By Agnese Vacca, Luca Peyronel, and Claudia Wachter-Sarkady
In antiquity, like today, humans needed a wide range of medicines, but until recently there has been little direct archaeological evidence for producing medicines. That evidence, however, also suggests that Near Eastern palaces may have been in the pharmaceutical business.
Most of the medical treatments documented in Ancient Near Eastern cuneiform texts dating to the 3rd-1st millennium BCE consisted of herbal remedies, but correlating ancient names with plant species remains very difficult. Medical texts describe ingredients and recipes to treat specific symptoms and to produce desired effects, such as emetics, purgatives, and expectorants. Plants were cooked, dried or crushed and mixed with carriers such as water, wine, beer, honey or milk —also to make them tastier. Indeed, plants used in medicine were often toxic or unpalatable and were not consumed as food. For several plant species it appears difficult to ascertain whether they were used as pharmacological remedies, psychoactive substances, or both. For some specific diseases (such as impotence) both therapeutic and magical treatments are documented, and in most cases a clear distinction between the two cannot be made.
Very few archaeological contexts excavated in the Ancient Near East have revealed clear evidence of medical plants remains and associated processing installations. The oldest is from Ebla, the capital of an important kingdom during the late Early Bronze Age (c. 2450-2300 BCE). Its political and economic relations with other regional centers of Syria and Mesopotamia (such as Mari, Kish and Nagar), and its administration have been reconstructed thanks to the discovery of thousands of cuneiform documents from the State Archives. The excavations carried out by the Italian Archaeological Expedition, headed since 1964 by Paolo Matthiae of Sapienza University of Rome, revealed a large palatial complex (Royal Palace G), so far excavated over 4.500 square meters.
Palace G, like other Early Bronze Age palaces in Syria and Mesopotamia, had units devoted to different functions, including for storing primary products and preparing food, as well as administrative and residential sectors. In the Royal Palace of Ebla, beside the Administrative Quarter (with the cuneiform archives and the ‘treasury’), sectors devoted to primary products were brought to light. Several specialized rooms were equipped with benches, basalt slabs, and installations for pressing olives and milling cereals. Moreover, hundreds of vessels, including cooking pots, storage jars and tablewares were found in their original position at the time of the final destruction of the palace (around 2300 BCE).
The great quantities of food resources collected by the central administration were processed to prepare meals for the royal family and the royal court, or to be redistributed as food rations and wages for the palace’s employees. Cuneiform texts from the royal archives which mention squads of flour female millers (named ‘dam kikken’) under the control of overseers, allow us to imagine these workspaces occupied by dozens of squatting women grinding cereals.
But a completely different picture emerges from one of the palace’s rooms, located in a very peculiar position, at the bottom of the Monumental Stairway in close proximity to the Court of Audience. The room was equipped with at least eight fireplaces, and several cooking pots were found in place over the hearths, and smashed above the floor. Analysis of the jars’ contents, and botanical remains scattered all over the room, show that the majority of species processed in the kitchen were wild herbs.
If this room had been a “normal kitchen” we would expect large quantities of food plants, and faunal remains. But only small amounts of food plants (21.6%) and almost no animal bones were collected, whereas a large amount of non-food species (78.4%), such as spurges, was identified in this room.
The discovery of a great quantity of spurges (Euphorbiaceae), together with other wild plant remains such as calendula, chamomile, poppy, cleavers, hawthorn, heliotrope in the ‘kitchen” of Royal Palace G at Ebla, presents an exceptional case study.
The discovery of seeds and stems of wild herbs show that various parts of plants were used including flowers, leaves and roots. Dark burnt, solid incrustations, thin in section, and with a melted and glossy appearance (sometimes with bubbles), have been found inside the jars and at the bottom of the hearts. These incrustations are residues from different processes such as resin extraction (Euphorbia, in particular, exudes a milky resinous latex), or boiling plants in water, with the addition of olive oil or honey, in order to prepare medicinal drinks, infusions, or anointments.
