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“A Bathtub Murder”: (Re)Investigating Mesopotamian Bathtub Coffins

Posted in: AIAR, ASOR
Tags: AIAR, ASOR, Bathtub Murder, East Carolina University, Humanities, Laura Mazow, Mesopotamia
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By: Laura B. Mazow, East Carolina University
National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow
W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research

Laura Mazow

Laura Mazow

Bath-shaped basins dated to the Bronze and Iron Ages, discovered in both burial and habitation contexts, have been interpreted as either burial coffins or bathing tubs that reflect immigration or elite emulation of foreign traditions. I have previously proposed that Bronze Age bath-shaped basins were used for processing wool. My current research focuses on Iron II bath-shaped examples, referred to as ‘Mesopotamian bathtub coffins.’ My hypothesis is that these also had a primary function in crafts production, possibly wool processing as with the Bronze Age examples.

Why do I suggest wool processing? My hypothesis is based on contextual associations between Bronze Age bath-shaped basins and textile equipment, and architectural similarities to Roman period wool fulling workshops. Fulling, the technique of matting a woolen textile to form a finished fabric, is a technological improvement in textile production that creates a stronger weave. Roman sources document that fullers treaded wool in tubs of warm water and a detergent, such as stale urine or fuller’s earth. Written documents from as early as Neo-Sumerian Mesopotamia are replete with references to professional fullers and fulled wool, yet no Bronze or Iron Age fulling establishment has ever been recognized in the archaeological record. Fulleries have been identified in the classical world, but the fuller and his craft are virtually unknown in earlier contexts. Is fulling part of the textile production sequence that we have missed in the archaeological record, or are the fuller’s tools and equipment invisible to the archaeologist’s eye? Perhaps, as I propose, these bath-shaped basins are actually the remains of the fuller’s toolkit.

This project is part of a multi-faceted research design that tests the hypothesis that bath-shaped installations reflect the archaeological visibility of wool fulling. My objective this spring was a contextual study of the Iron II examples. A concurrent study compares ancient, historic and ethnographic installations for residue and use-wear patterns. Together, this research should fill in the gaps between early textual references to fulling and evidence for fulling in the Classical World. In the end, my research objective is to investigate the impact of technological change in textile production on the Late Bronze and Iron Age (1400-500 BCE) economies of the Near East and eastern Mediterranean.

At this point I have been able to document that more Iron II bath-shaped basins have been found in non-burial contexts than burial, and I suggest that burial context is an example of their  secondary use. A comparison of the Mesopotamian and southern Levantine burial contexts reflects similarity only in the amount of variation that both assemblages demonstrate—burials in bath-shaped basins are found together with other burial forms and in both intra- and extra-mural locations.  I have also observed that the southern Levantine assemblage of bath-shaped basins differs from the common Mesopotamian form—the majority of those in the southern Levant have handles and are more triangular in shape.

The association between Iron Age bath-shaped installations and the textile industry is not as clear as it is in the Bronze Age. Eventually I hope to conclusively demonstrate that these installations were best suited for crafts manufacture. If so, Assyrian palaces and monumental residencies may have served in part as production centers. A similar perspective is currently applied in the Aegean, where Mycenaean palaces are recognized as crafts production centers. The presence of bath-shaped installations in the southern Levant, then, could be understood, not as reflecting foreign bathing etiquette or burial traditions, but the technological transfer of a new industrial technology.

The opportunity to conduct research at the Albright has been extremely beneficial and I thank the AIAR director and staff for providing an enriching and rewarding experience, and the NEH for supporting my research.

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