Johns Hopkins Magazine -- February 1997
Johns Hopkins Magazine


H U M A N I T I E S    &    T H   A R T S

Lessons in ancient diplomacy from the Amarna Letters... a fast-riding Celtic harp champ... taking issue with Sex in America

Diplomatic cables of antiquity
To a lay reader, the contents of the ancient Amarna Letters seem mundane. Written in the 14th century B.C.E. on approximately 350 cunieform tablets, the letters include information about marriages, gift-giving, and other seemingly trivial stuff.

But scholars recently have begun to appreciate what the letters truly represent: a trove of information about ancient diplomacy. In many respects, the letters are the diplomatic cables of their day, a record of how the ancient Egyptians maintained their hegemony 3,400 years ago, says professor of Near Eastern studies Raymond Westbrook. He has helped coordinate the effort to understand the Amarna Letters in diplomatic terms.

The tablets were found in 1887 at el-Amarna, about 190 miles north of Cairo. They were written in Akkadian, the diplomatic lingua franca of the ancient Near East. About 50 were correspondence between the government of Egypt and powerful neighboring states such as Babylonia, Mitanni, Hatti, and Assyria. Most of the rest involved smaller, vassal city-states like Jerusalem, Damascus, and Byblos.

"At first the scholarly emphasis was on language," says Westbrook. "For philologists, for biblical scholars, they were a gold mine. But it was felt that the letters were disappointing in their content. On the surface they look absolutely trivial. But underneath, it's all about diplomatic bargaining and political alliances and prestige, all wrapped up in a diplomatic language. It's a code you have to break."

About three years ago, Westbrook was teaching a Hopkins course on the Amarna Letters. Frustrated by his limited understanding of their content, he showed an English translation to a political scientist, Raymond Cohen of Hebrew University, Jerusalem. Recalls Westbrook, "He said, �I can see what's going on here. It's what goes on today.' Suddenly a light dawned--there was a subtext here that must be analyzed like modern diplomatic correspondence."

Westbrook cites one letter in which the Egyptian pharaoh is complaining to the king of Babylonia. The pharaoh previously had asked for one of the king's daughters as a wife. The king had responded by noting that the pharaoh already had one of his sisters. Furthermore, recent emissaries to Egypt from Babylonia reported that they had not seen her in the Egyptian court. Clearly miffed, the pharaoh responds:

Did you...ever send here a dignitary of yours who knows your sister, who could speak with her and identify her?...The men whom you sent here are nobodies...

What the pharaoh actually was saying, according to Westbrook, was that he expected the Babylonian king to show him more respect by sending higher-level emissaries next time. "This marriage of a Babylonian royal daughter to the pharaoh is not for love, it's an alliance," Westbrook notes. Sending his daughter off to marry the pharaoh would raise the status of the king, and thus of Babylonia. In exchange for this lent prestige, the pharaoh demanded more respect. Says Westbrook, "Prestige and status were terribly important." By such means did Egypt and Babylonia negotiate their peaceful coexistence.

Last September, Westbrook and Cohen brought together an international panel of diplomats, political scientists, and Near East scholars in Bellagio, Italy, to discuss the letters. The seminar included Hopkins's Steven David, professor of political science, and Betsy Bryan, professor of Near Eastern studies.

The participants examined how Egypt and its neighbors maintained relative peace, despite an enthusiasm for war that was typical of the time. "They saw war as a good thing," Westbrook says. "A manly thing, yes? And the gods required them to conquer foreign lands. But nonetheless, they made peace. Being a member of a prestigious club [of nations] was a good thing."

David, who first read the letters at Westbrook's urging, says, "It's fascinating stuff. Here you have the world's oldest diplomatic archive, stuff written before the Bible, detailing the workings of superpowers. One of the strongest lessons I get from this is the continuity of human behavior, everything from men wanting gifts of women, to concern with honor and respect. Plotting against people, struck me as depressingly familiar."

Westbrook believes that modern diplomats could learn something from how these ancient states conducted their diplomacy. He points out that the U.S. must deal with cultures that resemble these ancient states in certain respects. "If you understand what made the king of Babylonia wage war or make peace, you might be able to appeal to the same traditions of states, like modern Iraq, that similarly are not democratic and regard religion as terribly important." --Dale Keiger

Celtic harp champ
Just six years after taking up the Celtic harp, Carol Rose Duane (Peabody '79) is the reigning national champion. She won the title at the 13th annual National Clarsach Competition last summer.

Duane, who studied piano at Peabody, saw a Celtic harp at a craft show in Santa Fe and ordered it in part for its visual appeal. "Then I thought, �You know, I really ought to learn to play it,'" she says.

