The Netherlands Institute for the Near East

Nederlands Instituut voor het Nabije Oosten  -  Institut néerlandais du Proche-Orient

15 Aug 2023 Symposium

Silencing the Poor: abstracts

For the programme of the conference “Silencing the Poor”, held in Leiden on 17-19 November 2023, visit this page.

Reinhard Bernbeck (Freie Universität Berlin, Germany)

The two faces of political taphonomy

I will focus on the double character of political taphonomy. Originally defined as a process of fossilization, taphonomy consists of a dual dynamics: a process and an activity with a political dimension. Both contribute fundamentally to the possibility of remembering. One dimension is the decay of living beings and materials as well as their temporally different preservation in an archaeological context. I will address this traditional understanding of preservation of past lifeworlds and emphasize the political-economic character of visibilization. The second aspect of taphonomy is more metaphorical. It precedes the above and establishes conditions for the possibility of remembering. Power relations have a substantial share in the selective production of materiality. I argue that, despite all theoretical and methodological efforts, materialities of silencing have barely been addressed systematically in archaeology. I will particularly focus on cases where visibilization strategies enable us to detect the complete, irrevocable silencing of past people.

Susan Pollock (Freie Universität Berlin, Germany)

Approaching the marginalized in Mesopotamian archaeology

It is a truism that archaeology in Mesopotamia – and indeed in much of western Asia more generally – has been characterized by a focus on large sites and major architecture. For much of the 19th century, this was at least in part a result of excavators’ inabilities to recognize anything other than stone or baked brick architecture; the commonly used mudbrick or pisé construction materials went completely unrecognized. But even after Koldewey’s work at Babylon, which is often seen as the watershed that enabled the identification of ancient mud architecture, there was little apparent change in terms of a focus on the monumental and spectacular.

In this talk I wish to examine this claim more closely. Has there really been little or no interest in Mesopotamian archaeology in the lives and material remains of lower classes or otherwise marginalized groups in past societies? And if this is the case, why is this so? Is it primarily a methodological issue, or are there other underlying reasons?

Alexander Tamm (Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen, Germany)

From Riches to Rags – The Reuse of the Early Bronze Age Palace of Chuera

While the original architecture of a monumental/elite building often can be easily recorded on basis of building materials and techniques alone, the study of reuse layers of the very same building reveals various problems. Often less durable materials were used or new walls were significantly thinner resulting in a much faster succession of building layers. Also, the distinction between original and new building structures cannot always be clearly read from the archaeological evidence. Nevertheless, the study of reuse strata is a rewarding one, as it opens up the possibility of studying the economically lower spectra of the population of a settlement.

Using the example of the Early Bronze Age palace of Chuera, this talk will deal with the various problems of recording reuse layers as well as the possible outcome. While the original palace with an area of almost 3000 m2 is one of the largest buildings in Chuera and still reflects earlier questions related to the study of elite architecture, massive reuse layers were uncovered at the same time. These show that the life of a monumental building did not necessarily come to an end with its abandonment by the original builders, but was continued under different conditions. In case of Palace F, the new residents of the building belonged to a less wealthy population than the original builders. The palace was divided up and adapted to the living reality of the new residents. While the early phases of reuse show only restrained changes and a certain respect for the original building, the changes in the later layers are clearly more comprehensive and also include the dismantling of older parts of the building. All in all, a clear history of the building and its certainly very different inhabitants can be drawn.

Georg Cyrus (Leiden University, Netherlands)

Four steps towards creating ‘dark ages’ – The silencing of post-collapse societies

“Dark Ages” is a widely used term. Depending on the context, it can refer to the absence of data or a real de-urbanization and decentralization of society. It has for long been recognized, however, that the term Dark Age is constraining, as it degrades specific societies, and recently researchers have tried to deconstruct these narratives. Yet the term remains in the archaeological literature, and I argue that this is because “Dark Ages” are not entirely constructed by us archaeologists but also influenced by the core topic of this conference: Political Taphonomy. In order to investigate the impact of political taphonomy on post-collapse societies, I will look into post-imperial Assyrian society c. 600 to 500 BCE. This time has traditionally been understood as a Dark Age. I will pay particular attention to the architecture of squatter occupations in Neo-Assyrian settlements. To show how political taphonomy affects our own research biases, I will utilize the four steps of silencing people of the past established by Michel-Rolph Trouillot (In Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, 1995). I will reformulate his ideas in order to fit the archaeological record and then follow the squatter occupation from their establishment to their eventual omission in archaeological narrations. By highlighting the interconnectedness of the creation of the source in the first place and its later re-creation as archaeological data, I show where there are starting points to counteract political taphonomy and research biases.

