Sunday, January 19, 2020


Jill L. Baker, Technology of the Ancient Near East. From the Neolithic to the Early Roman Period. London; New York: Routledge, 2019. Pp. x, 326. ISBN 9780815393689. £29.99. ISBN 9780815393696. (pb).

Reviewed by Shiyanthi Thavapalan, Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World, Brown University (

Version at BMCR home site


The volume under review by Jill Baker is envisioned as a textbook about the most important technologies from ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia (modern Iraq and parts of Iran and Syria), Anatolia (modern Turkey and parts of Armenia) and Canaan (modern Israel, Palestine, Jordan and parts of Syria), that seeks to reveal how they contributed to the creation and development of these civilizations. Baker's goal is to demonstrate that these technologies, many of which she argues are antecedents to devices used in our own world of electricity and smart phones, continue to be relevant and useful today. Most of the existing studies on this topic are field-specific, she observes, and thus do not always link individual technologies with each other or with the wider Near East. Including the introduction and summary, there are 19 thematically-divided chapters. There are 80 black and white images generously peppered throughout the book. These include photographs, architectural plans, drawings and helpful explanatory schematics. Unfortunately, due to the small size and poor quality of the images from the public domain, it is sometimes not possible to make out the details described in the caption (e.g., the details of the smelting activity are hardly visible in Fig. 5.3).

In addition to setting the geographical and chronological parameters of the study, the introduction provides useful definitions of what is meant by "technology" and related terms like "discovery," "invention" and "innovation." A brief description of the many types of ancient sources utilized by the author follows, giving the reader an impression of the interdisciplinary nature of the task at hand. Baker then looks at the most important materials exploited by humans since earliest history: stone, wood (Chapters 3-5) and bonding agents like glue, plaster, mortar, cement and bitumen (Chapter 6). Given the chronological and geographical scope of the book, it is difficult to be comprehensive and so some topics have been left out. For example, ornamental stones (for jewelry, amulets, figurines) and minerals employed as pigments are not treated in the chapter on stones. The discussion on metals (chapter 5) focuses on extraction (mining, melting, smelting) rather than metal-working (alloying, casting, shaping). Then again, Baker takes the time to explain basic technical terminology and processes, which will be helpful for students. The overview of the geological particularities of the four regions of the Near East treated in the book is balanced with behavioural and cognitive explanations for why certain types of building materials were utilized. Changes in production techniques are mapped onto changes in practices —e.g., the shift from collecting to quarrying stone was accompanied by new ways of breaking and cutting (p. 21) as well as innovations in transportation (pp. 24-25).

The next portion of the book concerns itself with how materials were used towards specific technological goals. Chapter 7 covers ancient machines, methods of engineering and sources of energy. Chapters 8 and 9 deal with construction and warfare respectively, drawing even on Greek evidence (e.g., for siege craft and battle tactics) as comparanda. The discussion of textiles (chapter 10) also takes basketry and footwear into account. Murex is given undue precedence over the more commonly exploited vegetable dyes in the section on dyeing (pp. 134-135), where the unique collection of dyeing recipes from the Mesopotamia city of Sippar (BM 62788+82978) should have been mentioned.1 Chapter 11 on ceramics begins by reflecting on the importance of studying pottery and goes on to describe techniques and tools, including the various types of kilns that have been excavated. In her discussion of glass technology (chapter 11), Baker has overlooked the large and well-known corpus of Akkadian language glass-making recipes.2 The greater part of the study on medicine (chapter 13) focuses on Egyptian medical papyri and on the attempt to draw parallels between ancient knowledge and practices and modern ones.3 More systematic citations in the lists (pp. 182-185) of plant- and mineral-based ingredients used in therapies would have been helpful. Finally, with its exploration of daily life (chapter 14), timekeeping mechanisms (chapter 16) and food (chapter 17), the book introduces the reader to how the study of technology can tell us something about bodily and sensorial experiences in the past.

