Episode 46. Laerke Recht: The agency of animals: transcript

0:13  JT

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.

0:33  JT

We’re used to the idea of populating the past with people. But of course people weren’t the only creatures living in those cities. We tend to view the animals as sources of products for the people: meat, wool, milk or whatever. Now we’re starting to see them as actors in their own right; partners in a web of complex relationships with the people they lived around.

1:00  JT

What connections did they make with people? How did they react to the situations they found themselves in? And how did living alongside people affect both animals and humans?

1:15  JT

Our guest is an expert in the world of animals in the ancient Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean. She has a particular interest in equids. She helps us look in new ways at the dynamics of human-animal interactions.

1:43  JT

Hello, and welcome to Thin End of the Wedge. Thank you for joining us.

1:47  LR

Thank you very much. And thank you for having me.

1:49  JT

Could you tell us please: who are you, and what do you do?

1:54  LR

My name is Laerke Recht. I’m a Professor of Early Eastern Mediterranean Archaeology at the University of Graz in Austria. I am specialised in the Bronze Age and earlier periods of Mesopotamia and Cyprus and the Aegean. And one of my main research interests is human-animal relations in all these areas.

2:19  JT

So let’s start if we could with a very broad question: how did animals fit into the world as it was understood in ancient Iraq?

2:28  LR

Yeah, okay. So what I usually say is that animals are everywhere. Now, this maybe sounds a little bit trivial or even exaggerated, but it has actually really far-reaching implications. So everything from the micro scale to the macro scale. From individual, non-human animals having a really profound impact on individual human lives to the other end of the spectrum, where like whole species or groups of species are causing deep transformations in human lives. And the other way around. So we can think of this in very broad categories. That’s usually how I approach it.

3:09  LR

So, for example, the first thing that probably comes to mind for most people is consumption. So we eat a lot of animals still, and this is also the case in the past. And this is really important: what animals we eat; how we get them; if we’re hunting, if we’re fishing, if we’re doing agriculture, and so on. So this really defines also society. So it’s a big, big category. And there’s a lot to be said about it. But there are also other big categories like production. So animals are a massive part of, if we look at Mesopotamia, textiles from wool from sheep was a massive, massive area of production. But also using the animal bones for tools, using things like animal dung for various production activities, fertiliser, tempering in walls, things like this.

3:11  LR

The first indications of religion–animals are there immediately. We see them in the images, we see them in the burials. And then when we get later on in Mesopotamia, it’s in all parts of religion as well. And then animals are indicative of movement. So they move with humans. They move for humans. We can start to see this also in some of the sciences that are being applied: aDNA isotope analysis and so on. And then the sort of final big category that I use, it’s a very general one, I call it daily life. But it includes things like animals as companions, animals as working animals. So especially dogs, cattle, but also sometimes are sheep and goat. And it includes animals that are not necessarily quite as welcome. So as pests, ruining the crops or going into the house, mice or reptiles, snakes, creepy crawlies like this.

5:15  LR

Okay, so these things are all very broadly thinking about animals in the past. But what is particularly interesting about ancient Iraq is, you know, we have this long tradition of calling it “the cradle of civilisation”. Okay. But this is also very, very closely tied up with relations with animals. Especially this big shift from hunting, foraging, fishing, and so on, towards more sedentary structures, where animals are kept within human spaces. What we typically call “domestication”. These are big, big shifts, and they are especially happening in the some of the earliest periods in both Iraq and Syria. So that was a very, quite roundabout way to get to this quite general question.

6:10  JT

Alright. So we’re going to focus on equids. And we think immediately of horses, but there were many other types of equid, weren’t there?

6:19  LR

Yes, in Mesopotamia we have three main species. As you say, the first one is the horse. It’s probably the one we think of as also the most common today, right as the equid species. It’s present from very early on even in the Neolithic period, where we have the wild version. So it’s hunted, it’s eaten, the skin is used. And it does also occur in some parts in the Chalcolithic, especially in Anatolia, Syria, the Levant. And here, it’s still quite a bit of a debate whether these horses were wild or domestic. But then when we reach the Bronze Age, we get to domesticated horses. And they appear then also in our cuneiform sources in the later part of the third millennium.

7:06  LR

The second main species, and actually the most common one, is the domestic donkey. This is something that we really have pretty much everywhere, at least from the late fourth millennium. We know a bit more about the process of domestication here. We know that the donkey was domesticated in Africa. And then it spread quite quickly from there into basically all the surrounding areas in southwest Asia in the late fourth millennium. And then we see it having these massive impacts also on trade, and long distance trade especially.

