Originally scheduled to take place in Helsinki, a pandemic got in the way, and we were sadly forced to move it online. But, as they say, every cloud has a silver lining, and we can now invite a larger audience, including you maybe, to join us! What will we do? We will explore the social history of Mesopotamian Empires of the First Millennium BCE. How? Well, keep reading as we describe below in detail what our expedition is all about. You’ll find the link to register and our contact details at the end of the post.
There was an Old Victorian parlor game called “Consequences” in which players each told a sentence and went on to invent a narrative, from scratch. Amusingly, in its French version, the game is called “Cadavre exquis” (Exquisite cadaver) and it was much appreciated during the Surrealist era. In a way, conferences and workshops are rather like these old games, but, admittedly, with a higher regard for realism.
Colleagues have an idea and a desire to discuss a topic. Words exchanged enthusiastically on a tramway ride through town, words put in WhatsApp messages, words negotiated on a shared document, words spoken again on Zoom. Words disciplined, spellchecked, deemed final. Words that go to a board meeting, meet approval and are pronounced ready to travel. Their route is known, they will be sent “through the usual channels”. Somewhere, scholars of the field and around the world read your words and somehow, they sense a match. From there on, in their minds and in the flux of their everyday lives, they’ll sketch possible plots of what could happen when your distant words meet their distinct world. Something crystalizes. New words are written, disciplined, spellchecked, sent back. Ta-dah. And here we are. Conferences and workshops are like expeditions, with that added twist that although you are the organizer, you never really know, at first, where you are going.
The path is set now, and we are happy to present our map. Though of course the path is never fully set. Some of the major conclusions of these joint expeditions appear clearly only days, weeks or months after the final goodbyes have been said. A bit like bread dough, things sometimes need time to settle. But let’s go back to the start, to the catchy words we borrowed from Monty Python.
What have Mesopotamian Empires ever done for their people?
All the successive empires of the First Millennium BCE claim, in one form or another, to guarantee the collective well-being of the people living on their territory. Furthermore, providing this welfare to human beings is the main clause of the Kings’ contract with the gods, and hence, is the cornerstone of legitimation of their authority as rulers. What are we missing if we dismiss these claims as solely rhetorical and directed to an elite audience? Can we consider them as principles that guided concrete policies towards the population, as principles that were binding to the political elite itself?
This conference takes the view from below and investigates how imperial dynamics may have affected the lifeways of people in their territories. The basic questions of this workshop are: How did the empires of the Ancient Near East affect the life of ordinary people in their realm? To which extent was rural life and life in smaller towns permeated by imperial agents and policies, hence by imperial dynamics? The investigation of textual and archaeological evidence can provide us with glimpses into everyday life. The publication of several relevant text corpora from the 1st millennium has provided us with much new data concerning economic life in this period. New methods for the analysis of archaeological evidence provide us with detailed information concerning the nutrition and the health of ancient peoples. The workshop aims to combine textual and archaeological evidence with social theory to develop a clearer picture of living circumstances, hoping to “track the macro in the micro”.
Those were the words that we sent out, and here is the menu, composed from the words we got back. But first, we are happy to present our three keynotes. Archaeologist Claudia Glatz from the University of Glasgow will reflect on the necessity to let the subaltern speak and imagine a future for Empire studies. Marc Van de Mieroop, an Assyriologist from Columbia University, will investigate how dissent is voiced in Mesopotamia. The last keynote, delivered by Petri Ylikoski, a Philosopher of social science based at the University of Helsinki, will take the form of a response to all that has been said.
The conference will be opened by Saana Svärd, the director of the CoE Ancient Near Eastern Empires, University of Helsinki. Before we start walking ancient grounds and “giving the floor” to each other, we’ll pause, and ... take a look at it. Floors and walls and ceilings and all. We’ll turn to mud bricks, which too often dwell in the shadow of their fancier and higher-end glazedsiblings. We’ll reflect on what it means, for ancient history at large, to have fallen for glitz and glamour and the impact this had on the study of Iron Age communities and their architecture.
We’ll now start our explorations by asking a very basic question.
Why is social history relevant? One can take a quantitative approach and argue that elites were only a minority, a tiny fraction of the population. Better focus instead on the lives and beliefs of all of those underneath! But there is also a qualitative and theoretical argument to be made for social history: to grasp holistically a given society one must watch the ballet of the social structures and symbolic forms at play. To seize the political philosophy of these long-gone Empires, we must push open the gates of the Palace, walk the grounds, near and far, up and down, to study the people in all their compounds. This might sound like a tale a little strange and a little vague. So, we’ll be precise: we’ll look at those lasting New Year rites and see how, maybe, a social history of scarcity can shed new light on their theological poetry.
Now, one thing is certain, to graze or grapple with the lives of hundreds and thousands of ordinary people, Empires needed to be here, they needed to be there, and they needed to be everywhere. And a slow pace would not suffice, so less than a ballet here we have an electro beat device! We’ll consider Empires as agents of acceleration and look at speed as the key to their success: speed of the army, speed of transportation, and speed of information. We’ll rest from that frenzy to question the modalities of compliance to political authority. Can one grasp the possible advantages and disadvantages of living under Empire? Could ancient social actors have pondered a balance of pleasure and pain? And which way could their scales have tipped?
