Hello, and welcome to the Thin End of the Wedge. The podcast where experts from around the world share new and interesting stories about life in the ancient Middle East. My name is Jon. Each episode, I talk to friends and colleagues, and get them to explain their work in a way we can all understand.
Our view of life in Mesopotamia is dominated by palaces and temples. We rarely hear much about the ordinary citizen beyond their interaction with the big institutions. We do occasionally find legal contracts detailing marriage or divorce, but even they seem to be unusual cases. Where we do glimpse daily life is in housing.
Archaeologists have excavated private houses in several cities. And ancient texts describe houses, as they pass from one owner to the next. What would a typical house look like? And who would live there?
Our guest has expertise in both archaeology and ancient languages. She combines the evidence to build a picture of the urban landscape of southern Iraq during the second half of the first millennium BC.
So get yourself a cup of tea, make yourself comfortable, and let’s meet today’s guest.
Hello, and welcome to Thin End of the Wedge. Thank you for joining us.
Hello. It’s good to be here. Thank you for having me.
Can you tell us please: who are you, and what do you do?
My name is Heather Baker. I’m an Assistant Professor of Ancient Near Eastern History at the University of Toronto.
You’ve worked for a long time on urbanism, housing and urban life, haven’t you?
Yes, well, it’s really a combination of all those different elements. So I work in particular on Babylonian urbanism. And I also specialise in the study of houses, looking at house and household. So not just the houses as buildings, but also the groups of people who lived in them. Whether simple families, extended families, and so on. So yes, I’m interested in the combination of all those different elements of city life, basically.
Where would you find housing in a city?
Well, the short answer is probably everywhere. But the longer answer is that we don’t always know for sure, because we don’t have a single city that has been uncovered in its entirety. So we don’t have to hand a single complete plan of a Babylonian city. Having said that, there’s fairly good evidence to suggest that housing could be found in all different parts of the city. It’s just the fact that traditionally, archaeologists have tended to favour the centres of the cities, where the great monumental structures such as palaces, temples, and so on, were found. And so most of the housing that’s been excavated so far tends to have been situated more in the centre of the city.
So we don’t have such good information about the outer areas, for example, close to the city wall. But having said that, there are a few exceptions to that. For example, in the city of Nippur, where Neo-Babylonian houses were found right by the city walls. So we do have a little bit of information. But for most cities, we don’t have a good overview of what was found in every single part of the city. But the textual evidence also–we can use cuneiform tablets to inform us about city topography. And the cuneiform legal contracts–basically, the types of texts we’re dealing with–also suggest that housing could be found in all different parts of the city. So wherever they refer to different sectors of the city, housing crops up. So we have a fairly good basis for saying that houses could be found all over the city, basically.
Would there be parts of a city that were more desirable than others? And where might they be?
I think that’s true to say, in general, but again, we’re hampered by this lack of complete city plans. But if you take, for example, the case of Babylon, we do have an excavated housing area close to the centre of the city. And these seem to be quite high status houses. They’re rather larger than average. They’re very well built. And from the small amount of cuneiform evidence that we have available from those houses, it seems to be the case that they were occupied by quite high status people. So it’s been suggested in that case that it was considered quite prestigious to live close to the centres of power. So I think, yeah, some areas of the city were more desirable than others. Having said that, we don’t yet have hard and fast evidence, for example, for slum housing, or very low status housing. So our evidence is really skewed, as I mentioned earlier, towards the centre of the city. But I do think that it was the case that it was considered desirable to live close to the centre of power, at least for some people.
We also have some differentiation between neighbourhoods, you could say. So we have evidence that some people, members of the priestly community, lived within the actual temple precinct. So there was some social segregation as well. So in those cases, well, we can’t really say for sure whether they had to live within the temple precinct, although it was probably considered desirable to do so if you were a priest. And probably those areas were restricted to priests. I think it’s reasonable to assume that not everyone could live within the temple precinct. There was a question of cultic purity associated with being a priest, which restricted your access to the temple itself. And so I think, to some degree that probably applied also to the outer temple precinct; to the area within the outer walls of the temple enclosure, which is where we found some areas of excavated housing. At least in Uruk and Babylon. It was probably true for other cities. But those are the two cases where we can say for sure that members of the priesthood lived within the greater temple precinct. So yes, in general, I think we can say that some areas were considered more desirable than others. But also that would depend on your social circumstances, your occupation, perhaps as well.
Would houses have had kerb appeal?
