Johns Hopkins Magazine - February 1995 Issue

Humanities & the Arts

From Paris to Palestine, etc.

"To do" and other lists from 3,000 years ago

The artisans who inhabited the ancient Egyptian village of Deir el-Medina were inveterate jotters. They wrote down everything: receipts, lists of things they had to remember, agreements, notes on everyday life in the village, bureaucratic details. Because they made their notes on flakes of limestone and because they lived in the desert, some 30,000 of these jottings still exist.

Andrea McDowell, assistant professor of Near Eastern Studies, is assembling an anthology of these texts that she'd like to call Laundry Lists & Love Songs. That title reflects the diversity of material that has survived for 3,000 years. "People wrote down the most trivial things," McDowell says. "You can really get to know individuals."

Deir el-Medina was what McDowell refers to as "a company town," near Luxor. The Egyptian rulers used it to house the artisans who decorated the tombs of the Valley of the Kings. It was inhabited from roughly 1550 to 1100 BCE by an elite corps of draftsmen, painters, and other craftsmen. McDowell says that during a time when the literacy rate among the Egyptian population at large might have been only 2 percent, some evidence indicates that every male in Deir el-Medina had been taught to read and write. The remarkable collection of texts they left behind represents an unparalleled record of New Kingdom life, because so many people were able to write so much down.

Deir el-Medina was built in the desert, near the tombs that were the artisans' workplaces. Covered by sand after its residents disbanded about 3,000 years ago, much of the village remained intact for excavators to unearth in the 20th century. So well-preserved is the settlement that the walls of dwellings still exist. In a tomb, archaeologists found a spice basket filled with cumin that looks like it just came off a grocery shelf.

The texts that McDowell studies exist on flakes of limestone, which was cheaper than papyrus and which ended up lasting longer. Says McDowell, "Limestone was the scrap paper of the time." Though some of the writings were meant to be saved for a time, most were informal, written in the cursive form of hieroglyphs known as hieratic.

A large number of these texts were found in an enormous pit in the village. McDowell speculates that villagers, tired of hauling water by donkey from the nearby cultivated fields, tried to dig a well. She believes they went down more than 50 meters, then gave up when they still hadn't reached the water table. Left with a huge hole, she says, they simply started tossing in their garbage, including thousands of their limestone jottings.

Since the villagers made notes about so many things, and were unself-conscious about documents that mostly were not meant to last, McDowell has at her disposal an intimate look at everyday life. She really has found laundry lists and love songs, as well as records of employee absences, receipts for deliveries, ruminations on God, and notes on the progress of work. "They were incredibly bureaucratic," she says of the villagers.

One ostracon, as the pieces of limestone are called, records the settlement of a dispute over who was entitled to a hut. One man's father had owned the dwelling. But another man lived in it and had made improvements. To whom did the hut rightfully belong? McDowell says the ostracon shows that the first man got the property, but had to pay the second man for the improvements.

As artisans, many of the villagers made small sketches on limestone, which also have survived. One shows a woman kneeling in front of an oven, blowing on the coals. Another portrays a workman, complete with bulbous nose and stubbly chin; McDowell notes that the draftsman who executed that sketch portrayed himself in the scene in a much more elegant manner. --Dale Keiger

And the grand prize is...playing Paganini's violin

When Bin Huang (Peabody '95) won the 41st Paganini International Violin Competition in Genoa, Italy, last October, her prize included something only this competition can offer: the opportunity to perform on Niccol• Paganini's Guarneri violin. The instrument, with which the famed 19th-century virtuoso once dazzled the world, resides in a display case in Genoa City Hall. Once a year, city officials take it out for the winner of the competition to play during the recital.

"It's an extraordinary instrument," says Bin, a 23-year-old artist diploma student. "It's hard to explain . . . just the way it makes you play, it makes you play grander, bigger. You put more in each note."

To date, the Paganini has been the biggest prize in the accelerating career of Bin, a citizen of the People's Republic of China. She came to Peabody in 1988 to study with Berl Senofsky after training at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. In 1985, she won the Wieniawski International Violin Competition in Poland. As a result of her Paganini victory, she says she has received 30 concert bookings, most of them in Italy and China.

She knew that she had played well during the three rounds of the Paganini. "I was expecting something," she says, "but I wasn't sure. I played last, so I didn't know how anybody else did."

