BMCR 2021.10.50

Les vaisseaux du désert et des steppes: les camélidés dans l’Antiquité

, , Les vaisseaux du désert et des steppes: les camélidés dans l'Antiquité (Camelus dromedarius et Camelus bactrianus). Archéologie(s), 2. Lyon: MOM Éditions, 2020. Pp. 292. ISBN 9782356680679 €50,00.

Open Access version of the volume.
[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Les vaisseaux du désert et des steppes brings together seventeen chapters that deal with the Bactrian and dromedary camels, from the third millennium BCE to the mid-first millennium CE, and represents the first scholarly collection dedicated to the camel in antiquity. The volume builds on a 2016 conference, which focussed on the dromedary, and the European Research Council project “Desert Networks: Into the Eastern Desert of Egypt from the New Kingdom to the Roman Period”, under the direction of Bérangère Redon, one of this volume’s editors.[1] The volume is organised in broadly chronological terms, which also coincide with a geographical movement from east to west, with the earlier evidence concerning the Bactrian camel and central Asia, and Egypt representing the western limit of the studies. As the editors note in their introduction, one of the main objectives is to bring together scholars from diverse disciplines, and consequently a range of material is presented and discussed: archaeological, archaeozoological, papyrological, inscriptional, iconographic. Some studies combine multiple source types, while others are more specialised. Throughout, the chapters are lavishly illustrated, with maps, plans, and colour photographs of artefacts and camels. Rather than provide an overview of each of the seventeen contributions, what follows looks at some key themes and methodological approaches present across multiple chapters.

Several chapters explore the lexical evidence, both for camels and for the individuals who worked with them. For ‘camel’, terms in the following languages are discussed: Greek and Latin (Agut-Labordère/Redon; also addressed by Gatier); Akkadian and Sumerian (Lafont; Cousin); ancient Iranian languages (Redard); Hebrew (Heide); Demotic (Agut-Labordère; Chaufray). The Demotic ostraca edited by Chaufray provide rare demotic evidence for the titles applied to those who worked with camels, while Cuvigny discusses the role of Arabs as attested in the Greek ostracon she edits, in particular the designation ‘Arab of the desert’, and Gatier looks at Greek and Latin terms for cameleers. A glossary of terms collating all this vocabulary in one place would have been a helpful inclusion. Additionally, many chapters address the suitability of the camel for specific terrains and climates. In this respect, Gatier’s discussion is particularly useful – this information would have been more conveniently located at the beginning of the volume, as it is pertinent to it as a whole.

The osteological evidence for camels is central to several studies, for establishing both the presence of the animal at sites and also its post-mortem uses. In their short chapter, Berthon et al. emphasise the difficulties involved in studying the domestication and diffusion of the Bactrian camel, due to the rarity of its bones on archaeological sites, and to problems in differentiating Bactrians from dromedaries, as well as the existence of hybrids (Gatier discusses the possible ancient textual evidence for hybrids in his chapter). Francfort uses the evidence of bones and other artefacts to examine the presence and role of camels in central Asia, drawing upon settlement and funerary contexts across the third and second millennia BCE. A single site, Taymā (northwestern Saudi Arabia), is the focus for Prust and Hausleiter, who publish here the preliminary osteological data from the site, highlighting the fluctuating representation of camel bones from the eleventh century BCE to the Roman period, as well as differences across the site in a single period of occupation. The presence of camel bones in Egypt’s eastern desert is examined by Leguilloux.

Leguilloux’s study is one of three that focus on the eastern desert and which together form a mini case-study within this volume. Chaufray’s contribution comprises the first edition of 25 Demotic ostraca, unearthed at Bi’r Samut during the excavations of 2014–16. These accounts represent over half of the texts that mention camels (from a dataset of 680 ostraca) and provide evidence for caravans, supplies, and personnel at this site in the third century BCE, during the reigns of Ptolemy III and IV. A Greek letter from the same site is published by Cuvigny, providing evidence for camel husbandry and the essential role played by Arabs in the process. Note that these texts are already integrated into the papyrological database Trismegistos, with TM numbers provided for each text. Bi’r Samut is also one of the sites in Leguilloux’s study, which incorporates Ptolemaic and Roman evidence from forts, quarries, and ports along the desert routes from Coptos to Myos Hormos and from Coptos to Berenike, showing the differential use of animals — for both service and slaughter — across the settlement types.

