Fierce Lions, Angry Mice, and Fat-tailed Sheep: Animal Encounters in the Ancient Near East

Whether you notice them or not, non-human animals form an important part of human lives. They interact with human society not just as resources to be managed, but as rich symbolic referents, religious icons, companions, and much more. The conference ‘Fierce Lions, Angry Mice, and Fat-tailed Sheep: Animal Encounters in the Ancient Near East’, which took place on the 22nd and 23rd of March 2019, explored the range of interactions that occurred between humans and non-human animals in the ancient Near East from a variety of perspectives – from philology, through material culture studies, and through zooarchaeology. The conference consisted of 33 papers over two days with over 70 attendees and presenters from 17 countries that all converged on the MacDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at the University of Cambridge.

Fig.1: Conference participants outside the MacDonald Institute for Archaeological Research.

The conference began with a welcome from one of the organisers, Laerke Recht, who apologised that her co-organiser Augusta McMahon was unable to attend due to her prior commitments excavating in Iraq. Laerke also thanked the various partners that made the conference possible, which included The British Institute for the Study of Iraq, The Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellowship Programme, sponsored by the European Commission, and, of course, the MacDonald Institute for Archaeological Research and the University of Cambridge. Laerke then explained that the conference grew out of her current project ‘The Spirited Horse: Human-equid Relations in the Bronze Age Near East’ and hers and Augusta’s larger interest in human-animal relations, before introducing the first panel of speakers.

The first panel focused on the role of animals within ancient Near Eastern texts and began with Alice Mouton (CNRS and EPHE Paris). Her paper gave a detailed account of references to individuals dressing up as dogs, bears, and panthers, during Hittite religious festivals. This was followed by Hekmat Dirbas (Leiden University) whose paper explored the animals that appeared as personal names in Akkadian texts and outlined some theories for their application – such as nicknames, omens, astral referents, or traditional family names. The panel finished with Lorenzo Verderame (Sapienza University of Rome) who was discussing animal agents in Sumerian literature and their roles as assistants in solving a crisis or impasse or as magical agents that act like a deus ex machina.

The second panel of the day began with Daniel Lau (Westfälische Wilhelms Universität Münster), whose paper examined the material culture for depictions of violence against animals in an attempt to emphasise this aspect of animal-human relations in the ancient Near East, turning away from an anthropocentric perspective and incorporating theories from Critical Animal Studies. This was followed by Chikako Watanabe (Osaka Gakuin University), who focused on the lion-hunting reliefs of Ashurbanipal. She demonstrated how the lion hunt was reserved only for the king and was used in reliefs as an expression of his power. The panel finished with Özlem Saritaş (University of Liverpool), whose paper combined zooarchaeological evidence with material culture to determine whether there was a preference for hunting red deer in the Anatolian Bronze Age.

On the Friday afternoon, the conference split into parallel panels. One panel was focused on donkeys and horses from four distinct perspectives. The first paper came from Gwendoline Maurer (University College London) and explored the differences in both zooarchaeological remains and material culture between the local community and that of the Kura Araxes, from which she suggests the two communities had very different attitudes towards donkeys. She was followed by Jill Goulder (University College London), who stressed the importance of incorporating ethnographic evidence into archaeological research through her own efforts integrating ethnographic accounts of the introduction of donkeys in sub-Saharan Africa with the archaeological evidence from Mesopotamia. Next, Haskel Greenfield (University of Manitoba) and his colleagues, Elizabeth Arnold (Grand Valley State University), Tina L. Greenfield (University of Saskatchewan), and Aren M. Maeir (Bar-Ilan University) presented the latest results on the analysis of donkey remains at Tell es-Safi in the southern Levant. They explored how new analysis through intra-tooth sampling combined with contextual evidence may provide the earliest evidence for the use of donkeys in long distance trade in the Levant. The panel finished with Dean Hallett (University of Melbourne), who used textual and iconographic evidence, combined with research on horse behaviour and genetics, to tackle the problem of how chariot horses were trained in the ancient Near East.

