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Ancient Mesopotamia in Modern Perspectives –
Dr McMahon (Cambridge) Gives New Insights into the Ancient Near East

Chances and risks of urbanism, economic growth and change in the textile industry, and chemical isotope-analysis-what sounds like recent headlines in a newspaper was in fact the wide range of topics presented by Dr. Augusta McMahon, currentlyReader for Mesopotamian Archaeologyat the University of Cambridge, Division of Archaeology, during her stay at the Institute for the History of Ancient Civilizations (IHAC), Northeast Normal University, Changchun in the last week of March 2017. In three lectures which attracted a lot of scholars and students from all disciplines (Assyriology, Egyptology, Classics, Chinese Archaeology and History) and also from other universities, she described new methodologies and research questions applied to ancient source materials from excavations in Mesopotamia, and provided new insights into the long perished ancient cultures of the Near East.

In her first lecture, she focused on her recent excavations in Tell Brak, located in northeast Syria, one of the world’s first cities. In a time without written records, the early 4thmillenium BC, McMahon showed the growth of the settlement to urban size from the archaeological material, and the appearance of powerful religious and secular institutions as well as standardized workshop-activities under their supervision. However, she could also illustrate that this urbanization process caused social stress and even internal violent conflicts by analysing mass graves containing corpses of some time after their death exposed people.The second lecture examined the production of textiles in the same city around the same time. Although remains of the organic textiles are missing, she could show convincingly from the in-depth analysis of the extant loom-materials, especially parts of the spindles, that there was not only a shift from flax to wool during this period but also an increase of institutional management of the production. This concentration of production, however, did first not mean an installation of large workshops but was probably still decentralized and carried out by mainly women in home-office, showing interesting aspects of the socio-economic structure of the society of that time.

With the third lecture, McMahon opened the new field of natural science for examining the often neglected archaeological findings of animal remains. With the analysis of isotopes,inter aliacarbon- and oxygen-structures being integrated into the teeth and bones of animals through their diet and drinking, one can test assumptions regarding the breeding and herding of ancient animals, especially the question of specific herds for elite-purposes, and the intra- as well as inter-regional movements. In respect of the city of Ur, the first results of the analysis of oxen-bones and -teeth reveal different strategies of grazing of these animals with higher value, from good conditions in fallow fields to poorer conditions near marshes. They also make it very likely that there were no specific royal herds for the purpose of royal burials. Thus, this new method can challenge, or prove, long-lasting hypotheses and open new paths for the study of (not only) the Near East.