(laughs) Yeah, that’s a good question. The short answer is “no”. Basically, they were quite boring from the outside, as far as we can tell. So your average residence had a single door from the street. There seems to have been a concern with maintaining privacy. So you wouldn’t have a door from the street that faced a neighbour’s door across the street. And so there was a concern that people passing by in the street wouldn’t be able to see right into the heart of the house. So you had access to the interior that was usually … you couldn’t see into the heart of the house. You do not have a direct line of sight into the heart of the house. Basically, houses were inward-looking. They were arranged around a central open courtyard. And it was the courtyard that provided light and air for the room surrounding it.
Houses didn’t have windows, as far as we know. So when houses have been excavated, with walls standing up to quite a considerable height, no windows have been found. So basically, the exterior facade of the houses would be plain and undecorated. The houses were built of mud brick, and that would be coated with mud plaster. So they will basically look a kind of, um, brown, uninterrupted facade. Also, adjacent houses often shared a party wall, but because of the mud plaster covering on the outside, you wouldn’t be able to tell where one house ended and the neighbouring house began. So yeah, basically, they … they didn’t have what we call kerb appeal. And it seems to be the case from omen literature, they talk about “if a house is flashy on the outside”, that’s a kind of unfavourable omen. Whereas a house with an unprepossessing appearance from the outside, meant that the inhabitants would be happy. So it seems that the Babylonians thought of houses in terms of a kind of modest appearance being a good thing.
What would a typical house be like?
Yes, well, a typical house as is today would … usually you’re dealing with a central open courtyard, with rooms on all four sides. And normally the largest room in their house was situated on the south side of the courtyard. And it’s been suggested that that would be occupied by the male head of the household in cases where extended family groups resided within the same house. So that room also normally had a number of sub-rooms attached to it, smaller rooms to the rear and to the sides of it. So as I say, normally, we have rooms on all four sides of the courtyard, but that wasn’t always the case. Sometimes you have rooms on only three sides of the courtyard, and sometimes even only on two sides. So in the case of smaller houses, especially. And then there are a smaller number of particularly large houses that had more than one central courtyard. So for example, two or even three, and those are the very largest houses that have been excavated.
In terms of the actual rooms themselves, so you would normally have four larger rooms off each of the four sides of the courtyard. There are exceptions to that. So when you have single rooms leading off the courtyard, these are normally on the east and west sides. And so it seems particularly on the east side of the courtyard, there’s often a smaller room, which archaeological evidence suggests is where the kitchen would be located. In terms of function, we can’t always tell easily the functions of rooms, we don’t always have good archaeological evidence for this. You have to bear in mind that houses that we have available evidence for were often excavated quite a few decades ago. So we don’t always have good archaeological evidence for, for example, objects being found and recorded on floors, in the places where they were used and so on. So mostly what we have to go by are fixtures and fittings. So, for example, ovens excavated in situ, or rooms that we can identify as bathrooms, because they were equipped with baked brick floors, which are more durable. And then often these were waterproofed using bitumen. So also, you find the use of baked brick for central courtyards, um, rooms that are exposed to the elements, or internal rooms that are exposed to water. And also bitumen was used for waterproofing of drains, and so on. So particularly associated with bathrooms and drains.
In terms of furniture, we don’t really know all that much about it. The best evidence for furniture comes from dowry texts. So when women were promised in marriage to a husband, their fathers would supply a dowry. And sometimes we have inventories associated with those texts, which list all the different items of furniture, household goods, and so on. So there are often, you know, vessels, lamps, and so on. But sometimes we have mention of beds, tables, and chairs. And it seems that if a woman received furniture as part of her dowry, then she got a standard set: beds, tables, and chairs were the common items of furniture that went with a woman in marriage.
How would people use the different rooms in their house? Do they have names for rooms?
It’s quite interesting when we look at the Babylonian terminology relating to the house, because we find that for the most part, they didn’t use rooms that refer to specific functions. So for example, in the everyday documents that are a rich source of information about houses, we don’t have the word for a kitchen. And the word for a bedroom occurs only extremely rarely. So what they didn’t do at this time–I’m talking about the Neo-Babylonian period in the first millennium BC, especially the sixth century BC, around that time–what they did was they referred to parts of the house according to the points of the compass. And so for example, you get references in the text to a so-called South Room or North Room. And these actually refer to the direction in which that room faced as it looked through its door across the courtyard. And so what in Babylonian terms would be called a South Room is actually a south-facing room, because it’s facing south across the courtyard. So it would be located on the north side of the courtyard.
I was able to figure this out a few years ago, because often the property descriptions that we find in the tablets are detailed enough that you can draw up a sketch of the layout of the house, based on these different terms, and their references to the compass points. And when I did that systematically for quite a large number of properties described in the tablets, I realised that always the north-facing room was on the south side of the courtyard, and so on. They were always in the wrong place, according to what the dictionaries led us to believe. So I had to change the translation and call these south-facing room, north-facing room, and so on, because they’re always on the wrong side, as you might say.
