Collective identities in the Old Assyrian trading network (AMME Seminar talk)

Nancy Highcock, a Postdoctoral Researcher at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at the University of Cambridge, gave a talk about mercantile identity in the 3rd and 2nd millennium BCE and the ways in which this professional identity was expressed through the dedication of votive objects. This talk bridged her two areas of current research – namely the textual and archaeological sources which inform us about collective identities in the Old Assyrian trading network and the materiality of commemorative inscriptions on object dedicated by private individuals throughout Mesopotamian religious practice.

The Assyrian merchants living and working in Anatolia during the early second millennium BCE were able to balance both an identity tied very much to their professional lives as long-distance traders who had to adapt to the rhythms of their local setting and an identity tied to the civic institutions and mores of their mother city Assur. One way in which they maintained a connection to their social networks and to the central authorities in Assur was to send material offerings, including votive objects, to be deposited within the Assur temple back home. Furthermore, Assyrian merchants continued to worship their own gods, act as priests, and even construct temples within their communities across Anatolia. As in other periods and places, professional merchants sustained a relationship with the temple as not only a religious obligation, but also as a marker of social status and a way to solidify one’s place in urban society.

This relationship between professional identity and dedicatory practice is one of the many topics currently being explored in the collaborative project “Memories for Life: Materiality and Identity of Ancient Near Eastern Inscribed Private Objects” at Cambridge and Uppsala University. As a member of this project, Nancy is working with the other members of the team to create an open access database of all inscribed objects dedicated by non-royal people from the 3rd through 1st millennium BCE. These objects are often studied for their inscription alone and this project will analyse them holistically as complex tools of memory-making and identity construction that derive their meaning and efficacy from a combination of inscription, object type, material, and primary and secondary archaeological contexts.

Nancy’s talk focused on the objects dedicated by people identifying themselves as merchants in order to further flesh out the picture we have of mercantile social status, access to materials, and their relationship to the central authorities in the third and early second millenniums. By placing the Old Assyrian merchants and their dedicatory practices within this larger socio-historical framework, she demonstrated how a broader study of both text and artefact can illustrate other facets of mercantile identity beyond the purely economic.