Skip to main content
    • Aa
    • Aa

Mesopotamian Petrology: Stages in the Classification of the Material World

  • Nicholas Postgate (a1)

In the search for cognition in the mute record of archaeology the record of ancient thought transmitted to us by early written texts is an obvious but underexploited resource. An examination of the classification of stones in Mesopotamia gives a rare opportunity to match textual information with the archaeological record, and offers some insights into the organization of thought and classification of knowledge by one of the first literate societies.A group of unshaped stones in the corner of a grave under the floor of a Sumerian dwelling attests to an awareness of natural properties as distinct from functions, whether or not these concepts were already formulated in words. The group of various stones also hints at the concept of a class, the first stirring of a mindset which percolates through Plato and Aristotle to Linnaeus. Already in c. 2000 BC the essential properties of some of these stones were conceptualized and described in a ‘literary’ composition, and the concept of a stable set of properties is linked to traditions relating to the proper source of a stone. Later still, maybe around 1000 BC, the Mesopotamian scribes created a lapidary or ‘Handbook of Stones’ which provides an ordered key to stones in respect of their appearance. Then, or later, the description of their appearance was supplemented by details in which their natural or physical properties were distinguished, along with magical properties some of which were probably transmitted to the Hellenistic world.

Hide All
Aufrère S., 1991. L'Univers minéral dans la pensée égyptienne. Cairo: Institut Français d'archéologie orientale du Caire.
Biggs R.D., 1966. Le lapis lazuli dans les textes sumériens archaiques. Revue d'Assyriologie 60, 175–6.
Bittel K., 1970. Hattusha, the capital of the Hittites. New York (NY): Oxford University Press.
Bjorkman J.K., 1987. Sargon II's foundation tablets. Orientalia Lovaniensia Periodica 18, 8797.
Boehmer R.M., 1984. Kalkstein für das Urukzeitliche Uruk. Baghdader Mitteilungen 15, 141–7.
Borger R., 1956. Die Inschriften Asarhaddons Königs von Assyrien. (Archiv für Orientforschung Beiheft 9.) Graz.
Casanova M., 1991. La vaisselle d'albâtre de Mésopotamie, d'Iran et d'Asie centrale aux III' el II' millénaires av. J.-C. Paris: Éditions Recherche sur les civilisations.
Civil M., 1972. Supplement to the Introduction to ISET I. Orientalia, Nova Series 41, 8790.
Degraeve A., 1991. Je t'écris au sujet d'une pierre …. Akkadica 74, 118.
Degraeve A., 1996. Mesopotamia and its northern neighbours, part I. Akkadica 99100, 1535.
Dole G.F. & Moran W.L., 1991. A bowl of alallu-stone. Zeitschrift fiir Assyriologie 81, 268–73.
Dunham S., 1993. Beads for babies. Zeitschrift fiir Assyriologie 83, 237–57.
Eichholz D.E., 1965. Theophrastus De Lapidibus. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Ellis R.S., 1968. Foundation Deposits in Ancient Mesopotamia. New Haven (CT) & London: Yale University Press.
Eluère C., 1986. A prehistoric touchstone from France. Gold Bulletin 19, 5861.
Finkel I.L., 1980. The crescent fertile. Archiv fiir Orientforschung 27, 3752.
Finkel I.L., 1995. In black and white: remarks on the Assur psephomancy ritual. Zeitschrift fiir Assyriologie 85, 271–6.
Frayne D., 1990. Old Babylonian Period (2003–1595 BC). (Royal Inscriptions of Mesopotamia. Early Periods, 4.) Toronto, Buffalo & London: University of Toronto Press.
George A.R., 1979. Cuneiform texts in the Birmingham City Museum. Iraq 41, 121–40.
Goody J., 1977. The Domestication of the Savage Mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Halleux R. & Schamp J., 1985. Les lapidaires grecs: Lapidaire orphique, Kérygmes lapidaires d'Orphée, Socrate el Denys, Lapidaire nautique, Damigéron-évax. Paris: Les Belles Lettres.
