BMCR 2023.03.02

The Routledge handbook of the senses in the ancient Near East

, , The Routledge handbook of the senses in the ancient Near East. Routledge handbooks. Abingdon; New York: Routledge, 2022. Pp. xxix, 739. ISBN 9780367235284.

This review was written with substantive contributions by Neesha Mewada (on Part III), Amir Abou-Jaoude (on Part V), and Marina Schneider (on Part VI), graduate students in the Art History Program, University of Texas at Austin.




The study of the human sensorium in antiquity is flourishing. In 2020, Routledge published in the same series of Handbooks a sister collection much broader in scope (Handbook of Sensory Archaeology, edited by Robin Skeates and Jo Day) whereas the same publisher alone has a host of publications on various aspects of the sensory: the series “The Senses in Antiquity,” edited by Mark Bradley and Shane Butler, has already yielded several volumes (on synaesthesia, smell, sight, taste, touch, and sound) whereas other specialized monographs explore various aspects of sensory experiences in antiquity.[1] As our world is continuously forced by technological development to inhabit digiscapes of mono-sensory confinement, advances in archaeological science and field methods, as the Routledge Handbook of the Senses makes all too clear, enable scholars to empathetically probe the role of the senses in the lives of past humans. As an academic enterprise, this probing is indeed fascinating, provided that one does not forget that our own sensorium and phenomenological immersion can take us that far in understanding the role of the senses in antiquity. Both editors and contributors to this volume seem to be very careful about using the sensory as an analytical framework while basing their research on rigorously understood archaeological evidence.

This hefty volume is masterfully edited. Its content is organized according to practical sub-headings: practice, production and taskscapes; dress and the body; ritualized practice and ceremonial spaces; death and burial; science, medicine and aesthetics; language and aesthetic fields. By no means are these categories all-encompassing. An alternate scheme might have included, for example, contributions on the sensory dimensions of sexual encounters and pregnancy, birth, lactating, all of which are aspects of life no less worthy of attention than the realm of death and ritual handling of the dead body (see Part IV). This review, a product of collaborative work in a seminar held at the University of Texas at Austin in Spring 2022, focuses on Parts I, III, V, and VI.

The volume is a veritable feast of valuable contributions all of which are worth reading. Part I ( “practice, production, and taskscapes”) offers important insights regarding the sensory frameworks of makers, consumers, and audiences. Marian Feldman carefully reconstructs the bodily and sensory mechanics of sealing non-administrative tablets from Ur III Nippur. Her self-consciously sensory methodology of research enables her to model haptic, visual, and kinesthetic experiences. These experiences contributed to the shaping of communities of practice, whose standardized routines enabled the consolidation of state structures during this period. Though not as deeply theorized, Caroline Sauvage’s essay offers a richly textured and wide-in-scope overview of the sensory dimensions of textile production and consumption in the Levant and Mesopotamia. Solidly based on archaeological evidence and textual sources, her analysis facilitates imagining the multifaceted sensory dimensions of textiles made, worn or seen. This is important given that textiles rarely survive, and when they do, they are deprived of those traits that rendered them virtual extensions of their wearer’s or user’s identity (e.g. body odors, sweat, tears, other bodily excretions). Katherine Schmidt offers an insightful essay on the enchanting qualities of transparent glass bowls exclusively produced and used in the Assyrian palaces during commensal events characterized by an excess of sensory delights that aimed at imprinting into participants’ memory the might and ineffable splendor of the emperor. Based on the evidence of cuneiform “glassmaking texts,” Schmidt analyses the elaborate rituals before, during and after the risk-involving process of transparent glass production. Kiersten Neumann, on the other hand, focuses on the subtle and intentional rendering of tactility in the Apadana reliefs at Persepolis. She very persuasively hypothesizes that the reliefs might have invited visitors to interact with them through touching and feeling their properties. In this way, the reliefs would have resulted in experiential communities that would have momentarily brought together the diverse subjects of the empire. Finally, Agnès Garcia-Ventura and Mireia López-Bertran analyze textually surviving work songs and lullabies to tease out aspects of laborers’ experiences (including mothers’). Their essay is insightful despite the major limitation that the evidence they discuss does not preserve the important component of music (which their essay does not discuss).

Part III delves into the sensory significance of ritualized practice and ceremonial spaces that shaped the identity of the ancient Near Eastern world. Drawing parallels from the praxis of a living tradition, Irene Winter in her ethnographic approach to temple rituals in India invites readers to frame the sensory experiences of the temple objects and rituals of the ancient Near Eastern cultures as a total work of art (Gesamtkunstwerk). In his article on Jewish (purification) ritual baths, Rick Bonnie presents a study of four sites across the Southern Levant, each with a range of stepped pools (mikveh, 1st-2nd centuries BCE). He seeks to reconstruct how the users were variously affected by the materiality of the stepped pools which intimately engaged the human sensorium to shape diverse practices and experiences of ritual purification. Sarah Kielt Costello provides a semiotic reading of the scale of animal figures at Göbekli Tepe while taking a distant look at the monumental site and its ritual culture. She unmasks the scaled images employed at Göbekli Tepe to represent a particular human power whose effect was experienced also with touch, proprioceptive senses, and other phenomena. Frances Pinnock presents a refreshing sensory survey of palatial ceremonies and temple rituals in Ebla from the Early Bronze to the Middle Bronze period. On the basis of Eblaic administrative texts and archaeological artefacts, she investigates the sensory dimensions of rituals performed to construct a particularly affective sense of kingship at Ebla. Beate Pongratz-Leisten explores the materiality and sensoriality of the Ishtar Gate at Babylon in the context of other edifices that exuded an active sensorial force as an expression of divine kingship. Drawing from “descriptive narrative texts” and “prescriptive priestly texts,” Christine Elizabeth Palmer explores the sensorial landscape of the Jerusalem Temple of the First Temple Period. Paul Flesher sheds light on how auditory considerations impacted the interior design of synagogues at Nabratein (Roman-Period Galilee). He argues that the ritual of “scripture reading and translation” was a bilingual rite performed in antiphonal manner so that both versions were simultaneously heard in the company of each other. Backed by material archaeological evidence, he elucidates that the reading ritual was performed not from the center of the interior hall but from the two platforms (bema) aligned along one of the lengths of the hall.

