Fresh out of graduate school, I arrived at Bard Graduate Center in the fall of 2018 in order to dedicate much-needed time to research my (still ongoing!) book project, The Ivory Throne of the Levantines. As fellows before me have acknowledged with sincere gratitude, BGC’s fellowship program offers the much-appreciated opportunity of carving time to focus on research, undisturbed. I write “undisturbed,” but I should immediately add that this island of academic bliss also features a lively array of thought-provoking talks, conferences, and exhibitions; and that it is situated in one of the world’s most prolific hubs of art, culture, and scholarship—New York City. My experience of writing was therefore not (only) that of isolated contemplation, but rather, also that of constant engagement in new, inspiring conversations, and—ultimately—of gaining a renewed perspective regarding the place of my own work in diverse intellectual contexts.

My book project focuses on ivory inlays that may have belonged to elite furniture pieces, mostly thrones, used by the people of the ancient Levant during the Bronze and Iron Ages, in the 2nd and 1st millennia BCE. In Levantine traditions—much like in other areas around the ancient Near East—thrones were objects that connected the realms of the divine with monarchy on earth; We therefore imagine such ivory thrones to have belonged not only to kings, but also to statues of deities. Being at the focal point of the royal audience, thrones were platforms for visual messages conveyed by the human and divine ruler to gods, court, subjects, and foreign visitors. Yet, we don’t know enough about what they looked like, and much of my work therefore focuses on reimagining the thrones’ visuality. My research builds on new archaeologic finds, as well as art historical analysis, allowing me to highlight the affinities between the thrones from the 2nd and 1st millennia BCE, and to demonstrate the existence of a distinct Levantine tradition of creating thrones using ivory. Most importantly, I examine how, for the Levantines, ivory seem to have been a material imbued with animism, expressing many of the live qualities the Levantines attributed to the furniture itself, and especially to thrones. Rather than being a symbolic trope, in the Levant, the act of sitting on a throne was considered performative, transforming mortals—and gods—into de facto kings, as various contemporaneous textual sources reaffirm. The animated nature of Levantine thrones played an important part in this performative role.

Working at BGC allowed me to happily immerse myself in writing, thinking, and conversing. As BGC offers fellows access to the wonderful collections held in museums around New York City, I delved into the study of ivory fragments from the ancient Near East held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, just across Central Park. During this time, I profoundly benefited from the advice and insight of BGC’s Elizabeth Simpson, now professor emerita, who is a leading expert on the furniture of the ancient world, and whose reconstructions of ancient furniture and its cultural meaning are continuously stimulating. In addition, I was truly indebted to BGC’s faculty members and students, who have inspired me to rethink my project in relation to critical approaches and theoretical frameworks from the fields of material culture, anthropology, Indigenous studies, and global art history. In this regard I am especially grateful for fruitful discussions had with two fellows and office-mates, Jenny Shaffer and Vera-Simone Schulz. Finally, I was most grateful to the staff of BGC’s specialized librarians for their unfailing support. In other words, while none of BGC’s chairs came to life during the time of my fellowship, the chairs were occupied by brilliant minds who were always generous with their time and knowledge.

While at BGC, I found myself—perhaps understandably—preoccupied by the multilayered meanings of furniture, space, context, and the construction of identity in my own life as well. When I was still a graduate student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, a professor once posed us with a question: was our scholarly thinking affected by our physical environment? For instance, was our writing affected by the design of our work desks? To which I—already incubating my Levantine Throne project—replied that if so, we should avoid writing on top of round tables, for risk of developing circular arguments. That humorous exchange was on my mind upon arrival to BGC. As I was studying how the ancient Levantines sat on ivory thrones in order to transform into authority figures, I myself was relocated from my natural, more humble surroundings—from being a student, typing away on a beaten laptop in sunstruck Tel Aviv cafés—into sitting on a comfortable chair in an open-space office at a charming building in the heart of Manhattan, overlooking West 86th Street. I experienced, first hand, how this iconic New York space empowered me to adopt a new, more authoritative voice in my academic writing; and it was not lost on me that such a performative process echoes the one I was studying.

Some years have passed since then, and chairs as well. As I write these words, now in Toronto (a simple black chair; window overlooking a sleepy backyard), New York City and the rest of the planet are still responding to the radical crisis ensued by the CoVid 19 virus. In many ways, my reflections back on the fall of 2018 seem otherworldly; which makes me all the more grateful for my days at BGC.

Liat Naeh, Research Associate, The Archaeology Centre, University of Toronto; Bard Graduate Center Research Fellow, fall 2018