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.
This episode we hear from two guests. Each has established themself in their own right. I’ve invited them on together because of the collaboration they formed. By combining their efforts, they produced results that either one alone could not have achieved. The trust and warmth in their partnership is something that gives me hope that this field is heading in the right direction. I’m especially glad to have them as guests because a talk they gave together over the summer is part of the reason that this podcast exists.
Our guests have been collaborating on texts from a small site called Tell Abu Antiq. Although not a famous site, it’s a good example of an unusual and very interesting type of settlement dating to the period of King Hammurabi of Babylon. While archaeology has usually focused on palaces and temples, Abu Antiq shows us the houses of ordinary people. It was home to gardeners. Now these were no ancient Capability Browns, or for British listeners, Alan Titchmarshes. These gardeners were armed with far more than a trowel.
Today, we touch on several important topics that we’re bound to return to in future episodes: the long history of looting of Iraqi sites; the significance of archaeological context; and the threats posed to sites by development works to provide necessary infrastructure for the people living nearby today. Recent archaeology sheds new light on texts that have been known for 100 years already. It reveals the daily rhythms of life in a small corner of the Babylonian countryside on the front line of a famous empire.
So get yourself a cup of tea, make yourself comfortable, and let’s meet today’s guests.
Hello, and welcome to Thin End of the Wedge. Thank you very much for joining us.
Thank you for your invitation. I would like to thank you for this nice project. It can make the communication between assyriologists easier by how we are thinking and how the other thinking can find that easy by your project.
Thank you for joining us. Could you tell us please: who are you and what do you do?
I’m Jacob Jawdat. I’m an assyriologist and archaeologist in Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage in Baghdad.
My name is Rients de Boer. I work as an Education Officer at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands.
The two of you have been working together on texts from the site of Abu Antiq. Could you give us an introduction to that site, please?
The site is located in about 26 kilometers southeast of Diwaniyah district in middle Euphrates in southern Iraq, and about 10 kilometers from the little town of al-Muhannawiyah. This site also located about 50 kilometers to the south of Babylon, and 15 kilometers to the west of ancient Marad. The Abu Antiq is oval shaped and its dimension about 308 and 180 meters. It’s a very small mound, and the maximum height about one meter in maximum high point. The city of Pi-Kasi can be considered as a model of the life in southern Babylon; is the only site in which excavation have taken place with these important results have been given to us. Abu Antiq is destroyed by two channels of irrigation and looted with a huge area everywhere in Abu Antiq. Looted in different times.
What does this name Abu Antiq mean?
Abu Antiq come from the ‘antiq. ‘antiq is the local name for the cuneiform tablets. The local people around call the tablets ‘antiq. Okay, but because this site is looted for many times, the people knows very well this site consists a huge number of tablets. For that, the so-called Abu Antiq. Abu Antiq was covered by marshland. Old and present marshland, until the 1994. The marshland is dried by Saddam regime. I think this name come at that time, and before that Abu Antiq <was> found<<ed>> according <to> the availability of water or not. Because Abu Antiq has <been> looted heavily before, according to Rients de Boer study; a lot of tablet from Yahrurum Shaplum that looted in many years ago. About 100 or before.
And what about the ancient name? Do we know what that was?
The ancient name of Abu Antiq belonged to the region, because the region of Abu Antiq is a region of canals and agriculture, at that time. I think this mean the region that’s related on the canals. It’s not exact meaning, but I think Pi-kasu: kasu is “to tie” in Akkadian and pi “the mouth”. If the mouth come with canals, that mean the entrance of that thing. I think Pi-kasi meaning the region that related with water. Dr Ahmed Kamil give a meaning for that, but I have a different viewpoint. Because Dr Ahmed Kamil in first article give a meaning “nostril of the cup”. Because kasu is “a cup”. But our classification, the cup, the jar and the shape of jars, this is our classification as scholars; not belong of them. And this jar, this shape of jar is separated in most of site in all Mesopotamia in same period. This is different than Dr Ahmed Kamil. He worked with the expedition for two season with them.
Your collaboration brings together two groups of material, doesn’t it?
