurped the throne in Hattusa.

The absence of destruction might be coincidence, but the combination of the famous Hittite religious “tolerance,” the near absence of mutilation of humans, and the distinction between physical form and soul of human and image (images were not typically considered animated) is not favorable to the occurrence of iconoclasm.

Nevertheless, the Hittite word for “image, statue, shape,” esri-, derives from es- “to be,” suggesting the identity of image and being for at least earlier stages of Hittite culture. This might explain that the Old Hittite kingdom (1650-1400 BCE) is also home to the few manifestations of what could be considered a form or precursor of iconoclasm, such as the damnatio memoriae of the ruling queen and the abduction of divine statues by Anitta (Old Assyrian trading period) and Mursili I (the Hittite destruction of Babylon).

I will sketch an outline of the political, religious, and social climate in the Old Hittite Kingdom and Empire period (1400-1180 BCE), and argue that — in contrast with the Old Kingdom — there was never a single moment in the Empire period where the different factors that may lead to iconoclasm coincided.

Goedegebuure is an Assistant Professor Hittitology in the Oriental Institute and academic contributor to the Chicago Hittite Dictionary. Her research interests cover Anatolia during the Old Assyrian karum period and Old Hittite history and culture on the one hand, and the linguistic analysis of Hittite and related Anatolian languages on the other hand. Her linguistic work focuses on four different fields of linguistics: discourse cohesion, deixis, syntax, and language change in contact situations. Among her recent publications are “Central Anatolian Languages and Language Communities in the Colony Period: A Luwian-Hattian Symbiosis and the Independent Hittites,” “Focus Structure and Q-word Questions in Hittite,” and “The Luwian Demonstratives of Place and Manner.” She is currently finalizing The Hittite Demonstratives ka- “this,” apa- “that,” and asi “yon”: Studies in Reference, Deixis and Focus for publication in the monograph series Studien zu den Boghazköy-Texten, and working on a new project provisionally titled The Core Cases in the Anatolian Languages: Semantics, Syntax, Morphology.

Victor Avigdor Hurowitz, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Beer-Sheva, “What’s Wrong with Idols in the First Place?”

The demand for exclusive worship of YHWH (“Monotheism”) and the prohibition on worship of idols have classically been considered the hallmarks of Israelite religion. These two demands are juxtaposed in the Decalogue leading to the assumption that they are related and that worship of idols was ipso facto a breach of monotheism. However, the opposition to worship of idols is not confined to the Decalogue, but occurs elsewhere throughout the Bible in law codes, narrative, prophecy, and Psalms. In these contexts the prohibition is not always linked to the monotheistic demand, but criticized explicitly or implicitly on other grounds as well. Moreover, in Mesopotamian writings, which are unabashedly polytheistic and where use of icons is taken for granted, we find instances of opposition to this or that cult statue as well as texts, which place certain requirements on a cult statue in order that it be considered “kosher,” the implication being that if the requirements are not met the statue is invalid. This paper examines the gambit of anti-idol rationale expressed in Biblical writings. It also surveys the Mesopotamian texts with an anti-idol sentiment as well as the requirements for cult statues. It will be seen that the Biblical polemicists as well as the Mesopotamian authors were aware of some of the same problems inherent in the manufacture and worship of cult statues but related to these problems in different and opposing manners. Among the Biblical texts to be examined are Deutero-Isaiah’s, Jeremiah’s, and the Book of Psalms’ anti-idol diatribes, and the stories of the Golden Calf, Gideon’s Ephod, and Michayahu’s cult statue. We also examine briefly the post-Biblical Epistle of Jeremiah. The Mesopotamian texts include the Verse Account of Nabonidus, the Crimes and Sacrileges of Nabu-shuma-ishkun, the Sun Disk Inscription of Nabobaladan, Esarhaddon’s Babylon inscriptions, and the myth of Erra and Ishum.

