What does it take to reconstruct a bustling metropolis from 5,000 years ago? A great deal of fieldwork, collaboration, and imagination, not to mention a fair bit of luck. With all of those factors in tow, Penn Museum’s Lagash Archaeological Project made a discovery that opens up a portal to the past, allowing us to envision a normal day in the life of an ancient Sumerian.
Unlike some mounds that tower steeply over their surroundings, Tell al-Hiba (the modern name for Lagash) is low and sprawling. Set against the marshes and irrigated farmland that surround it, the site now looks dry and barren. The ground is salty and cracking where it has not been disturbed by shoes, tires, and the paws of stray dogs.
There are few landmarks by which to orient oneself on the mound—spoil heaps of the old excavations, the shining green dome of a modern shrine—but Lagash of the third millennium BCE would have been navigable by a network of lanes and broad thoroughfares running to or from the city gates in the great outer wall. Within the fortified perimeter, thinner walls partitioned the city into distinct neighborhoods. One such wall revealed itself to the excavation team after a day of particularly hard rains that paused digging. Since the groundwater evaporates at different rates based on the quality of the underlying mudbrick architecture, the line of the wall became starkly visible from the surface. The team had actually been crossing over this feature every morning while walking from the parked trucks to the trenches, not realizing we might have been retracing the steps of ancient commuters coming in and out of the city’s southeastern sector.
Discovery of an ancient tavern in Lagash sheds light on an overlooked aspect of early urban life that is still true today…
After a long day, people wanted to get together for dinner and a drink.
The surface of the area demarcated by this wall is littered with pottery sherds and pieces of slag, the byproducts of kilns and furnaces used for making ceramic and metal artifacts. It seems that in the Early Dynastic III period, around 2500–2350 BCE, this part of the city was an industrial zone for craft specialists. In two of the trenches dug last season, we found large round or oblong kilns that were filled with ashes, slag, and potsherds. Another trench produced the corner of what seems to be another workshop building, bordering on a street and a narrow alley. In one room of this building was a basin of pure red clay full of the shells of freshwater mollusks— evidently the raw material for pottery, being soaked and refined here before it was shaped and fired in the kilns down the road.
But before this area was taken over by industrial production, the architectural remains suggest another story: It had a more residential character. We discovered a small portion of what must once have been a sizeable house not far from the pottery workshops. This house was well furnished with a plastered bench, platform, and storage facilities, including a vat sunk into the floor to keep foodstuffs cool. About 20 domed roundels of clay, just small enough to be cupped in the palm of one hand, were found on the floor of the central room. Pressed over the mouths of storage jars, these would have acted as airtight stoppers (like ancient Tupperware, more or less). We also uncovered stone tools, beads, and clay tokens of the sort normally used in accounting. Although they speak to a different kind of labor from what we see in the kilns and workshops nearby, these artifacts are testaments to the daily work of managing and provisioning a substantial household.
Surely the inhabitants of the neighborhood would have tired of making and storing their own food from time to time. Luckily for them, dining out appears to have been an option in ancient Lagash. Near the edge of the neighborhood, almost abutting the wall, was a public eatery with a well-stocked pantry, a huge oven, and even a sort of cooler cut into the floor with a domed covering constructed of reused potsherds. A courtyard with benches nearby allowed diners to enjoy their meals in comfort.
The patrons of this establishment ate well, it seems, provided they enjoyed a good pickled fish. We found hundreds of bowls—still full of fish and other animal bones—in what must have been the main larder, indicating a varied and hearty diet. Most of these vessels were tipped upside-down and jumbled together in a heap, right where they had fallen nearly 5,000 years ago when the shelves collapsed. Apart from this collapse, there is no indication that the building burned down or was intentionally demolished. For now we have no idea what calamity robbed these Sumerian tavern-goers of their dinner. We modern archaeologists can only be grateful that nobody ever came back to clean up the mess.
Unlike the food preparation and storage facilities excavated at other sites of the period, the Lagash “tavern” was attached to neither a major institution (a temple or a palace) nor a private residence. The quantities of food prepared inside would certainly have exceeded the requirements of any one household, but there is no reason to think that the meal was prepared for some extraordinary occasion, like a ceremonial feast or a banquet. In this regard, it is a unique and groundbreaking discovery, as it sheds light on an aspect of early Mesopotamian urban life not reflected in most of the known textual and archaeological sources. It is likely that this building served as a gathering place for residents of the neighborhood going about their daily business, like a local pub or a canteen in any modern city. The “tavern” at Lagash offered the city-dwellers of ancient Sumer a quick meal, a cold drink, and a place to sit with friends and neighbors: in short, the same comforts that beckon us to a restaurant today.
David Mulder is a Ph.D. candidate in the History of Art Department. His research focuses on the art of early Mesopotamia, with a particular concentration on seals and seal impressions of the Early Dynastic period.