Jacob mentioned that the site of Tell Abu Antiq was looted a long time ago. I actually did some research on those ancient looted tablets, and I think around 1910–so more than 100 years ago–locals must have been able to excavate at the site, because around that time, tablets that we can now trace back to Tell Abu Antiq started to be published and started to be sold on the antiquities market. For a long time, we didn’t know actually where these tablets came from, because they did form a coherent group. Even though the tablets were spread over, I think, dozens of collections around the world. Most of the tablets ended up in Yale, but we have tablets here in Leiden, in St. Petersburg, even in Finland, some in Baghdad, so around the world. Only very recently due to Iraqi excavations that started in 1999 at Tell Abu Antiq when new texts were found. We were able to piece together the fact that the texts that were looted more than 100 years ago actually came from Tell Abu Antiq. And these Iraqi excavations were led by Ahmed Kamil Mohammed between 1999 and 2007, when the Iraqis did four campaigns on Tell Abu Antiq. Is that right, Jacob?
Five. From 1999 to 2002. Four continuous season, and the first season 2007.
And what was found during these excavations?
The material that found there–it’s very few area excavated from Abu Antiq; about 80 and 60 meters–but they found more than 5000 objects and artifacts: pottery, cylinder seal, cuneiform tablets, terracotta and other small finds. But the huge number was only the pottery and cuneiform tablets. About 1600 tablets they found there, and found it in houses. The expedition they explain in the region as a administrative wing of a palace, because they found dagger with one line of inscription: EGAL PI-KASI.
Okay, so we have a dagger, which is labelled pretty clearly: “palace of Pi-Kasi”.
But it was found in an area of private housing?
The planning of area is exactly same Tell Asmar and Ur. And it’s very easy can say this is houses, not palace or administrative wing of palace. Please, Rients, if you have …
I agree with you, Jacob that some of the original excavators interpreted the site in a certain way. But it looks like it’s a collection of private houses and my interpretation, and yours is as well, that we cannot find any monumental architecture at Pi-Kasi, at Tell Abu Antiq, in the part that has been excavated right now.
Should we interpret this then as houses that belong to people who work in the palace? And it’s just that in the ancient world there isn’t this sharp divide between someone’s work life and their private life?
Yeah, I think you could say that. I’m not sure if all the people living in Pi-Kasi actually worked for a central administrative entity or a palace, but the houses seemed to be private houses.
An incredible number of texts were found at this site. What kind of progress have you been able to make so far?
What we’ve been doing the last couple of years is basically putting the old stuff that was looted more than 100 years ago from Pi-Kasi together with the freshly excavated texts by the Iraqis to tell more about the ancient archives to find parallels between the texts that were found more than 100 years ago and recently found texts, and to find connections between those texts to say more about the settlement. Jacob?
We working on Abu Antiq materials as Rients say, not a little while ago, because there are many contents that are related to each other, which through collecting and linking the content in it, can reach a very important result about the areas south from Babylon during the rule of First Dynasty of Babylon. Almost all the texts studied by Iraqi colleagues by theses and articles have been reviewed by me and Rients in last time, and now I have necessary permission for my project. Part of it will be with Rients, I hope, to study all the remaining group of tablets. Just yesterday, I have started working on a small group of them. I see the results are encouraging. If I can work on all of them, and including the seals and the tablet were studied by the Iraqi colleagues.
Many of these texts talk about people who were described as “gardeners”. For the Babylonians, that means something really rather different from what it means in a modern context.
The title “gardener” is given to some mercenaries living in Pi-Kasi / Abu Antiq, because these people tended specifically to date palm orchards and not to fields of barley as other mercenaries would do. This is why they are designated as gardeners. We have to understand that Pi-Kasi was in the Babylonian countryside. And our current hypothesis is that our Abu Antiq was an administrative centre for a military colony. And after the Babylonian expansion under the Hammurabi of Babylon around 1760 BCE, the Babylonian army had grown and it incorporated mercenaries and their families from conquered kingdoms. These mercenary foreigners acted as soldiers for the Babylonian kingdom. They were settled on the countryside in towns like Pi-Kasi and villages around it, where they received land in return for military service, corvee duties and taxes. And we see all sorts of people from outside of Babylonia proper living in this military colony of Abu Antiq / Pi-Kasi. So we see Urukians, people from Malgium, Turukkeans from current day Kurdistan, Kassites from what is now Iran, Elamites. Some of these soldiers are called in the text gardeners because they tended specifically to date palm orchards, which they got from the Babylonian state in return for the military service.