Victor Avigdor Hurowitz, born in Philadelphia, is professor in the Department of Bible, Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Studies, Ben-Gurion University, Beer-Sheva. He is a “cuneo-biblist” who illuminates the Hebrew Bible using Mesopotamian sources and applies methodologies commonly used in Biblical studies to explain Akkadian writings. He has written extensively on temples and cult, idolatry, and divination in the Bible and Mesopotamia; literary aspects of Akkadian monumental writings; Biblical Hebrew in light of Akkadian; and Biblical and ancient Near Eastern wisdom literature. His books include I Have Built You an Exalted House: Temple Building in the Bible in Light of Mesopotamian and Northwest Semitic Writings (1992), Inu Anum sirum — Literary Structures in the Non-Juridical Parts of Codex Hammurabi (1994), and Divine Service and Its Rewards. Ideology and Poetics in the Hinke Kudurru (1997). He was twice a fellow at the Annenberg Research Institute, Center for Jewish Studies, University of Pennsylvania. Hurowitz is currently completing a commentary on the Book of Proverbs for the Miqra Le-Yisrael Bible commentary series. Other ongoing projects include an inquiry into the form and symbolism of Solomon’s Temple and a study of the manufacture and use of cult statues in the ancient Near East and Biblical reactions to these activities.

Silke Knippschild, University of Bristol, “Performing the Frontier: The Abduction and Destruction of Religious and Political Signifiers in Greco-Persian Conflicts”

Abducting or destroying religious or political symbols, which create or sustain a community’s social identity, was an established practice of war in the ancient Near East. The Greeks in Asia Minor, part of the Persian empire, had some familiarity with the practice, notably following the quashing of the so-called Ionian Revolt. However, when the Persians abducted political signifiers from Athens and destroyed the sanctuaries of the Acropolis in the Greco-Persian Wars, they produced distinct and unexpected reactions. This paper focuses on Persian and Greek approaches to and perceptions of the destruction and the abduction of sacred or secular identifiers. It discusses the performances of power (and change of power) these practices constituted especially at the frontier and ensuing clashes of cultures.

Silke Knippschild is a lecturer in ancient history at the Department of Classics and Ancient History, University of Bristol. Her main research interests lie in the field of intercultural relations and cross-cultural influences between ancient Western Asia, Greece, and Rome. Her work is interdisciplinary in nature, drawing on written, art historical, and archaeological sources. She is currently working on a book entitled Images as Victims of War, dealing with the destruction of art and theft of political and religious identifiers in the first millennium BCE. She is also working on the reception of ancient art and is co-organizing the conference series Imagines. Imagines I was held at the Universidad de la Rioja in 2007, Imagines II (Seduction and Power) at Bristol in 2010, Imagines III (Magic and the Supernatural) will take place at Mainz in 2012.

Nathaniel Levtow, The University of Montana, “The Life and Death of Images and Texts: Correlations and Social Relations in the Ancient Near East”

Images and texts played central, correlating social roles in the ancient Near East. These roles varied depending on the form, content, and context of a given iconic or textual artifact across the stages of its creation, deployment, and destruction. More broadly, however, these cultural products and practices may be described as ways in which ancient Near Eastern societies represented divine and human subjects interrelating in ritualized social settings. The identity between the subject and object of a representation (e.g., the referent of an image and the image itself, or the content of a text and the text itself) was achieved in the ancient Near East through the ritual integration of its material form, semantic content, and interactive social role. Evidence of purposeful violence against images and texts richly illuminates this identity between “medium and message,” and acts of iconoclasm and textual destruction were common, politically effective components of broader processes of social formation including imperial expansion.

