BMCR 1995.12.12

1995.12.12, Moorey, Ancient Mesopotamian Materials and Industries

, Ancient mesopotamian materials and industries : the archaeological evidence. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994. xxiii, 414 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations, maps ; 29 cm. ISBN 9780198149217. $105.00.

To review the work of Roger Moorey is an intellectual pleasure and a daunting task because of his masterly knowledge of the material about which he writes; as one of my colleagues remarked, “He is a scholar’s scholar.” In fact, Ancient Mesopotamian Materials and Industries (hereafter AMMI) is so compendious that it cannot be reviewed. It is a source book which will become the essential starting point for any research on the materials covered (stone working; ivory, bone, and shell; ceramics and glassworking; metals; building crafts—mud, clay, mortars, bitumen, stone, wood, and reeds—organic materials are excluded because their study must be pursued primarily through texts). A glance at the index will illustrate the extraordinary breadth of the work; such a detailed index facilitates research on specific topics. Moorey is uniquely qualified to have undertaken a project of this magnitude because he has seen firsthand most of the antiquities he describes, he is in close contact with many field archaeologists and laboratory researchers working on Mesopotamian materials, and he has complete knowledge of all the literature on the topic.

The preface sets the stage well in outlining why a region that has been the focus of intense archaeological and philological research for so many years was not previously represented by a book on its material culture. In the past, the material evidence was used as a typological indicator “for structuring chronological systems or for establishing the identities and relationships of the political and social groups taken to be defined by material culture.” (p. v). The situation has not changed greatly in recent years since the development of agriculture and urbanization have been the primary loci of socially scientifically inclined researchers working in this area. In addition, the material itself is often inaccessible in museums and excavation store rooms, and much of it, particularly artifacts from early excavations, cannot be placed in context. At the University of Pennsylvania, for example, fewer than 80 of over 800 copper-base artifacts supposedly from the Royal Cemetery at Ur can be assigned any sort of context.

Other helpful introductory sections include chronology, historical geography (where are Magan and Meluhha?, etc.), and a review of the agricultural background and the technological developments that accompanied/drove urbanization. Moorey also briefly covers the means of resource procurement, and points out that exchange relationships were highly complex and variable, so they cannot be categorized simply as reciprocal, redistributive, down-the-line, etc. In discussing the relationship of texts and archaeology, he emphasizes the important point that texts were not written by technologists, which is still sometimes forgotten, especially by philologists. For example, texts give specific proportions of copper to tin for making bronze, but metalworkers did not or were not always able to follow the ideal recipe, as the analyses indicate. While texts tell us that bronze was being made by the mid-third millennium, analyses suggest that it had by no means passed into general usage, a disjunction perhaps to be expected from documents relating largely to social élites and those who supported them.

The section of AMMI on which I can comment most authoritatively is that about metalworking, but, since we have shared many of the preliminary results of the Mesopotamian Metals Project with Moorey, I have little to add. There is one minor technical point which deserves comment. In discussing slags from Norsun Tepe in southeastern Anatolia, Moorey (p. 244) gives wicker’s (1980 in AMMI bibliography) findings that chloride fluxes were used in smelting copper ores in the mid-fourth millennium. This conclusion is somewhat perplexing because chloride fluxes would do nothing to aid in copper smelting, although I admit the possibilities that their use was part of experiment or that a copper chloride ore (such as the rare atacamite, CuCl 2 3Cu(OH) 2) might have been smelted. In rechecking Zwicker’s original publication, I noted in the micrograph (Zwicker 1980: 26, fig. 11) a phenomenon with which I am familiar. About twenty years ago, Robert Maddin and I observed crystals similar to those in Zwicker’s micrographs caught up in voids in porous metals and slags. We determined, through a series of repolishing and re-etching experiments and scanning electron microscopy, that our crystals were chloride and that they were artifacts of a ferric chloride etchant. We then switched to ammonium hydroxide etches for copper and copper-base artifacts to avoid the chloride deposits. Zwicker does not state which etchant he used, but ferric chloride is a common etchant for copper, so there is a possibility that chloride fluxes at Norsun Tepe are the result of a tramp effect produced by the etchant.

Moorey touches on recycling in several places, for example, in connection with the group of Old Babylonian agricultural implements found at Tell Sifr. In the Mesopotamian Metals Project, we have found scientific evidence for recycling in at least two samples dating to EDIIIA. To illustrate, one of these, a dagger/knife from PG 49 at Ur, has a microscopic bit of material in its matrix which did not go into solution with the bulk of the material and which has a different composition—with a higher melting point—than the matrix. Logically, we believe that recycling must have taken place since the time that metal could be melted, but it is useful to have scientific confirmation.

In sum, Moorey’s accomplishment is magisterial. Yes, there are a few typos, and I would have liked illustrations of more of the artifacts discussed. Realistically, the latter was impossible since Moorey cites thousands of artifacts, which would require another book to print them. With AMMI and a good library, however, any researcher can become an expert on a particular topic in a short time. As usual, we owe much to Roger Moorey.