Heimpel W., 1982. A first step in the diorite question. Revue d'Assyriologie 76, 65–7.
Heimpel W., 1987. Das Untere Meer. Zeitschrift für Assyriologie 77, 2291.
Heinz M., 1989. Die Steingefässe aus Süd- und Mittelmesopotamien als Inschriftenträger der Frühdynastischen Zeit. Baghdader Mitteilungen 20, 197224.
Hilprecht H.V., 1893. Old Babylonian inscriptions chiefly from Nippur, part I. Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 18, 554.
Holmyard E.J. & Mandeville D.C., 1927. Avicennae de congelatione el conglulatione lapidum, being sections of the Kitâb-al-Shifâ. Paris: P. Geuthner.
Horowitz W., 1992. Two Abnu šikinšu fragments and related matters. Zeitschrift für Assyriologie 82, 112–22.
Wilson J.V. Kinnier, 1962. The Kurba'il Statue of Shalmaneser III. Iraq 24, 90115.
Köcher F., 1963. Die babylonisch-assyrische Medizin in Texten und Untersuchungen, vols. 1–2. Berlin: W. de Gruyter.
Koldewey R., 1901. Die Pflastersteine von Aiburschabu in Babylon. (Wissenschaftliche Veröffentlichungen der Deutschen Orientgesellschaft 2.) Leipzig: J.C. Hinrichs.
Landsberger B., 1965. Tin and lead: the adventures of two vocables. Journal of Near Eastern Studies 24, 285–96.
Landsberger B., 1967. Über Farben in Sumerisch-Akkadischen. Journal of Cuneiform Studies 21, 139–73.
Landsberger B. & Reiner E., 1970. Materials for the Sumerian Lexicon, vol. 10. Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute.
Langdon S.H., 1912. Die neubabylonischen Königsinschriften. (Vorderasiatische Bibliothek 4.) Leipzig: J.C. Hinrichs.
Limet H., 1984. Amulettes babyloniennes et lapidaire Zoroastrien. Orientalia J. Duchesne-Guillemin Oblata 1, 327–39.
Livingstone A., 1986. Mystical and Mythological Explanatory Works of Assyrian and Babylonian Scholars. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Luckenbill D.D., 1924. The Annals of Sennacherib. (Publication 2.) Chicago (IL): Oriental Institute.
Magen Y., 1994. The stone vessel industry during the Second Temple Period, in ‘Purity broke out in Israel’ (Tractate Shabbat, 13b): Stone Vessels in the Late Second Temple Period, by Rimon O., Magen Y. & Rahmani L.Y.. (Catalogue 9.) Haifa: The Reuben and Edith Hecht Museum, University of Haifa, 7*27*.
Martin H.P., Moon J. & Postgate J.N., 1985. Graves 1 to 99. (Abu Salabikh Excavations 2.) London: British School of Archaeology in Iraq.
Meissner B., 1922. Lexikographische Studien. Orientalistische Literaturzeitung 25, 244.
Millard A.R., 1994. The Eponyms of the Assyrian Empire 910–612 BC. (State Archives of Assyria Studies II.) Helsinki: The Neo-Assyrian Text Corpus Project.
Moorey P.R.S., 1994. Ancient Mesopotamian Materials and Industries: the Archaeological Evidence. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Mullo-Weir C.J., 1929. Fragment of an expiation ritual against sickness. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 1929, 281–4.
Nissen H.J., 1981. Bemerkungen zur Listenliteratur Vorderasiens im 3. Jahrtausend, in La lingua di Ebla, ed. Cagni L.. Napoli: Instituto Universitario Orientale, 99108.
Oppenheim A.L., 1963. Mesopotamian conchology. Orientalia NS 32, 407–12.
Parrot A., 1956. Mission Archéologique de Mari I: Le temple d'Ishtar. Paris: P. Geuthner.
