BMCR 2024.01.39

À la découverte du royaume d’Ougarit (Syrie du IIe millénaire): les fouilles de C.F.A. Schaeffer à Minet el-Beida et Ras Shamra (1929-1937)

, , À la découverte du royaume d'Ougarit (Syrie du IIe millénaire): les fouilles de C.F.A. Schaeffer à Minet el-Beida et Ras Shamra (1929-1937). Contributions to the archaeology of Egypt, Nubia and the Levant, 7; Denkschriften der Gesamtakademie, 89. Vienna: Verlag der österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 2023. Pp. 472. ISBN 9783700179986.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]


Over the couse of the twentieth century, the archaeological discoveries from the coastal site of Ugarit (Ras Shamra) and its satellite harbor, Minet el-Beida, made a massive impact of our understanding of the Late Bronze Levant. À la découverte du royaume d’Ougarit presents remains from these two sites, which are now housed in the National Museum of Archaeology of Saint-Germain-en-Laye (Musée d’archéologie nationale, abbreviated MAN). While overlapping with reports in the important series Ras Shamra–Ougarit and elsewhere, this volume is particularly welcome, as it offers the first publication of some materials, such as the assemblage from Tombes II and IV at Minet el-Beida, only briefly described in the 1929 excavation report. It also offers many detailed, updated studies often benefitting from access to the notebooks of the primary excavator of the sites, Claude Schaeffer; his lists of material deposited in the museum in Latakia (the lists are now in the Collège de France); the archives of the Collège de France; and the registry of inventory in the Louvre. The essays give general remarks and commentary, catalogues, bibliographies, drawings, and old and new photographs. The authors and titles of the essays are listed at the end of this review.

The tome opens with two introductory pieces. The first provides background to the collections in the MAN, where Schaeffer had served as “conservateur-adjoint” and where objects from these sites were first registered in 1932. Schaeffer’s early professional career is briefly surveyed, followed by an account of the discoveries at Minet el-Beida in the spring of 1928 as recorded in the correspondence (quoted here) between two other central figures: Charles Virolleaud, then director of the Antiquities Service under the French Mandate, and René Dussaud, conservator in the department of “Oriental Antiquities” at the Louvre. Initially Schaeffer, along with Georges Chenet, was commissioned to undertake excavation at Minet el-Beida. Shortly thereafter they shifted their archaeological operations less than a kilometer inland to Ras Shamra, and were soon heralded for their discovery of tablets and other materials. Several organizations as well as the French government and the “État des Alouites” quickly followed with financial support, listed with their annual contributions for 1930–1938. The essay closes with a catalogue of the materials in the MAN for the 1931–1933 seasons. It is complemented by a second introductory essay surveying by year the excavations at Ras Shamra-Ugarit and Minet el-Beida in 1929–1935, helpfully illustrated by 27 photographs and plans of the sites.

Part One of this volume presents objects by category, beginning with two essays on ceramics in the MAN. The first surveys the pottery from the Chalcolithic through the Late Bronze Age. Of note are the imported Cypriot and Mycenaean wares. Some vessels show painted depictions, including bulls and sphinxes. The second article on ceramics focuses on the red and black Bichrome Wheel-made Ware from the Middle and Late Bronze Age. This pottery includes decoration horizontally organized with geometric designs and schematized depictions of plants and animals. Catalogues of the wares in the MAN collection are included.

The third chapter moves to the MAN’s limited corpus of terracotta objects consisting of zoomorphic and anthropomorphic figurines as well as model chariots. The majority are said to come from funerary and ritual contexts, while others come from houses. The three single-piece molds of nude female figurines in the MAN’s holdings were locally made and small (the tallest is 9.1 cm).  To my mind, these molds may suggest the possibility of significant local distribution. Two of the molds show females with their hands at their sides, while the third represents the female holding her breasts with her hair in the Hathor style. It has been theorized that female figurines holding their breasts (such as Judean pillar figurines) may represent lamenting females (Felli 2016), like two of the four females depicted similarly in the tenth-century sarcophagus of the Byblian king Ahiram. A third type of representation is found on a gold-sheet pendant now in the Louvre depicting a goddess, likewise with a Hathor hairstyle but holding a small goat in each hand, flanked by a snake on either side and a lion walking by her feet (Yon 2008:166–67, no. 58; see also no. 59).  The other figurines thought to be Mycenaean imports (reflected by their forms and decoration) include female figurines as well as various quadrupeds.