At first glance, the title of Part V (“science, medicine, and aesthetics”) seems misconceived. What connection exists between astronomical bodies and enfeebled ones, between infirmities and art? Despite differences in subject matter, however, the authors of these four essays all stress the subjectivity of sight. Even this supreme sense is culturally mediated. M. Willis Monroe explores Babylonian and Assyrian methods of observing the heavens. He asserts that astronomical and astrological observers did not simply record the movements of celestial objects. Instead, their training and theoretical backgrounds shaped what they saw when they studied the sky. Similarly, Mesopotamian doctors did more than catalogue a patient’s apparent symptoms. As Ulrike Steinert states, physicians and ritual healers relied on every sense to make a diagnosis, and their treatments did not just depend on what was visually evident. As they attended to the ill, they often perceived of corporeal ailments as manifestations of divine wrath or punishments for certain social peccadillos. Edgar Kellenberger’s contribution, concerning disability in Near Eastern societies, complements Steinert’s chapter. Kellenberger argues that impairments were not understood as mere inadequacies, but as inscrutable signs from the divine. In the final article of Part V, Karen Sonik contends that sight remains problematic, even when examining objects that the ancients might have beheld. Sonik stresses that aesthetic theories inform experiences of the visual arts. While contemporary viewers are encouraged to study artworks in a state of detached contemplation, such a construct would be foreign to Mesopotamians. Instead, they believed images were invested with awesome power and supernatural force. Sonik’s claims are not novel in the art historical literature. Similar ideas about the Near Eastern aesthetic experience have been put forth by scholars like Irene Winter and Zainab Bahrani, both of whom are cited in Sonik’s extensive bibliography. Although much of the essay concerns the appreciation of visual art, Sonik does not examine any extant artifact. She explains that it is difficult to reconstruct a viewing experience based on fragmentary remains, so instead she offers a close, illuminating reading of an ekphrasis. Indeed, all authors in Part V engage in textual analysis. Monroe and Steinert carefully distinguish between different Sumerian and Akkadian terms for “seeing,” then explore how these various words are employed in key astrological and medical texts. Their meticulousness deserves special commendation. Kellenberger’s chief source is the Hebrew Bible, a work much less obscure than those Monroe and Steinert utilize. While Kellenberger does bring fresh insight to familiar passages, he might have considered how biblical conceptions of disability continue to shape attitudes toward impairment.

Part VI (“Languages and Semantic Fields”) delves into the senses using linguistic analyses to consider the role of the senses in ancient societies as well as how ancient people perceived the world using the senses. All of the articles use the Aristotelian sensory model consisting of the five senses of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch as the base of their sensory analysis. However, the authors of chapters 27, 29, and 30 address the primacy placed on the sight and sound as rational senses in Enlightenment and modern thought. The authors in these three chapters thus address the often-ignored sensory experiences of smell, touch, and taste, proximal sensory modalities, to better understand how ancient people described and interacted with their environments. Elizabeth Steinbecke-Eicke and Anne-Caroline Rendu Loisel use linguistic analysis to understand how ancient people expressed perception through language. Steinbecke-Eicke focuses on Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs and her findings show how the Ancient Egyptian’s metaphorical meaning and proximal sensory modalities relate to multisensory experiences. Rendu Loisel examines Akkadian verbs related to the senses. Both she and the authors of chapter 26, Aleksi Sahlala and Saana Svärd use digital resources such as the Open Richly Annotated Cuneiform Corpus (ORACC) to facilitate their linguistic analyses. Rendu Loisel, Sahlala, and Svärd argue that analyzing Akkadian vocabulary describing sensory experiences will provide further insight into ancient people’s perspectives. Dora Goldsmith addresses the lack of comprehensive research on the role of smell in Ancient Egypt. Goldsmith is particularly concerned with city smellscapes. She utilizes archaeological data and written sources to reconstruct the smellscapes of cities in Ancient Egypt, arguing that the smell of a place contributes to an individual’s sense of belonging, identity, and evocation of memory. Multiple authors address the senses in Akkadian and Ancient Egyptian culture, but this volume also contains contributions to the study of the senses among the Hittites and Hurrians. Using linguistic analysis Richard H. Beal and Dennis R.M. Campbell analyze the use of verbs in Hittite and Hurrian texts. Beal and Campbell acknowledge that the Hittites and Hurrians made use of all five senses in their rituals and celebrations, but the source material currently limits them to considering the roles of sight and sound in both of these cultures’ written sources.

All seven articles in section VI demonstrate the potential of linguistic analysis to contribute towards our understanding of ancient cultures. The authors seek to balance the way the Aristotelian model of the senses informs modern thought, using analysis of language to try and penetrate the distance of time in order to better understand ancient perception.



[1] For example: Steve Mills, Auditory Archaeology: Understanding Sound and Hearing in the Past, 2014; Lilian Janik, The Archaeology of Seeing, 2020; Eleanor Betts ed. Senses of the Empire: Multisensory Approaches to Roman Culture, 2021.