Assyriologie und Hethitologie

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Vegetable Oils and Animal Fats in Early Urban Societies of Syro-Mesopotamia – Production, Distribution and Usage

Oils and fats (Sumerian i₃, Akkadian šamnum) fulfil basic human needs at the same level as food, housing, and clothes: since greasy substances are indispensable to protect the skin especially in an arid climate. The basic importance of oil and fat for a human culture is reflected most prominently in the masterpiece of Mesopotamian literature, the Epic of Gilgamesh: after eating bread and drinking beer, the wild man Enkidu became a human man after having anointed himself. Anointing as a daily practice is well-known from Mesopotamian cuneiform sources, and archaeologically, the special vessels used for oil are widely distributed. Although oil is one of the most common processed products in Syro-Mesopotamia, such as beer, bread or wine, it has never been investigated as a product in its social and cultural context.

This project evaluates first the exceptionally rich available textual evidence mostly from administrative archives, between c. 2500 and 1600 BCE, and discusses all kinds of animal fats (milkfat, lard, etc.) and vegetable oils (sesame, olive, rarely almonds) attested there. Building on previous studies on specific aspects of their terminology, production, circulation and use, this project’s goal is to provide an innovative coherent description of the successive steps (“chaîne opératoire”) from production to consumption as a whole, an approach which has not been systematically adopted for these periods. In particular, the management of oil in the urban centers is reflected in the enormous administrative record from early Syro-Mesopotamia, an exceptional source material to investigate economical procedures in their societal context at various selected historical situations. The project focuses on the precise information on the qualities of oil and, above all, on absolute and relative quantities indicated in the cuneiform documentation. This approach paves the way for an integration of the data from textual sources into archaeological, archaeometric, and archaeobotanic investigations.

Both applicants have worked and published on administrative texts, their terminology, and especially quantitative aspects. This project allows to combine the expertise in Sumerian documents (Early Bronze Age) of the German team with that in Old Babylonian (Middle Bronze Age) of the French team, and it integrates interdisciplinary cooperation partners for ceramic, archaeometric, archaeozoological and archaebotanic data. Two further approaches are embedded in this project as essential components: an archaeological study of oil-vessles, and a lipid residue analysis of ceramics from Southern Iraq. The digital expertise is provided by the IT Gruppe of LMU Munich.

Förderung: Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft/Agence Nationale de la Recherche
Förderzeitraum: 04/2020-06/2023


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