Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

'Les Mite D'Assyrie': Moths in the Assyrian Texts of the Second Millennium B.C

Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

'Les Mite D'Assyrie': Moths in the Assyrian Texts of the Second Millennium B.C

Article excerpt

The moth was one of many insects that people from the ancient Near East had to battle. Although found universally and at all periods of the year, the moth is relatively rarely mentioned in written documentation from antiquity, possibly perhaps because its damage, though common, was not on a large scale. Normally it is cited in cuneiform texts almost exclusively concerned with fabric packed in bundles or enclosed in containers for long periods. For this reason, it is not surprising to find moths mentioned in the private archives of the Assyrian merchants who, at the beginning of the second millennium B.C., exported large quantities of textiles to Anatolia, storing their goods in warehouses of the karum Kanis.

Some six hundred years later, the chief steward of the Assyrian royal storehouse in Assur, Babu-aha-iddina, also had to fight moths attacking wool and other textiles stored in sealed chests. He orders trustworthy agents to protect them. The rare references to moths and to information on the conservation of textiles in Assyrian tablets of the second millennium B.C. allow a small study of these insects, of the damage they caused, of steps taken to protect textiles threatened by their appetite, and the use made of the damaged material.


The Old Assyrian tablets from Kultepe are unique in documenting the presence of moths in textiles.(1) Leaving Assur, donkey caravans loaded with tin and textile bundles reached Kanis in six weeks. Once there, the donkeys were sold, the tin and the textile packages were either stored locally, forwarded to other Assyrian commercial settlements in Anatolia, or offered for sale in Kanis. Textile bundles, normally still sealed, could be stored for appreciable intervals before clearance by Anatolian authorities, transfer to sales representatives, or sale.

Four OA letters mention the presence of moths in textile bales. One tablet, preserved in New York, is written by two members of Imdilum's family, Su-Laban and Assur-imitti, both living in Assur (CTMMA 1 77, 7-40).(2) Anxious about goods they sent to Kanis that seem moth infested, they ask their representatives there to verify the stock and to take care of the damage. The second letter, written by Ili-aLUM from somewhere in Anatolia, is addressed to Assur-nada in Kanis (TTC 14, 36-39). IIi-aLUM informs his correspondent that some recently sent fabrics were infested.(3) The third tablet, just published, concerns almost one hundred pieces of textile stored in the town of Zalpa (TPAK 1 58, 3-7), one fifth of which had damage.(4) The last text, unearthed in 1993 and still unpublished, belongs to Assur-taklaku's archives.(5) As a result of difficulties with the Anatolian palace, this merchant was in jail, his business neglected. When he is released, he complains about the commercial damages he suffered, among which were moth attacks (Kt 93/k 542).

Another OA private letter refers to the inventory of a large batch of fabrics stored in a private house in Kanis (TCL 14, 28). More than two hundred pieces belonging to Innaya were deposited in the house of Imdilum's daughter in Anatolia.(6) According to instructions the owner sent, four of his representatives were to air the textiles and then repack them.

The airing of textiles is also attested by a few tablets belonging to the Middle Assyrian period in Assur. These texts, discovered during the 1908 excavations at Assur, west of the Nabu temple, recall the activities of Babuaha-iddina, son of Ibassi-ili, a high official of the Assyrian kings? His letters contain orders to trustworthy representatives concerning the inspection, the delivery, or the arrival of different kinds of goods or raw materials. The representatives are to open sealed storerooms, unseal chests, and withdraw from them a wide variety of objects, mostly woolen garments but also ivory, ebony, lapis lazuli, furniture, wooden articles, leather, weapons, spices, ointments, oil, wax, alum, and wine. …

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