Approaching ancient Assyria through archaeology leads to new insights

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Dr Bleda Düring deemed it was time for an archaeological approach on the imperialisation of Assyria. ‘While there are lot of archaeological studies of Assyrian sites, they are not really trying to address this broader picture of imperialism and how this imperialisation actually worked.’ These imperialisation processes are the main focus of the book The Imperialisation of Assyria: An Archaeological Approach, published by Cambridge University Press.

Chain of empires

The Assyrian Empire is the first of a chain of empires in the Near East, Düring explains. ‘All in all we are talking about some 2000 years of imperial history that started with this small rather marginal citystate called Aššur.’ The Assyrians endured for some 700 years and controlled most of the ancient Near East during the final centuries. ‘There were no competitors left, and they even annexed Egypt at some point.’

Secret to success

The question is, how did this happen? ‘What do they do differently? What was their secret to success? That is the starting question that I began with, writing this book.’ At first glance, the Assyrian’s brutality, knack for propaganda, and efficient army answers that question. ‘But as you study these things closer, it actually becomes a lot more complex, as it always does. The Assyrians distinguish themselves from other ancient empire builders like the Egyptians and the Hittites in the way they managed to make other peoples opt in an play along with their imperial strategies.’ It led to a sustainable imperial system.

An Archaeological Approach

The subtitle of the book is An Archaeological Approach. ‘This is a conscious choice. The study of ancient Assyria is dominated by the scholars that can read the texts, which contain an enormous wealth of data, for example about the Assyrian kings.’ However, these sources are not without their issues. ‘They are propaganda,’ Düring elaborates. ‘These texts provide only part of the overall picture. They focus on the interactions of the elite, the court, and, of course, the king. You cannot really understand the period only on the basis of texts, though they are, naturally, an important subject of study.’

An Assyrian beer brewery, Tell Sabi Abyad, Syria. Leiden archaeologists have excavated in Tell Sabi Abyad for years. Photo: Professor Peter Akkermans

Handmaidens of history

This does not mean that there is not a lot of archaeological work being done on Assyrian sites. ‘However, little work has been done on the broader picture of imperialism and how this imperialisation actually worked. Archaeologists have been quite happy to be the handmaiden of history, and let the grand picture be presented by the historians, by providing some nice details.’ This is the reason for the subtitle. ‘I am an archaeologist working from the archaeological data, painting the bigger picture.’

Imperial patchworks

While working on the book, Düring’s view on Assyria changed enormously. ‘You start out with a basic set of assumptions, and then, when you work through the data, you realise that things are much more complex. I assumed that Assyria had a standard way of operating, but when you look closely at the broader archaeological data, you notice that different regions have different trajectories of development.’ Düring explains that there is evidence for a constantly shifting balance of power. ‘This is something that fits with newer studies of modern empires, like the British Empire and how it operated in India. In concept, the empire consisted of a very homogeneous set of institutions. On the ground, however, things differ enormously from one place to the next and through time. This you cannot see in the textual records, but you see it in the archaeological remains.’

See for more information about The Imperialisation of Assyria: An Archaeological Approach the website of Cambridge University Press.

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