The Past Re-Made: The Case of Oriental Carpets

By Eiland, Murray L.,, III | Antiquity, December 1993 | Go to article overview

The Past Re-Made: The Case of Oriental Carpets


Eiland, Murray L.,, III, Antiquity


Old carpets, as informative material objects, are therefore the proper stuff of archaeology. Aspects of the carpet world offer food for thought as to how entities we recognize among the debris of antiquity come to be recognized and valued. Here James Mellaart's recorded paintings from Catal Huyuk, which 'surfaced' a generation after the dig was completed, have now come to have an unexpected role.

Carpets: names and histories

The process by which an unprovenanced object of purported antiquity acquires a genealogy and value involves the fabrication of history. Not often the recipient of 'serious scholarship', carpets have long been considered the domain of thieves, swindlers and naive romantics -- all busy fabricating history. While a solid data-base has been developed from which rugs may be coherently categorized and understood, dealers apparently still manufacture myths and trade terminology with facile grace. Although the best of the new books now reflect a scholarly approach to their subject, many are still little more than thinly disguised sales talk.

The major sources of information about the oriental carpet have often been dealers, who can be extremely insightful and well informed, but who are also interested in selling. Some early scholars prominent in the field were dealers, although not actually presenting themselves as businessmen. F.R. Martin, author of the first comprehensive history of oriental carpets (1908), was a successful dealer. Arthur Upham Pope, organizing force behind the massive, six-volume Survey of Persian art (1937/8), actually was the selling agent of a number of classic carpets depicted in his history. How objective is a dealer in his scholarship while he is simultaneously trying to sell a rug? Creative labelling by dealers illustrates the problem. Starting in the 1920s, a group of large, red field carpets, originally seen as originating from Mughal India, began to be labelled as 'Isfahans', presumably from the Safavid court. Strong evidence against this appellation began to surface with non-dealer carpet scholars such as May Beattie (1972: 39-40) and Charles Grant Ellis (1988: 211). Further scholars, such as Eiland, Jr (the father of the writer), noted that even today the greatest concentration of these rugs remains in Jaipur. Early Mughal buildings, including Akbar's tomb in Sikandra and a number of structures at Fatehpur Sikri, show architectural details similar to those found on the carpets. Mughal miniatures, such as in the Hamza Nama, also show a similar design vocabulary (Eiland, Jr 1991). Unfortunately, the dealers today still find that the rugs sell best as 'Isfahans'. Mellaart, Catal Huyuk and Anatolian kilims

Dealer scholarship, making use of a prominent archaeologist, has resulted in Turkish kilims, long a low spot on the market, now being sold as 'archaeological relics'. Many Turkish kilims have risen from 10 to 100 times their previous value, over a time-span of less than five years, following a recent publication of James Mellaart, known excavator of Catal Huyuk and Hacilar in Turkey. Although Mellaart's last excavations there were in 1965, he announced in 1983, at the 4th International Conference on Oriental Carpets in London (published by Frauenknecht 1984) that he had withheld a number of drawings from Catal Huyuk that demonstrated a startling connection between Neolithic art and the modern Anatolian kilim. In 1989, he produced 44 reconstructed drawings alleged to be of wall paintings found at Catal Huyuk (Mellaart et al. 1989). Almost immediately, a wave of enthusiasm directed toward those kilims thought to contain descendants of the Mellaart 'goddess figures'. Kilims that had been a 'hard sell' at $2000 were fetching prices in the vicinity of $50,000 or more. In reaction, rug scholars compared Mellaart's original field reports with the new material in his goddess publication (Eiland, Jr 1990). In 1967, Mellaart provided a chart in which he clearly delineated which of the excavated rooms at Catal Huyuk had wall paintings, and he further described their content (Mellaart 1967: 81). …

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