Cambridge Archaeological Journal


Mesopotamian Petrology: Stages in the Classification of the Material World

Nicholas Postgatea1

a1 Faculty of Oriental Studies University of Cambridge Sidgwick Avenue Cambridge CB3 9DA


In the search for cognition in the mute record of archaeology the record of ancient thought transmitted to us by early written texts is an obvious but underexploited resource. An examination of the classification of stones in Mesopotamia gives a rare opportunity to match textual information with the archaeological record, and offers some insights into the organization of thought and classification of knowledge by one of the first literate societies.A group of unshaped stones in the corner of a grave under the floor of a Sumerian dwelling attests to an awareness of natural properties as distinct from functions, whether or not these concepts were already formulated in words. The group of various stones also hints at the concept of a class, the first stirring of a mindset which percolates through Plato and Aristotle to Linnaeus. Already in c. 2000 BC the essential properties of some of these stones were conceptualized and described in a ‘literary’ composition, and the concept of a stable set of properties is linked to traditions relating to the proper source of a stone. Later still, maybe around 1000 BC, the Mesopotamian scribes created a lapidary or ‘Handbook of Stones’ which provides an ordered key to stones in respect of their appearance. Then, or later, the description of their appearance was supplemented by details in which their natural or physical properties were distinguished, along with magical properties some of which were probably transmitted to the Hellenistic world.