Meanwhile, a parallel panel focused on canines, healing, and canines in healing. This began with Andréa Vilela (Université de Lyon) who examined different types of cuneiform sources and demonstrated that whilst dogs were seen as ‘inside’ the world of man, foxes and wolves were seen as ‘outside’ and thus became symbols of the wilderness. Continuing the theme of dogs, Seraina Nett (Uppsala University) explored the role of dogs in relation with the cult of Gula, a Mesopotamian healing goddess. Seraina used the existing material culture, textual references, and zooarchaeological evidence to help explore the possibility of the presence of actual dogs within the cult of Gula. Next, Barbara Böck (CSIC Madrid) returned to an examination of the cuneiform texts in her paper, which focused on the appearance of animals within medicinal plant names, medical incantations, and their use as medical ingredients. This was a theme that was picked up by Troels Pank Arbøll’s (University of Copenhagen) paper examining references to exotic animal ingredients, like gecko’s blood, bull saliva, and eel bile. He explored these peculiar ingredients and how their relation to the physiology of the animals and the role of their respective animal in Mesopotamian culture possibly contributed to their appearance as medical ingredients.

Two panels rounded off the first day, the first of which continued the discussion of dogs, starting with a paper from the conference organiser Laerke Recht (University of Cambridge) and her colleague Christina Tsouparopoulou (University of Cambridge). This paper explored the relationship between dogs and equids in the battles of the third millennium BCE through textual and iconographic evidence, further evidencing the use of dogs by the Mesopotamian armies. This was followed by Szilvia Jáka-Sövegjártó (University of Heidelberg), who looked at the appearance of the fox in Mesopotamian texts – particularly in proverbs, fables, omens – and posited that the fox’s cunning and unpredictable nature made it a perfect allegory for humankind. The last paper of the panel came from both Marina Barbara Fadum and Carina Gruber (both from the University of Innsbruck) was focused around the treatment and conceptualisation of dogs and cats in ancient Egypt. They both explored the sources through a perspective of human-animal studies, looking at the different modes of interaction humans had with these animals in ancient Egypt. They even explored how both species were mummified – pointing out that even kittens suffered this fate in ancient Egypt.

Concurrently, another panel was focused on iconographic studies. It began with Anne Devillers (Royal Museums of Art and History, Brussels) who presented her research into the appearance of wild fauna in Mesopotamian glyptic art. In this paper, Anne took a statistical approach, determining which species appeared in which region and emphasising the overlap (or lack thereof) between the glyptic, zooarchaeological, and ecological evidence. This was followed by Hannah Gwyther (University of Bristol), who is working with the collection of Near Eastern ivories at the British Museum. Her paper focused on the provenance of the ivories found at Nimrud, exploring whether they came from elephants or hippopotami and the discrepancy between the number of animals required to create these objects and the dearth of representations of these animals – especially elephants – in the iconographic material. Finally, Çiğdem Maner (Koç University) presented her paper exploring the animals depicted in the material culture of Bronze Age Anatolia. Mostly focused on objects from Kültepe, she examined what types of animals those of pre-Hittite Anatolia chose to represent and attempted to decipher their meaning through costly signaling theory.

Saturday began with a panel on the tracking and controlling of animals, which started with colleagues Tuna Kalayci (CNR-IBAM) and John Wainwright (Durham University). They discussed how they used satellite data to determine difference in soil compaction, vegetation productivity, and moisture retention in order to follow the hollow-ways of pastoral herds in mid-to-late Early Bronze Age Upper Mesopotamia. Second was Michael Kozuh (Auburn University) who spoke about the evidence for cattle management at the temple of Eanna at Uruk. His paper looked at cattle management in contrast to that of sheep and how these differences intersected with larger ideas of control and authority in wider Mesopotamia. The panel finished with a discussion on pest control with Malwina Brachmańska (Adam Micklewicz University in Poznań). After examining the different types of pests in ancient Egypt (e.g. birds, rodents, and insects) she turned her attention to methods of pest control, including an ancient mouse trap and the best natural mouse trap – the cat.

Meanwhile, another panel discussed the role of birds in the ancient Near East. We started with my own paper, which discussed the role of waterfowl imagery as both a religious symbol, connected to ideas of death and rebirth, and as markers of elite status, through a connection to Egypt and as a luxury food item. The waterfowl theme was continued by Laura Battini (CNRS, Collège de France), whose paper discussed the appearance of waterfowl in several types of material culture in Mesopotamia – such as chairs, glyptics, and weights – and their possible connection with the local fertility goddess. The panel finished with a joint paper from Louise Quillien (University of Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne) and Olga V. Popova (Institute of Linguistics of the Russian Academy of Sciences) that gave a detailed account of the remains of the Arabian ostrich that have been found across the ancient Near East and examined the resources they provided in feathers, eggs, and meat.