That’s quite an interesting arrangement. Could you tell us more about that?
It’s something that’s familiar to assyriologists. It’s called the ilkum. And the way I interpret the ilkum is a combination of duties and prerogatives. So the prerogative that you receive, that the Babylonian kingdom bestows upon you, is that you get to live in the Babylonian kingdom and you have some real estates, some property, usually an orchard or a field that you can work, and your duties were to go on a military campaign. Typically, once a year when the king would go on a campaign, you’d have to do corvee duties like digging canals, and you had to pay your local taxes. And in the texts, those people are typically called just soldiers. But in the case of Pi-Kasi / Abu Antiq, because apparently there were lots of date palm orchards, these mercenary men that were settled in the province were called gardeners, because even though they went on a military campaign, like once a year, what they did for most of the year was tending to their date palms.
It sounds like a good way for the king to keep people who could potentially have caused him problems, busy with something more productive instead.
Exactly. And at the same time while tending the date palm orchards, they also had to pay their taxes to the kings.
It sounds like they’re also deliberately being kept away from the cities, the main power centres of the kingdom.
This is what I think. You wouldn’t want to have large groups of soldiers from outside of your kingdom living in your main cities. So what the Babylonian kings could do was just dig a new canal somewhere in the steppe and make a new settlement. This is what has been done throughout Babylonian history.
Was this a privilege or a punishment?
I suppose a bit of both. At least they they got a livelihood from the Babylonian state. But they had to live on the countryside. I’m not sure if they weren’t allowed, actually, in the big cities like Kish, or Babylon. But they were certainly not settled permanently around those big cities. And you can see the same for the Judaeans, for example, who were deported to Babylonia under Nebuchadnezzar II. They were also settled in the countryside of Iraq to work for the Babylonian kingdom.
You’ve been able to connect texts looted at the start of the 20th century with other texts excavated at the site almost 100 years later. How do you do something like that?
By linking to the content of texts with each other that belonging to the same period, it’s easy to know about the tablet, especially tablet of Abu Antiq. Can find people and their relation between and by comparison with text come from same region, for example, the reign of Samsu-iluna, we found a similarity of text and everything except the day of writing the tablets.
Having identified the texts as belonging to the same general group, there’s still more work to be done in identifying individuals as well, isn’t it? It’s not unusual, like today, for people to have the same name as each other.
But of course, there’s the same name of people that be difficult to say that people are same, but by the similarity of context, and what percentage: 50% or 70. Sometime, as I said, it’s only difference is day of writing tablet.
This way of working is very successful. But it’s also very lengthy and painstaking, isn’t it? There’s a lot of work to be done to pull together the groups in the first place.
Exactly. And a problem with the Tell Abu Antiq texts is that on the one hand, you have the old group that is spread throughout the world in collections like Yale, and not everything has been published yet. Another thing is that the texts that were found by the Iraqi expedition were published piecemeal by BA students, MA students, PhD students, and the texts were distributed to those different people in what almost seems like haphazardly, so they were not given as archival groups or certain dossiers that belong together. No. If somebody had to write a PhD on Abu Antiq, then that person would get some sale documents, couple of letters or an administrative text. And you would find in somebody’s other’s PhD thesis, the same type of texts from the same archive, but they’re typically not studied as a group. So this is a job that Jacob, I hope, will also focus on; is to look at those Iraqi theses and to reconstruct the groups as they were found actually in the field.
One thing, Rients and Jon. When I starting to work on Abu Antiq tablets and decide to complete my career on same group of texts, I have worked on a database for the studied texts. With a database I found, unfortunately–as Rients mentioned–a group of text found in a jar. Instead, it unfortunately separatedly: three in this dissertation, three or two as article, without studied in context. It’s very important that can find the relation between them. Because one of the group of texts had a different date formula, because some of them belong Hammurabi, Samsu-iluna and Abi-eshuh in same time. This can give us, this is an archive for a family, can find something new on this family. It’s very important and nice to find in one jar <a> group of texts belong to three kings.
