Crafty Babylonians

Ancient Mesopotamian Materials and Industries
October 13, 1995

The jacket description of this extraordinary and elegant volume identifies it as the "first systematic attempt to survey in detail the archaeological evidence for the crafts and craftsmanship of the Sumerians, Babylonians and Assyrians in Ancient Mesopotamia, covering the period C. 8000-300bc."

This is a task from which any other scholar but P. R. S. Moorey would have run a mile, and it is probably true to say that no other scholar could have brought the project to so successful a conclusion. The publisher's claim is not exaggerated. The finished volume is encyclopedic, and is, quite simply, a standard work. What makes the achievement even more astonishing is that the book appears to have required a lifetime's efforts, but its quiet preparation has by no means inhibited a steady flow of major books, articles and reviews from the pen of its distinguished author.

The book has been divided into five broad categories after the introductory pages: stoneworking; bone, ivory and shell; ceramic and glassworking; metalworking; and building crafts. A vast quantity of information is assembled, and minutiae are culled from amazingly disparate sources, but all is assembled with clarity and presented as a succinct, fluent and lucid discussion (and sprinkled among the chapters are many charts and other types of summaries). Moorey writes superbly, and despite the difficult material of the subject the book is remarkably readable: dipping into it in pursuit of specific information leads one on easily to read further and more broadly. Once embarked on, say, wild boar's tusk, I read for pages about ivory and elephants without looking up for air. Perhaps only the reader who has himself considered making such a synthesis will be able fully to appreciate the exhaustive labour that lies behind such tidy, accessible presentations.

Textual sources have a great deal to offer in the history of Mesopotamian technology after about 3000bc, but this is a side of Assyriology that has been neglected to some extent. The orderly summary of what is known and what therefore still needs to be found out should prove a starting point for many other investigations and doctoral theses. In balancing evidence from texts and objects, Moorey rightly stresses that any "separation of sources is artificial and arbitrary", and it is characteristic of his work that written evidence is easily incorporated wherever possible, with an up-to-date bibliography.

A point at which this reviewer might perhaps demur is Moorey's slightly dismissive attitude towards the very few "procedural" cuneiform texts that have come down to us. These are essentially the chemical recipe texts, mainly devoted to the manufacture of glass. The author is explicitly sceptical of the value of such inscriptions as sources of hard information on technology, viewing them more as reflexes of the scribal tradition, in which the preoccupation was with vocabulary rather than ideas. This is overly pessimistic. Such procedural texts were never written for the complete tyro, but for the seasoned craftsman who needed additional details, or more specific information than that in general circulation.

Recent work by the reviewer in conjunction with Hero Granger-Taylor on a comparable cuneiform tablet containing recipes for dyeing wool (a topic admittedly outside the purview of Moorey's volume) presents a different picture: the tablet in question gives the reader full details as to the dye, mordant and procedure needed to effect a whole range of colours in prepared wool. This suggests that more work is needed on the recipe instructions to close the apparent gulf between the glass-making texts and the glass-making technology deduced from the surviving glass objects.

Moorey's book is essential on any bookshelf remotely concerned with antiquity; libraries will not hesitate; archaeologists of Mesopotamia will not pause; and even the most indigent student of the subject will never regret the transitory sacrifice of a few nights on the tiles to secure a copy.

Irving Finkel is an assistant keeper, department of western Asiatic antiquities, British Museum.

Ancient Mesopotamian Materials and Industries: The Archaeological Evidence

Author - P. R. S. Moorey
ISBN - 0 19 814921 2
Publisher - Clarendon Press, Oxford
Price - £65.00
Pages - 414

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