How Do We Know About Ancient Ethnicity?
Because ethnicity can be so complex even in the modern world, it can be difficult to identify and understand in the historical and archaeological record of the ancient Middle East. There are three major kinds of sources: ancient texts, artistic representations, and less deliberate, but still revealing, material culture.
Ancient texts tell us which groups were named, and thus recognized, as ethnic groups, and this is the most direct indication of the location, activities, and social standing of ethnic groups. As noted in the main essay in this module, however, texts have a very definite bias—they reflect the perspective of urban centers and of state or imperial conquerors.
Images of people, many of which are displayed as images in this module, can also be revealing. In many cases, such as ancient Egypt or Assyrian and Persian representations of different ethnic groups, art shows us the way foreigners looked from the perspective of the center, rather than the complexity and variety of identities that might have been the local reality. Such images are almost always stereotypes—more an abstract set of qualities marking difference rather than realistic visual representations.
Archaeologists have also identified ancient ethnic differences in ways that depend less on the formal representations of those in power and more on the daily practices that defined people’s lives. The way people made their houses, buried their dead, or made pottery can sometimes show stark differences that suggest the existence of ancient ethnic boundaries.
One of the most interesting recent approaches to ethnicity in the archaeological record has been through studying ancient cuisine from the remains of discarded animal bones. Some cases are quite clear—Canaanites ate lots of pork, as did people across the Middle East until about 1200 BCE, but the people of ancient Israel did not. But even more subtle differences, like the way people butchered animals, or how they cooked them (in stews or roasted), can sometimes be revealed through careful study.
Emberling, Geoff. “Ethnicity in Complex Societies: Archaeological perspectives.” The Journal of Archaeological Research. Link to resource (accessed May 7. 2010).
Former Chief Curator, Oriental Institute Museum of the University of Chicago
1. What kinds of sources are available to us for identifying and understanding ethnicity in the ancient Middle East?
2. What are some of the challenges for the historian in using these sources?