chapter  2
18 Pages

Working animals in antiquity

WithJill Goulder

This chapter opens with brief background notes on the larger-scale political and social background of 4th-3rd millennium BC Mesopotamia and the Uruk phenomenon, including recent reassessments of trajectories of complexity in northern Mesopotamia and of former dichotomous thinking about sedentary cultures and the powerful mobile pastoralist groups now thought to be significantly instrumental in urbanisation processes of the period. An important area discussed here is the growing recognition of rural Mesopotamian working-animal use outside central control and barely recorded in official texts and representations. Further background is provided in a short account of the early domestication of donkeys – native to north-east Africa – including consideration of their arrival as domesticates in Mesopotamia. The phenomenon of the curious simultaneous positioning of donkeys since their earliest use as both invaluable and despised is addressed. Finally this chapter outlines the significant subject of the zooarchaeological issues central to the archaeological invisibility of donkeys in the early periods of their systematic use: the misleading scarcity of donkey remains in settlement food-middens, and the difficulties of distinguishing between Equus asinus remains and those of the Mesopotamian onager (E. hemionus), hunted for meat and hides but not domesticated.