Postgate J.N., 1992. Early Mesopotamia: Society and Economy at the Dawn of History. London: Routledge.
Potts T.F., 1989. Foreign stone vessels of the late third millennium BC from southern Mesopotamia: their origin and mechanisms of exchange. Iraq 51, 123–64.
Potts T.F., 1994. Mesopotamia and the East: an Archaeological and Historical Study of Foreign Relations c. 3400–2000 BC. (Monograph 37.) Oxford: Oxford University Committee for Archaeology.
Pritchard J.B., 1969. Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament. Princeton (NJ): Princeton University Press.
Raineri Count A., 1818. Fior de penseri sulle pietre preziose. Opera composta dal dotto Imam Ahmed ben Iusuf Teifascite Anasite (Italian translation of Kitāb ‘azhār al-’ afkār fī jawāhir al-‘ahjār — l-’ahmad bin yīusuf 'al-tīfāŝī 'al-matu fī 'ām 651 h. Florence. (Reprint Poland 1906.)
Reiner E., 1956. ‘Lipŝur’ litanies. Journal of Near Eastern studies 15, 129–49.
Reiner E., 1995. Astral Magic in Babylonia. (Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 85/iv.) Philadelphia (PA): American Philosophical Society.
Sachs A., 1952. Babylonian horoscopes. Journal of Cuneiform Studies 61, 4975.
Soden W. von, 1936. Leistung und Grenze sumerischer und babylonischer Wissenschaft. Die Welt als Geschichte 2, 411–64, 509–77.
Sollberger E., 1965. A new inscription of Ŝilhak-Inŝuŝinak. Journal of Cuneiform Studies 19, 31–2.
Steinkeller P., 1982. The question of Marhaŝi: a contribution to the historical geography of Iran in the third millennium BC. Zeitschrift für Assyriologie 72, 237–65.
Steinkeller P., 1987. The stone ‘pirig-gùn’. Zeitschrift für Assyriologie 77, 92–5.
Stephens F.J., 1937. Votive and Historical Texts from Babylonia and Assyria. (Yale Oriental Series. Babylonian Texts 9.) New Haven (CT): Yale University Press.
Stol M., 1979. On Trees, Mountains and Millstones in the Ancient Near East. Leiden: Ex Oriente Lux.
Stol M., 1993. Epilepsy in Babylonia. Gröningen: Styx Publications.
Tallon F., 1995. Les pierres précieuses de l'Orient ancien des Sumériens aux Sassanides. Paris: Réunion des Musées Nationaux.
Thompson R.C., 1929. The excavations on the temple of Nabû at Nineveh. Archaeologia 79, 103–48.
Thompson R.C., 1936. A Dictionary of Assyrian Chemistry and Geology. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Thureau-Dangin F., 1931. Arslan-Tash. Paris: P. Geuthner.
van Dijk J.J.A., 1983. LUGAL UD ME-LÁM-bi NIR-GÁL. Leiden: E.J. Brill.
Vanstiphout H.L.J., 1990. The Mesopotamian debate poems: a general preserntation, part I. Acta Sumerologica 12, 271318.
Weidner E.F., 1967. Gestirn-Darstellungen auf babylonischen Tontafeln. (Öst. Akad. d. Wissenschaften, Phil.-Hist. Klasse, Sitzungsberichte 254,2.) Vienna: Böhlaus Nachf.
Weissbach F.H., 1903. Babylonische Miscellen. (Wissenschaftliche Veröffentlichungen der Deutschen Orient-Gesellschaft 4.) Berlin: J.C. Hinrichs.
Winter I.J., forthcoming. Dark luster: the aesthetic value of lapis lazuli in Mesopotamia, in Pierres précieuses (or similar title), ed. Caubet A.. Paris: Musée du Louvre.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Cambridge Archaeological Journal
  • ISSN: 0959-7743
  • EISSN: 1474-0540
  • URL: /core/journals/cambridge-archaeological-journal
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 40 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 110 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 23rd October 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.