problems of research methodology: assessing evidence to support a claim



(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?

One Response to “problems of research methodology: assessing evidence to support a claim”

  1. layliandmajnun Says:

    Comments copied from the original thread at TransitLane, published April 12th, 2009:

    Jan Hogan on 04.13.09 at 8:58 am
    Nice little argument Nigel but did the author use the word velleities in his argument? If so he is clearly putting a hypothesis out into the world in the hope of further support. Surely that’s academically OK?

    Nigel on 04.13.09 at 1:18 pm
    You’re too kind! Hypotheses need substantiation before they get published… But maybe the translation from the Italian leads to a host of redundant expressions? We need one of those reverse dictionaries, and an italophile… Try “bavardage”…

    Nigel on 04.13.09 at 1:22 pm
    See the context: p 105: “It is no coincidence that these small and not so inconspicuous objects have mostly captured the imagination of artists rather than the appreciation of art critics. This was confirmed by the general disinterest of the later (sic), who rejected their excessive ‘folklorism’ with no less folkloristic bavardage throughout the 1990s; a time when accomplished artists returned, after the binging (sic) of the trans-avant-garde, to making lace and displaying wash cloths. This period also saw the final consecration of Alighiero Boetti, whose most celebrated pieces had long been made by Afghan weavers.”

    Rosa Maria Falvo on 04.17.09 at 5:35 pm
    It seems this reader has ‘alienated’ himself from an open minded reading of the whole book.
    Surely assumptions and debate should be contextualized. If we wish to indulge in the game of picking quotes at random, we can also find these ones in the book:

    “Before being objects of conflict, these weapons are objects of modernity par excellence, especially for developing nations. War rugs are therefore not an anomaly within the body of a fixed tradition, but rather an unforeseen modern development that predates and transcends the war itself.” p.22

    “Challenging hypotheses and definitions, it [rug in question] confirms the earlier origins of these rugs or rather that they have no particular origins….it forces us to rethink their strange history beyond the common assumptions that continue to fill the literature on this issue” p.24/25

    Taken in context, the rug referred to (on p. 22 and unrelated to the commentator’s quote from p.105) is simply an indication, among the many, that the weapons in the rugs precede the fateful Russian-Afghan war. The author doubts (with irony) that it was a gift for a Japanese emperor and the information given by its owner was taken with reserve; in fact its image caption does not mention a verified date and all hypotheses are left open. However, the commenter seems to have left out an essential one: that the rug belongs to the period of the Soviet occupation.

    The author’s actual contention is that the war rugs belong to the process of modernization, which has involved Afghanistan from the beginning of the 20th century. As is argued throughout the book, these rugs are part of a larger context of change, evolution, and not just about war or its literal specifics. If economic development is central to modernization, war itself is absolutely modern.

    Anyone who has read the whole book knows that the author believes there is no ‘origin’ of war rugs, which is typical of a great collective tradition, much less could it be “embedded” in an actual prototype.

    The commenter appears to delight in interweaving his own choice details and words from the book (though this kind of extrapolation can hardly be called ‘research’ or a true ‘assessment of evidence’).

    He even seems to infer that Boetti influenced the war rugs, whereas the book deduces the exact opposite. Various other readers have understood its content perfectly, even if they have not agreed. Could a war rug expert be the only one to have misunderstood?

    In effect, it is difficult to open up any serious debate if a commenter criticizes ideas that are not the author’s. Even the publisher’s blurb: “a fascinating journey through Afghanistan, Pakistan, Central Asia and Iran to seek out the mysterious origin of war rugs”, refers to the process of searching. At no point in the book does the author claim to have found the answer, instead he emphasizes that it does not exist.

    Just one quote out of context and sync with the many details presented is a very small hook on which our commenter tries to disparage a thesis that explores the very complexities of its context. Surely, the essence of ‘triangulation’ is in the variety of angles. And one of its purposes today is also to determine the gun direction of a weapon to avoid shooting oneself in the foot…

    It’s true, before writing something and publishing it (even in a blog) it is better to have understood the whole story. Perhaps the ‘velleity’ lies not in the writer’s ideas or the translator’s skills, but in the reader’s own ‘methodology’.

    Nigel on 04.17.09 at 9:16 pm
    Thanks to this comment from the book’s translator. It seems to have touched some nerves. Maybe some aspects have indeed been lost in translation. But “irony” is surely no defense against ambiguity. This adds to the confusion of the text on pp22-24, where he “rule(s) out the likelihood of a false date” – or was this the irony? And where does the author state that he deduces that the rug belongs to the period of Soviet occupation? I would agree, except that he concludes (p25) that “it indicates that the phenomenon of the war rugs certainly predates the Soviet occupation (1979)”?