The next chapter treats several small finds beginning with the six vitreous pieces from Ugarit mostly dating to the Late Bronze Age, which largely comprise two blue pearls (one possibly an import from Egypt), and pottery fragments. Then follows the presentation of seven pieces of bone and ivory from elephant and hippopotamus, one fashioned as a duck head not unlike the better-preserved exemplar (excavation number Ras Shamra 3.235), some of the pieces also have designs. Cut and polished stone tools in the MAN include several pieces dating to the Late Bronze Age. Among the five pieces representing crockery and other stone objects is a vessel imported from Egypt. Considerably larger than any of the other eleven spindle whorl pieces is one (MAN museum number 76780.03 = Ras Shamra 5.179) with six incisions radiating from the center on one side and the other inscribed with Ugaritic plk. This word means “spindle” in its only other occurrences, twice in the Ugaritic Baal Cycle (see Smith and Pitard 2009:440–41) and once in a polyglot text as pilakku (Huehnergard 2008:83); it is considered a loanword (Huehnergard 2008:168). This piece is thought to have been situated in a house; in view of its size, was it originally ceremonial and/or for display within a domestic context? The MAN is also home to one stamp seal with three diagonal incisions and two cylinder seals, one of which depicts a group of four anthropomorphic figures interpreted as engaging in ritual dance. The metal objects are largely utilitarian, e.g., bowls, cups, vessel fragments, spatulas, chisels, needles, pins, awls and knives/shavers, jewelry and rings, as well as numerous arrowheads and fragments of molds for an ax. They also include a rather small, thin bronze male figurine and a miniature fenestrated axe frame. Part One of this book closes with a single coin struck at a workshop in Antioch, perhaps dating to the early sixth century CE.

Part Two studies the material remains surveyed in Part One in their archaeological contexts and provides cross-references to discussions in Part One. In addition, not only the materials in the MAN are listed, but also many objects from the same archaeological contexts preserved in other collections. Readers interested in additional synthesis may also consult the index of inventory numbers at the back of the volume (for a general picture of ancient Ugarit, they may also consult the fine introduction of Yon 2006).

Part Two begins with Minet el-Beida, specifically Tombes II, III, IV and VI; “la zone de dépôt 213”; trench 2.V dépôt 13–20 and 43; an Egyptian deposit; and small assemblages. These tombs are quite small compared with some of the more famous ones at Ras Shamra.  The funerary chamber of Tombe II, said to measure 1.4 by 1 meters, with a height of 1.5 meters, yielded a very small assemblage, including a vessel and figurines. Tombe III, measuring 2.9 by 2.45 meters, with a height of 1.9 meters, held at least three individuals. The discussion refers to its “dromos” and “chambre funéraire.” This rich tomb yielded 38 vessels, 9 stone objects, 17 metal pieces, 23 in ivory, a faience cutting, an ostrich egg, some mother of pearl, and a faience pearl. Tombe IV, probably located under a house, yielded a number of bones, which are the subject of a special study here. At least three persons were among the deceased, including a young adult between 20 and 30 years old at the time of death. Unfortunately, nothing is known of the material associated with the funerary chamber. Tombe VI at Minet el-Beida is the largest excavated in the kingdom of Ugarit. Its 6.5 x 3.5 meter chamber contains the remains of more than 28 persons of various ages as well as a very rich assemblage. The MAN’s holdings for this tomb largely consist of Mycenaean pottery imports, many with abstract designs, and others graced with depictions of a sphinx, bull or another quadruped.

The next two articles address additional deposits at Minet el-Beida. “La zone du dépôt 213” includes two graves located to the south of Tombe V. The first, found under a section of wall, contained the remains of two persons, an adult (probably female) and a very young child. The second held eight persons (including young children, according to Schaeffer) as well as 28 vessels. The discussion further notes the many olive pits, thought to reflect a working oil press of which there was some evidence in the vicinity. This article then treats Tombe V due to its nearby location. Its funerary chamber (25 by 3 meters) was accessible via a small dromos. A window to the chamber is said to be located above a pithos outside of the tomb, but whether such a window was accessible is another matter (cf. Pitard 1994:29–30). It is suggested that the two rhytons discovered among the vessels would have been used in funerary ceremony in or near the tomb (again, see Pitard 1994:30). The articles that follow discuss additional small deposits, notably one with four statuettes.

Part Two then turns to a series of essays on the more meager finds from Ras Shamra in the MAN’s collection: an unclear number of jar burials of children, with some bone remains; Tombes II, III, IV, V, XXXVII, and LIII, containing small ensembles mostly consisting of pottery and spindle whorls. The tombs also yielded some bones and many pots, often Cypriot or Mycenaean imports, as well as a little faience. While the claim that tombs were equipped to receive libations is repeated here for Tombe II and Tombe IV (though without reference to the critical discussion of Pitard 1994), it is suggested instead that such equipment may have constituted domestic installations (“a drain system” in Pitard 1994:24), and it is concluded that the question cannot be resolved from the plans and descriptions. Three appendixes follow: an analysis of the lead isotopes on some pottery in Tombe III from Minet el-Beida; a synthetic treatment of olive oil production at Ugarit and the additional locations of this industry in the Mediterranean basin; and a petrographic analysis of stone objects, which are individually listed.

