Thursday, October 15, 2015

Review: Ancient Assyria: A Very Short Introduction by Karen Radner

A history resource article by  © 2015

Years ago I somehow acquired the idea that the Assyrians were a fierce and brutal warrior society whose military had conquered much of the ancient Near East that lay between the kingdoms of Ur and the mighty Hittite Empire of Anatolia.  This idea was reinforced when I visited such museums as the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Oriental Institute in Chicago and the British Museum in London and viewed the awesome reliefs and monumental winged Lammasu, an Asssyrian protective deity usually depicted with the body of a lion or ox, the head of a human and the wings of a raptor, that once adorned the palaces of Assyrian kings like Ashurnasirpal II.

Recently, though, Oxford Press sent me a review copy of a small book by Karen Radner entitled Ancient Assyria: A Very Short Introduction and I finally had a chance to explore this culture in greater depth.  What I discovered was the Assyrians had a very sophisticated culture, enjoying fine wines, a fresh water supply, indoor toilets and a well-functioning sewage system.  Sounds rather Roman doesn't it?  But the Assyrian culture was founded in the 3rd millenium BCE although it didn't reach its apex until the 1st millenium BCE.

The Lamassu a human-headed winged bull figure from the palace of
King Sargon II in his capital city of Dur-Sharrukin (Khorsabad) stands
16 ft tall and weighs 40 tons.  Photographed at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago
by Mary Harrsch © 2009
I learned the Assyrians enacted consumer protection for the buyers of their goods and even offered extended warranties although we usually don't think of these extending to the sales of human beings (slave sales were subject to a 100-day guarantee against epilepsy and mental instability!)

They were rather protective of some of their inventions, though.  Assyrians invented the foldable parasol but its use was restricted to royalty on pain of death!

The Assyrians were not all that brutal in the conduct of warfare either, although they were highly skilled in the use of chariots and clearly embraced nuanced deployments of chariot, cavalry, archers, slingers and infantry.  The Assyrians were more interested in obtaining human resources from their conquered lands than in wholesale slaughter.  Skilled craftsman and educated scholars would be sorted out and relocated to the Assyrian heartland, initially centered on the religious capital of Assur.  Although slaves were sometimes taken, most conquered laborers were often relocated to areas needing colonization.

Babylonian city under seige by the Assyrians Nimrud Palace 728 BCE
Photographed at the British Museum by Mary Harrsch © 2006

"It has been calculated on the basis of references in the royal inscriptions that  4,400,000 + or - 900,000 people were relocated from the mid-9th to the mid-7th century BC, of which 85% were settled in central Assyria - a gigantic number, especially in a world whose population was a small fraction of today's.  For all of these people resettlement was meant to provide a better future while at the same time benefitting the empire.  Of course, their relocation was at the same time an effective way of minimizing the risk of rebellion against the central authority." - Karen Radner, Ancient Assyria: A Very Short Introduction

These conquered colonists were well provisioned and reliefs depict them without fetters.  An 8th century BCE letter from an official to King Tiglath-Pileser III, details the provisions allocated to a group of settlers from western Syria:

"As for the Arameans about whom the king my lord has written to me: 'Prepare them for their journey!' I shall give them their food supplies, clothes, a waterskin, a pair of shoes and oil.  I do not have my donkeys yet, but once they are available, I will dispatch my convoy."

Deportation of conquered Iraqi people after defeat by Tilgeth Pileser III of
Assyria Nimrud Palace 728 BCE.  Photographed at the British Museum by
Mary Harrsch © 2006
Once the new colonists reached their destination, the king provided further support:

"As for the Arameans about whom the king my lord has said: 'They are to have wives!' We found numerous suitable women but their fathers refuse to give them in marriage, claiming: 'We will not consent unless they can pay the bride price.'  Let them be paid so that the Arameans can get married."

Obviously the king wanted the colony to be a successful community of thriving families.

Although the above passage makes women appear to be chattel this was not necessarily the case, either.  Assyrian women were allowed to engage in business and I read that if the male head-of-household ended up fathering a child with a slave, the husband could not choose to adopt the child without his wife's consent.  So women obviously had some rights.