My paper investigates these ritual, sociopolitical dimensions of iconism and textuality in the ancient Near East generally and in ancient Israel specifically. I focus on acts of textual destruction in particular, as a way to better understand the correlations between iconic and textual modes of representation and to gain insight into the iconic, numinous nature of writing in antiquity. I describe the variety of ways in which law codes, treaty tablets, written oracles, loan documents, and divine and royal statuary inscriptions were burned, smashed, buried, immersed, consumed, erased, and rewritten. I classify these practices according to a text’s material form, literary genre, semantic content, historical context, social location, and agent and mode of destruction. I focus on a pool of mid-first-millennium Neo-Assyrian and Israelite sources associated with Assyrian and Babylonian imperial expansion in Mesopotamia and the Levant. I compare acts of textual destruction attested in these sources with correlating acts of iconoclasm and with a range of related practices including the mutilation of human bodies and the destruction of temples, palaces, and cities. My approach to the ritual, sociopolitical dimensions of textual destruction integrates recent perspectives on iconoclasm in the ancient Near East with recent discussions of writing and textual production in ancient Israel. I argue that the destruction of scrolls and inscriptions in the ancient Near East was a ritualized, strategic deployment of violence that targeted scribal representations of social relations and textual embodiments of political power.

Nathaniel Levtow writes about the history, literature, and religions of the ancient Near East and Mediterranean. His research focuses on Israelite religion, its ancient West Asian and Mediterranean cultural contexts, and its extensions and transformations through Greco-Roman Jewish and Christian traditions. His recent book, Images of Others: Iconic Politics in Ancient Israel (2008), examines the political aspects of Israelite and Mesopotamian iconoclasm. His current research interests include the social world of ancient scribes. In his writing and in his teaching, Levtow integrates the study of biblical literature with the cultural history of the ancient world and with social-theoretical approaches to the study of religion.

Natalie N. May, The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, Organizer of the conference. Introduction and “Ali–talimi? Or What Can Be Learned from the Destruction of Figurative Complexes”

The cases of systematic damage inflicted on complexes of images or statues are of particular interest. The choice of objects for destruction here was not casual, but rather intentional. By investigating the motivations of those who carried out the coherent mutilations, we can better understand the social, political, and ritual significance of the depictions themselves.

What can we learn examining recarved and remodeled depictions of the Khorsabad palace courts I and VIII, including those excavated by the Oriental Institute and housed by the Oriental Institute Museum? I attempt to reveal the cause of the remodeling of the royal family member’s image and argue that the reliefs’ recarvings reflect Sargon’s administrative reform. The remodeling of the Khorsabad reliefs is a good instance to demonstrate that recarving does not necessarily present iconoclasm.

Natalie N. May is an Assyriologist and art historian of the ancient Near East. She is a post-doctoral scholar at the Chicago Oriental Institute and the organizer of the conference. She is now preparing for publication a collection of articles on Urban Topography as a Reflection of Society, proceedings of a workshop she organized as a post-doctoral fellow of the TOPOI Cluster of Excellence, and working on the book Sacral Functions of the Neo-Assyrian King, which will publish her dissertation. Besides iconoclasm, her interests include sacred places other than temples in Assyria, Neo-Assyrian triumph, the theology of kingship in Assyria, and the intended archaization in the Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian periods, so some of her recent and forthcoming publications: “Decapitation of Statues and Mutilation of the Image’s Facial Features”; “The Qersu in Neo-Assyrian Cultic Setting: Its Origin, Identi?cation, Depiction, and Evolution”; “The Biblical Tabernacle and the AkkadianQersu“; “City Gates and their Functions in Mesopotamia and Ancient Israel”; “Adoration of the King’s Image; “Royal Triumph as an Aspect of the Neo-Assyrian Decorative Program”; “Triumph in the Ancient Near East: Pilgrimage and Musical Performance”; “‘I Read the Inscriptions from before the Flood …’: Neo-Sumerian Influences in Ashurbanipal’s Royal Self-image.”

W. J. T. Mitchell, The University of Chicago, “Idolatry: Nietzsche, Blake, Poussin”

This lecture aims at a diagnosis of the return of idolatry and its “evil twin,” iconoclasm, in contemporary global political culture, and especially in the contemporary tendency to conceive of war in religious, Manichean terms, as a struggle between Good and Evil. Working through the transvaluations of the idolatry/iconoclasm complex in the philosophy of Nietzsche (Twilight of the Idols and Thus Spake Zarathustra) and the paintings of William Blake, the lecture stages a re-reading of Nicholas Poussin’s classic “scenes of idolatry” inThe Adoration of the Golden Calf (London: National Gallery) and The Plague at Ashdod(Paris: The Louvre). This reading is designed to overturn the canonical view of Poussin as a conventional moralizer whose pictures endorse the brutal iconoclasm mandated by the Second Commandment and reveal him (as in Blake’s description of John Milton) as “a true poet, and of the devil’s party.” The lecture concludes with a return to contemporary scenarios of ethnic cleansing in the war for possession of the “holy land” of Israel-Palestine.

