“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.

Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient

Journal d'Histoire Economique et Sociale de l'Orient

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2

M.J. Geller, “Freud, Magic and Mesopotamia: How the Magic Works.” Folklore 108 (1997): 5.

11

M.I. Finley, “The Elderly in Classical Antiquity.” Greece & Rome 28/2 (1981): 159.

12

L. Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800 (New York: Harper & Row, 1977): 651-652 and 70.

13

E. Shorter, The Making of the Modern Family (New York: Basic Books, 1975): 168.

15

See T. Sharot, “The Optimism Bias.” Current Biology 21/23 (2011).

17

L.A. Pollock, Forgotten Children: Parent-Child Relations from 1500 to 1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983): 267; 268. See also p. 271 for a scathing assessment: “The material analysed here does not support the evolutionary theories on the history of childhood . . . there is no dramatic transformation in child-rearing practices in the 18th century. It is a myth brought about by over-hasty reading, a burning desire to find material to support the thesis and a wilful misinterpretation of evidence.”

18

M. Golden, “Did the Ancients Care when their Children Died?” Greece & Rome 35/2 (1988): 153.

19

Cf. E. Scott, The Archaeology of Infancy and Infant Death (Oxford: Archaeopress, 1999): 125: “despite the generalities, there is no universal response to the infant.”

24

J.K. Campbell, Honour, Family and Patronage: A Study of Institutions and Moral Values in a Greek Mountain Community (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967): 154. Note the essential similarity between the measures taken to ward off infant loss in this passage and some of the measures undertaken by ancient Mesopotamians, particularly in relation to warding off Lamaštu, for which see section 3.3 below.

31

For a recent example, see C. Safina, Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel (New York: Henry Holt, 2015).

32

K. Wilhelm, “Do Animals Have Feelings?” Scientific American Mind 17 (2006): 29.

33

B.J. King, “When Animals Mourn.” Scientific American 309 (2013): 64.

34

B.J. King, How Animals Grieve (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013): 65.

39

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

45

R.L. Zettler, Nippur III: Kassite Buildings in Area WC-1 (Chicago: Oriental Institute, 1993): 39.

46

R.F.S. Starr, Nuzi: Report on the Excavations at Yorgan Tepa near Kirkuk, Iraq: Volume I, Text (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1939): 348-357.

48

L. Woolley and M. Mallowan, Ur Excavations, Volume VII: The Old Babylonian Period (London: The Trustees of the British Museum and the University Museum, Philadelphia, 1976): 30, 34.

51

G. Brereton, “Cultures of Infancy and Capital Accumulation in Pre-Urban Mesopotamia.” World Archaeology 45/2 (2013): 236-237. Note in particular the tables on these pages.

52

A. Moore, “Hearth and Home: The Burial of Infants within Romano-British Domestic Contexts.” Childhood in the Past 2 (2009): 33.

54

M. Georgiadis, “Child Burials in Mesolithic and Neolithic Southern Greece: A Synthesis.” Childhood in the Past 4 (2011): 43.

56

K. Garroway, Children in the Ancient Near Eastern Household (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2014): 208.

57

D.T. Potts, Mesopotamian Civilization: The Material Foundations (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997): 233.

63

A. Haller, Die Gräber und Grüfte von Assur (Berlin: Verlag Gebr. Mann, 1954): 38.

70

L. Gardeła and P. Duma, “Untimely Death: Atypical Burials of Children in Early and Late Medieval Poland.” World Archaeology 45/2 (2013): 323-325.

77

M.D. Danti, Hasanlu V: The Late Bronze and Iron I Periods (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013): 316.

78

A. McMahon, Nippur V: The Early Dynastic to Akkadian Transition: The Area WF Sounding at Nippur (Chicago: The Oriental Institute, 2006): 39, 70.

80

Grave 109 in O. Reuther, Die Innenstadt von Babylon (Merkes) (Leipzig: J.C. Hinrichs, 1926): 209-211.

81

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

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).

100

Th. Jacobsen et al., Before Philosophy: The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man (Baltimore: Penguin, 1949): 177.

102

Th. Jacobsen, The Harps that Once . . . Sumerian Poetry in Translation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987): 152-153.

110

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

152

J. Boswell, The Kindness of Strangers: The Abandonment of Children in Western Europe from Late Antiquity to the Renaissance (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998): 428-429.

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”.

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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