From the text, it appears average Assyrians were primarily monogamous although traders gone from home for extended periods sometimes took a secondary wife in one of the cities along their trade route.  However, such secondary wives never took precedent over the first wife.

Knowledge was revered in Assyria, so much so that by the 9th century BCE Assyrian King Assurbanipal II is depicted in reliefs in the North Palace in Nineveh with a writing stylus tucked into his belt, instead of the more usual knife.  The Assyrian's great library was already in existence in the 13th century BCE, almost a thousand years before the Great Library of Alexandria.  Radner tells us that when King Tukulti-Ninurta I sacked Babylon in the 13th century BCE, he records that  he brought back library tablets to add to his holdings.  Scholars estimate that the library collection probably extended all the way back to the 14th century BCE under the reign of King Assur-Uballit I.

A statue of Assyrian king Assurbanipal II outside the entrance
to the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, California.
Photographed by Mary Harrsch © 2006

So obviously I found Radner's little tome brimming with information punctuated by actual quotations from translated cuneiform tablets of the period.  She also included some black-and-white images, diagrams of excavated structures, maps, a timeline, a recommended reading list and index.  I must admit I struggled a bit with Assyrian names and the fact that Assyrian archaeological sites like Nimrud had a totally different name in antiquity (ancient Kalhu).  Organizationally, I would have found it easier to follow a more linear presentation of material about the administration and achievements of specific rulers, but, I still found the book to be a welcome addition to my resource library.

Although this is the first book of this series I have ever seen here in the states, Oxford produces a number of them on a variety of topics.  They kindly sent me another one on Roman Britain that I look forward to reading as well.

A Kindle preview:

To learn more about ancient Mesopotamia, I also suggest the Great Courses lecture series:

Between the Rivers: The History of Ancient Mesopotamia

Or the following books:

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Wednesday, October 14, 2015

How did the ancients colorfast their textiles?

A history resource article by  © 2015

Today, I received an email about a new exhibition of Indian textiles at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.  As I read through the article and admired photographs of the beautiful clothing and fabrics on display I was particularly intrigued by a statement that a young Frenchman, Antoine de Beaulieu, an employee of the French Compagnie des Indes had committed industrial espionage to learn the secrets of Indian dyeing techniques.  He discovered the Indians used metallic salts, called mordants, that, when combined with dyes, formed an insoluble compound on natural fibers making textiles both colorful and colorfast.

French "Indienne", "Le Grand Corail", a printed or painted textile in the manner of Indian productions, which used mordants to fix the dyes.  Photographed at the Musée du textile de Wesserling, Alsace, France by Rémi Stosskopf.  Image released
to the public domain.
The article mentioned that the use of mordants was known in the Mediterranean world (and apparently India) in ancient times but had been lost to Europe for centuries.  Naturally, this made me curious to learn more about it.

Many of us who study ancient history have read about the production of the highly valued purple dye from snail shells and how it was sought after for imperial robes and senatorial toga stripes.  But I hadn't really considered what had to be done to make such colorful garments colorfast.  Considering fullers' use of strong chemical baths incorporating urine, colorfastness of dyed fabrics had to have been important.

The fullonica (laundry) of Greek freedman Stephanos in
Pompeii, Italy.  Photo by Mary Harrsch © 2005
So, I began my research into the history of mordants (sometimes spelled mordents).  I discovered that some of the ancient recipes for mordants were found in a stash of papyri recovered in 1828 (presumably by grave robbers) from burial sites near Thebes in central Egypt.  The scrolls, tentatively dated to the late 3rd or early 4th century CE (Greco-Roman Period), were written in Greek.  The sheets of papyri were in excellent condition, probably originally placed in sealed containers as part of a funerary offering gift for use in the afterlife.

Initially, the recipes were thought to be "alchemical" in nature - recipes used for the magical transformation of metals.  A portion of the original sheets were sent to the Museum of Antiquities at the University of Leyden in 1929 and the balance were shipped off to the Swedish Royal Academy of Antiquities in 1932.  Since the papers at the University of Leyden had been catalogued as alchemical, they did not draw much attention from chemical historians until the papyri were finally translated into Latin in 1885.  The papyri at the Swedish Royal Academy of Antiquities languished until they were finally translated in 1913 and associated with the Leyden scrolls by Austrian chemist and historian Edmund von Lippmann.  In 1924, Englishman John Maxson Stillman published "Story of Early Chemistry" combining informaton from both sets of documents.  This text remains one of the most widely studied books on classical chemistry.