Thanks to this volume, students of ancient Ugarit now enjoy yet another important resource for understanding different dimensions of its culture. Often noting information lacking in or missing from Schaeffer’s records, the editors and authors are to be applauded for their wonderful excavations of his excavation materials housed in the MAN.


Works Cited

Felli, C. 2016. “Mourning and Funerary Practices in the Ancient Near East: An Essay to Bridge the Gap between the Textual and the Archaeological Record.” How to Cope with Death: Mourning and Funerary Practices in the Ancient Near East: Proceedings of the International Workshop Firenze, 5th–6th December 2013. Ed. Candida Felli. Ricerche di Archeologia del Vicino Oriente 5. Pisa: ETS, 83–132.

Huehnergard, J. 2008. Ugaritic Vocabulary in Syllabic Transcription: Revised Edition. Harvard Semitic Studies 32. Atlanta: Scholars.

Pitard, W. T. 1994. “The ‘Libation’ Installations of the Tombs at Ugarit.” Biblical Archaeologist 57:20–37.

Smith, M. S., and W. T. Pitard. 2009. The Ugaritic Baal Cycle: Volume 2. Introduction with Text, Translation and Commentary of KTU/CAT 1.3–1.4. Vetus Testamentum Supplements 114. Leiden/Boston: Brill.

Yon, M. 2006. The City of Ugarit at Tell Ras Shamra. Trans. G. Walker and B. Schmidt. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns.


Authors and Titles

Histoire de la collection: Les constances d’entrée de la collection de Ras Shamra et Minet el-Beida au musée d’archéologie nationale de Saint Germain-en-Laye (C. Lorre)

Historique de fouilles d’Ougarit et de Minet-el-Beida 1929–1935 (C. Sauvage)


I – Les Objets par Catégories

Les Céramiques (C. Sauvage)

Céramiques bichromes d’Ougarit (M. Yon)

Objets en terre cuite (C. Sauvage)

Les matières vitreuses d’Ougarit (V. Matöian)

Les ivoires et os d’Ougarit (A. Caubet et F. Poplin)

Outils en pierre taillée et polie (E. Conquegniot)

La vaisselle et les objets de pierre à Ougarit (A. Caubet)

Les fusaïoles et l’industrie textile (C. Sauvage et R. Hawley)

Cachets et sceaux-cylindres (S. Cluzan)

Le métal: fabrication et objets (G. Gernez)

Une monnaie de Ras Shamra (O. Callot)


II – Les ensembles archéologiques

A. Minet el-Beida

Minet el-Beida, tombe II [1006] (C. Sauvage)

Minet el-Beida, tombe III [1005] (C. Sauvage)

Minet el-Beida, tombe IV [1002] (C. Sauvage et P. Courtaud)

Minet el-Beida, tombe VI [1007] (C. Sauvage)

La zone du dépôt à Minet el-Beida (C. Sauvage)

Tranchée 2.V dépôts 13–20 et 43, Minet el-Beida (C. Sauvage)

Dépôt aux quatre statuettes ou dépôts égyptien, Minet el-Beida 1929 (C. Sauvage)

Minet el-Beida – petits ensembles

B. Ras Shamra

Un groupe de sépultures d’enfants sur l’acropole (C. Sauvage et P. Courtaud)

Ras Shamra, tombe II [0139] (C. Sauvage et P. Courtaud)

Ras Shamra, tombe III [0158] (C. Sauvage et P. Courtaud)

Ras Shamra, tombe IV [0119] (C. Sauvage et P. Courtaud)

Ras Shamra, tombe V [0150] (C. Sauvage)

Ras Shamra, tombe XXXVII [157] (C. Sauvage et P. Courtaud)

Ras Shamra, tombe LIII [004] (C. Sauvage)

Petits ensembles de Ras Shamra (C. Sauvage)

Conclusion Générale


III – Annexes

A – Analyses des isotopes du plomb sur des fragments de White Slip II Ware et de Base-Ring Ware provenant de la tombe III [1005] de Minet el-Beida (V. Renson, C. Sauvage, N. Mattielli et P. Claeys)

B – Agrobiodiversité de l’olivier (Olea europea L.) à Ougarit, fenêtre sur le bassin méditerranéan et sur la diffusion de l’oléiculture vers l’Occident (C. Newton, C. Lorre, S. Ivorra et J.-F. Terral)

C – Examen pétrographique d’objets en pierre de Ras Shamra Ougarit du MAN

Commentaires sur certaines roches (C. Chanut)