7:42  LR

The third main species is a wild equid. This is the so-called hermione. Or it’s also known as the Asiatic wild ass. Sometimes it’s called an onager. It’s actually a sub-species that’s mostly present in Mesopotamia called a Syrian onager. This equid was never domesticated. So it was hunted. It was trapped. It was to some extent tamed, because we do see it in breeding programs. But never entirely domesticated. And that was particularly in the third millennium. But it does continue to occur and continue to be hunted. So we even have neo-Assyrian palace reliefs from Ashurbanipal showing hunting of hermiones. It’s a very long tradition.

8:28  LR

Then besides these main species, we have two hybrids, which are actually very, very exciting. The first one is a cross between a domestic donkey and the hermione. Now there’s no modern word for this hybrid, so I call it a “kunga”, following the Sumerian term. This was a very prestigious, highly-prized animal. Not surprisingly, because it would have taken a lot of effort to breed this. You have to capture a wild animal and persuade it to breed with another species. It also required a lot of resources, a lot of organisation to create that whole program. Then we see certainly in the second millennium, the hybrid cross between a horse and a donkey. We know this as a mule or hinny, and like the kunga, this was also very, very valuable animal that was considered even fit for royalty.

9:27  JT

Did people eat equids?

9:29  LR

Yes. The short answer is yes. But it {LAUGHS} but of course, nothing is ever quite that simple. So certainly in earlier periods, so when we have lots of hunting, the Neolithic, the Chalcolithic, the equids were eaten. But they were also eaten in the Bronze Age. Just they make up a much, much smaller percentage of the assemblages.

9:50  JT

There is a kind of battle of wills between humans and animals. Could you talk about how that plays out with equids?

9:58  LR

Yeah, I quite like your way of putting this. So what I’m particularly interested in is this interaction between humans and animals. Let’s say very, very traditionally, we think of humans doing something to animals. But in more recent times, we are starting to acknowledge that this is … it’s a two-way relationship. So we are influencing the animals, but the animals also influence us. And this is sort of a back and forth relation. You might call it a battle of wills in some cases, I’ve looked especially at the equids. And when we look at some of this material in detail, we can see how humans and equids are reacting to each other’s behaviour, in a sort of ongoing negotiation. This can be detected, for example, in the type of equipment used with equids, and the changes in this equipment. I can interpret this in a way as an adaptation to equid behaviour, which in turn is a reaction to their encounter with humans.

11:03  JT

Okay. What can we learn about equity agency from the depictions in art?

11:10  LR

Right. So I think the artists of ancient Mesopotamia, they rarely set out specifically to depict agency, right? And so we have to tease it out of the images we get. And we also have to be careful with this relationship between art and reality. Of course, they’re never just direct snapshots of reality. But even so I think we can get quite a lot out of the art, and especially looking at how animals were observed. Because these observations do tell us something about knowledge of animals and animals’ behaviour.

11:45  LR

For the equids, these depictions, for example, capture how they move their ears. Do they have both ears forward? Do they have both ears backwards? One forwards, one backwards? And these are very indicative of accurate moods. I’m an equestrian. I’ve been riding horses for many years. And you know, when you’re sitting there, when it’s moving the ears in a certain way, okay, I have to be careful, okay, it’s excited, or, you know, you … you know how to also react to this. This is captured in the art, which I think is fantastic. In a sort of more subtle way, we can also look at how equid bodies are represented. And especially when they are put in front of wheeled vehicles, which is perhaps the most common thing that we actually see in the art, at least in the Bronze Age. The placement of the neck, and the head, actually suggests a sort of resistance to the bridle. And you might say indirectly, the equid resisting what the driver is asking of the equid. So this is what I mean also by this ongoing negotiation. So the equid is reacting, the human is reacting, and then there is this roll-on of this relationship.

12:59  JT

So this bilateral relationship between humans and equids was sometimes expanded to include also dogs. How did that dynamic work?

13:09  LR

Yeah, I love getting into these more complex relations, because you have to start somewhere. And it’s good to start with a certain species. But of course, there’s much more to it than that. This is something I’ve worked with, especially with my colleague, Christina Tsouparopoulou, where we’ve written a little bit about this as well. Especially because dogs and equids, in many ways, had a similar role in the sense that they’re both working animals. And at least to some extent, companion animals. There’s a lot of aspects to this equid-dog-human relationship that we’re still trying to understand, as with most things {LAUGHS} as we go back, but what we do know is that dogs and equids were part of the armies of the third millennium. And they participated in human wars together. That’s as far as we go, we still don’t know exactly how this works in practice on the battlefield, other than they seem to have co-operated in some way, acting together as companions in the battlefield.