As mentioned, Baker's stated objective was to write a "first resource" for readers of all fields and generations interested in technologies of the ancient Near East that aims to "underscore the breadth and interconnection of ancient technological knowledge" (p. 2). In its approach, her book is a history of "materials technology", which is the study of the characteristics and uses of natural substances as well as the manufacture of synthetic media. It attempts to understand the functional role of materials and tools and looks at technology as a way of mapping human progress. Individual discussions cover techniques of production, issues of resources and cost, market forces and to some extent, Baker also addresses how technological knowledge was circulated. What the book does not do is address more recent trends in the discipline, which seek to situate "materials technology" within its cultural context—by observing behaviors, tracing relationships and generally underscoring the role of technology and material culture in social life.

Purporting to cover some 9,000 years of history, the chronological span of the book is extremely ambitious. Given this, it is unsurprising that the treatment of the diverse textual, visual and archaeological sources is uneven and at times misleading. The bulk of the evidence considered is actually more restricted, dating between ca. 3000-500 BCE. There is, moreover, a heavy dependence on Egyptian sources without any methodological justification and the omission of certain well-known discussions—the Anatolian evidence in the section on metallurgy, to take one example—is striking. For general topics (e.g., economy, trade, history of excavations), Baker relies on summaries provided in encyclopedias and companion volumes, some of which are out of date. Importantly, as the author makes exclusive use of English language literature, key research has been omitted. Moreover, scattered in the prose are some generalizing statements that are neither supported by an evaluation of the empirical evidence at hand nor any theoretical discussion. Declarations like "human experience is similar no matter the culture or location" (p. 6), "technology widens the gap between socio-economic classes, allowing the rich to become very wealthy and the poor to remain poor" (p. 7) or "In most ancient nations, the ruling authority staked claim and held sole rights to valuable mine deposits" (p. 36) are jarring and misinform the reader. The volume also contains a number of factual errors: the ships are engraved and painted in Hatshepsut's temple, not grave (p. 63); letters written by women from Assur to their husbands at Kanesh (p. 125), not the other way around; there are ancient recipes for glass-making (p. 152). Words in ancient languages are spelled inconsistently (e.g. ashipu on p. 174-175 and āšipu on p. 191; ashipu but mašmaššu on p. 174).

An aspect of the book that will stimulate students is Baker's consistent effort to highlight the relevance of studying ancient technologies. She does this by drawing parallels with modern techniques and tools and by tracing the long history of the use of certain materials. She also reflects on how the media and educational programming like the Discovery Channel episodes have framed the modern public's ideas about ancient technologies. Overall, the book is a useful starting point for students interested in learning about the materials and technologies of the Bronze and Iron ages in the Near East. It is, however, best read alongside specialized studies as well as approaches to the history of technology that look at its social and symbolic dimensions.


1.   An edition of the text may be found in: E. Leichy. "A Collection of Recipes for Dyeing," in Studies in Honor of Tom B. Jones (AOAT 203), M. A. Jr. Powell, R. H. Sack (eds.). Neukirchen-Vluyn, 1979. Pp. 15-20. For a translation of the manuscript that takes the newly joined fragment (BM 82978) into account, see: I. L. Finkel and H. Granger-Taylor and D. Cardon. "A Clay Tablet from Ancient Babylonia with Recipes for Dyeing Wool," in: Teintures précisieuses de la Méditerranée: pourpre, kermes, pastel, D. Cardon (ed.). Carcassonne and Terrassa: Musée des Beaux-arts, 1999. Pp. 64-65.
2.   A. L. Oppenheim, R. H. Brill, R. H. Barag and A. von Saldern. Glass and Glassmaking in Ancient Mesopotamia. An Edition of the Cuneiform Texts which contain Instructions for Glassmakers with a Catalogue of Surviving Objects. New York, 1970; A. L. Oppenheim. "More Fragments with Instructions for Glassmaking," Journal of Near Eastern Studies 32 (1973). Pp. 188-193.
3.   For two different approaches to the subject of Mesopotamian medicine, see: J. Scurlock and B. R. Anderson. 2005. Diagnoses in Assyrian and Babylonian Medicine: Ancient Sources, Translations, and Modern Medical Analyses. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2005; M. Geller. Ancient Babylonian Medicine: Theory and Practice. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.

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