After she graduates from Peabody this spring, Bin says she is hopeful of a career as a soloist. She plans to enter more competitions: "It's enjoyable, not necessarily fun. You have to play well under pressure. I want to reach the highest level, and there's never an end." --DK

A crusading French king who wanted to be Solomon

Scholars, like detectives, tend to look for something that departs from the norm, then seek to explain it. Daniel H. Weiss, assistant professor of history of art, had noticed that three pictures from a 13th-century French Old Testament didn't match the other illustrations, and his quest for an explanation recently won for him the Medieval Academy of America's Van Courtlandt Elliott Prize.

The prize recognizes a first article of merit by a new scholar. Weiss's article, bearing the jawbreaker title "The Three Solomon Portraits in the Arsenal Old Testament and the Construction of Meaning in Crusader Painting," appeared in the periodical Arte Medievale in June 1992.

The Arsenal Old Testament was created, scholars believe, by order of King Louis IX to commemorate his Holy Land crusade of 1248 to 1254. The crusade was a military disaster, but produced some fine illuminated manuscripts. Louis took artisans with him on his march to Palestine, and they established a remarkable publishing center in Acre. Their most famous work was the Arsenal Old Testament, a beautiful manuscript executed on more than 350 sheets of vellum, with 20 illustrations.

The three gold-leaf-and-tempera pictures from this manuscript that caught Weiss's eye appear in the Book of Proverbs. All depict King Solomon. Weiss wondered why there were three of them. The images seemed redundant; elsewhere in the Arsenal manuscript one picture usually suffices to illustrate an Old Testament book. They were also static portraits, different from the action scenes that comprised most of the other pictures. There had to be an explanation; in a manuscript for the king, artisans would hardly have exercised their whims.

Looking at the portraits, Weiss noticed that the settings differed. The first portrays Solomon in his ancient temple, addressing a boy. The latter two show Solomon again with the boy--but in these he is framed by a pointed trefoil arch that, to Weiss, strongly resembled a similar arch in Sainte-Chapelle, the vast reliquary that Louis built in Paris just prior to embarking on his crusade. In his article in Arte Medievale, Weiss argues that the trio of Solomon pictures was intended to represent the idea, already current in France and probably promoted by the king himself, that Louis was the new King Solomon.

Louis appears to have believed that a spiritual bridge linked Paris with Palestine, Weiss says. Pictorially, this bridge is represented in the Arsenal Old Testament by the first picture showing Solomon in his temple in Jerusalem, and the next two pictures showing the same figure in a similar pose, now in Sainte-Chapelle. Writes Weiss, "Such a conception was uniquely suited to Louis IX, the crusader king who devoted his life to uniting the eastern and western Christian worlds under his leadership."

An immodest notion, the assertion by Louis that he was the new Solomon nevertheless had its uses. According to Weiss, Louis was an extraordinarily spiritual man. His subjects and even other monarchs in Europe described him as the "most Christian king," and they revered him for his passion for justice and fairness--a passion akin to that of Solomon. That Louis regarded himself as the incarnation of the wise Israeli king demonstrated the intensity of his faith. On a more pragmatic level, asserting such closeness to God helped Louis rule his subjects, says Weiss. Who would want to contradict or disobey the new King Solomon? As Weiss puts it, "Loyalty to France was indistinguishable from loyalty to the church. There's a tradition of using art for agendas other than the strictly religious. [These portraits] were a strategy to maintain power."

The Solomon illustrations, as well as others in the Arsenal manuscript, also justified the crusade and its slaughter of Jews and Muslims, Weiss believes. Various scenes show crusaders in the guise of Joshua, Gideon, Samson, and other biblical figures. Says Weiss, "The imagery is all about fighting this holy war. Louis is only doing what God has commanded him to do."

That duty came at a price for Louis and his men, and Weiss says you can see that, too, in the Arsenal imagery. Before he even reached Palestine, Louis was defeated, captured, and held for ransom in Egypt. By the time he made it to Palestine with the ragtag remnants of his army, his idealism was much diminished. What remained was duty to God, however grim the undertaking. Weiss says you can sense that grimness in images such as the one that shows Jephthah about to sacrifice his daughter, the price he paid God for permitting him to defeat the Ammonites.

"The crusade was an unmitigated failure that haunted Louis for the rest of his life," says Weiss. The king tried again, in 1270, and this crusade cost him his life; he died in Tunis, probably of dysentery.

The art historian hopes later this year to complete a longer work on this scholarly research. He has titled the book The Language of Art in the Age of Louis IX. --DK

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