14:14  LR

We then also see this reflected in some wealthy burials from this period, where we see a human burial with equids. And with dogs as complete bodies. This is not the most common. More commonly we get parts of bodies typically interpreted as meat offerings. So these are not meat offerings that are placed with the human in what appeared again to be this companionship between the three species. And then there’s another aspect to this relationship in the third millennium at the very end, in the Ur III period. Some of these extensive archives that are giving us so much information, they also record equids being fed to some of these army dogs. Now there’s an aspect to this. I mean, where these equids are coming from, we’re still trying to figure out exactly. We do have some cooperation from the final remains. So we see equid bones with gnawing marks that fit dogs at various sites. So for sure they were eating the equids.

15:21  JT

Well, they seem to be doing quite well. There’s evidence, isn’t there, that lions get fed bread? And I thought they’d probably prefer a nice equid. {LAUGHS} The dogs are doing all right.

15:30  LR

Yeah, no, there are a couple of examples as well of lions being fed equids. This also happens.{LAUGHS}

15:36  JT

Okay, right. Now, back in more peaceful life, there are examples in both literature and art, where specific non-humans behave like humans. It could be argued that these are exceptional. Do we know if animals were thought to share the same kinds of motivations as humans, or were they considered different?

15:58  LR

So there are some, as you mentioned, some wonderful examples, especially from fables and proverbs, and even a few depictions of non-human animals acting like humans. There’s a proverb, for example, that goes something like “when climbing into a boat, you move like an elephant.” {LAUGHS}

16:17  JT

{LAUGHS} Charming!

16:18  LR

I know, yes. Or, “like a wild ox, you are pleased by your own pleasure”. I don’t understand exactly what that means. But you can imagine this wild ox running around being quite happy with itself. So there are a lot of commonalities. But I think a lot of these examples are maybe more about the humans than about animals. So reflecting human motivation through these non-human animals. In a sense, it might make more sense to think of this in the reverse way: that humans were also thought to share motivations with certain animals. But even in these observations from the proverbs, and so on, we can also, again, see how humans observed what they considered maybe typical animal behaviour. And some of this is very individual, some of it is more species generic.

17:14  JT

Okay, well, can we look at that in a bit more detail, then? To what extent were animals individuals, like you might imagine a human might be seen as an individual? Or is it the case that certain animal types share a behaviour? Or are animals together in a bracket where animals behave in a certain way? How does it work?

17:33  LR

Yeah, all of it. {LAUGHS}

17:35  JT

{LAUGHS} All of it?

17:36  LR

But in different contexts. Sometimes it’s very generic. Even in the language, you have the animate and inanimate class. Now, I’m by no means an expert in the languages. I’m an archaeologist. But even there, we do see this quite sharp distinction, at least on the surface. But when we dig into it, there are lots of wonderful examples of something a little bit more individual. And something that is, or at least appears to be, species specific. So going back to the fables, we sometimes have this stereotypical but also very charming way of describing some animals or representing some animals. Something that we might to some extent recognise from modern day fairy tales. So we might see the fox is represented as cunning, the wolf as wild and dangerous, the donkey is stubborn, and with a high level of endurance. Species specific, but again, recognising their more specific behaviour, rather than just animals as one big class.

18:45  LR

To what extent animals were considered individuals with sort of personhood, as I speak about it, is also something that would have varied a lot depending on the context we’re looking at. So the vast majority of all these administrative records we have, they speak, you know, of herds and flocks of sheep, goats, cattle, so on. A very standardised and quite impersonal manner. But that’s because we’re looking at the view of the administrator, who’s not really interested in individual animals. And this is coming from the palace or coming from the temple. Whereas I would imagine that if we go to the perspective of the shepherd or the herder, this would be very different. They can probably recognise each individual animal, even if they didn’t name it.

19:32  LR

Of course, this is a little bit speculative. We don’t unfortunately, get these records. But there are hints that we can see. For example, we have these wonderful little protective dog figurines from under a doorway in the North Palace in Nineveh. Okay, they have a protective function, and each of them are inscribed with their name. So they do have individual names, even if this also has another function. These names are wonderful. It’s something like “loud is his bark”, “biter of his foe”. These are also somewhat referring to the individual personhood of each of these dogs. And we have some very rare records from the Kassite period of pedigrees, where we actually have individual names of horses. Unfortunately, we don’t get a lot of it. And I wonder how much we’ve missed or how much is lost. But these pedigree records do literally name. The translations we have … not all the names have been translated, but they are something like “Blackie, the son of Spottie”. You know, pet names that we might recognise today. But again, we see that they are actually at least for the horses, they are naming them individually.

