FRAL - Appel Franco-allemand en sciences humaines et sociales

i3/šamnum: Vegetable oils and animal fats in early urban societies of Syro-Mesopotamia – production, distribution and usage – i3.MesopOil


Vegetable oils and animal fats in early urban societies of Syro-Mesopotamia – production, distribution and usage


More than 100,000 documents found in Mesopotamia originate from the third millennium, the Early Bronze Age. Of the approximately 30,000 documents of the Old Babylonian period, the Middle Bronze Age, about half are archival documents. <br />The project focuses on this enormous wealth of data provided by the administrative texts, and combines this with the archaeological record, with relevant representations in the contemporaneous imagery, and with literary sources or the testimony of letters. Administrative documents were written to record transfers or inventories in precise historical situations: the texts are dated, they name the individuals involved in this procedure, and they identify exactly the quality and the quantity of the product. In this regard, the textual record from early Syro-Mesopotamia is exceptional for an ancient culture and it provides a wealth of data for a wide-spread product such as oil. Until now, terminology and administrative processes have been at the centre of research, and on this basis our project can now explore a specific topic, oils and fats, in its management as well as in its social setting.<br />Therefore, since the production, distribution and consumption of oil are closely interlinked, the novelty of the project is to study the whole chaîne opératoire of oil (with a strong interdisciplinary component of archaeology and archaeometry). It starts with the primary production of oil from vegetable or animal sources, where we begin with the extraction of oil, i.e. the proportion of milk fat in the milk, the pressing of sesame oil, etc.).<br />Distribution and storage are closely interlinked with both production and consumption. We are mainly interested in the supply of oils to the palace or to other organisations that store oil. The vessel sizes attested in the texts contribute essentially to interpret archaeological findings and facilitate chemical analyses. <br />In the discussion on consumption, we intend to obtain a more precise idea of the flow of goods, concentrating on the quantification of the respective oils and fats. <br />For a study of an ubiquitous product such as oil, cooperation between specialists is indispensable. In this regard, the cooperation between the German and the French team allows to cover all relevant archives and to cross-reference the information from epigraphic or archaeological sources. The two coordinators share a common understanding of up-to-date research:<br />- to study material culture based on the textual record, informed by archaeological research and the input from science (archaeobotany, palaeoanatomy, chemical analysis) <br />- to analyse in detail the quantitative data given in administrative texts<br />- to describe the technical terminology of the texts according to the context of use<br />- to integrate the administration back into its social context and to study administrative documents as testimonies of “daily life”<br />- to conduct (anthropologically informed) studies of materials as embedded in their culture

Two full research positions at the postdoc level with a very good knowledge of cuneiform and Sumerian or Akkadian texts, especially administrative texts, are needed for the project. Each postdoc is supervised by a PI/coordinator who actively contributes to the project. The main task is to work through cuneiform sources, archives (the written testimonies of a certain organization), dossiers (i.e. thematic series within archives) or individual documents concerning the topic.
A constant communication between the two complementary teams is obligatory for a successful work. A coordinated approach of the various topics and a constant monitoring of the results is absolutely necessary to increase the project’s quality substantially. In order to implement these advantages of cooperation under the condition of spatial separation, a web-based working platform must be set up.
Only in a web-based working platform, each member of the two research teams can follow the progress of the work in real time. In addition, each scholar, the postdocs as well the PIs/coordinators can sign her or his
article and thus personally document his or her scholarly contributions – an important aspect for the two postdocs as scholars early in their careers who are in need of a strong publication record.
The organisation of the database makes it easy to understand the individual steps. The postdocs and the PIs/coordinators edit the cuneiform sources and prepare their presentation. The individual sources are then linked to various topics (production, distribution, consumption) in the «Thematic Survey« and the «Glossary«. In this way, relevant results are recorded immediately during the study of the sources, and on the other hand, each step can be traced up to the very end of the project. Furthermore, each single source can be used for different aspects of our work, even it was initially studied for a specific question.
In addition to the database, a website will be set up as soon as possible to inform about the project (“Home”), to introduce the people (“People”), to announce news such as workshops (“News”). The database itself (“Project”), developed during the project, will be put online at the end of the elaboration (without the internal comments and discussions). In this way, all researchers, students or interested laypersons who wish to find out more about early uses of oil will be able to quickly identify essential results.
For the exchange between specialists, two workshops are planned for the respective work section.
Essential information resulting from the study of the sources will be presented in short commentaries in the respective sections of the database (the procedure is: production – consumption – distribution).
This is the necessary preparatory work for the final monograph, in which all four authors (2 coordinators, 2 postdocs) together summarize the essential results.

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. This project allows to combine the expertise in Sumerian documents (Early Bronze Age) of the German team with that in Old Babylonian (Middle Bronze Age) of the French team, and it integrates interdisciplinary cooperation partners for ceramic, archaeometric, archaeozoological and archaebotanic data. Two further approaches are embedded in this project as essential components: an archaeological study of oil-vessles, and a lipid residue analysis of ceramics from Southern Iraq. The digital expertise is provided by the IT Gruppe of LMU Munich. (2689 characters)

Project coordination

Grégory Chambon (Anthropologie et Histoire des Mondes Antiques)

The author of this summary is the project coordinator, who is responsible for the content of this summary. The ANR declines any responsibility as for its contents.


ANHIMA Anthropologie et Histoire des Mondes Antiques
LMU Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität
ANHIMA Anthropologie et Histoire des Mondes Antiques

Help of the ANR 200,222 euros
Beginning and duration of the scientific project: May 2020 - 36 Months

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