Sarah Schrader (Leiden University, Netherlands) & Veronica Tamorri (Leiden University, Netherlands)

Post-Mortem Political Taphonomy: Mortuary Contexts and Human Skeletal Remains in Bronze Age Nubia

The argument that the architecture, written sources, and material remains of those in positions of sociopolitical power or of an elite socioeconomic status preferentially preserve, can logically be extended into a post-mortem space. Using examples from the Kushite culture of ancient Nubia (ca. 2500-1500 BCE), we will contrast the royal necropolis at Kerma to the more suburban cemetery at Abu Fatima (northern Sudan). We discuss how status, power, and preservation intersect with tomb type, grave goods, grave re-entry, excavation, and curation. Furthermore, we argue that the implications of political taphonomy extend beyond funerary structures, to the very bodies that occupy them. In addition to the lack of archaeological attention, skeletal remains of the subaltern may be more prone to post-mortem damage. This could potentially significantly bias our data, directly impacting osteological interpretations of health, disease, and lifeways in the past. While great strides have been made in Nubian archaeology to focus on non-elite contexts, we also discuss—is this enough? And what else can be done to achieve a more representative sample of the past?

Mahsa Najafi (University of Tehran, Iran) & Reza Naseri (University of Zabol, Iran)

Tracing the concept of political taphonomy in Deh Dumen cemetery in Iran

There are inequalities in the ancient cemeteries, in the grave goods and their structures. The cemeteries are one of the best areas which can lead us to know about the different social classes in a society. Excavation in cemeteries is done by more focus on finding the graves with more grave goods and huge structures since they expect to find more and better-preserved objects to be taken to the museums. In the other hand there are some simple graves, in some cases with less or even no objects. The structures of such graves are not very strong and in some cases the collapse of grave roof or walls causes the human remains and objects be broken faster than usual.

Deh Dumen graveyard with 42 graves belongs to nomadic societies (Bronze Age) with 2 types of grave structures which is in relation with the importance of those persons in the society and attempt to keep the human remains and belongings of those people on a good way deliberately after death. On the other hand, there are simple graves which has been destructed, in most of the cases because they are very close to the surface and are found and destructed easily during farming activities. In some cases, these graves are safe, and the big structures are looted more, and the simple graves miss attention of the looters. These elements have been taken into consideration in this research to find out more how “political taphonomy” can affect the archaeological discoveries in the ancient graveyards.

Sepideh Jamshidi Yeganeh (Oxford University, England)

Political taphonomy in the Blachak cemetery

Archaeology is the study of past societies through material cultures. As more permanent objects and features are made at higher levels of a society, they provide the main source of information. Through political taphonomy, the term that is suggested by Reinhard Bernbeck, archaeologists can usually describe the significant events and people who have the resources to become permanent in history. In cemeteries, however, the situation is slightly different. No matter who a person was, graves are the last place for their bodies. Archaeologists must work on graves before understanding what they will find during excavation in a cemetery. Therefore, it is unavoidable to reach people regardless of their social status. As a result, all people are the subjects of the study after excavation in a grave, and they are important to understanding the variations in social status in ancient times. The purpose of this study is to understand different socioeconomic levels in an Iron age society in north-west Iran. The Blachak cemetery has some graves with special structures containing several burial gifts, while others are simple pit graves, and in some cases, there are no gifts. In Iron Age I and II, no weapons have been found at this cemetery, indicating that it was used by ordinary people living in peace, but in varying degrees of wealth.

Morteza Khanipour (Silk Road international University, Uzbekistan)

Archaeological survey and social ranks in Fars cultural zone

Located in the southwest of Iran, the Fars cultural zone encompasses a large part of the country and systematic archaeology began to be conducted here with the excavation of Persepolis. The study of archaeology has been influenced by political taphonomy in the form of monuments such as palaces, shrines and large cities that are symbols of political power. In addition to the above sites, excavations have also led to the discovery of prehistoric sites in these regions. There have been several prehistoric sites excavated on the Marvdasht plain. These sites have served as a basis for chronology sequencing and interpreting Fars' prehistoric cultures. There has been extensive research about Fars' political centers, but the everyday lives of ordinary people have received less attention. An archaeological survey is the first step in identifying ancient sites, examining all evidence related to past societies, regardless of political ties. Through the study of material cultures obtained from several fieldworks, I seek to gain a comprehensive understanding of past societies regardless of their political status. Surveys and excavations provide data about settlement patterns, burials, and rock art that allows us to compare the lives of elites and ordinary people in the past.

Keywords: Political taphonomy, Fars cultural zone, settlement pattern, Burial, Rock art

Azer Keskin (İstanbul Bilgi University)

Political Taphonomy of Iron Age Mesopotamia

This contribution will consider those who lived on the margins of the matrices of power in Iron Age Mesopotamia through the example of the people who were deported by the Neo-Assyrian empire.

Although the number of these people were great, their traces in the archaeological record are extremely limited. They were displaced and dispossessed through the process of deportation, so their materiality was disrupted during their lifetimes and an imperial materiality was imposed on them. In contrast, the traces of this imperial materiality are abundant, with all kinds of remains from sherds of hard-fired, mass-produced wheel-made pottery in standard forms to remains of stone monuments and even whole new cities built by the forced labor of deportees.