From a close reading of available textual sources, we will then try to sketch the political emotions and the political subjectivities of non-elite social actors. We will tell folktales, popular sayings, riddles and laugh along at the - still funny and at times plainly hilarious - political humor of Ancient times. What do these texts tell us of the way that ordinary people dealt with the hardships of life and about how they voiced their criticism? What did people at the bottom of the social ladder have to say about people at the top?
We will further our exploration of life at the bottom and explore different areas outside the heartland. Sometimes it turns out that to do such a thing, one has to be suspended on a rope, dangling on the side of a cliff in Southern Transjordan. Safely fastened, we will rappel down to local Edomite Tells. With our feet now firmly rooted in the ground, but never far from the water, we’ll explore the social organization of economic activity and look at the socio-political structures that spring from it. We’ll reflect upon the centrality of the periphery for the local actors involved, whilst, however, remembering – could one really forget? - the presence of the talkative nearby cliff.
We will then caravan further north, to the site of Tell Mardikh, not far from today’s Aleppo. We’ll hoist ourselves up to the Persian building on the imposing Acropolis of Ancient Ebla and marvel at the many pearls of the past that were uncovered there. What do we know of the lives of those who lived up here? How was this reception suite used? And what about these rooms over here? Taking a rest on the edge of the mount, looking into the distance, past the cultivated fields and the grazing grounds around, we’ll wonder: what part did the dwellers of the Acropolis play in the wider political and economic landscape? We’ll walk down, and around and, finally, consider the Tell as a whole: how can we reconstitute the local ancient social structures, cultures and belief systems? What do the finds tell us about the relationship of those on top to those around and below?
We’ll caravan back to the larger cities of the Mesopotamian heartland and join the processions to the King’s court. We will observe the choreographies of political subjugation during royal ceremonies. We will look at the kinetics of asymmetrical social relations, follow ascending hands, bowing heads, and knees close to the ground. Postures of power and postures of submission in carefully orchestrated scenes, from one social group to the other and from one Empire to the next.
There is a background to this rhythm, to this regular and highly ritualized display of social relations. We will scrutinize together the tributary scenes carved on palace reliefs, on free standing monuments across the territory, inscribed on bronze bands fixed to the gates and nested in ivory inlays of everyday life. From this standpoint, we will wonder: How are empires embodied? What are the dialectics of posture and emotion for the foreigners bringing their tribute? What could it mean, for them, to be simultaneously present and re-presented in this particular time and place?
From the palace, we’ll wander off into the cities and observe their complex social topography.
We’ll get out some maps and start to wonder: where are the urban poor? Do they really dwell in those smaller houses over there? We’ll stop in our tracks to consider the methodological challenges of using house size as a proxy for household wealth. Now, minding our step, with the archaeological and textual information available at hand, we’ll gather around their possible dwellings and ask: did the urban poor rent their houses, or could they have owned them? How did they use their allotted space? What do their dwellings reveal of the social organization of these households at the bottom of the social scale and what do we know of their patterns of interaction with other households from surrounding social groups?
We’ll then join Nippur just after the takeover of the area by the Persian King Cyrus II. With old excavation journals at hand, a small private archive covering the period from the last year of Nabonidus into the end of the reign of Cambys, and evidence from recent archaeological investigations, we’ll ask: how do you mind your own business in times of major political shifts? How did the reshuffling of the ruling elite impact local “profiteers”? Can we see them as moments of possible upwards social mobility?
As we get closer to Sippar, then a lively transit point for people and goods, we’ll notice the tireless gadding about of our next subjects, the members of three different trading families. Though based in town, they moved around the local area and beyond to pursue their complex business operations and curate their networks. We’ll find them bustling around the city’s port, interacting with a variety of individuals from different social horizons. We’ll scrutinize their ties to royal and religious institutions, and reflect upon the impact of Persian administrative practices on their affairs. We’ll wonder: were they really part of the urban elite?
So, by now, we have observed from different angles the effect of governance practices on local social groups in both rural and urban settings. Now it’s time to consider the inherent creativity of administrative technologies: the governing elite didn’t simply deal with existing groups but, at times, it actually set out to generate new social categories. We’ll take a fresh look at the Persian-era label of “Sushanu” and try to grasp the political rationality of this captivating act of demographic engineering. We’ll look at the geo-political goals it served by questioning its impact on the rural communities but also by detailing how it reverberated on the already existing social fabric of the urban centers.
We have now come to the end of our journey. It is time for us to sit back and reflect upon the collective adventure that has just taken place and review the paths explored - and those left untrodden. The philosopher of social sciences Petri Ylikoski, who accompanied us on this journey, will give us his account of the voyage from the perspective of a person trained to study how researchers do…what they do. We’ll then engage in a collective discussion of our adventures!
You are welcome to join the expedition! If you want to come along, please register, somewhere in the clouds and over the rainbow, by following this link.
The program of the event is here and below as an image.
We are also happy to answer any questions you may have! You can contact us here before, during and after the workshop: firstname.lastname@example.org
Caroline Wallis, University of Helsinki
Marta Lorenzon, University of Helsinki
Sebastian Fink, University of Innsbruck