James Osborne comes to Hopkins after serving as the 2011–12 Postdoctoral Scholar for the Institute of European and Mediterranean Archeology (IEMA) at the State University of New York at Buffalo. He received his PhD in 2011 from the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilization at Harvard, focusing on the archaeology of the Levant, with a thesis on Spatial Analysis and Political Authority in the Iron Age Kingdom of Patina, Turkey, which was awarded with distinction. He already has one book in press with Wiley-Blackwell—Territoriality in Archeology (Archeological Papers of the American Anthropological Association)—and another edited work under contract with SUNY Press: Approaching Monumentality in the Archeological Record. These join eight articles either published or in preparation. In addition, there is a collection of essays stemming from his thesis that examine the Iron Age culture of the Syro-Hittites of the eastern Mediterranean. It is currently being considered for publication by Cambridge University Press. One of the dominant themes of the book is the diasporic origins of the Iron Age political system of the ancient Near East, a system in which competing ethnicities and cultural identities, he demonstrates, never lie far below the surface of the city-states’ self-portrayal as politically homogeneous.
A basic component of all his work is his insistence that ancient polities, unlike the idealized nation-state of today, did not necessarily use land and territory as a means to and justification for the exercise of power. Thus, in exploring the Syro-Hittite kingdoms at the dawn of the Iron Age (ca. 1200 BCE), he shows that diaspora was not only an important component of the rise of the state at this time but both an unavoidable and, indeed, defining one. These ancient city-states emerged as amalgams of different cultural groups. In the Levant after 1200 BCE, peoples as diverse as the Luwians from Anatolia, Aramaeans from inland Syria, and Philistines and other Sea Peoples from the Aegean congregated there, adjoining the neighboring kingdoms of Israel and Judea in this city-state system. Inscriptions from the period, no matter what the language, tend to present the travails of migration as a crucial element in the ideological narratives of political legitimacy, a prime example of which is the Exodus story of Israelites in the Hebrew Bible, whose decades of wandering in the desert preceded their re-territorialization in the Holy Land. At stake in these studies is the question of the role ethnic identity played in the creation of political institutions and the formation of “landscapes of power” during this formative era of western civilization.
While at Hopkins, Osborne will continue to investigate the contradiction presented by ancient polities as politically coherent entities characterized by mixed diasporic origins, now specifically through an examination of material culture. Although archeologists tend to rely on material artifacts in their study of ancient cultures, they rarely have done so in order to excavate the diasporic character of the populations they study. Osborne will use material culture as a means to inquire whether the mixing of diasporic communities created a unified material culture that was a hybridization of all peoples, or whether one culture’s assemblage of objects became the dominant material expression of that society. To find answers to these questions, he will explore the materials used by the various peoples settled in the Syro-Hittite world, including their pottery, sculpted works of art, jewelry, textiles, and buildings, all of which, he believes, constitute silent objects that nevertheless speak volumes about the cultural identity of their users.
His focus on the study of diaspora through materiality remains an underutilized approach in the examination of diasporic cultures and, from that perspective, his work has the potential to contribute to many disciplines in the humanities dedicated to an investigation of diasporic phenomena. The questions that he will ask of his material relate to issues of cultural identity and diaspora across a wide range of areas and peoples: How does a diasporic community’s relationship with the physical world around them change when they finally achieve some degree of political stability? How do these communities change when they come into contact with each other? How do rulers and subjects negotiate their relationship if and when the former is using diasporic narratives to legitimize their subjugation of the latter? In that sense, his work promises to add a new perspective to the program on concepts of diaspora by elucidating the centrality and value of studying diaspora through the lens of materiality.