TRADITION: TRANSMISSION OF CULTURE IN THE ANCIENT WORLD

(Danish Studies in Classical Archaeology Acta Hypoborea 14)

Ed. by Jane Fejfer, Mette Moltesen and Annette Rathje

Museum Tusculanum Press: Copenhagen (2015) p/b 493pp £55.99 (ISBN 9788763542586)

Tradition is central to culture. It is through the consistent choice of making and doing in a particular way things that could equally well be done or made differently that we recognize cultures and identify sub-cultures. Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger offered a framework for thinking about The Invention of Tradition in 1983, and a range of works has highlighted particular aspects of cultural transmission (one might think of Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence [1973] or Norman Bryson’s Tradition and Desire [1984]) that could do with more thinking about in the context of the ancient world, but the question of why traditions persist awaits theorization and proper historical analysis. Explorations of identity, both in gender studies (following Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity [1990]) and in studies of ethnicity (cf. recently N. Mac Sweeney ‘Beyond Ethnicity’ Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology 22 [2009] 101–26), as well as work on the agency of objects (following Alfred Gell’s Art and Agency [1998]), make this a good moment to try to get to grips with the issues of tradition and cultural transmission.

Unfortunately, beyond the first two pages of the introduction, this volume shows no interest in getting to grips with the issues at all. Some papers never even use the word tradition, and those that do fail to interrogate the term. Tradition turns out not to be a problem to be investigated but a hold-all into which any sort of archaeological enquiry whatever can be fitted. This volume is effectively an archaeological miscellany (since when did ‘culture’ exclude literature and music?)—something implicitly acknowledged by the editors by placing the papers in alphabetical order of the surname of the author.

Like most miscellanies this contains some things worth reading, and rather more worth looking at. For while the standards of relevance, English, and editing (there is no index) are low, the standards of production are extremely high: a very large percentage of the figures is in colour and of the highest quality. Among contributions worth reading I would pick out Jane Fejfer’s ‘Statues of Roman Women and Cultural Transmission: Understanding the So-called Ceres Statue as a Roman Portrait Carrier’ and Rubina Raja’s ‘Palmyrene Funerary Portraits in Context: Portrait Habit between Local Traditions and Imperial Trends’. But if I were putting together a bibliography of things worth looking at to think further about tradition, not even these would make the cut. This is an outstanding example of the way many academics think it acceptable to take part in a conference on a theme and then give a paper that has no intellectual engagement with it. Only Tarm Bogtryk, the Danish printer, comes out of this volume looking good.

Professor Robin Osborne—King’s College, Cambridge

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