Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Jaś Elsner reviews The Tiny and the Fragmented

S. Rebecca Martin and Stephanie M. Langin-HooperThe Tiny and the Fragmented: Miniature, Broken or Otherwise Incomplete Objects from the Ancient World. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. 248 pp.

Review by Jaś Elsner

19 February 2020

"Miniature, broken or otherwise incomplete": such is the theoretical scope of this volume, already ambitious in encompassing objects from ancient worlds that include Meso-America, the Levant, Iberia, Babylon, and Neolithic Romania. The project is appealing, innovative, and welcome; the individual essays well written, if not always in obvious communication with each other, and by some big names in their fields. The approaches are mainly archaeological but with substantive theorizing, on the basis of empirical or scientific evidence, much of it anthropological, and with some art-historical interest. But is the package coherent? Miniatures ("the tiny") are not by any means the same category as deliberately made part-objects (even if some of these are smaller than life-size)––ex voto dedications of hands or feet for instance ("the fragmented")––which don’t belong to the same taxonomy as damaged pieces, whether deliberately or by chance, in ancient intent or by archaeological happenstance ("the broken"). The authors (or at least the editors) must be aware of the blur in the classificatory model because their subtitle allows the final let-it-all-hang-in category of the "otherwise incomplete." So the gain is a series of sprightly studies of various aspects of the bittiness of little objects across a comparative range. But the big thesis on the materiality of the miniature within a three-dimensional, object-centered semiotics, or the penetrating study of the fragment as an archaeological ontology, are not possible here because the starting point is too conceptually diffuse. That is a pity, because we really could do with some serious conceptual heavy-lifting in both these arenas of material culture.