So basically, they refer to the house by these four different sectors or zones. So these refer to the main room that is accessed from the courtyard and also the rooms to the side and the rear that are associated with those rooms. So you could call them suites, if you like, the north-facing suite, the south-facing suite and so on. And then also typically you have an entrance suite, which normally comprises a room leading in from the outside, and also often one or more side rooms associated with that. And it has been suggested that those rooms might be used for entertaining visitors to the house, who you don’t want to bring right into the centre of the house. Perhaps for reasons of family privacy, to protect members of the family from strangers. It seems like a possibility. So it might be in place where you would entertain casual visitors, business associates, and so on.
And who would live in a house like that?
Yes, so who lived in a house like this? This is a good question. And it relates to the issue of family and household structure. So I think the ideal was that a simple family would occupy their own house. Often we have more complex scenarios, whereby you have extended family groups. But it seems that a majority of households comprise single families of parents and children. That might be extended owing to different family circumstances. For example, you might have a widowed mother living with you. You might have houses occupied by brothers, each with their own families. This relates also to family structure, patterns of inheritance, and so on. So basically, when a male head of a household died, his property would pass to his sons. So women didn’t have an automatic right of inheritance, although daughters could be given a house as part of her dowry property. But that seems to have happened only in a minority of cases, because there seems basically to have been a concern to preserve, especially real estate, within the male line of the family.
So normally, when a male head of a household died, his estate would pass to his sons. And they at some point would formally divide the property among themselves. So you might have a situation whereby brothers were sharing the house of their deceased father. That wasn’t necessarily ideal. And what we see in some cases is that eventually, brothers would split off and form households of their own. So I think there was an ideal, that as a male head of your own household, you wanted to be independent. But that wasn’t always practical. So these kind of typical houses with central courtyard and so on, could be occupied by people at all levels of society, I think.
Having said that, we don’t always know very much about the kinds of houses occupied by poor people, people of low income and so on, who might occupy rental properties. So I think it was the ideal that you would own your own house. And pretty much like there’s social pressure to do that today. So the ideal would be to have your own house, but if you couldn’t, then you would have to rent perhaps. And in those cases, you might rent only a part of someone else’s house, rather than your own house. So we do have some evidence that sometimes houses were occupied by people who were not related to one another. In situations like that. Basically, you get all different kinds of scenarios, pretty much like we have in the modern world, in terms of house occupation, ownership, and so on.
Would families stay in the same house over multiple generations?
Yes, that’s a good question. I think there very much was an ideal of a family home that could be handed down from one generation to the next. And actually, we can trace this in some dossiers of legal documents, where we can trace a single family history through several generations. We see this very much in practice. And so this impulse to hand your house down to your sons, and then through the generations. So this did happen in practice. You have to think also in terms of houses being not just a family home, but they were also an important form of capital. And so you could use your house as security for debt. You could use it to raise money. And basically, it seems to have been the case that people held on to their houses, wherever possible. And so when we have sales of houses documented, it’s normally assumed that that is the case of hardship. That means usually, that person was in debt, and was unable to pay off the debt. So you imagine if you give your house as security for a debt, but then you find yourself unable to pay it, then just like today, ultimately, you’re at risk of losing your house. Certainly selling the house in which you live would be an absolute last resort. And so yeah, there was very much this tendency to want to pass your house down, you know, from one generation to the next, through your surviving male heirs.
You mentioned that the family would try and stay in the same house over generations. And that when the head of the household died, the house would be divided between his sons. If you kept dividing a house, though, the living areas would soon get too small. How do they solve that problem?
Yes, well, this is certainly a concern. And there are different ways of possibly counteracting that. So one way in the Neo-Babylonian period was to give the oldest son what we call a preferential share. So he got a bigger part of the inheritance compared with his brothers. So for example, if you had three brothers, then the oldest would take a half share, and the other two brothers would share the other half between themselves. So they would each get essentially a quarter of the entire estate. And so that was a way of keeping at least part of the inheritance, part of the house, livable, as you might say.
But there are other factors that come into play as well. Another is the fact that women were rarely allocated houses as part of their dowry. So that was another way of keeping the property or at least the real estate element of it more livable, as we might say. But another factor that seems to have worked in practice, when we can trace these family dossiers through the generations, is the fact that we see often brothers buying out one another’s shares. And so although they may inherit shares in the same house, in practice, often brothers bought out one another’s shares. So as to reconstitute the house back into a bigger share of it. And we see this in multiple occasions in the textual record. It has been documented, for example, for Old Babylonian Nippur. And we have examples from the Neo-Babylonian period as well from Uruk and so on. So in practice, you can see, for example, houses … I have a case from Hellenistic Uruk that I studied of a house at one point being shared by six cousins. And then in the next generation, we see it being reconstituted, so that a smaller number of descendants of the original owner are owning and occupying their house. So you get these tendencies towards division, but then there comes a certain point, and shares get reconstituted.
