Stylistic Clusters and the Syrian/South Syrian Tradition of First-Millennium BCE Levantine Ivory Carving: A Machine Learning Approach

01/05/2014 ∙ by Amy Rebecca Gansell, et al. ∙ 0

Thousands of first-millennium BCE ivory carvings have been excavated from Neo-Assyrian sites in Mesopotamia (primarily Nimrud, Khorsabad, and Arslan Tash) hundreds of miles from their Levantine production contexts. At present, their specific manufacture dates and workshop localities are unknown. Relying on subjective, visual methods, scholars have grappled with their classification and regional attribution for over a century. This study combines visual approaches with machine-learning techniques to offer data-driven perspectives on the classification and attribution of this early Iron Age corpus. The study sample consisted of 162 sculptures of female figures. We have developed an algorithm that clusters the ivories based on a combination of descriptive and anthropometric data. The resulting categories, which are based on purely statistical criteria, show good agreement with conventional art historical classifications, while revealing new perspectives, especially with regard to the contested Syrian/South Syrian/Intermediate tradition. Specifically, we have identified that objects of the Syrian/South Syrian/Intermediate tradition may be more closely related to Phoenician objects than to North Syrian objects; we offer a reconsideration of a subset of Phoenician objects, and we confirm Syrian/South Syrian/Intermediate stylistic subgroups that might distinguish networks of acquisition among the sites of Nimrud, Khorsabad, Arslan Tash and the Levant. We have also identified which features are most significant in our cluster assignments and might thereby be most diagnostic of regional carving traditions. In short, our study both corroborates traditional visual classification methods and demonstrates how machine-learning techniques may be employed to reveal complementary information not accessible through the exclusively visual analysis of an archaeological corpus.

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