Assyrian Textiles

A Study on the Terminology and the Material Culture of the Textiles in the Neo-Assyrian Empire

Project by Salvatore Gaspa, Marie Curie Fellow


The goal of this project is to develop a new fundamental tool for use in both Assyriological and textile-oriented studies. The project, to be hosted within the research programme Textile Terminologies 1000 BC to AD 1000 of the Centre for Textile Research, will investigate and systematically map the textile terminology in use in the Neo-Assyrian period (first millennium BC: ca. 9th-7th cent. BC). The research is intended to provide the scholars of both Oriental studies and of ancient textile studies with a comprehensive study on the Assyrian textiles which will fill gaps in the present-day scholarly knowledge about textiles in the Ancient World. It will stimulate a challenging dialogue amongst specialists of different historical periods and areas of the Ancient World about the first millennium BC textile terminology and the role of textiles in the development of economies and societies as well as in shaping realities through aesthetical and ideological conceptualization.

The Neo-Assyrian textile terminology mirrors the Assyrian imperial society of the first millennium BC, its economic system, its culture, and its identity. Through the collection and analysis of the lexicon of the Assyrian textiles we may gain new insights into important aspects of the development of the society, the economy, the craft, the trade, and the technology of first millennium BC Assyria. Most of the textual and iconographical evidence about textiles in first millennium BC Assyria reflects the world of the Assyrian upper class ruling the Assyrian kingdom from 9th to 7th cent. BC. In fact, the palace reliefs from Quyunjiq (Nineveh) and Nimrud (Kalhu) show many representations of court life as well as of military campaigns, as a reflection of the needs of the social élite ruling the empire and of the policy of territorial expansion of the Assyrian state between 9th and 7th cent. BC.

The study of this terminology as well as of other textile-related aspects concerning the world of textiles in Assyria requires the exploration of the written sources stemming from the main Assyrian archives of the first millennium BC, namely Assur (modern Qal‘at Šerqāt), Kalhu (modern Nimrud), and Nineveh (modern Quyunjiq), the three main urban centres of the land called Assyria (modern northern Iraqi region).
My postdoctoral research on the Neo-Assyrian textiles is aimed at bridging the gap in the studies on the Akkadian textile terminology of the first millennium BC and publishing a still missing complete study of the Neo-Assyrian textile terminology. Furthermore, the investigation of the Neo-Assyrian textile designations will be accompanied by the analysis of all the contextual data about the production, the details, the tools, the decoration, the material, the size, the colour, the professionals involved, and the destination of the textiles in question.
In order to elucidate the meaning and the possible semantic change over the time of the textile designations, I will also compare the Neo-Assyrian lexical data with those of other periods of the Assyrian documentation, namely the Old and, especially, the Middle Assyrian period. In particular, the investigation of the Middle Assyrian texts from the archives of Assur will give further evidence of the terms attested in late Assyrian texts and favour a more detailed discussion in a diachronical perspective on the textiles under examination and the development of their terminology.
The discussion on all the context information of the Neo-Assyrian textiles will also include an examination of the occurrences of the same words in the Neo- and Late Babylonian written evidence. This enlargement of the lexicological perspective will enable me to come to a better definition of the textile products in question and, consequently, to propose a new typological classification of all the attested Neo-Assyrian textiles. More importantly, this study will be based on an interdisciplinary approach on the topic.

Textiles represent important historical sources for the understanding of a given civilization. Accordingly, their designations in ancient texts must be analysed in a closer comparison with the representations of textile products in the visual art and in the archaeological evidence. Through a comparison of archaeological, iconographical, textual, and ethnographical data, I will investigate specific aspects, such as the organization of female labour within the palace household, the procurement and processing of raw materials, the production of decorative elements (both fabric-based and metal appliqués).
The research will also take into account the rich mine of information which has been provided by the 8th century tombs discovered in Nimrud by the Iraqi archaeologists around twenty years ago. Although no systematic study on the Nimrud textile-related materials is possible at present (due to the post-war situation of museum collections in Iraq), my research will try to combine for the first time the archaeological data available on this recent discovery with the information from textual and iconographical sources as regards the use of metal appliqués to textiles.