The influence of these trade routes and the presence of camels is also apparent in the material culture of Coptos, the starting point of these routes in the Nile Valley. Terracotta figurines of camels occur in greater numbers here than anywhere else in Roman Egypt, as Galliano demonstrates. (It should be stressed, however, that this may also be the result of the excavation history of Coptos, with the 1911 excavation providing a large dataset, while many terracottas in museum collections lack provenance, making such site-specific studies the exception.) Not only do these numbers attest to the familiar presence of the animal in the town, the presence of palanquins on some representations also reflects their role in caravans, which must have been a frequent sight for many. Camel terracottas are also included in Nehmé’s presentation of the evidence from the Nabataean kingdom, where she highlights the difficulties involved in interpreting the figurines’ use, as they do not derive from religious contexts. Votives are just one source of evidence that Nehmé draws upon to show the different areas of life – religious, military, domestic, commercial – in which camels were used. The wealth of information that can be drawn from visual sources is also demonstrated by Gatier, who uses mosaics in particular to help reconstruct the equipment and uses of the camel for transport in the Near East, in combination with the – mainly literary – textual evidence.

The use of camels for transport of goods and people over both short and long distances is a common topic among these chapters, as is their role in the diets of local populations. More atypical uses are also discussed. Lafont focusses on a single Sumerian text from the late third millennium BCE that provides a unique attestation of camels – almost certainly the Bactrian – in Iraq at this time. This account of thirty animals is understood within the broader context of long-distance commerce from the Mediterranean to Iran and the importance played by Sumer, with the herd perhaps being a diplomatic gift. This suggestion helps account for why camels are not otherwise attested in this region until the eighth century BCE. Textual sources for camels in new territories, that is, regions in which they had not previously been attested, are also examined by Agut-Labordère. Two Demotic ostraca from Ayn Manâwir in the southern part of the Kharga Oasis, in Egypt’s western desert, provide what is probably the earliest attestation of the term for camel in the Egyptian language, dating to 460 BCE during the reign of Darius II (when Egypt was ruled by Persia). As the term appears in only two texts out of a corpus of 460, camels were seemingly an exceptional appearance in the settlement.[2] Rather than being used for trade or agriculture (i.e., ploughing), Agut-Labordère, following an overview of evidence for landownership in the oasis, suggests that they were used to clear land, transforming a palmery to farmland.

These two instances also highlight the evidence for the introduction of camels to new territories. The Persians – or possibly the Assyrians before them – were most likely responsible for the first major introduction of camels to Egypt. The importance of the dromedary to the Neo-Assyrian and Persian empires is amply demonstrated by Cousin’s contribution, which focusses on textual sources and conveniently collates evidence from Neo-Assyrian letters and royal inscriptions. Heide’s discussion of the slightly earlier evidence from the Hebrew Bible centres on the first time the Israelites encountered camels, which are associated in the Book of Judges and Samuel with the Midianites and the Amalekites respectively. Throughout this volume, one sees how camels were pivotal in the establishment of contact between groups, whether from a political (from military conquest to tribute) or from an economic standpoint.

Finally, the last two chapters turn to the Bactrian camel in the modern era. Faye and Konuspayeva look at the fate of the Bactrian after 1917 and the impact of major political events, notably the Bolshevik revolution and fall of the USSR, on the camel population and the role of the camel across the Soviet Union. Even if such processes (modernisation and industrialisation) do not seem directly relevant to ancient contexts, this case provides a clear example of the impact of human activity on camel use, populations, and ways of life. The ethnographic observations by Marchina, based on a camel herder in central Mongolia today, provide other perspectives that help us understand the relationship between animal and herder, at any period of time. Not only is a knowledge of the physiology of the animal and its habits essential, but also an understanding of its psychology. The examination of ancient practices, especially concerning animal husbandry, through a modern lens allows us to approach the material in new ways – in the current volume, Francfort’s chapter contains an excursus on modern caravans and how they help us understand the practicalities of their ancient predecessors. One also recalls in this respect the modern introduction of the dromedary to Australia in the nineteenth century by colonial settlers, together with their handlers who provided the knowledge and experience necessary to work with them.[3] While dromedaries are suited for the environmental conditions of the Australian outback, this particular case reminds us of the destructive ecological impact of the introduction of new species, which continues to be felt today.