    Nevermind, other readers will form other opinions. But I would encourage them to search for the author’s account of what constitutes a “war rug” in his theory of Afghan modernism, and for any evidence of the author’s claims for any of the “war rugs” he references to predate1985, when he claims to have bought his first example. Evidence (rather than enthusiastic claims) is what we should be looking for – especially when the claims purport to carry such deep historical and theoretical implications. This is not the first time this author has mis-read war carpets to project their origins backwards in time and place. In his review of the author’s previous Skira publication “Beyond the West” (Oltre l’Occidente – Rappresentazioni estreme nei tessuti orientali (2006)) the Textile Museum of Canada curator of the Battleground exhibition, Max Allen has noted :

    “One of the five “world rugs” Mascelloni includes in the catalogue – and this one shows weapons as well as a map – is dated and has an inscription in Farsi, which like all of the Farsi texts in the catalogue, and the Chinese writing on the Chinese rugs, is not translated. Needing to show an early rug-with-weapons to support his notion of prewar war rugs (“my own research shifts the first rugs with weapons back to the 60’s and 70’s, when the war still seemed far-off”), Mascelloni suggests this 1990 rug could be dated, according to the Turkish (!) calendar, 1970. Unfortunately for this goofy theory, the Farsi inscription says the rug was made by Afghan immigrants in “the Islamic Republic of Iran” – which did not come into being until 1979 (as observed by Nigel Lendon and Tim Bonyhady in their blog rugsofwar).”

    This same carpet – a map of Afghanistan – is included in the new book, and he now accepts the explicit date 1368/1989.

    I would be pleased to receive substantive reviews of the book in question, for publication on rugsofwar, and to move further debate on this topic to that site…

    PS Yes “the rug referred to on p. 22 [is] unrelated to the commentator’s quote from p.105″. My reference to the quote on p105 was a comment on a comment about the use of the word “bavardage” and unrelated to the question of dates and attribution. I happen to agree with the author in relation to his references to Boetti. Quoting him verbatim does not constitute an argument in favour of Boetti’s potential influence in relation to the development of geographic carpets. The author’s own account of his attempt to hunt down the possibility is persuasive: when “making a few quick million dollars sounded like a good idea” (p141).

    PPS Readers might also question the relevance of this apparently anonymous dealer’s site, which draws explicitly on many of the author’s ideas and motives…

    enrico mascelloni on 04.18.09 at 2:29 am
    Nigel knows very well I appreciated his blog on war rugs and he also knows very well I also appreciated his “equilibrium” on my polemic with Max Allen. So I really don’t understand as he could mistificate (and so nervously) the goal of my book, which is exactly opposite to be a “paradoxical temptation to discover the origin of “war carpets”, as Nigel wrote in his commentary. It’s also difficult to understand how he could interpretate a consideration of the south african owner of the “carpet with geishas and aereoplanes” (which I ironically criticize) as my opinion. Rosa’s commentary touched so well these arguments that Nigel simply doesn’t answer and prefers go straight on the only one argument is still up: the date of the carpet, whereas also assuming his date, it precedes the starting of the fatidic soviet-afghan war. There are two possibilities:
    1- Lendon read just some page of the book and thought to understand the whole but understood the opposite
    2- Lendon understood very well the book and tried to discredit it with a couple of mistifications
    “Evidence (rather than enthusiastic claims) is what we should be looking for – especially when the claims purport to carry such deep historical and theoretical implications.” – write Nigel as this statement would be extraneus to my research. But unfortunly for him, and for Max Allen, no one of my historical arguments (the question of modernism in XX Century afghan history) nor estetical (as the relationship with western (and eastern) contemporary art, where war rugs got a incredible success) nor political (as the question of propaganda in war rugs) has never been touched in theirs arguments against my thesis and very few in theirs researches.
    The evidence is in Lendon surprising mystification of my thesis, which isn’t exactly a deep historical and theoretical effort and in his last chance to search a “refugee camp” (not afghan) in the date of the carpet. More then deep historical it looks like a little bit histerical. Others arguments could be found in some “refuso” in the excellent Rosa Falvo’s translation of the book (I thank you him for the next edition of the book) and millions more in my english from “the periphery of the empire” of this contribution. Last but not least: the text in the “anonymus” site cited by a excited Lendon isn’t the source of my thesis, but a short contribution I wrote some months ago for the war rugs site of a italian gallerist!!! (o may be Nigel tried to be ironic…)

    Nigel on 04.18.09 at 8:19 am
    Thank you Enrico. We will have to leave it to other readers to adjudicate my challenge to the various theories you propose and the means by which you come to your conclusions. If proposing that “war rugs” significantly predate the Soviet invasion is crucial to your theory of Afghan modernism, we await the evidence. Meanwhile, how the reader is to interpret the role of irony in your argument is ambiguous at best. I have re-read your concluding paragraph (on the section on the “Japanese war planes” carpet) and surely it seems unambiguously accepting of this piece as the key precedent for what follows in the rest of the book? Quote: “This unusual carpet celebrating beauty and music is also one of the very first war rugs. Challenging hypotheses and definitions, it confirms the earlier origins of these rugs or rather that they have no particular origins, which is typical of any great and original collective innovation. Irony aside, it indicates that the phenomenon of the war rugs certainly predates the Soviet occupation (1979). Along with the many other examples floating around border bazaars and shipping crates, it forces us to rethink their strange history beyond the common assumptions that continues to fill the literature on this subject.” Where’s your criticism in that conclusion – other than in relation to the (undeveloped) “common assumptions” of other writers? I’m with Rosa when she says: “the rug belongs to the period of the Soviet occupation” – it’s just that that’s not what you say. In many respects your observations and experiences are unique and revealing – it is as much an autobiography as an historical or theoretical study – but it is rather the foundation of your theory on unsubstantiated claims with which I have problems. I invite other readers’ opinions.

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