"As a reading of these translations quickly reveals, neither papyrus contains the mystical symbolism and allegorical indirection so typical of the true alchemical literature. Rather they consist largely of simple, short recipes. In the case of the Leyden papyrus these focus primarily on the preparation of various metal alloys – many of which are intended to imitate the appearance of either gold or silver – for use in making jewelry, in gilding, or in metallic writing, while a few others deal instead with dyes of various sorts. The contents of the Stockholm papyrus have the same form, but focus more on dyeing and the imitation of various precious stones and gems. " - William Jensen, The Leyden and Stockholm papyri: Greco-Egyptian chemical documents from the early 4th century AD

As it turns out, though, these papyri aren't the oldest references to dyeing and the imitation of gemstones, either.  In 1925 British Assyriologist R. Campbell Thompson and German Assyriologist H. Zimmern each independently published translations of several cuneiform tablets dating from the 7th century BCE containing practical recipes for the preparation of colored glasses.

Cuneiform tablet from Assyrian trading post Anatolia,
circa 1875-1840 B.C. Photographed at the Los Angeles
County Museum of Art by Mary Harrsch © 2005
We also have a reference in Pliny the Elder's Naturalis historiae, written two centuries before the Leyden and Stocklholm papyri, describing the commercial production of counterfeit gems and precious stones using dyes in the 1st century CE:

"Nay, even more than this, there are books in existence, the authors of which I forbear to name, which give instructions how to stain crystal in such a way as to imitate smaragdus and other transparent stones, how to make sardonyx of sarda, and other gems in a similar manner. Indeed, there is no other kind of fraud practiced by which larger profits are made." - Pliny the Elder, Naturalis historiae

But, Pliny was most amazed by Egyptian dyeing processes that used mordants to obtain color variations in textiles using the same dye solution:

"In Egypt garments are dyed according to a remarkable process. They are first cleaned, then soaked, not in dye, but in various substances that absorb dye. These substances do not at first show in the materials, but when the materials have been dipped into the dyeing tun, they can be removed, after being stirred about, completely dyed. The most wonderful thing about this is that, although the tun contains only one kind of dye, the materials suddenly appear dyed different colors, according to the nature of the dye-absorbing substances used, and these colors are not only resistant to washing, but materials so dyed actually wear better." - Pliny the Elder, Naturalis historiae

A fresco from the Fullonica of  Verania Hypsaeus in Pompeii
 depicting the cleaning of fabric 1st century CE.
Unfortunately, counterfeiting gems must have been a relatively successful and problematic activity across the Roman Empire because the emperor Diocletian issued an edict  around 290 CE ordering the destruction of all documents relating to the manufacture and imitation of gold and silver to prevent the debasement of currency and the funding of insurrections.  This information was included in the same compendiums as the use of mordants and dyes in the textile industry.  So these valuable processes were lost to the west in what must have become a Roman book burning.

So, what did the ancients use to produce these marvelous results?  According to William B. Jensen of the University of Cincinnati,  105 materials of mineral origin, 88 of plant origin, and 16 of animal origin were included in recipes contained in The Leyden and Stockholm Papyri. Among the most frequently cited in the mineral category are alum, copper, crystal, and gold (though often as a color rather than as a material), whereas alkanet, archil and especially vinegar are the winners in the plant category, and urine and wool in the animal category.

If you're into recreation of textiles processed with these ancient methods, the recipes are available in English in "The Leyden and Stockholm Papyri: Greco-Egyptian Chemical Documents From the early 4th Century AD" by William B. Jensen.

The Fabric of India exhibit will be on display from October 3, 2015 - January 10, 2016 at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.


Caley, E., & Jensen, W. (2008). The Leyden and Stockholm papyri: Greco-Egyptian chemical documents from the early 4th century AD. Cinncinatti, Ohio: University of Cinncinatti.

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