“They Enjoy Syrup and Ghee at Tables of Silver and Gold”: Infant Loss in Ancient Mesopotamia

in Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient
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The present study draws on interdisciplinary research to establish an interpretative framework for an analysis of the material and textual evidence concerning infant loss in ancient Mesopotamia (c. 3000-500 bce). This approach rejects the notion that high infant mortality rates result in widespread parental indifference to infant loss, arguing instead that underlying biological and transcultural realities inform human responses to this phenomenon. With this conclusion in mind, a review of ancient Mesopotamian archaeological evidence reveals patterns of differential infant burial; while the interpretation of these patterns is uncertain, the broader contexts of infant burials in ancient Mesopotamia do not point to parental indifference, but rather the opposite. The available textual evidence in turn indicates that ancient Mesopotamians valued their infants, sought actively to protect them from harm, and mourned deeply when they died, a conclusion that is not controverted by evidence of infant exposure.

“They Enjoy Syrup and Ghee at Tables of Silver and Gold”: Infant Loss in Ancient Mesopotamia

in Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient

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  • 11

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  • 15

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  • 18

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  • 19

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  • 24

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  • 31

    For a recent example see C. SafinaBeyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel (New York: Henry Holt2015).

  • 32

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  • 33

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  • 39

    See S. Crawford“The Archaeology of Play Things: Theorising a Toy Stage in the ‘Biography’ of Objects.” Childhood in the Past 2 (2009).

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    A. Lindenlauf“Thrown Away Like Rubbish—Disposal of the Dead in Ancient Greece.” Papers from the Institute of Archaeology 12 (2001): 95.

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  • 84

    See P.N. Stearns and C.Z. Stearns“Emotionology: Clarifying the History of Emotions and Emotional Standards.” The American Historical Review 90/4 (1985). For a necessary rethinking of the Stearns’ ideas see also B.H. Rosenwein “Worrying about Emotions in History.” The American Historical Review 107/3 (2002).

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  • 100

    Th. Jacobsen et al.Before Philosophy: The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man (Baltimore: Penguin1949): 177.

  • 102

    Th. JacobsenThe Harps that Once . . . Sumerian Poetry in Translation (New Haven: Yale University Press1987): 152-153.

  • 110

    Lines 48-49 in W.G. Lambert“A Middle Assyrian Medical Text.” Iraq 31 (1969): 31.

  • 152

    J. BoswellThe Kindness of Strangers: The Abandonment of Children in Western Europe from Late Antiquity to the Renaissance (Chicago: University of Chicago Press1998): 428-429.

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  • 154

    M. Malul“Adoption of Foundlings in the Bible and Mesopotamian Documents: A Study of Some Legal Metaphors in Ezekiel 16:1-7.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 46 (1990) and Wunsch “Findelkinder und Adoption”.

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  • 164

    C. Patterson“‘Not Worth the Rearing’: The Causes of Infant Exposure in Ancient Greece.” Transactions of the American Philological Association 115 (1985): 123.

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