Overall, this volume certainly achieves one of the main goals of its editors, to stress the value of a multidisciplinary approach, as well as the benefits of bringing together studies that cover a broad temporal and geographic scope. While these contributions are most obviously relevant to those interested in the study of camelids, their usefulness extends beyond this narrow focus – and not only for the study of other animals. Several chapters include the publication of new material (osteological data in the case of Prust and Hausleiter; text editions in the case of Chaufray and Cuvigny), while others collate a considerable body of evidence, making this a useful reference volume. Additionally, individual papers will appeal to different readers involved in diverse research into the ancient world, as multiple topics are covered, for example, the economy, agriculture, trade networks, daily life, textiles, diet, lexicography. And in those cases where scholars may be interested in only part of a single chapter, the Open Access nature of Les vaisseaux du désert means that it can be freely and easily consulted by anybody with access to the internet.

Authors and titles

Damien Agut-Labordère, Bérangère Redon, “Introduction. Dromadaires et chameaux de l’Asie centrale au Nil dans les mondes anciens (IVe millénaire av. J.-C. – premiers siècles de notre ère)”.
Rémi Berthon, Marjan Mashkour, Pamela Burger, Canan Çakirlar, “Domestication, diffusion and hybridization of the Bactrian camel: A zooarchaeological perspective”.
Henri-Paul Francfort, “Les vestiges et les représentations du Camelus bactrianus en Asie centrale entre le IIIe et le Ier millénaire av. J.-C.”.
Céline Redard, “Le nom du chameau dans les langues iraniennes anciennes”.
Bertrand Lafont, “Note sur les chameaux bactriens attestés à Sumer”.
Laura Cousin, “Le dromadaire (Camelus dromedarius) dans le Proche-Orient ancien au Ier millénaire av. J.-C.: Présentation de la documentation épigraphique et retour sur quelques documents iconographiques”.
Martin Heide, “Dromedaries in the Hebrew Bible towards the end of the 2nd millennium BCE”.
Anja Prust and Arnulf Hausleiter, “Camel exploitation in the oasis of Taymāʾ– caravan or consumption?”
Damien Agut-Labordère, “Labourer avec des gml.w à ‘Ayn Manâwir (oasis de Kharga, Égypte, fin du ve siècle av. J.-C.)”.
Marie-Pierre Chaufray, “Les chameaux dans les ostraca démotiques de Bi’r Samut (Égypte, désert Oriental)”.
Hélène Cuvigny, “L’élevage des chameaux sur la route d’Edfou à Bérénice d’après une lettre trouvée à Bi’r Samut (iiie siècle av. J.-C.)”.
Martine Leguilloux, “Camelus ou Equus ?: Le rôle des dromadaires dans les stathmoi et praesidia du désert Oriental d’Égypte”.
Geneviève Galliano, “Les chameaux en terre cuite d’époque romaine de Coptos”.
Laïla Nehmé, “The camel in the Nabataean realm”.
Pierre-Louis Gatier, “Le chameau de transport dans le Proche-Orient antique”.
Bernard Faye and Gaukhar Konuspayeva, “Le chameau de Bactriane dans les vicissitudes de l’histoire depuis 1917”.
Charlotte Marchina, “La bosse de l’élevage de chameaux: Un savoir-faire délicat en Mongolie contemporaine”.


[1] The original conference programme is available here; for the ERC project, see their website and blog.

[2] The Demotic ostraca are published online here.

[3] See H. M. Barker, Camels and the Outback (Adelaide: Rigby, 1964).