Jill Goulder

The use of working donkeys and cattle in 4th- and 3rd-millennium BC Mesopotamia: social and economic impacts in the light of modern working-animal studies

In Mesopotamia in the 4th and 3rd millennia BC, the systematic use of animals for traction and transport provided vital functional underpinning to the rapid development of complex societies. Ploughing oxen have often held centre stage in archaeological models of this period, following Sherratt’s (1981) proposition of the Secondary Products Revolution. The current body of archaeological and textual literature on this crucial period of prehistory lacks a holistic assessment of the mechanics and logistics of the ‘animal industry’, including a reworking of presumptions about ploughing and transportation norms and the social implications of the shift from human to animal motive power.

Acknowledgement of the key role in Mesopotamia of pack-donkey caravans is now growing, and the presence of ploughing donkeys is clear from 3rd-millennium BC texts; but there has as yet been little attention to the likely employment of donkeys in the many invaluable local transportation roles that they perform to this day. This, exacerbated by the marked rarity of donkey remains in the archaeological record, has resulted in a profile in the Ancient Near East which is at odds with donkey use in modern developing regions. There is a growing body of recent work examining modern societies in sub-Saharan Africa in particular which rely significantly upon working animals, and there has been only limited archaeological use to date of such sources in Ancient Near Eastern studies. My thesis assesses from a range of ethnographies the likely daily effect on farm and household life of working ox, cow and donkey adoption for ploughing and local transportation. This material provides a useful window onto the practicalities of breeding, feeding, harnessing and training working animals, and particularly onto the differing but complementary advantages of oxen versus donkeys. Through detailed qualitative analysis of this material – with due caveats – I aim to extract some of the physiological and ecological irreducibles which can be applied to use of working animals in Ancient Near Eastern environments.


 Educational background

  • BA (Jt Hons), French/ English literature, University of Exeter, 1975
  • MA, Archaeology of the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East, UCL, 2008 (Winner of University of London Petrie Prize 2008)

(In press) Invisible donkeys in ancient Mesopotamia: new insights from modern studies in sub-Saharan Africa. 12th ASWA proceedings, Groningen Archaeological Series

(2016) Fair exchange: utilisation of working animals (and women) in ancient Mesopotamia and modern Africa. Anthropology of the Middle East 11/1: 66-84

(2010) Administrators’ bread: an experiment-based reassessment of the functional and cultural role of the Uruk bevel-rim bowl. Antiquity 84: 351–362. (Article awarded the 2011 Ben Cullen prize, given to the runner-up for the best piece published by Antiquity in the past year)


BANEA conference 2017

Donkey conference, SOAS 2016

Being Interdisciplinary in Animal Studies symposium, Strathclyde 2016

ASWA conference, Groningen 2015

Donkey Conference, Hydra 2014

European Association of Archaeologists conference, Istanbul 2014

UCL IoA Postgraduate Zooarchaeology Forum 2014

BANEA conference 2014

University of Oxford Ploughing Ahead colloquium 2013

UCL IoA Animals as Material Culture seminar 2010

BANEA conference 2009

UCL IoA Attitudes to Animals seminar 2007

  • Jill’s team at Barcin Hoyuk 2012
  • Replica bevel-rim bowls manufactured for my MA dissertation (see Antiquity piece)
  • Sherd from Tol-e Nurabad, Western Fars, first half of 5th millennium cal BC (courtesy of Prof. Dan Potts 2010): pack-donkey?

Bookmark and Share