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The Anatomy of a Mesopotamian City: Survey and Soundings at Mashkan-shapir.

The Anatomy of a Mesopotamian City: Survey and Soundings at Mashkan-shapir. By ELIZABETH C. STONE and PAUL ZIMANSKY. Winona Lake, Indiana: EISENBRAUNS, 2004. Pp. xviii + 504, illus. $69.50.

An archaeological expedition to Maskan-sapir: eighty-four surveyed hectares, five months of excavation, four "small" soundings, one ongoing international war, and fourteen years elapsing between the close of fieldwork and the publication of the major 504-page report on a site which, by press-time, no longer existed thanks to wholesale looting. A bittersweet success, Stone and Zimansky's report was forced over the long term to reinvent its short-term surface survey strategy as a kind of salvage archaeology.

The choice of Maskan-sapir was intended to compensate for an enduring problem in Mesopotamian archaeology, our inability to gain a "snapshot" of how a Babylonian city was laid out in its entirety "in one place, at one time"--and what that urban form indicated about its social and economic life. (Perhaps only one greater outstanding need exists: the ongoing lack of excavated non-urban sites.) In finding a generally even distribution of objects across the site betokening status, luxury, and production, the authors conclude that a "heterarchical" socio-economic arrangement prevailed at the intrasite level, with a "lack of distinction between the residential areas of rich and poor" (p. 380). This finding would contradict models in which social inequality and institutional dominance were inscribed on the Mesopotamian urban landscape through the segregation of elites from non-elites in different city quarters.

Whether one accepts the excavators' conclusion depends on the extent to which one accepts the premise of the site's typicality, a question with which the authors themselves occasionally wrestle (pp. 41-42, 374). The selection of a (more or less) single-period occupation was indisputably a necessary condition of being able to take such a "snapshot." But in this case the selection also brings with it some features rather atypical of a classic south-Mesopotamian city: it developed very rapidly from a 3 ha. village in Ur III times to a settlement twenty times larger under official sponsorship; it had little in the way of institutional architecture (pace Nergal); it sat outside the densely settled alluvial plain in a sparsely inhabited hinterland; and it acted as a frontier "outpost" of the Larsa dynasts.

The site also seems heavy on royal inscriptions but devoid of quotidian legal and administrative texts (though the twenty cylinder seals found on the surface suggest the neighborhoods along Canal "M" would have been likely findspots in soundings). Without excavation, we may now never know whether Maskan-sapir was indeed a "paradigm of Mesopotamian urbanism" (p. 373), a purpose-built industrial-commercial center, or even the "seat of power in a tribal rather than a territorially defined state" (Steinkeller, p. 42).

The volume delivers a bountiful feast of data presented in a number of formats. The mammoth 170-page chapter 8 (a third of the whole book) presents and locates 142 different features and objects on the site, from camelthorn to horse-foot statuary fragments (sometimes even objects not found in the key: figs. 119, 139, 147, 155, 157, 239, 255, 275). The chapter breaks the site down into eighty-six one-hectare squares, with opposing pages presenting maps on the left-hand and aerial photographs on the right. These will undoubtedly be a boon to those seeking the precise location of individual object types, with scrupulous attention to variances in photographic quality, survey conditions, and features worthy of (now impossible) future research.

In one respect, however, the authors have lost the forest for the trees: the book contains no overall site grid-map that locates those squares, and thus the reader cannot really locate much of anything. (The grid-map appears, without a key (vertical: B-L, horizontal: 1-12), in the Journal of Field Archaeology 17 [1990]: 146; the present volume's most comprehensive map remains fig. 5, locating the city's canals and major sectors.)

Thus it is chapter nine, which maps out the distribution of features and objects at the site level, that is more informative in the end: figs. 282-324 (especially fig. 292, all OB objects) indeed seem to confirm that most small finds do not by themselves display any particularly differential pattern across the site. Sherd density, metal and metalworking objects, stone and metal tools, jewelry, whole pots, and stone bowls--all suggest a fairly consistent density and nature of occupation across urban Maskan-sapir.

Model chariots, chariot shields, and chariot wheels present a more divided picture--while the wheels are indeed found across the site, shields and chariots themselves cluster in Sector III, west of Canal M. Both the differential distribution and symbolic value of these objects remain mysterious; one wonders if their possible use as military insignia could be explored.

However, when one compares chapter nine to the clear clustering of objects in squares 3-6, G-J presented in chapter eight, it seems difficult to deny that the west-central area of the site was the center of Old Babylonian occupation (cf. figs. 287-88, [OB, I presume] brick architecture not included in fig. 292), adjacent to the modest temple in Sector VI. The scatter on the surface seems not to be reflected in the site's visible and clustered architectural remains, but this will have to remain a disconnect without resolution.

Anatomy of a Mesopotamian City is also, finally, an exemplary team effort. Four contributions from other authors are included, including Lisa Wells' geoarchaeological survey documenting especially the complex fluviatile regimes, an analysis of the copper objects by Vincent Piggott, touching on the variety and sophistication of metal-working techniques at the site, and an appraisal of the off-site work in the site's vicinity from Tony Wilkinson, which suggests modest suburban occupations only in Parthian and early Islamic times.

Two chapter-length contributions from Piotr Steinkeller mark out a highly successful effort to integrate historical context and textual materials into the overall interpretation of the site. Steinkeller's publication here of the Sin-iddinam barrel cylinder confirming "Mas-gan-[]" as Abu Duwari remains an important legacy of the project (chapter seven), the text also containing one of the important wage-and-price statements of the Larsa kings. A minor doubt arises with regard to the "building inscription of an unidentified ruler" (AbD 87-134, p. 147). The suggestion that any Akkadian royal inscription (especially on a cone) might belong to a Larsa king seems unlikely; a Babylonian king seems a more likely attribution (cf. the suggestive lineation of the Akkadian Hammurabi text in Frayne, RIME 4 3.6.12 11. 1 If.).

It is anyway Steinkeller's history of the city (chapter three) that is the signal contribution here. The complex and shadowed interplay between the Yamutbal tribe, its sheiks, and the Larsa crown is here finally given the full treatment it deserves. Steinkeller develops the hypothesis that even the earliest Larsa dynasts were, if not Yamutbali themselves, accepted and promoted as urban kings by this Amorite tribe rooted in the vast meadowlands across the Tigris. His plaint that earlier treatments have missed the subtlety of his "dimorphic kingdom" model is unnecessary (a distinction not really warranting his dismissal of Charpin's "Etat bicephale" or van de Mieroop's "dual character of the kingdom"), since Steinkeller's offering, as no other, masterfully corrals and interprets the widest range of evidence for analyzing early Yamutbal not as a sidecar to the main Larsa state, but as its founding and most enduring constituency--perhaps, he posits, as early as the reign of Naplanum.

Stone and Zimansky's book is well worth the modest investment, a work to which readers and researchers will return time and again, and its several authors deserve our hearty thanks.


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Author:Richardson, Seth
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Date:Jul 1, 2007
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