This is new information to me, even. So I’m glad to hear this, Jacob, that apparently an archive was found in a jar.
That’s a good example of one of the main advantages of properly excavated material, because it’s not like an expert can just pick up a tablet, read it, and that will tell them everything they might possibly want to know.
Absolutely, context is very important. It’s not everything, but you need the tablet and its context to draw the full spectrum of historical information from it.
And one of the challenges in working with material that hasn’t been properly excavated, is that even when you have material that is generally related, it doesn’t necessarily come from the same place.
The tablets that come up from the south from Babylon, Yahrurum Shaplum, I think it’s not only from Abu Antiq, it’s from the region somewhere around. Because one of the texts come from Yahrurum Shaplum that come from Tell Masbah. Tell Masbah now is removed by modern canal. I have visit the site before, maybe two years ago. There is 12 letters that are published by exact same content for the tablet of Pi-Kasi other tablet from Yahrurum Shaplum. That give us an idea. The region of southern Babylonia, can imagine it as with one lifestyle. They depending on the agricultural economy and working in fields, or like Rients said, they are soldiers and then started working in their field or orchards.
Do we know what happened to Pi-Kasi? Why does the documentation end?
Well, I have a hypothesis about this, because the last dated texts that were found at Abu Antiq are from the first three years of Ammi-ditana. So that’s about 100 years after it was for the first time settled with foreign mercenaries. And at the time of Ammi-ditana, the Babylonian kingdom was at war intermittently with the Sealand Dynasty to its south. And it appears that Abu Antiq and its military colony, were at the frontline. And I suspect that Abu Antiq / Pi-Kasi somehow were involved in the war against the Sealand Dynasty, and that the site was abandoned, perhaps even burned, at the beginning of the reign of Ammi-ditana. That’s what I believe. Maybe Jacob has other ideas or suggestions about the end of Abu Antiq?
I think the end for Abu Antiq that the water it covered the site, because only in Old Babylonian Pi-Kasi was mentioned. After that, never mentioned in any texts. I think this belong the nature of the area, because this area attested for the marshlands from the fourth millennium BC. This is a viewpoint I think come from one of the Iraqi students that work with Tony Wilkinson, and I don’t know from where bring this idea, but had an idea this region covered by water from the fourth millennium BC and still continue. I think this reason make people there to leave Abu Antiq and other sites. I have visited this area many times when I working in Diwaniyah inspectorate. I found occupation for the first millennium around Abu Antiq in Tell Khaysh, and Tell Zeghaytan; very, very few on the surface. But in Tell Khaysh there is a Sassanian occupation. Even the Tell Jeghayman. Jeghayman is the … north Abu Antiq. Is very big site. There is an occupation belong to first millennium–second half of first millennium BC. I think the nature maybe the reason for that.
What are your plans for future work on these texts?
I would like to talk on my project and my PhD plan. The future of Abu Antiq texts, I plan for this large group of texts, mainly to find a very good topic of a dissertation. My project divided into two parts. I’m working on the administrative text and letters; will be a main topic for a PhD dissertation. Then working on the rest of the texts as a research project, including the large collection of the school texts. I think the school texts of Abu Antiq is very, very important. Because it’s a very large group, and I think it’s very important to know the level of education and knowledge circulating in that region. That would be a project or joint project with my colleagues like Rients de Boer, because he interested in this group of texts on this region. And together, I have a very good idea about that, because we read almost all of Abu Antiq texts that studied by Iraqi colleagues. We plan to find a new cooperation. He started already to find something in Leiden; some time to spend it there to work together as preliminary working on that.
How can we follow your work? Do you have social media accounts, for example?
I don’t have any social media accounts. But I do have an academia account, like a lot of scholars, where people can find my articles.
Same here. I don’t have. I have only Twitter and never use it. I very few time on Twitter. I have Academia, LinkedIn only. Only that. I don’t have time for social media.
I know what you mean.
Well, thank you both very much indeed. That’s really impressive work. And it’s such a wonderful collaboration.
Thank you, Jon. Thank you. It’s my pleasure.
Thank you, Jon. It was our pleasure.
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