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Editor's Note, September/October 2002

Different Witnesses

By Mary Lou Beatty | HUMANITIES, September/October 2002 | Volume 23, Number 5

As an expert in American antiques, Leigh Keno sees the early history of our country reflected in the objects that surround him. “I think that the surface of a piece records the conversation of the life around it,” he tells NEH Chairman Bruce Cole. A chair, Keno says, is “not just a chair and every piece has a story to tell.”

The eloquence of objects is a recurring thread in this issue of Humanities. We find unexpected pieces of our past across oceans and millennia. An NEH-supported exhibition opening in New York this fall takes us to western Asia and “The Legacy of Genghis Khan.” It is not a story of conquest as much as one of cultural exchange conveyed in silk and pottery and porcelain. In time, the Mongols would embrace the unfamiliar religions of their far reaches: Buddhism in China, Islam in Iran.

At the same time, they spread the visual symbols of their temporal power.

“As they created a pax mongolica that allowed exchanges along the entire continent of Asia, they also wanted to create a universal history that would show how their place in history was justified,” says Stefano Carboni, associate curator of Islamic Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Linda Komaroff, a fellow curator from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, agrees. In the compendium of Chronicles by Rashid al-Din, all of the leaders of the past are recast as Mongols. Komaroff points out: “You have an image of Noah, but he looks like a Mongol. Or you have the pre-Islamic kings of Iran but they look like Mongols. Or you have the Chinese emperors, but their faces are Mongol facial types. What it did was to put the Mongols right on the center stage of world history. Up until the time of Genghis Khan, they had been a blip on the radar screen.”

The power of the image as an instrument of legitimacy was nothing new. Images had been used long before then to immortalize Egyptian pharoahs and Sumerian kings. The Sumerians used the same word, mu, to signify both “name” and “fame.” By creating inscriptions and documenting their feats, the kings attempted to establish mu dari, or an “eternal name,” for themselves.

A scholar named Robert Englund is preserving some of that ancient history in a project called CDLI, the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative. He heads a team at the University of California, Los Angeles, that is digitizing 120,000 cuneiform tablets from as early as the third and fourth millennia B.C. It is a “virtual repository,” a database of images and transliterations from six institutions with major holdings: the British Museum, the Hermitage, the Louvre, the State Museum in Berlin, Yale University, and the University of Pennsylvania.

Even as the work goes on, artifacts from the field are disappearing. Since the Gulf War and sanctions on Iraq, some of the fragile clay tablets are showing up on eBay, selling for as little as ten dollars. Englund is quite sure they are real. He is not buying the contraband pieces but has members of the team monitoring the Internet and capturing the digital images. “We would be remiss,” he says, “if we did not document them as fully as we can before they are lost altogether or end up on somebody’s mantel.”