W. J. T. Mitchell is professor of English and art history at the University of Chicago. He is editor of the interdisciplinary journal, Critical Inquiry, a quarterly devoted to critical theory in the arts and human sciences. A scholar and theorist of media, visual art, and literature, Mitchell is associated with the emergent fields of visual culture and iconology (the study of images across the media). He is known especially for his work on the relations of visual and verbal representations in the context of social and political issues. Under his editorship, Critical Inquiry has published special issues on public art, psychoanalysis, pluralism, feminism, the sociology of literature, canons, race and identity, narrative, the politics of interpretation, postcolonial theory, and many other topics. He has been the recipient of numerous awards including the Guggenheim Fellowship and the Morey Prize in art history given by the College Art Association of America. In 2003, he received the University of Chicago’s prestigious Faculty Award for Excellence in Graduate Teaching.

Selected Publications: What do Pictures Want? (2005), The Last Dinosaur Book: The Life and Times of a Cultural Icon (1998), Landscape of Power (1992), Iconology (1987), The Language of Images (1980).

Seth Richardson, The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, “The Hypercoherent Icon: Knowledge, Rationalization, and Disenchantment in Mesopotamia”

The most overt acts of icon destruction in Mesopotamian antiquity belong to the military campaigns of the Neo-Assyrian period. While these acts have rightly drawn attention for their ritual, theological, and political significance, I investigate them as conscious products of and stimuli to a changing intellectual milieu. Without discounting icon destruction as universal problems of representation, and Assyrian representations of the acts as having venerable Mesopotamian precursors, I wish to focus on the ways in which first-millennium BC iconoclasm responded to and informed parallel intellectual currents such as the rationalization of knowledge, a growing antiquarianism, and a disenchantment with place that the age of empires ushered in. We should look at Neo-Assyrian icon destruction as reflective of very immediate concerns, albeit in traditional grammars-of-action, and productive of new beliefs and problems as well.

Seth Richardson is interested in rewriting the history of antiquity around its divisions and multiplicities. In the context of the present conference, he is concerned with the nexus of changes in political and intellectual life and in the pressures that imperial life brought to bear on traditional thinking. In other areas, he works on state collapse, with a historical focus on the late Old Babylonian period: on texts, archives, and prosopography, but also on theoretical approaches informed by political science and comparative literature.

His related work on rebellion in the ancient Near East looks at such factors as non-state actors, disenchantment from state ideologies, and borderlands identities. Mesopotamian conceptions of political geography form another facet of his work, including state efforts to control open space and rural social orders.

His current projects include work on ancient labor, theory-of-value, and scope-of-the-economy; the development of Old Babylonian divinatory literature; a “new military history” of Mesopotamia; and a historiographic appraisal of the Assyrian siege of Jerusalem in 701 BC. He has been assistant professor of ancient Near Eastern history at the University of Chicago since 2003.

Hanspeter Schaudig, University of Heidelberg, “Death of Statues and Rebirth of Gods”

Modern concepts in the West, dominated by Jewish, Christian, and Muslim beliefs, in general hold it that the idea of god implies that this entity is fundamentally transcendental, immutable, and immortal.

Moreover, the “unborn unbegetter” is neither born, nor does he father divine children. When applied to the ancient Near East, these concepts are quickly contrasted with very different notions of the divine.

