Archive for February, 2011

problems of research methodology: assessing evidence to support a claim

February 7, 2011


(This post has been transferred from another site). This is not a “review” but rather a study in methodology in relation to historical evidence and visual analysis.

The book in question (Enrico Macelloni: War Rugs The Nightmare of Modernism 2009) derives from a common interest in the study of the tradition of Afghan carpetmakers which reflects and depicts the experiences of war following the Soviet invasion of 1979. The first chapters reveal how the author’s historical and theoretical claims are based on a paradoxical temptation to discover the origin of “war carpets” in the deep tradition of Iranian carpet making through the interpretation of a date embedded in one eccentric carpet first published in 1988.


Here’s the hypothetical test case. Suppose you find four shadowy figures which look like airplanes (above) in the background of a carpet reproduced in a dealer’s advertisement in the international textile journal Hali, in 1988. The main subject of this Baluchi-style carpet is a group of four musicians in elaborate Japanese costume, repeated three times. The text which accompanies the image in the advertisement proposes a date of 1934, with the suggestion that is was “probably made as a gift for Japanese Royalty” featuring “Japanese war planes”. The actual date woven into the carpet beneath the airplane is even more shadowy – either 1353 or 1354 – it’s impossible to tell which. The author contacts the dealer who tells him it was bought in Tehran in 1970.


Now here’s the paradox. If the date is 1353/4 in the Islamic (Arabic, lunar) calendar (hijri ghamary) this would translate as 1934 in the Gregorian calendar. But if it is read by the contemporary Iranian (solar) calendar (hijri shamsi) the date would translate as 1974 or 1975. The Iranian calendar was introduced in 1925, and was adopted by Afghanistan in 1957. (The Shah introduced a new system in the last three years of his rule, but post revolution the calendar was returned to its 1925 arrangement). So was the carpet made in the 1930s, and dated according to the then redundant lunar calendar? Or was it made some time prior to 1970, with a date (by the solar calendar) of at least five years into the future? Or it was actually bought some time after 1975?

Obviously it is in the interests of the South African dealer who owns the carpet in question to propose as early a date as possible. It makes a better story. Similarly, an author who wishes to claim to have found the precursor of all 1980s war carpets might choose to accept the “traditional” Islamic calendar rather than the Iranian calendar in use at the time. But as an Afghan colleague observes: “No one uses lunar calendar in my part of the world. It has to be solar.” But for the purposes of his thesis the author accepts that this is a carpet bought in Tehran in 1970 with an embedded date in the Arabic calendar “as a sort of prototype” , and as “…the realization of a truly modernist tradition, established decades ago, which combined amazing imagery, such as geisha and combat planes.”

Let’s unpick the story. Three questions: What’s the chance of an “Afghan Baluch-style” carpet bought in Tehran in 1970 having an embedded date five years (or more) in the future? What’s the chance of a carpet made in the mid-70s having airplanes inserted in the background? And can our art historian claim it as the first “war rug” which proves the tradition predates the Soviet invasion in 1979?

Answer 1: It makes no sense at all. For this reason alone such a contradictory reading places the date and place of acquisition of this particular carpet in question. The date of publication of the advertisement (1988) therefore becomes the only firm reference date.

Answer 2: It’s possible. George W. O’Bannon illustrated his article In Hali (“Baluch Rugs from Afghanistan, 2. Aksi [Pictorial] Rugs”, Vol 5 No 2, 1982, pp. 127-130) with a carpet with an airplane in it. It is titled “Dokhtar-i-Ghazi rug with ‘chart of animals’ (camels, gazelles, a deer, a lion), airplane and schoolhouse”. He describes it thus: “In this rug the zili-sultan pattern is largely displaced by several different figures which seem to have been taken from a primary school student’s reader… the weaver has woven “Chart of Animals” and at the bottom… “Made in Afghanistan 1972″. It should be noted that many of these designs show attempts at shading and rounding, indicating that the weaver probably copied from a printed picture.”

Answer 3: Is it possible to have a carpet with an airplane without it being a “war rug”? In this sense, I would argue that an airplane or two, a truck, a car, even a helicopter is not sufficient to claim a carpet as a “war rug”. Max Allen showed just such a precedent with an early 20th century carpet with a biplane flying over a palm tree in his Battleground exhibition at the Textile Museum of Canada. Clearly all such rugs are related, and demonstrate the tradition’s potential for innovative and experimental designs, and an engagement with modernity. But without the depiction of armaments we would not be confidently claiming that an exceptional example like this “indicates the phenomenon of war rugs predates the Soviet occupation”, as the author claims.

So is the tiny elevation view of what appears to be an airplane which is woven into this carpet even an airplane, let alone a “warplane”? Would a 1930s designer/weaver have ever seen a four-engine airplane (of any kind)? Or a four-engine “Japanese” warplane? (Putting aside the fact that Japan didn’t have any four-engine airplanes in 1934). Or would a 1970s Iranian/Afghan designer/weaver have ever seen a four-engine “warplane” of any kind? More likely it is a 1970s Boeing 707 minus the swept wings – but only if we accept some “artistic license” on the part of the designer/maker. But by now our single piece of evidence is looking very rubbery. How much wish-projection do we want to indulge in here?

See how evidence works? Just one example such as this is a very small hook on which our author tries to hang a theory of war rugs and modernity which predates the Soviet invasion… Hence our emphasis on the principle of triangulation: to sort out the eccentric from the coincidence from the pattern…

Reference: Mascelloni, Enrico, War Rugs: The Nightmare of Modernism, Skira, 2009.

PS I was going to publish this with the title “The Bonfire of the Velleities” because I first encountered the word “velleities” in this publication. It means “a mere wish unaccompanied by an effort to attain it”.

PPS One could also argue that the existence of two later variations the author bought in Peshawar in 1994 and Mashhad in 1998 would seem to reinforce the mid-70s date. Otherwise how did the design survive down the decades without popping up in other places?