Resin extraction could be obtained with a simple melting process: the latex of Euphorbia, which is water-soluble, is heated in water and the insoluble resin melts and rises to the surface to be skimmed off. The rest collects at the bottom of the vessel. After separation the resin hardens when exposed to air. Dried latex (Euphorbium) is still used as a drug in African countries, and extracts of Euphorbiaceae, which have anti-inflammatory, analgesic, antioxidant and antimicrobial properties, are used today in alternative medicine in Europe. Overall, the wild species found in the kitchen grow naturally in semi-arid zones, where important families of medicinal plants are documented.
The quantity of products that could have been processed within the kitchen, using all eight hearths, and pots having a capacity from 40 to 70 liters, is remarkable. The combined presence of wild plants with medicinal or stimulant properties, the fire installations, the high number of vessels, and the very location of the kitchen, underlines the uniqueness of this room.
Processing and Consuming Plants: Medicinal or Other Uses?
Unfortunately we do not have clear references to the use of stimulants in texts from Ebla, although some ceremonies imply ritual consumption of foods and beverages during convivial occasions. The proximity of the kitchen to the official sector of the palace suggests that it was used to prepare beverages for special occasions in relation with reception and ceremonial activities. We have also suggested that some plants attested in the ‘kitchen’ have psychoactive properties and were used for the extraction of resins and preparation of beverages.
On the other hand, the processing of vegetal substances to prepare medical remedies is equally plausible, and well attested in ancient pharmaceutical texts. An extraordinary tablet from Palace G quotes several medicinal plants used for gastrointestinal, dermatological, and gall bladder diseases, and notes their exact doses and the therapy. Although the correlation of plant species and ancient plant names remains a difficult task, it has been recently suggested that the eblaic term gišne-gi-ba-tum may be interpreted as euphorbia. The term recurs in a cuneiform document mentioning the purchase of the medicinal plant by a man from the Royal entourage in exchange for a large amount of wool. Besides Euphorbiaceae some 34 other different taxa with medicinal properties were found, though in lower numbers. The beverages produced in “kitchen” L.2890 may have been used as pharmacological remedies for members of the royal court.
In addition to difficulty in ascertaining whether the beverages produced in the kitchen were used as pharmacological remedies or stimulants, there was no clear separation between medical and magical spheres in the Ancient Near East. Medical texts can prescribe both medical (asûtu) and magical treatments (āšipūtu), fulfilled by physicians (asum) and exorcists (masmassum or wāšipum). It is nevertheless interesting to speculate about the role of the palace, which was probably in the business of purchase and processing large quantities of herbs (a sort of ‘big pharma’?), expanding our notion of 3rd millennium BCE institutions.
Agnese Vacca is Research Fellow at the Sapienza - University of Rome. Luca Peyronel is Associate Professor at the IULM University of Milan, and Claudia Wachter-Sarkady is Archaeobotanist at the Ludwig-Maximilians University of Munich.
For further reading
Abusch, T. and Van der Toorn, K. (eds). 1999. Mesopotamian Magic. Textual, Historical, and Interpretative Perspectives. AMD 1. Groningen.
Catagnoti, A. 2013. On Euphorbia at Ebla, in Jars and perhaps in Texts, Nouvelles Assyriologiques Brèves et Utilitaires 4: 98-99.
Fonzaroli, P., 1988. A Pharmaceutical Text at Ebla (TM.75.G.1623), Zeitschrift für Assyrologie 88: 225-239.
Peyronel, L., Vacca, A., Wachter-Sarkady, C. 2014. Food and Drink preparation at Ebla, Syria. New data from the Royal Palace G (c. 2400-2300 BC)”, Food & History 12/3, pp. 3–36.
Stein, D. 2017. The Role of Stimulants in Early Near Eastern Society. Insights through Artifacts and Texts, in Heffron, Y. Stone, A. and M. Worthington, (eds), At the Dawn of History Ancient Near Eastern Studies in Honour of J. N. Postgate, Eisenbrauns, Winona Lake: 507-533.
Wachter-Sarkady, C. 2013, Consuming Plants. Archaeobotanical Samples from Royal Palace G and Building P4, in P. Matthiae and N. Marchetti (eds), Ebla and its Landscape. Early State Formation in the Ancient Near East, Walnut Creek: Left Coast Press, 376-402.
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