There, gods were born, and they could die or be killed. There are cases of gods who seasonally die and rise again, i.e., gods of vegetation and fertility. These cases however will not be investigated in this paper. I deal with the topic of gods dying or being put to death in the course of conflicts between other gods or even humans. This paper discusses the relationship between a deity and his or her cult statue which he or she inhabits in the human world, and what it means when the statue is damaged or destroyed, and restored again. I discuss the reasons why a god could be put to death, and who was entitled and able to do so. And the paper discusses the ways how — after such a fatal conflict — the changing interpretation of a deity’s role and identity could take effect in the process of restoring the cult statue, giving the deity a “second chance.”

Hanspeter Schaudig is an Assyriologist with a special interest in the literature and history of Babylonia and Assyria in the first millennium BCE. As his dissertation he prepared a new edition of the inscriptions of Nabonidus and Cyrus the Great. His second book, Explaining Disaster, is completed and will be published shortly. It deals with historical omens and legends, and how the Babylonians explained catastrophes as divine punishment. Great attention is given to the way major disasters like the Ibbi-Sîn Disaster or the devastation of Babylonia by Kutir-Nahhunte and later by Sennacherib were systematized and fitted into a religious-historical framework that allowed Babylonia to maintain the assertion that its national god, be it Enlil or Marduk, nevertheless was the superior agent, even in times of defeat. The issue of abduction, destruction, and restoration of idols is closely linked to this larger topic, which then may as well be dubbed “Surviving Disaster.”

JoAnn Scurlock, Elmhurst College, “Getting Smashed at the Victory Celebration, or What Happened to Esarhaddon’s so-called Vassal Treaties and Why”

As the Medes stormed through the palaces of Assyrian kings, they took time out from looting and indiscriminate slaughter to deface Assyrian reliefs and to destroy key documents, particularly copies of the so-called Esarhaddon Vassal treaties to which their ancestors had been parties. It is here argued that the motivation for smashing these tablets was to cancel the appended curses so as to avoid the divine consequences of betrayal.

JoAnn Scurlock, a native of Kansas City, Missouri, received her BA and PhD from the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations of the University of Chicago. She has authored two books: Magico-Medical Means of Treating Ghost Induced Illnesses in Ancient Mesopotamia (2006) and Diagnoses in Assyrian and Babylonian Medicine (2005). She has written extensively on Mesopotamian magic, medicine, death customs, the military, and other aspects of cultural history. She taught in the history department of Elmhurst College.

Claudia E. Suter, University of Basel, Switzerland, “Why Gudea of Lagash?”

No early Mesopotamian ruler has left us so many statues as Gudea, who reigned in the city-state of Lagash toward the end of the third millennium BCE. Many of them were decapitated and the surviving heads show damaged facial features. His stelae, which commemorate temple building activities, have been found even more mutilated, an assortment of muddled fragments with the ruler’s face effaced. Gudea’s reign fell in a time not long after the collapse of the centralized state of Akkad and partly overlapped with the formation of another centralized state under the Third Dynasty of Ur. The kings of these states claimed control over Mesopotamia or even the entire universe. By contrast, Gudea wanted to be seen and remembered as a traditional city-state ruler. This contribution tackles the question why his monuments were deliberately destroyed.

Claudia E. Suter studies ancient Near Eastern images and texts; among her interests are visual and verbal communication, image-text relationships, the representation of power, and cultural identities and ideologies of ruling classes in pre-modern societies. Her publications include Gudea’s Temple Building: The Representation of an Early Mesopotamian Ruler in Text and Image (2000), “Between Human and Divine: High Priestesses in Images from the Akkad to the Isin-Larsa Period,” and “Luxury Goods in Ancient Israel: Questions of Consumption and Production.” Together with Christoph Uehlinger she edited the volume Crafts and Images in Contact: Studies on Eastern Mediterranean Art of the First Millennium BCE (2005). She is now working on comprehensive edition of Samaria ivories.

Lee Palmer Wandel, The University of Wisconsin-Madison, “Idolatry and Iconoclasm: Alien Religions and Reformation”

Sixteenth-century iconoclasts called the things they attacked “idols,” linking them to objects that Europeans were encountering in the Western Hemisphere. My paper explores further the interplay of incarnational theology, the material culture of Christianity, and conflicting conceptualizations of worship — the relationship among human beings, the things they make, and God — among sixteenth-century European Christians. It draws upon specific case studies of iconoclasm, iconoclastic theology, and narratives of “idolatry” in both the Old World and the New.

