Conspectus Librorum - Book Review:
Hardcover. Black & white illustrations. X-248 pages text + 64 pages figures. ISBN 978-3-7278-1602-4
Price: sFr. 98,-.
Academic Press Fribourg
Fax: +41-(0)26-426 4300
The so-caled Assyrian sacred tree is the most discussed motif in the historiography of Assyrian art. It is familiar from the reliefs in the throneroom of Assurnasirpal II at Nimrud, but it has a family of close relatives that appear in a variety of other media. To date, no contemporary text has been found that mentions this 'tree', and, as a result, scholars have not yet arrived at a consensus on its iconography. Nevertheless great efforts have been made to decipher the symbol, ever since A. H. Layard recovered the Nimrud reliefs in the mid-ninteenth century.
This book traces the intricate history of the iconography debate, from 1849 to the present. Scholars have tended towards three principal interpretations of the sacred tree: that it represents the 'tree of life' known from Genesis, or a stylized date palm, or a constructed cult object. The 'tree of life' theory has had few takers since the late nineteenth century (although it has recently enjoyed a small revival); the date palm interpretation, on the other hand, has dominated the discussion since 1890, when E. B. Tylor proposed that winged figures standing on either side of the tree were fertilizing it. This analysis has a number of serious objections levelled against it from the beginning, but it managed to thrive, primarily because it built up a critical scholarly mass early on in the debate. The third of the main interpretations, the cult object theory, also fell victim to the date palm theory in the middle of the last century, and the details of its argument have been largely forgotten by recent contributors to the debate.
In the author's view it is the most promising of the three, and she builds upon the arguments of earlier cult objects theorists using archaeological textual material. The book, then, a critical historiography, which both surveys the vast literature on this topic and intervenes in the debate. It will be found invaluable by anyone who whishes to study this enigmatic motif, and it will also be of interest to historians of Assyrian art and religious cult. And as an analysis of the ways in which a scholarly debate can fall victim to an implausible consensus, it will provide a useful test case for students in the growing field of historiography.
Academic Press Fribourg