Online Review: Book

Gräber und Grüfte in Assur. Vol. 1, Von der zweiten Hälfte des 3. bis zur Mitte des 2. Jahrtausends v. Chr.


By Daniel Hockmann (WVDOG 129). Pp. vi + 170, figs. 53, pls. 121, tables 10. Harrassowitz, Wiesbaden 2010. €78. ISBN 978-3-447-06220-6 (cloth).

The site of Ashur, some 60 km south of Mosul in northern Iraq, has one of the most beautiful landscape settings in Mesopotamia, on an outcrop above the Tigris River with a sweeping view to north and east. The settlement was established by the mid third millennium B.C.E. and occupied continuously through the late first millennium B.C.E., with subsequent Parthian and Islamic inhabitations. Ashur had particular political and religious importance in the first millennium B.C.E., initially as the regional capital and later as the traditional birthplace of the Neo-Assyrian dynasty and burial place of some of its kings. After brief exploration in the late 1880s by Austen Henry Layard, formal excavations were first undertaken by the Deutsche Orient-Gesellschaft from 1903 to 1914. This was followed by excavation and restoration by the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities in the 1970s–1980s, further excavations by teams from the Free University of Berlin and the University of Munich from 1988 to 1990, and finally limited excavations by Iraqi and German archaeologists from 1998 to 2002. This long history of occupation and excavations has left a complex settlement landscape and an equally complex array of excavation techniques, goals, and documentation.

This volume presents 71 graves of the mid third through mid second millennia B.C.E., excavated from 1903 to 1914. The third and early second millennia B.C.E. saw dramatic political developments across Mesopotamia, especially the shift from independent competitive city-states to expansive territorial states. The region's political trajectory is best known from Sumer and Akkad in southern Iraq, but Ashur is a key site for understanding how this trajectory played out in the north. After initial independence, the city was nominally under the control of the southern dynasties of Akkad and Ur III at the end of the third millennium. But in the early second millennium, under the Old Assyrian kings and then Shamshi-Adad's short-lived kingdom of Upper Mesopotamia and its successors, Ashur regained political independence and economic power. These political developments were mirrored by trends in material culture. In the third millennium B.C.E., Ashur's art and architectural styles were heavily influenced by contemporary assemblages of southern Mesopotamia, but in the second millennium, its art and architecture lay entirely within a northern cultural sphere. This shift is well documented in these graves.

This volume is a useful companion to Haller's Gräber und Grüfte von Assur (Berlin 1954). Haller's publication covers all periods at Ashur, including the third–early second millennia B.C.E., but it especially focuses on Middle and Neo-Assyrian graves. Hockmann's volume includes some of the same earlier graves but analyzes these in greater detail, as well as adding others. It is one in a series of final reports on Ashur, including reanalyses of the palace and the Sin-Shamash and Ishtar temples, plus studies of Neo-Assyrian kings' graves, alabaster vessels, and ivory objects; there is a parallel series on texts. A study of the ceramics from the Ishtar temple and CTS (area C, Tiefschnitt) sounding has also recently appeared in the form of a digital dissertation (C. Beuger, "Keramik der spätfrühdynastischen bis spätassyrischen zeit aus Assur," Ph.D. diss., Free University of Berlin [2007] [ 2007])—an example of best practice in accessible publication. Together, these publications are an impressive resource for study of the material culture assemblages and monumental architecture of northern Mesopotamia.

The structure of this book remains traditional, including a summary of excavations at Ashur (ch. 2), discussion of grave forms (ch. 3), and sections on classes of grave goods: ceramics, metal vessels, stone vessels, pins, jewelry, seals, figurines, weapons, and tools (ch. 4, sections A–G). A comprehensive catalogue by grave and concordances is included. Plans of graves and their contexts (where known) and groups of grave goods appear in plates at the back. However, a comparison of the current and 1954 volumes shows how Mesopotamian archaeology has matured. Haller's work is dominated by simple description and dating, although Hrouda's afterword raises issues of burial ceremonies not preserved in the archaeological record and the question of how grave goods were selected. In Hockmann's volume, descriptions of grave goods are surrounded by close analyses of meaning, particularly effective in the discussion of jewelry and its symbolic uses. His introduction and chapter 1 outline developments in the study of ancient graves in the Near East and beyond, from chronological ordering and ethnic identification through exploration of the meaning of death, nature of the afterlife, and presentation of social identities. Taphonomic issues of biases in preservation and the problems of reinterpreting graves excavated decades ago are also addressed. There is thoughtful discussion of burial ritual as both a social occasion for public expression of ideology and a private occasion for reflection on the dead's becoming an ancestor. As well as referencing archaeological theory on death, burial, and commemoration, the author incorporates relevant ancient textual material throughout, including discussion of the kispu ritual and inclusion of relevant texts and terms for ritual personnel, graves, and the afterlife.

Flaws are few and minor. The presentation of data at times lacks conclusions (e.g., in discussion of metal vessels' tin and arsenic composition). The information is presented in detail, but the significance of variations in composition is left unremarked. While the sample is small and the acknowledged problem of heirloom retention is significant, the avoidance of conclusions in some ways casts the study into a traditional mode of data presentation for its own sake. There are some sections where plate references are omitted (e.g., metal vessels and weapons), making for a frustrating hunt through the plates for relevant images. In addition, the arrangement of the plates, by grave number based on order of Ashur number, prevents easy comparison among graves of the same date and between groups of graves of different periods. However, the main aspects of these burials that remain missing are not the author's fault, given the style of excavation and documentation from the early 1900s. For robust study of social personae, identifications of age and sex are necessary. And while information on the objects and formats of the graves were scrupulously collected at the time of excavation, skeletal analysis was virtually unknown. The age of the dead was assigned by size; sex was assigned based on subjective assessment of grave goods.

The book is well organized and clearly illustrated, with reworked drawings of many objects and clear reproductions of old photographs. The most interesting chapter is the conclusion, which covers the dating of the graves, their political setting, site contexts, contents, and reflections on funerary rituals. It is a shame that this chapter was not placed first, to draw in the less-specialized reader and to remind the specialist of larger research questions and of the enormous capacity of Ashur to contribute to them. Ashur is currently on the UNESCO List of World Heritage in Danger. In the early 2000s, plans were developed for a hydroelectric project, the Makhul Dam, which would have flooded Ashur and its region. This project is now on hold, but threats to the site from looting, erosion, and development continue, as they do for the wider archaeological heritage of Iraq. The publication of earlier excavations, of which this book forms such a useful part, reemphasizes this ongoing cultural tragedy.

Augusta McMahon
Department of Archaeology
University of Cambridge
Downing Street
Cambridge CB2 3DZ
United Kingdom

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1154.McMahon

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