„He anointed himself with oil and became like men“ – together with eating bread and drinking beer, anointing accomplished the transformation of the wild man Enkidu into a civilized human, as we are told by the Epic of Gilgameš, the masterpiece of Mesopotamian literature.
In the early civilizations of Mesopotamia, oils and fats fulfilled basic human needs at the same level as food, housing, and clothes. Greasy substances protected the skin and the body. Other fats were also consumed, and some were used in crafts. Every person used oil for anointing, and the distribution of the valuable substance oil was carefully documented in thousands of cuneiform tablets. These texts written in the languages of Sumerian and Akkadian provide the primary data to reconstruct the production, distribution and consumption of oils and fats (Sumerian i₃, Akkadian šamnum) during the Early and Middle Bronze Age (3000–1600 BCE).
Oils and fats offer a unique insight into resource management: cows and goats provided milk for butter, pigs and sheep were slaughtered for lard and tallow, and fish oil was a by-product of fisheries in the marshes of Babylonia. Sesame was introduced from India in Mesopotamia in the 23rd century and became the standard oil plant cultivated there, whereas olives were grown in Syria. Almond oil was a valued import.
Technologies of oil production have been reconstructed from the textual evidence, most notably the milling of sesame oil and the manufacturing of butter. The project focuses both on urban societies and on ‚liminal‘ groups such as fishermen and herders as producers of oil, and it also includes the men and especially women of the courts as recipients of refined scented oils. The topic of oils and fats offers many fascinating and central aspects of the lifestyles and technologies in Bronze Age Iraq and Syria.
This Digitial Data Collection is an original project to present key data pertaining to oils and fats, derived from the wide-scattered assemblages of cuneiform tablets from many different sites and covering a period of one and a half millennia. The reader is invited to access the Digital Data Collection in different ways. Topics include general and detailed factual information on the various kinds of fats and oils, from production to consumption. Dossiers are files discussing textual sources pertaining to a specific topic at a certain place and time, considering archives, i. e. the ancient institutional collections of cuneiform texts. Glossaries of Akkadian and Sumerian terms and indexes of personal names provide information for the specialist, whereas the geographical map with the relevant sites provides more informal access.
The Digital Data Collection comprises data generated in a research project led by Grégory Chambon from EHESS Paris and Walther Sallaberger from LMU Munich and financed by DFG and ANR during the years 2020–2023 (project no. 430210716). Articles were also written by Anne-Isabelle Langlois, Paola Paoletti, and Manon Ramez. The database was developed and maintained by Veronika Gacia.
A monograph based on the materials offered on this website is currently (2023) in preparation.