Over more than seven centuries, from approximately 1350 BC to 600 BC, the Assyrian Empire established political dominance and cultural influence that extended across numerous settlements in the ancient Near East. Resource extraction policies, such as taxation and levies, have been extensively analyzed through textual and artistic sources. Now, a recent study conducted by researcher Petra M. Creamer of the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Studies at Emory University, Atlanta, reveals new insights into the impact of these policies on wealth patterns through the analysis of funerary material, one of the most conservative and deeply rooted elements of group identity.

The researcher suggests that a trend toward a decrease in both the quality and quantity of funerary goods over time supports models that highlight the heavy economic burden of Assyrian administration on its subjects. This comprehensive study provides a new perspective on how the Assyrian Empire’s resource extraction practices significantly affected the lower social classes, manifesting in funerary traditions.

The Assyrian Empire’s resource extraction policies focused primarily on the perpetual expansion and maintenance of the empire, which generated an increasing dependence on resources for both subsistence (agriculture and pastoralism) and exchange (precious goods and specialized services). Compared to other contemporary empires, Assyrian extraction mechanisms included an intensification in the use of labor, land utilization, and wealth accumulation. Parallel examples can be found in the Inca Empire of South America, where similar strategies included forced labor taxation, agricultural surplus storage, and control over artisanal production.

A comparison of regions of the Assyrian Empire expected to pay tribute and regions expected to provide ‘gifts’ to the imperial core
A comparison of regions of the Assyrian Empire expected to pay tribute and regions expected to provide ‘gifts’ to the imperial core. Credit: Petra M. Creamer

The Assyrian Empire employed a variety of flexible strategies inherited from the second millennium BC that included the imposition of tributes as the first step in provincial administration. Within the empire’s territories, provincial governors oversaw the collection of taxes, which often materialized in the form of food products such as grain and livestock.

To assess the impact of these policies on the population, Creamer examined Assyrian imperial tombs over time, as funerary practices, due to their resistance to change, can provide valuable clues about the evolution of socio-economic conditions. By analyzing the relative wealth of the tombs, variations reflecting influential external factors, such as the economic pressure imposed by imperial policies, can be identified.

The researcher found that the decline in the quality and quantity of funerary goods over time indicates an increasing economic burden on the communities subjected to the empire, a phenomenon visible both in the imperial core and in the more central provinces. The older, wealthier tombs, filled with high-quality and abundant objects, contrast markedly with the later, more modest tombs with fewer goods.

Creamer’s findings suggest that while the Assyrian Empire prospered and expanded its reach, the communities under its control experienced increasing inequality, reflected in the decreasing ability of individuals to invest in funerary goods. That is, while the empire grew and extended, the poor became increasingly poorer, and according to the researcher, the gap between the lower and upper classes in the Iron Age was widening, where Assyrian subjects were significantly poorer than in the Late Bronze Age.

A comparison of regions of the Assyrian Empire expected to pay tribute and regions expected to provide ‘gifts’ to the imperial core
A comparison of regions of the Assyrian Empire expected to pay tribute and regions expected to provide ‘gifts’ to the imperial core. Credit: Petra M. Creamer

This pattern of decreasing wealth is therefore directly attributed to the economic burden imposed by the imperial resource extraction policies. Parallel evidence from inequality studies using other metrics, such as household size, often finds a similar increase in inequality between the Late Bronze Age and the Iron Age.

Comparing wealth in mortuary contexts between the two periods has shown that there was not only less wealth available to non-elites in the Iron Age, but this was true for both capital inhabitants and those in provincial centers, concludes the researcher.

The study sheds light on a crucial aspect of the Assyrian Empire’s impact that has been overlooked in previous analyses. The resource extraction policies not only affected the immediate economy of the Assyrian provinces but also had long-term repercussions on cultural traditions and social structure. The decline in tomb wealth over time is a clear indicator of how imperial demands depleted the resources available to local communities, imposing a burden reflected even in the most conservative aspects of culture.


Sources

Creamer PM. Inequalities in wealth distribution within Imperial Assyrian graves. Antiquity. doi:10.15184/aqy.2024.81


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