The final two panels of the conference were focused on zooarchaeological studies and animals within ritual and cult. The zooarchaeological panel began with Melina Seabrook (Harvard University), who drew on her own experiences of excavation at Ur. The paper examined a single tusk that was found in a building, deposited in seven pieces across three squares, and related it to the wider cultural interactions between humans and pigs in ancient Mesopotamia. This was followed by Emmanuelle Vila’s (University of Lyon / CNRS) paper on elephant remains. She examined the remains of elephants in the Near East and argued that the remains of the previously hypothesised ‘Syrian elephant’ were in fact from Asian elephants that had been imported to the Levant and had subsequently bred rapidly under favourable conditions. The panel concluded with a paper from Nimrod Marom (University of Haifa), who presented on behalf of himself and his colleagues Schlomit Bechar (Hebrew University of Jerusalem), Assaf Yasur-Landau (University of Haifa), Naama Yahalom Mack (Hebrew University of Jerusalem), and Gideon Hartman (University of Connnecticut). The paper presented the latest analysis of the faunal material from the excavations at Hazor, comparing them to the results seen at nearby Kabri.

The panel about the use of animals in the rituals and cultic life of the ancient Near East began with Francesca Alhaique (Museum of Civilizations, Rome) and her colleagues Licia Romano (Sapienza University of Rome) and Franco D’Agostino (Sapienza University of Rome). They discussed the latest excavations at Abu Tbeirah in southern Iraq, which is uncovering material from the 3rd millennium BCE. Through zooarchaeological evidence from the site, they explored what species were possibly associated with sacred practices by determining which animals were only found alongside human burials. This was followed by Neil Erskine (University of Glasgow) and his paper that used the approaches of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari to explore how the real-world interactions between humans and animals affected what and why animals were represented on cultic objects in 2nd millennium Anatolia. The final paper came from Tina Greenfield (University of Saskatchewan), Timothy Matney (University of Akron) and Dirk Wicke (Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main) and examined the zooarchaeological remains connected to cremation burials at Ziyaret Tepe in south eastern Turkey and what their relative diversity compared to the more mundane remains elsewhere can tell us about mortuary rituals in the Neo-Assyrian Empire.

Fig.2: A word cloud made from all the animals referenced in the conference abstracts.

The conference ended with a group discussion that covered various themes that had presented themselves over the two days. Laerke began by displaying the word cloud of animal species that was constructed from the abstracts, noting the variety of species (37) and the concentration on specific species across papers that were widely spread geographically, temporally, and by discipline. She then turned to the question posited by Daniel Lau, concerning the emphasis of violence against animals in the ancient world. This led to a larger discussion around whether these communities would have viewed these acts as ‘violence’?; whether we can apply modern understandings of human-animal relations or terminology to the study of the ancient Near East?; and the vital importance of the integration of different types and methods of source material – such as ethnographic data – into the study of human-animal relations of the past. What became evident across both days was that the study of human-animal relations in the ancient Near East is a thriving field that only gains from the types of interdisciplinary conversations fostered by conferences such as this one. But, as can be seen clearly from Laerke’s word cloud, simply the vast quantity of different human-animal interactions that occur within societies means there is still much work to be done.

For more information about the conference and to read the full abstracts, you can visit the website. And for more information on the organiser, Laerke Recht’s, current project on ancient horses, visit her blog The Spirited Horse.


Dr Ben Greet is currently a postdoctoral research assistant on the ‘People and Birds in the Southern Levant’ project at The University of Reading, which is examining both the avian remains of two Neolithic sites and the history of birds in the southern Levant. Prior to this, he completed his doctoral studies at The University of Leeds, which focused on the symbolism of the eagle within Roman culture.

Pour citer ce billet : Ben Greet. Fierce Lions, Angry Mice, and Fat-tailed Sheep: Animal Encounters in the Ancient Near East, ArchéOrient - Le Blog, 3 mai 2019, [En ligne]

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