a conversation with Prof. Simpson...

posted on 23 Oct 2012 14:07 by Elena Pinto Simon
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EPS: Professor Simpson, how did your summer research in Turkey go this year?

ES: Very well, thank you. I worked in the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, Ankara, and also the Archaeological Museum, Istanbul, researching and documenting the wooden objects from the tumulus burials P, W, and K-III, as well as the city mound at Gordion. All these finds are from the tombs and palace of the Phrygian kings of Gordion and date to the 8th century BC—the period of King Midas and his predecessors. I am now in the final stages of preparation for my second volume on the Gordion wooden objects, and this summer I measured, photographed, and drew many objects in both museums. These included several large pieces of furniture and also small items, such as a parasol, plates, boxes, and a collection of delightful toy wooden animals.

EPS: This has been a project of long-standing for you. Can you tell us a little about the whole project, and how it has evolved over the years?

ES: A long project indeed—I have been working on the wooden objects from Gordion since 1978, which now seems like ancient history. I began when I was a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, hired as an illustrator to prepare the final drawings for the posthumous publication of my professor, Rodney Young, director of the Gordion excavations—who died in a tragic car accident soon after I arrived at the University Museum. This was his excavation report, Three Great Early Tumuli, which recorded the excavation and finds from Tumulus MM, P, and W at Gordion. The rarest objects from these tombs were made of wood, which was quite well preserved considering that it was buried—and that two of the tombs had collapsed, crushing many of the burial goods within them.


As I was inking the final drawings for the publication I discovered many errors, which were apparent when comparing the field drawings with the in situ photographs. This was par for the course, since the early drawings were done quickly at the time of excavation, with the presumption that they would be revised for the final publication. Unfortunately, Young’s death intervened. Since we now had a book to produce, I did my best with the illustrations, but it was decided that the wooden objects should be restudied, and I was asked to direct the project. I assembled a team of conservators, archaeologists, scientists, artists, and preparators—and we went to work.

After more than three decades the team has completed the conservation of the wood, the piecing together and drawing of more than 100 objects, the reconstruction of several large pieces of furniture on Plexiglas mounts for display in the Ankara Museum, and the creation of a complete written and photographic record detailing the project. I have published the spectacular wooden furniture from Tumulus MM (Brill 2010), which belonged to King Midas and his father Gordias, and I am now preparing the publication of the remaining wooden objects from the site. For a full overview, I can recommend the Wikipedia article on the subject:

EPS: You are a trained archeologist. Can you talk a little about how that is a match for the work you do here at the BGC?

ES: At the BGC, since we are concerned with the history of art, design, and craft, and the social and historical context of objects, archaeology fits in very well. The job of the archaeologist is to dig up the evidence for ancient society in the form of architectural remains and artifacts, and to interpret the artifacts according to information gleaned from a wide variety of sources—and this can only be done by consulting many colleagues from numerous fields. It is a highly interdisciplinary proposition—a perfect match for our aims and interests at the BGC.

Furniture has been important throughout history, and has always been highly valued—both because of its practical nature and also as a vehicle for impressing one’s subjects, allies, and adversaries. Although traditional art historical inquiry does not normally include the study of furniture, we know better—the history of furniture is one of the things we teach at the BGC. Wood rarely survives from antiquity, however, except in Egypt, where the climate has served to preserve organic finds. Nonetheless, information about ancient furniture can be found, when one really decides to look. Once I began to study the wooden furniture from Gordion, a whole new world opened up to me, and this world was fascinating. I am happy to be working in an environment where the subject is appreciated—and where students can get as excited as I am about a table or a stool.

EPS: How has your own work evolved in the years you’ve been at the BGC?

ES: I am very happy to be associated with the BGC. For one thing, I teach my favorite topics: ancient jewelry, metalwork, ceramics, glass, furniture, and the beginnings of art and technology. For another, I was lucky to be able to organize the 1995 symposium “The Spoils of War—World War II and Its Aftermath: The Loss, Reappearance, and Recovery of Cultural Property.” I am grateful to Susan Weber for the idea and the support of the institution. Following this, I embarked upon an extended program of research (still ongoing) on the protection of cultural objects and sites, the devastating effects of war and looting, and the importance of ethical policy in the acquisition of art. I now teach a course called “Issues in the Study of Ancient Art” with my colleague François Louis; there is no shortage of breaking news to keep this course current… Finally, early on, I was asked to teach “The Rediscovery of Antiquity,” starting with the ancient world and addressing its “rediscovery” right up to the present. This has been immensely illuminating and has given me a different view of how we know what we think we know about the past.

EPS: You’ve been at the BGC from just about the beginning. How do you see that the BGC has changed over that period of time?

ES: In fact, I have been at the BGC exactly from the beginning. Initially we had a very small permanent faculty and many guest lecturers who specialized predominantly in the history of the decorative arts. Since that time, we have become a large and talented faculty and administration with a great many interests and areas of expertise—from archaeology and anthropology to design, cultural history, film and photography, and the fine and decorative arts. And obviously much more. Our students have been uniformly excellent since the day we opened our doors, and they still arrive with a great variety of backgrounds and academic experience. It is the enthusiasm and intelligence of the students who study in our program that makes teaching at the BGC so special.