The Celtic harp--clarsach in Gaelic, also called the Irish, folk, or Scottish harp--has 20-33 strings. It lacks the foot pedals of the concert harp, commonly known as the pedal harp. Duane had the good fortune to live down the street from a noted professional player, Sue Richards, a four-time national harp champion who became her friend and teacher.

"It just changed everything about my life," says Duane. "The harp is so magical. What appeals to me is the mythology and mysticism associated with it. Harps strike people very deeply. I'll play piano in a room and people won't even notice me. But I play the harp and it's, "Oh my gosh, the harp! Tell me about the harp!"

Duane's ability as a pianist didn't help her learn to play the harp. "Some of the easiest things on a piano are tough on the harp," she says. "Your first piano lesson, you learn how to play C-D-E. That's easy, anyone can do it. On a harp, you play C-D-E and your fingers are tripping all over each other."

Six months after beginning study, she entered the novice division of the national competition--and won. Three years later, she missed the national amateur championship, which is the next level up, by a single point. The next year, 1995, she won it, earning the $1,000 toward study in Scotland. Last year she moved up to the top-rank professional competition and won again.

Writing your own arrangements is part of competing at the national championships, Duane explains. "The repertoire isn't all written out and available," she says. "When I go to play in a competition, I've pretty much built my compositions from a melody line." Her conservatory training has considerably enhanced her competitive standing. "There aren't a lot of people running around with the ability to play and do a good arrangement, an arrangement that's Scottish since this is a Scottish competition," she says. "Part of winning is the ability to play something that sounds authentic."

Duane, who also teaches piano and harp, has noticed one pleasant consequence of winning the championship--more gigs. "People call up and ask, �How do I know you're a good player?' And I say, 'Well, I've won the national championship.' Then they figure it's safe to hire me for their Christmas party." --DK

Quantifying the unquantifiable
When the book Sex in America appeared in 1994, its contents were much talked about because of a conclusion that seemed startling to many commentators: despite a much-ballyhooed "sexual revolution," most Americans led routine sex lives. That is, said the study, the majority engaged in heterosexual intercourse with (and only with) their spouses. Furthermore, those spouses were similar to their partners in race, education, and age.

When professor of English Mary Poovey read the study, as part of her scholarly interest in the production of knowledge, she came away convinced it has serious flaws. In her analysis, the study's basic methodology was wrong. What's more, the authors arrived at conclusions unsupported by their own data. She delivered her conclusions in a recent paper titled "No Sex in America."

Sex in America was based on a statistical survey of 3,500 Americans conducted by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC). A coalition of federal agencies, led by the National Institutes of Health, had called for the survey in 1987, in response to the AIDS pandemic. After congressional opposition killed public funding, several private foundations paid NORC to conduct the survey.

Poovey asserts that NORC resorted to statistics to boost the study's credibility with policy makers and academics. But, she says, you simply cannot study sex adequately by asking people what they do in bed and then counting the responses. "The utilization of statistics," she says, "represents sexuality as mere sex acts, as something quantifiable, stripping any cultural meaning from people's actions."

To quantify something, she points out, the something quantified must be stable. That is, if you're counting, say, red houses, red must always be red; it can't sometimes be blue. Yet it is the nature of human sexuality to be changeable and hard to categorize. For example, if a male respondent reported a single homosexual act, did that make him homosexual? Bisexual? A heterosexual male who had experimented once? What about a woman who was bisexual for five years, then decided that she preferred men? Poovey quotes the study's authors as conceding, "People often change their sexual behavior during their lifetimes." Because of this, Poovey points out, the study basically gave up on any attempt to quantify homosexuality; it was excluded from the results. She argues that the same changeability of sexual identity should invalidate statistical study of heterosexuality as well.

The study's authors erred again, Poovey says, when they interpreted their data. She asserts that they took a statistical population, which was selected to provide a representative sample of the U.S. population, and treated it as if it were a social group, with the same sort of social dynamics as, say, a neighborhood. Poovey quotes the study: "Your sexual partner is expected to be part of your crowd, so your partner has to be appropriate, has to fit in, which means that your partner is expected to be much like you, your friends, and your family."

How, Poovey wants to know, do the researchers deduce this sort of social interaction from a numerical survey of a population assembled only for purposes of statistical study? "Statistical analysis is essentially descriptive. It does not imply any theories about causation or agency."

Poovey claims that the authors' conclusions were colored by their desire to market Sex in America as a trade press book. She notes that in the book's opening paragraphs, the authors state that "myths" about sexuality damage "self-esteem, marriages, relationships, even physical health." This, she says, establishes a "therapeutic dynamic," and aligns Sex in America with popular self-help books. Poovey believes that by interpreting their data in such a way as to present a reassuring picture of "normalcy," the authors made their study more acceptable to the public.

--Keri Hicks '97 and Dale Keiger