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An oblong sealstone showing a horseman stabbing a charging boar with a lance

A stamp seal of chalcedony in a ?modern? silver mount and an example of the impressions which it leaves on clay. British Museum, Museum Number 120325. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Elspeth R.M. Dusinberre, Empire, Authority and Autonomy in Achaemenid Anatolia (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2013) ISBN 978-1-107-01826-6 (Oxbow Books)

Empire, Authority, and Autonomy in Achaemenid Anatolia deserves a wide readership because it is brave enough to try to talk about what life was like in Anatolia in the 220 years when it was part of a timeless empire with Persian kings. The only texts which survive come from the far western and southern fringes, where mountain chieftains and coastal cities carved messages into stone and a few writings became part of the classical tradition. But it has been well studied archaeologically, partially because the region is rich in metal and stone, and partially because Turkey is usually a safe and orderly country open to foreigners. For most of the last century, it was easier for foreign archaeologists to work in Turkey than in Turkmenistan or the Sinai.

So Dusinberre talks about the thousands of graves identified from Achaemenid Anatolia. These have very different forms, some of which are more popular in some regions than others: pits under mounds, chambers carved into rocks, or simple pots, clay coffins, or cists lined with fieldstones. But Dusinberre points out that when graves anywhere in Anatolia contain metal objects, these objects usually belong to a standardized ‘Achaemenid style.’ It seems that powerful families buried their dead in gold-studded clothing and with ‘Achaemenid style’ eating and drinking vessels whether they came from Lydia or Caria. Similarly, sealstones in Achaemenid Anatolia had very diverse forms and were made of a variety of materials. Some were in hard stones like rock crystal, others glass: some were worn on rings, others hung around the neck or pinned to clothing. Some had no writing, others Greek or Aramaic, others cuneiform. But these seals were much more common under Persian rule than they had been in previous centuries, and they usually had images in a ‘court style’ carved into their faces. It would appear that placing your seal on documents was more important under the Persians than it had been under the kings and councils which they replaced, and that the men and women who commissioned them liked designs which associated them with the Persian elite. (On page 268, she compares the seal- both a stylish accessory and a serious communications tool- to the smartphone, and I think that this simile is worth thinking about).

A shallow bowl of beaten copper with a floral motif engraved around the middle

An Achaemenid drinking bowl from the cemetery at Deve Hüyük on the upper Euphrates. If the satrap ever invites you to dinner, it is chic to balance these on three fingers rather than use two hands or hook a finger over the lip. British Museum, Museum Number 108672. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

This book cites the 20th century sociologists and anthropologists who excite some schools of archaeologists, and spends time on trendy topics like identity, kingship, and feasting. But Dusinberre uses these theories to understand the things which people did, ate, and drank, rather than using the archaeological evidence as an excuse to talk about some beautiful abstract nouns. Many men and women in the Achaemenid empire received rations of food and drink (hundreds of litres and several sheep per day for the magnates, and a litre or two of flour for humble workers) and drank their wine from standardized bowls of silver, bronze, or glossy black pottery. The shape and glossy surface were the same, while the materials varied. And Dusinberre suggests that the regular trip to the storehouse to receive rations (next to others who received less or more) made relative status clear to everyone involved, and that learning to gracefully balance a shallow bowl of wine between your fingertips was a ritual which marked members of the elite, just like the 19th century Métis made a point of drinking tea out of delicate china cups despite (or because of) the difficulty of carrying china from settlement to hunting camp to trading post. Moreover, the glossy clay versions suggest that these practices were not limited to the families which could bury their dead with treasure in a tomb decorated with beautiful paintings.

There are some gaps in the archaeological record. Dusinberre does not have much to say about rural life and agriculture, or about the textiles which once draped the bodies in chamber tombs and covered the surfaces of vanished couches. Apparently, newfangled methods such as pollen analysis are not yet common in Turkish archaeology. Also, this is not a long book by a team of scholars, so it was not possible to cover every aspect in detail. As it is, the bibliography of this book is almost 50 pages long.

I don’t think that many readers will understand and agree with every point in this book. Answering these kinds of questions with the evidence which we have requires sitting with the sources until something speaks out of the darkness, and that Voice is hard for others to hear. But I think it is important that Dusinberre tried. People are always going to imagine what life was like in the past. Most people do not have the patience to sift through lists of pottery and stare at damaged inscriptions in a language whose last native speaker died 2000 years ago, or the time to learn to read scholarly French and German. If we are going to invest so much energy in excavating and publishing things, I think it is important to have archaeologists who try to answer what life was really like, even if they are never going to reach the same audience as the latest drama on HBO. Archaeological books which describe and catalogue things are important, but so are books which try to present an overview and describe how people lived and thought and not just what traces of those lives remain. It certainly helped me understand why some people are so interested in ritual dinners or the idea of kingship.

If your rations are enough for the occasional feast, but you usually drink out of clay not silver, paperback copies are available for 40 GBP from Oxbow.