CORDIS - EU research results

The Spirited Horse: Human-equid relations in the Bronze Age Near East

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - TSH (The Spirited Horse: Human-equid relations in the Bronze Age Near East)

Reporting period: 2017-10-01 to 2019-09-30

The Spirited Horse: Human-equid relations in the Bronze Age Near East (TSH) is a project that examines the interactions between humans and various types of equids (donkeys, horses, onagers and hybrids) in the third and second millennium BCE. The focus is on the relations between humans and equids, and in order to better interpret these, concepts and research from the field of Human-Animal Studies form an integral part of the project. Equids are thus acknowledged as social actors who actively engage with and react to their surroundings, including humans. This active engagement can be expressed in many different ways in different types of data, and have an impact on how human behaviour and how humans in turn participate in the relationship.

The main data explored in TSH broadly falls into three categories: ancient texts, ancient faunal remains of equids, and ancient iconography. These do not exist in a vacuum, but are part of contexts, both individually and wider social contexts. Other aspects, such as evidence for stables, harness and tack are also part of the overall research. Each type of data offers information about certain aspects of human-equid interaction in the past: it is important to bring these together to achieve as complete a picture as possible. Each helps answer questions concerning which equids were present, differences in species, and how humans and animals negotiate their relationships.

Modern relations with equids is used to help illustrate and understand possible ancient practices, and modern equine experts and centres have therefore also been part of the project.
Significantly, animals – including equids – have great impact on social structures, short and long distance networks, and negotiation of identity. This is something that is best studied when acknowledging the agency and active engagement of equids. This acknowledgement of equids as beings with agency offers an important perspective on the role of animals in human lives and how they influence and transform society. This also has implications for how we relate to equids and other animals today.

TSH has three overall Research Objectives:

RO1: To provide an overview of available data pertaining to equids from the Bronze Age Near East, through comprehensive collection, entry into a purpose-built database and analytical assessment, and to consider differences in human-equid relations during the Bronze Age and across the study region.

RO2: To synthesize and compare different types of data (faunal, artistic & textual) within their archaeological context and evaluate them individually and against each other. The key questions asked of the empirical data and species are: how does including three types of empirical material change our understanding, compared to use of only one or two? What patterns can be discerned concerning different equid species and hybrids? Are some more valuable or prestigious? Are some only used for certain activities?

RO3: To apply Human-Animal Studies theory and method, with special emphasis on equids as social actors. This involves analysing how equids were perceived by and influenced humans, along with, for example, concerns about gender (both human and equid: is one gender of equid valued above another? Is there a gender bias in the association of equids with men or women?) and social status (again, both equid and human: what social beings were allowed to interact with equids, and what kinds of status might an equid have?).

These objectives have been reached through extensive research, training, networking, presentation of research, public engagement and academic publication.
The following work has been carried out during the project:
- Collection and analysis of a large body of data relevant to equids in the ancient Near East in three customised databases (with 300-800 detailed entries each)
- Training in Akkadian, Zooarchaeology, GIS, 3D modelling, Sumerian, archaeological theory, Mesopotamian archaeology
- Participation in weekly seminars and discussion/reading groups
- Supervisions and lectures for undergraduate and postgraduate students
- Training in transferrable skills such as project management, administration and leadership skills
- Research visits and study of objects and faunal remains in seven different museums
- Research visits to equine centres and consultation with experts (equine veterinarians, equine dentist, carriage driver)
- An active project website with 12 blog posts by the ER and three guest blog posts by colleagues
- An active social media account (Twitter: @tspiritedhorse)
- Organisation of a 2-day international conference with 32 speakers from 15 countries at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research
- Organisation of session at EAA conference
- Organisation of Human-Animal Relations Reading Group at University of Cambridge
- Presentation of TSH project research at 12 conferences and invited lectures
- Participation in Festival of Ideas and Science Festival in Cambridge
- Public dissemination through online interviews
- Scientific peer-reviewed publication of results (one article published, one article submitted, one book chapter in preparation, one monograph accepted, one edited volume accepted, one edited volume submitted)
TSH provides an overview of the data pertaining to equids in the Bronze Age (and earlier) in the Near East. The advancement in knowledge and state of the art from this project mainly relates to 1) the data collected, analysed and presented in detail, and 2) the human-animal relations approach, where society is understood through the lense of the impact of animals (in other words, human action can be understood as engaging with and reacting to animal action, behaviour and needs). An animal’s ability, willingness and suitability for a specific type of interaction may determine human behaviour and ultimately social structures. For example, donkeys proved particularly suitable for carrying heavy loads over long distance, which had great implications for networks, trade and connections between different areas of not just the Near East, but also much further afield, at least as far as Afghanistan in the east and Greece in the west (especially when combined with water-based transport). The ‘stoic’ nature of the donkey makes it a seemingly willing participant. Similarly, donkeys and horses were asked to pull a variety of wheeled vehicles, which, among other things, transformed battle practices in the second millennium BCE. In the available data, we can note evidence of the negotiation of the human-equid relationship in the form of for example various types of harness being tested, both as depicted and as wear on teeth as a result of using a bit.
The ER at Science Festival in Cambridge
Participants at conference organised by ER
The ER teaching practical sessions in the zooarch lab