Still, traces of deportees exist. A number of small, single-period sites dating to the Neo-Assyrian period in the ecologically marginal area of the Wadi Ajij in eastern Syria is a case in point. The spatial distribution of these sites, the settlement history of the area, textual evidence from stelae and Assyrian inscriptions indicate that these were deportee settlements. A spatial analysis of these sites using survey data gives us a picture of the relationships between different groups of deportees and the kind of structural violence they suffered at their destination.

Andrea Squitieri (Ludwig-Maximilian University of Munich, Germany)

Agricultural activities and everyday life in the Neo-Assyrian Empire

Agricultural activities were an essential part of people’s everyday life as they were at the basis of people’s subsistence. These activities were at the same time essential to the maintenance of the imperial economy as the Assyrian Empire depended on agricultural output to collect taxes, feed cities, as well as the army. Farming activities, therefore, can be a useful perspective to investigate the impact of the imperial policies on people’s everyday life. In this paper I will gather information from both surveys and excavations with a focus on farm-sites, common houses, and ground stone tools, the latter being used to produce bread flour. I will show what changes occurred in common people’s lifestyles and the tools they used to process food that can be related to the imperial presence and the Assyrian Empire’s economic needs. Regional differences will also be highlighted that can be cast light on the different levels of pervasiveness that the empires exerted on local societies.

Johnny Samuele Baldi (French National Centre for Scientific Research, France)

De-silencing the poor by taking seriously their ways of doing things. Ceramic workshops and labour organisation in Bronze Age northern Mesopotamia

Early states Mesopotamia, between 3rd and 2nd millennium BCE, is traditionally studied as a series of socio-economic and political top-down oriented constructions by dynasties, templar hierarchies, military elites and scribal bureaucracies. At that period, ceramic production was for the first time concentrated in vast specialised manufacturing areas, becoming part of the activities managed by central administrations. But of the workers of these factories, bearers of complex techniques and cutting-edge pyro-technologies, almost nothing is known. Their task was so humble and socially unacknowledged that the rare written economic sources are about the products (pots) and not about the craftspeople, while, generally, the term for “potter” is absent even from the Sumerian and Akkadian terminological lists of trades and professions. How, then, can we investigate the labour organisation of such miserable people, who were nevertheless at the heart of complex historical and economic dynamics?

Recent excavations at Logardan (Iraqi Kurdistan) yielded the largest Mesopotamian set of remains about pottery manufacture and open up a brand new perspective on the history and organization of the first large-scale ceramics factories. This paper aims at showing how a techno-spatial analysis of the ceramic chaînes opératoires can allow an extensive study on the evolution of the organisational patterns of these workspaces, making it possible to trace the spatial and social relationships between the potters who worked at Logardan over several centuries.

Bleda Düring (Leiden University, Netherlands)

Identifying Sub-Alterns in the Early Assyrian Empire: A Perspective from the Periphery

Empires create unique social configurations in which people from various social back grounds are mixed and find themselves living and working together with people that have very different religious and cultural practices. The Assyrian Empire is a prime example of this type of social engineering in which depopulation, deportation, colonisation, and mixing of peoples were deliberate practices, and in which those that were considered to have been ‘Assyrian’ – both elites and commoners - clearly had a superior status to sub-altern populations, even if in practice this boundary was not clear-cut and open to manipulations.

The archaeological visibility of the Assyrian imperial project is heavily biased towards the metropolitan Assyrian society, which left a clear imprint in specific imperial landscapes, such as the Balikh and the Lower Khabur, and sub-altern populations are less well represented in the assemblages recovered. However, a more in depth engagement with archaeological reveals practices and objects that are decidedly non-Assyrian and can be linked with sub-altern populations. Centring on the Tell Sabi Abyad dataset, I will consider some of these sub-altern practices and objects occurring in the periphery of the early Assyrian Empire.

Birgül Öğüt (German Archaeological Institut, Germany) & Doğa Karakaya (Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen, Germany)

Taphonomy in archaeobotany and how it might help to detect the ‘silenced’

Natural taphonomy is an elementary component of archaeobotanical research whereby the particular modes of preservation are an indispensable variable for the formation of macrobotanical assemblages in archaeology. For phytolith research, natural taphonomy is somewhat more merciful, since these inorganic microparticles are mineral and comparatively better preserved. Combined investigation of both methods with the consideration of taphonomic processes, can offer a tremendous gain in scientific knowledge on ancient plant use.

In this paper, we will demonstrate our previous work on Syro-Hittite city-states during Iron Age II. These petty kingdoms, emerged after the collapse of the Hittite Empire, are mostly known through iconography, textual records, architecture which basically elucidate the life of the richer part of the population in detail. However, hardly anything can be said about the larger part of the population which are not represented in social hierarchy of the Syro-Anatolian kingdoms. According to us, this lack of evidence is not exclusively related to natural taphonomy but the political taphonomy, which is influenced by the interest of various past and present actors, and this exclusively determines what is worth investigating. Therefore, we would like to focus on the contextual understanding of everyday life of the “silenced” to show the interconnectedness between plants and people.