Liat Naeh
(Research Fellow, October–December 2018) investigates the idiosyncratic features of Levantine artistic practices and ideology in an age of global exchange focusing on the art, archaeology, and religion of the Bronze and Iron Ages Levant and the ancient Mediterranean. She recently completed her doctorate at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where her dissertation identifies unrecognized Levantine religious perceptions through the study of bone and ivory-inlaid boxes from the Middle Bronze Age. She was previously an associate research fellow at the W. F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem and a visiting scholar at Columbia University and at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland. In 2017, her article “In Search of Identity: The Contribution of Recent Finds to Our Understanding of Iron Age Ivory Objects in the Material Culture of the Southern Levant,” won the Sean W. Dever Memorial Prize for best student paper in the field of Syro-Palestinian or biblical archaeology. Read more about her here.

Tell us about your academic/professional background and how you became interested in your research area.
I am a scholar of ancient Near Eastern art, archaeology, and religion, specializing in the Bronze and Iron Ages in the Levant during the second and first millennia BCE. I have worked in archaeological museums for many years, mainly at the Bronfman Wing of Archaeology at the Israel Museum of Jerusalem, and have recently completed my doctorate at the Institute of Archaeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. During my studies, I have spent time abroad as a visiting scholar at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland, and at Columbia University, New York. I have written on such subjects as cult practices, ivory art, ancient furniture, and the affinity between art, religion, and text in relation to the ancient Levant.

Looking back on what first led me to pursue art and archaeology, I think – oddly enough – of science fiction. Growing up, our home library consisted of science-fiction and fantasy classics, and so, as a young girl, I was utterly immersed in the worlds of such authors as Isaac Asimov, Roger Zelazny, and Stanislaw Lem, and, of course, obsessed with Star Trek. I have always been very much into visual arts, and in reading and watching sci-fi, I became particularly mesmerized by descriptions of the material aspects of civilizations: what their homes and temples looked like, how their art was made. These futuristic fictions were intertwined with narratives of a primordial, mythical past; forgotten secrets that must be re-exposed. In Israel, where I was raised, such a call for exposing an unknown past strongly resonated with issues regarding the land around me – holy to so many people of different faiths, and yet, deeply controversial. I distinctly recall that during my first years at the Institute of Archaeology at the Hebrew University I felt as if I was being handed with keys that would allow me to critically examine these issues concerning the conceptualization of the Holy Land. Of course, I only ended up with more questions than answers, but I am a better person for it. During those years, I gravitated towards the study of the so-called ‘Canaanites’ and ‘Israelites’, and especially their art, which seems to have retained so much historical knowledge that is now lost to us. To me, the study of ancient art has proven to be the most rewarding of all windows into the past.

What attracted you to the Bard Graduate Center fellowship?
Back in 2015, as a visiting scholar at Columbia University, I was very fortunate to have met with Bard Graduate Center’s professor, Elizabeth Simpson. Elizabeth is one of the few scholars who works on ancient Near Eastern furniture, including ivory thrones, and I was eager to get her feedback on some initial thoughts that would later evolve into my current Levantine Throne project. She had generously taken the time to give me a tour of the BGC and its gallery, where a wonderful exhibition was shown, titled Swedish Wooden Toys. I was impressed by BGC’s mission of addressing objects of material culture through an interdisciplinary lens, and by the ways in which the BGC fostered a profound dialogue between innovative scholarship and the highest standard of curatorial expertise. I felt that the BGC is a natural choice for this project because of its rich resources on ancient furniture and the study of the materiality of objects. In addition, and perhaps more importantly, I was also fascinated by the chance to experience my own field of specialization differently, to be inspired by collogues who do similar work on other cultures and periods, and who are asking analogous questions concerning the making and the meaning of objects.

What is the focus and result of your research here?
While at the BGC, I am working on my book project, titled The Ivory Throne of the Levantines, where I identify and examine a previously unknown class of Levantine ivory thrones from the second millennium BCE. In this project, I reconstruct new ivory thrones from fragments found in excavations in Levantine sites and contextualize them within their broader setting of the ancient Near East, ultimately leading to the portrayal of Levantine ivory thrones as an amalgamation of concepts concerning local and global kingship. My work here is also guided by the BGC’s 2018–19 research theme, “When is After?” I ask, for example, what happens to ivory after death, namely the death of the elephants and hippos that were hunted for the harvesting of their ivory. From this moment, the ivory became an inanimate raw material, a commodity; yet, I posit that for the Levantines, the ivory’s past was still intensely present during its ‘second life’, and was deliberately employed to advertise the Levantine king’s dominion over the life potency of these formidable beasts: by sitting on his ivory throne, the king made public his control over wild, chaotic forces. The ivory’s afterlife, however, seems to have been anything but docile. In Levantine myths, thrones wept, fought, and bled, and I argue that they have also served as placeholders in the absence— or death—of their owners. Hence, after the ivory’s ‘second life’, a ‘third life’ was also envisioned, with the ivory throne partaking in the afterlife of their owners.

What are your plans after the fellowship?
When my BGC fellowship ends in December, I will become a Mellon fellow at the Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where I intend to devote my time to completing The Ivory Throne of the Levantines project. While at the Met, I would like to build on the museum’s encyclopedic collections of Assyrian and Egyptian furniture to reconstruct Levantine thrones, which are only known to us from fragments. After that, I plan to delve into another project, exploring the animation of Levantine idols and the interplay between religion and artistic production in the Levant during the second millennium BCE.

What would be your advice to young researchers/students still trying to decide a career path for themselves, whether in academia or in museums?
Two points that come to mind concern professional formation in the times in which we live. Being a young researcher myself, I feel very fortunate to live in a time that allows us to find our path globally— and become better scholars in the process. I would strongly urge young students to explore new options of learning and working abroad as part of their intellectual trajectory. To me, traveling has been instrumental in opening my eyes to some of the social, contemporary aspects of the study of the art and archaeology of the ancient Levant, and to the profound ways in which our own cultural identities are woven into investigations of the past. I would also like to share that I see many colleagues, young researches, who find this to be a sobering and challenging period to enter the world of academia, or the world of art and museums. Yet I feel that it is precisely this day and age, a time of momentous changes in the West and in the Middle East, when our work in the humanities and the arts is needed and could significantly contribute to society.