You explained earlier that houses would have a bathroom. What about water? How did they get fresh water in and waste water out?
Well, sanitation and water supply are quite important questions. Of course, all cities had to be located near to or like by a watercourse. So normally, we’re speaking of the major rivers, canals. In some cases, rivers or canals even ran through the centre of the city. For example, Babylon is basically cut in half by the river Euphrates running from north to south through the centre of the city. In other cases, it was quite common for cities to be crisscrossed by canals. We have good evidence for that, for example, at Uruk. Also Babylon, in addition to the Euphrates, had a couple of canals running through the centre of the city through different city districts. And so when it comes to the household, we have to assume that they would draw their water from the nearest water course to the house. Of course, that would be quite an onerous task. We don’t have direct documentation about that, but I think it’s fair to assume that people would use water as sparingly as possible within the household.
When it came to water intensive activities like laundry, then I assume that you would go to the watercourse to carry out those activities. And actually from the first millennium BC, from the Neo-Babylonian period, we have evidence for laundry specialists who you could hire to do your household laundry. And so I would assume that they would go to the canal or the watercourse and do that work and sit by the banks of the river or canal. Also in terms of the household water supply, there were fixtures and fittings to help deal with water, whether rainwater in the case of the central open courtyard, so these courtyards were paved with baked brick, in contrast to the other rooms of the house that had simple mud floors. And so the rainwater that ran directly onto the courtyard floor would run off into a central vertical drain that was built into the middle of the courtyard floor. And then in the case of the roofed rooms like bathrooms, these would be waterproofed with bitumen basically. And again, we see the use of baked brick for features that were exposed to water, like drains and so on. We also have some evidence from Babylon for drains that have been found draining water off the roof on the outside of the house walls and leading it off into the street.
What’s interesting is that we don’t have any hint of communal efforts at this time to deal with these issues. So all of these questions of sanitation, draining off water and so on, were left to individual households. We don’t see any efforts that go beyond the individual household level to deal with these questions.
In terms of toilets, we do have one or two cases of excavated toilets from the Neo-Babylonian period. But these are quite rare. They seem to be associated with larger than average houses. So that suggests that there’s a question of social status here. But I think for the most part, we have to assume that people would use portable vessels and basically the Babylonian equivalent of a chamber pot to deal with waste. In the case of the built toilets, we’re basically dealing with a steep drop, basically. You’d imagine it would be fairly unpleasant and quite stinky. And interestingly, these are located within the house. These are located at the farthest point of the house from the entrance door, so as many doors as you could go through from the entrance of the house. So they were located at the very rear of the house. So they’re quite secluded at the very back of the house, and often associated with the main living room suite.
If houses are anonymous from the outside–you can’t really tell where one ends, and the next one starts–how would you find where someone lived?
We don’t have addresses as such, what we find when you look at the cuneiform legal contracts, especially the house sale contracts, which give details about properties … quite extensive details. They always start by describing the type of property: whether it’s a house or an unbuilt plot, or a derelict house. And then they tell you the name of the city district, and then the city. So they say, for example, a built house in the Shuanna district, which is in Babylon. And so that’s the locational information that we get about the house. Now, these districts were quite large. There are 10 city district names that we know for Babylon. So that alone wouldn’t be enough to tell you exactly where the house was. We have to assume that people would use kind of visual clues and known landmarks within these bigger districts to actually navigate their way around the city. And so yeah, it’s difficult to pin this down to hard and fast evidence.
When it comes to the rental contracts, they’re not as specific as the house sale contracts. They’re less detailed, they’re less concerned with describing the property. But they do quite often tell us the street on which the rental house is located. For example, they might say, on the street of such and such a temple. And so you might use those kind of casual street names as a way of indicating where the house was. But when it comes to locating the house along that street, then you would have to use … I guess you would have to use known landmarks, and so on. Perhaps notable people who lived in the neighborhood, you perhaps mentioned their houses and so on. But yeah, we don’t have so much evidence for addresses as such; how you’d actually navigate the city, apart from using common landmarks, I would think.
How can we follow your work?
I do have a homepage on Humanities Commons and also on academia.edu.
Thank you very much.
Okay, you’re very welcome. Thank you for having me.
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