Lee Palmer Wandel is professor of history, religious studies, and visual culture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is the author of Always Among Us: Images of the Poor in Zwingli’s Zurich (1990), Voracious Idols and Violent Hands: Iconoclasm in Reformation Zurich, Strasbourg, and Basel (1994), The Eucharist in the Reformation: Incarnation and Liturgy (2006), and most recently The Reformation: Towards a New History, all with Cambridge University Press. She is co-author with Robin Winks of Europe in a Wider World, 1350-1650 (2003). She has been a member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, a Guggenheim Fellow, and most recently a senior fellow at the Institute for Research in the Humanities. Currently, she is working on a study of catechisms and the construction of religion in the Reformation.

Joan Goodnick Westenholz, New York University, Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, “Damnatio Memoriae: Destruction of Name and Destruction of Person in Third-Millennium Mesopotamia

This talk considers the effectiveness of the curse for the protection of the image of the deceased individual. In particular, the specific destruction of images of a ruler after his death, whether real or imagined, is investigated. The belief that the one who destroyed a person’s name was thought somehow to have destroyed the person and that this carried forward beyond the grave was fundamental to the Mesopotamian religious community.

Joan Goodnick Westenholz has directed her research on ancient Mesopotamian studies, especially the subjects of religion and literature. She has investigated Mesopotamian theological conceptions and the practice of religion. All her investigations have integrated the image and the text as she did in a course she gave with that title at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and in her article, “The King, the Emperor, and the Empire: Continuity and Discontinuity of Royal Representation in Text and Image.”

In particular, she has concentrated her efforts on the understanding of the heroic epics of the Sargonic kings of the first empire-building Dynasty of Akkade, placing them in their historical framework and historiographical context in her book Legends of the Kings of Akkade (1997). The mutilation of the image of the Old Akkadian king was discussed in her review of “The Old Akkadian Presence in Nineveh: Fact or Fiction.” The treatment of the memory of these kings was reviewed in “The Memory of Sargonic Kings under the Third Dynasty of Ur.”

In June 2010 Joan Westenholz organized a symposium on “The Icon and the Idol, Aniconism and Iconoclasm: The Problem of Divine Anthropomorphic Images” at Käte Hamburger Kolleg, Ruhr-Universität Bochum, Germany.

Christopher Woods, The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, “Mutilation of Text and Image in Early Sumerian Sources”


This paper investigates the earliest Mesopotamian references to the purposeful destruction or mutilation of texts and images as attested primarily in third-millennium textual sources, analyzing the textual attestations in connection with the contemporaneous evidence for such desecrations known from the archaeological record. Evidence from legal, historical, and literary texts is discussed. Particular attention is paid to the prohibitions against the mutilation, removal, and deportations of stelae and statues as described in the curse formulas of the earliest royal inscriptions. Such injunctions, based upon these early templates, would become a hallmark of later Mesopotamian curse formulary. A lexical and contextual analysis of these attestations within the framework of the royal rhetoric is also provided. On the level of literary analysis, it is argued that such acts of mutilation — the erasure of the royal name in particular — were understood as inversions of the common Mesopotamian literary topos that regarded naming and being as conceptually inseparable.

Christopher Woods is associate professor of Sumerology in the Oriental Institute, University of Chicago, and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Near Eastern Studies. His interests include Sumerian grammar and writing, and early Mesopotamian religion, literature, and culture. His recent publications include The Grammar of Perspective: The Sumerian Conjugation Prefixes as a System of Voice (2008). He is presently working on two book manuscripts: Materials for the Sumerian Lexicon 18: Igituh, Idu, Lanu, and the Group Vocabularies (MSL 18) and Gilgamesh in Sumerian Literary Tradition.

Download Selected Bibliography in Adobe Portable Document Format (pdf)

Revised: March 22, 2011


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