Investigating Upper Mesopotamian Households using Micro-Archaeological Techniques by Lynn Rainville
If one looks at the broad trajectory of the development of archaeology in Mesopotamia, as elsewhere, since its inception in the mid-19th century AD, and arguably to modern times, there is at least one outstanding feature that cannot fail to be discerned. Our Victorian predecessors excavated at the large scale, unearthing and often demolishing entire towns and neighbourhoods in their desire to access the material remains, usually sculpted wall reliefs and other accoutrements of palatial and religious structures, which they regarded as the legitimate targets of their endeavours and which today adorn the walls of museum galleries in London, Paris, and Berlin. The modern Mesopotamian archaeologist, by contrast, has tightened the field of view to a very fine point, and the book here under review epitomises that development, with its resolution set at the small-scale, with regards its methods and applications.
The shift in emphasis from the large-scale to the micro-scale is in some sense an inevitable and welcome result of an ever-increasing awareness of the special nature of the Mesopotamian archaeological record. Earlier excavators could not recognise walls of unbaked mud-brick, of which most Mesopotamian architecture is constructed, and were only able to trace buried buildings on the basis of stone foundations or facings. Even once the skills in tracing and excavating mud-brick buildings had been developed, thanks initially to German dedication and ingenuity at Babylon, there was still a strong emphasis on large-scale architecture with relatively a poor understanding of the complex natural and cultural forces at work on the structuring and history of mud-brick buildings. Over the past twenty or so years a major development has been the application in ancient Mesopotamian of the methods and techniques of soil science, including micromorphology, to the analysis and interpretation of the cultural deposits to buildings; their construction, use, and abandonment. These developments have occurred hand-in-hand with a broader intellectual shift away from the study of palaces and temples of imperial ruling elites, towards the consideration of past life at the scale of the everyday and the commonplace.
Such is the academic and historical context within which Lynn Rainville’s book sits. What about the volume itself? The book has a coherent and attractive structure. An introductory chapter sets out the main issues and the academic context of the research, which was conducted as a PhD project. This includes is an outline of the three sites featured as case-studies throughout: the two towns of Kazane and Titris and the village of Tilbes, all dating to the third millennium BC and at the northern limits of Mesopotamia in south-eastern Turkey. Chapter 2 provides a discussion of the micro-archaeological methods employed, situating itself meaningfully within a rich history of previous and related research. The benefits of this approach are rightly stressed. It involves analysis of in situ remains from specific activities within and around houses, and is really the only satisfactory way to approach the vexing issue of how activities were structured in time and space, through ancient Mesopotamian houses, which are often devoid of macro-scale indicators of such activities. Rainville expounds her articulate and convincing ‘model of micro-debris deposition and preservation’, which attempts to account for how debris enters the archaeological record and how it may be affected by post-depositional forces, dependent upon the type of material (ceramic, bone, chipped stone, shell) and the size of the fragments of those materials. The model is supported by her own ethnoarchaeological researches in India.
Chapter 3 presents the bulk of the evidence from the three sites and its analysis, augmented by subtle and nuanced studies conducted on contemporary houses and settlements in the same region of Turkey. Here, as throughout the volume, Rainville shows a commendable ability to move with significant effect across the boundaries between Mesopotamian archaeology and ethnography. The analyses are accompanied by numerous helpful plans, charts, and tables that enable ready comparison and comprehension. By these means Rainville explores the characterisation, in terms of associated micro-archaeological remains, of specific types of archaeological context, such as burial, domestic preparation surface, hearth, pit, street, domestic floor, etc., concluding that ‘micro-debris clearly helped identify activity areas within rooms’ (p. 87). In chapter 4, ‘Near Eastern houses: ancient and modern’, the micro-debris interpretations are integrated with additional elements such as the architectural context, macro-artefacts, and other features found within buildings, in order to classify room types and use of structures. She conducts a broad range of analyses in this chapter in order to provide a meaningful and well-supported context for her micro-debris work, culminating in her highly impressive, if preliminary, attempt ‘to model the location of daily activities and the nature of social and economic relations among household members in Building Unit 4 at Titris Höyük’ (p. 140). Chapter 5 opens the field of view still more to consider the question of whether Upper Mesopotamian cities were organised in neighbourhoods, by looking at patterns of distribution of activities, features, and architecture. Rainville concludes that the evidence of both wealthy and poor households as existing side-by-side, supports the view that neighbourhoods were indeed an important organising principle of Upper Mesopotamian cities; a conclusion that chimes well with work in Lower Mesopotamia conducted by Elizabeth Stone (Stone & Zimansky 2004).
The three concluding chapters place the detailed analysis of Chapters 3-5 within the study of Mesopotamian urbanism as a social and cultural phenomenon, highlighting the points of comparison and contrast between the cities of Lower and Upper Mesopotamia, as well as considering the role of the village in the structuring of the urban-rural network. A short concluding chapter re-emphasises the main points made throughout the volume.
Lynn Rainville has produced a rich and stimulating piece of research, structured by exciting and valid questions, an innovative and systematically applied methodology, and a series of analyses and interpretations that not only make the very most of the high resolution of her own studies, but also completely succeed in situating her results within a nested series of intellectual contexts. In light of the large-scale trends in Mesopotamian archaeology, this reviewer has no hesitation in stating that this volume is one of the most important, exciting, and rewarding to be published in recent years. All archaeologists, Mesopotamian or otherwise, have much to learn from reading this superb study.
Review Submitted: November 2005
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