20:52  JT

Yeah, I’ve never thought about that, actually. But now you mention it, I would quite like to know what Sumerians called their cows.{LAUGHS}

20:57  LR

Yes, yes. {LAUGHS}

20:58  JT

That would bring me happiness.

21:00  LR

Yes, this would be fantastic to know. Unfortunately, yeah, most of the time, we don’t get it.

21:06  JT

We need to find some tags or something like that. You mentioned earlier that humans and animals influenced each other. So I guess the next obvious question would be then: were animal characteristics reflected back onto people? Or did people associate with a particular animal in some way? Did they see a spirit animal, as it were?

21:28  LR

Hmmm. I’m not sure about exactly the concept of spirit animal. But we definitely have this reflection. I think the most famous–and also quite a long-lasting example, because we have versions of it today–is the relationship between the king and the lion. And especially this is very strongly expressed again in the Neo-Assyrian period. This is something Chikako Watanabe has looked at and written quite a lot about. So we have these inscriptions literally describing the king as a fierce lion. And this association between the king and the lion is repeated then in the art. In the palace reliefs the king is shown hunting and conquering lions. Of course, the association between not only humans and animals, but deities and animals is something we also see from very early on, right? So most Mesopotamian deities have some sort of animals attributed to them. So Ishtar and the lion; Enki and fish; Adad with the bull, so on. Almost every deity has some animal is identified with them.

22:31  JT

This is a really interesting approach to animals. I’m far more used to this traditional thing of “what do we use a sheep for?” or something like that. {LAUGHS} So where is animal studies going? And what might it tell us in the future?

22:45  LR

Ah, I think there’s so much you can still learn. I mean, of course, I’m biased, {LAUGHS} because this is what I do. But there’s so much also that can help us inform how we as humans we treat animals, and we approach our various fellow species. This is both in the past and today. This is for me a very, very exciting field also, because it’s very interdisciplinary. And you realise that there’s so much to gain from other disciplines constantly adding to what we’ve been doing as archaeologists for a long time, adding to our bones or texts or images. And especially, there are many approaches from some of the hard sciences. So looking at the stable isotope analysis, dental calculus, aDNA and so on. Especially because they can start to get us closer to reconstructing some more individual animal lives as well.

23:43  LR

And what I would like to see also more of in the future–which is something I’m starting to work on myself, but there’s a lot of other research also in the works–is a focus on the less visible, less evocative animals. Now obviously, I spend a lot of time now on the equids. They are, I think, for many people today, these are beautiful, evocative animals. They’re fairly easy to relate to. But there are so many other animals, right, also making a massive impact. But they’re not necessarily as visible, so I would love to see more about the creatures of the sea, the creatures of the sky, the creepy crawlies, the snakes, reptiles, pests, insects. They are harder to get to, I think. But they are there. Yeah, and for sure, especially on daily lives, which is something I think we’re still missing a lot of, for Mesopotamia.

24:41  JT

I have to ask: did people keep pets?

24:46  LR

So they keep … dogs is the most obvious. And they appear to have really shared space, also shared houses with humans. But I think they’re not the only animal doing that. It’s just less easily visible in our record. So actually, there’s even a few examples of possibly donkeys being in human houses. Whether or not they lived there, I don’t know. We would maybe rather use the term “companions”, because this is a little bit broader. And “pets” has a very modern connotation of how we keep pets today. It doesn’t mean that this didn’t also exist. And I’m sure you would have built a very personal relationship with an animal that was with you every day, right, one way or another. But I’m unsure if I would use the word pet for it. Because it’s very much, yeah, how we relate to these animals today.

25:39  JT

You have a new book out, don’t you?

25:41  LR

I do have a new book out. Yes. The spirited horse: equid-human relations in the Bronze Age Near East. Which is basically a result of the research I did in Cambridge in two, three years as Marie Curie fellowship, and then I’ve been working on it, of course, for longer. But now it’s finally out. And I’m very excited to see it. I just got the print delivered a couple of days ago. So it’s very nice to see that actually arriving and finally done. But yes, I also have a website: spiritedhorse.wordpress.com And I’m on Twitter. You can either use my name or my handle, which is @tspiritedhorse.

26:25  JT

Thank you very much indeed.

26:26  LR

You’re very welcome.

26:28  JT

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27:45  JT

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28:24  JT

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