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Tue Jun 11, 2024, 07:14 AM Tuesday

Inequalities in wealth distribution within Imperial Assyrian graves

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Inequalities in wealth distribution within Imperial Assyrian graves

Published online by Cambridge University Press: 03 June 2024

Petra M. Creamer


Across more than seven centuries (c. 1350–600 BC), the Assyrian Empire established political dominance and cultural influence over many settlements in the Ancient Near East. Assyrian policies of resource extraction, including taxation and tribute, have been extensively analysed in textual and art historical sources. This article assesses the impact of these policies on patterns of wealth within mortuary material—one of the most conservative forms of culture, deeply rooted in group identity. The author argues that a trend of decreasing quality and quantity of grave goods over time supports models emphasising the heavy economic burden of Assyrian administration on its subjects.


It is often said, in many colloquial variations, that the only certainties in life are death and taxes. If monumental depictions are to be believed, then death (via the war machine) and taxes (along with the extraction of other resources) appear to be mainly what the Assyrian Empire (c. 1350–600 BC) dealt in. Efforts by scholars to characterise the impact of such violence and exploitation have led to mixed results. Some emphasise a perceived depletion of resources (in both materials and labour) as the Assyrian Empire's characteristic cruelty and obsession with short-term gain came at the expense of long-term stability (Faust Reference Faust2011). Others refer to a pax Assyriaca of the eighth and seventh centuries BC, arguing that the empire was concerned with sustaining local economies and peace in conquered provinces while also supplying the heartland with labour and resources (Fales Reference Fales, Cohen and Westbrook2008), emphasising an Assyrian concern with the longevity of the empire. Others strive to make sense of both paradigms, arguing that Assyria's cruelty in war and concern with establishing long-lasting systems to sustain the needs of the empire were not mutually exclusive enterprises—what Lawson Younger (Reference Lawson Younger2015: 191) terms his “carrot and stick” model of Assyrian treatment.

While the material remains, such as architecture and artefacts, recovered in domestic contexts can reveal much about how the imperial lower classes lived, the evidence from mortuary contexts can serve as a contained indicator of imperial impacts and resource extraction (Quinn & Beck Reference Quinn and Beck2016). Mortuary culture is historically conservative; it is one of the most enduring forms of traditional practice and tends to change little in the face of external factors (Parker-Pearson Reference Parker-Pearson1999; Brandt et al. Reference Brandt, Prusac and Roland2015). Yet when mortuary data are assessed over the longue durée, it is possible to identify shifts in the practice among certain groups which could indicate external factors strong enough to impact those traditions around death so resistant to change. Here, I argue that by examining the relative wealth of graves from the Assyrian Empire across time (seven centuries of hegemony) and space (imperial core and centrally located provinces), we can trace the impact of the empire's resource-extraction practices on the wealth and development of the lower classes.


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