Vegetable oils and animal fats, their production, management and usage

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Dossiers & Archives

Dossiers discuss data related to topics from single archives of cuneiform tablets


Editions of key documents regarding topics of oils and fats

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Glossaries & Indexes

Sumerian and Akkadian oil-related terms, names of Individuals, and a map indicating the sites and regions

Oils and fats (Sumerian i₃, Akkadian šamnum) fulfil basic human needs at the same level as food, housing, and clothes: since greasy substances are indispensable to protect the skin especially in an arid climate. The basic importance of oil and fat for a human culture is reflected most prominently in the masterpiece of Mesopotamian literature, the epic of Gilgamesh: after eating bread and drinking beer, the wild man Enkidu became a human man after having anointed himself. Anointing as a daily practice is well-known from Mesopotamian cuneiform sources, and archaeologically, the special vessels used for oil are widely distributed. Although oil is one of the most common processed products in Syro-Mesopotamia, such as beer, bread or wine, it has never been investigated as a product in its social and cultural context. This project evaluates first the exceptionally rich available textual evidence mostly from administrative archives, between c. 2500 and 1600 BCE, and discusses all kinds of animal fats (milkfat, lard, etc.) and vegetable oils (sesame, olive, rarely almonds) attested there.

Building on previous studies on specific aspects of their terminology, production, circulation and use, this project’s goal is to provide an innovative coherent description of the successive steps (“chaîne opératoire”) from production to consumption as a whole, an approach which has not been systematically adopted for these periods. In particular, the management of oil in the urban centers is reflected in the enormous administrative record from early Syro-Mesopotamia, an exceptional source material to investigate economical procedures in their societal context at various selected historical situations. The project focuses on the precise information on the qualities of oil and, above all, on absolute and relative quantities indicated in the cuneiform documentation. This approach paves the way for an integration of the data from textual sources into archaeological, archaeometric, and archaeobotanic investigationsBoth applicants have worked and published on administrative texts, their terminology, and especially quantitative aspects.