Thursday 29 June 2023

Ps and Qs in Mesopotamia. A Panoply Interview with Dr Ludovico Portuese of the GALATEO Project.

Dr Ludovico Portuese is a Near Eastern archaeologist researching ancient etiquette and hygiene practices. He is the author of Life at Court. Ideology and Audience in the Late Assyrian Palace (Zaphon 2020) and, with Marta Pallavidini, edited Ancient Near Eastern Weltanschauungen in Contact and in Contrast. Rethinking Ideology and Propaganda in the Ancient Near East (Zaphon 2022). Ludovico leads the international research project GALATEO: Good Attitudes for Life in Assyrian Times: Etiquette and Observance of Norms in Male and Female Groups. With Prof. Annunziata Rositani, Prof. Holly Pitman, and postgraduate student David Mulder, Ludovico analysed the iconography of the Penn Museum Mesopotamian collection, leading to the Manners and Etiquette in Mesopotamian Life exhibition. Panoply are delighted to have made two animations for the Manners and Etiquette exhibition, which you can see in the museum, on the Panoply website, and below. In this interview we’ll hear more about the project and Ludovico’s life as an archaeologist.

Above, the Middle East Gallery at the University of Penn Museum.
Above, the Manners and Etiquette in Mesopotamian Life exhibition, in the Middle East Gallery at the University of Penn Museum. The digital display features the artefact animations and a wealth of information about the objects and what they can tell us.

1) What is the GALATEO Project?
GALATEO is a research project which has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant. The name of the project reveals its aims: GALATEO takes its name from the guidebook Galateo overo de’ costumi (or A Treatise on Politeness and Delicacy) by Giovanni Della Casa (1558), a discussion of manners dedicated to the bishop Galeazzo Florimonte (in Latin, Galatheus). Galateo then became the common term used in Italy to describe the rules of etiquette and behaviour. Put briefly, ‘galateo’ means ‘etiquette’.

With this in mind, I developed an acronym to explain its focus in detail: Good Attitudes for Life in Assyrian Times: Etiquette and Observance of Norms in Male and Female Groups. The project aims to understand anew the importance of etiquette in late Assyrian society (10th–7th century BCE) and to investigate the extent to which etiquette influenced the subsequent cultures of the Middle East. It works through a sociological perspective, to explore gestures, postures, proxemic interactions (that is, how space is used in social interactions), the use and choice of language, and table manners, and from an anthropological perspective, to examine the etiquette of hygiene.

The Manners and Etiquette in Mesopotamian Life exhibition at the Penn Museum approaches artefacts from these two perspectives to communicate this new insight into rules for correct behaviour in Mesopotamian life.


Above, The Banquet, an animation of a scene on an 9th-8th century BCE Assyrian ivory plaque ( Metropolitan Museum 59.107.22) made by Panoply for the GALATEO project, showing now in the Manners and Etiquette exhibition at the Penn Museum.

Above, a close-up of Manners and Etiquette, featuring (top) the ivory with the banqueting scene inscribed upon it and the illustration made of it by Steve K Simons, which was a stepping stone in Steve's creation of the animation.

2) How do artefacts tell you more about etiquette?
Every archaeological artefact can provide us with a great wealth of information about etiquette in antiquity, from simple kitchen pots to beautifully decorated objects. For instance, the shape of a bowl may suggest the way it was held when used by people, or an object can bear images showing people interacting through the performance of specific gestures and postures. Architecture is also an essential source of information, being the space where people interacted: for example, the throne room of a royal palace, where the position of the throne may give information about the distance between the king and his visitors during official audiences.

For the exhibition at the Penn Museum, the choice fell on image-bearing artefacts which show deities and humans interacting. The scenes depicted can be defined as “frozen moments” that artisans decided to select as the most meaningful of a specific event, either of a meeting or a banquet. As a consequence, the frozen gestures and postures depicted are also the most meaningful ones (e.g. raised hands, erect postures, toast). In this regard, it’s not always easy to distinguish artistic conventions from social conventions and caution is highly recommended. However, Mesopotamia offers several written sources which contain information on behavioural rules and may thus confirm what is represented.


Above, Worshipping the Gods, an animation of a stone carving created by Panoply for the GALATEO project, showing now in the Manners and Etiquette exhibition at the Penn Museum. The original object is part of the Penn Museum’s permanent collection.

3) It has been an interesting experience to animate ivory and stone rather than pottery for this project…. All the same, could you tell us a little about the ceramic culture of Mesopotamia?
Ceramic is certainly the most prevalent archaeological artefact also in ancient Mesopotamia. However, compared to the Greek culture for instance, Mesopotamian pottery in the main emphasises more the functional than the decorative aspect. Geometric forms, vegetal motifs, and animal figures are more dominant than human figures, and the few examples do not represent our best window into the cultures of ancient Mesopotamia. Ceramics often appear undecorated and mass-produced from the fourth to the second millennium BCE.

Variations certainly exist and the Mesopotamian ceramic culture is featured by regionalisms that help distinguishing south, middle and north cultures. Decorations cannot therefore be used to reconstruct etiquette rules. Nevertheless, some examples can provide us with information about the way bowls, for example, were used during banquets. This is best represented by the so-called Palace Ware attested in the first-millennium Assyria and used in a courtly context. Iconographic evidence shows that the king and high administrative officials held these fine ceramics on their fingertips to drink wine during banquets. This elegant mannerism of holding drinking bowls was perhaps the corresponding physical way to display the access to these luxury items and wine.
Above, a very early pottery vessel, made in what is now Iran c.5400-5000 BCE (Penn Museum, 69-12-15). Traces of wine and terebinth tree resin found inside reveal that it was a wine jar.
Above, a slip decorated pot from Ur, made in the Ubaid period (c. 5500–3700 BCE), (Penn Museum, 31-17-296).

4) What made Mesopotamian cultures so dynamic?
Many and sometimes concurrent factors made Mesopotamian cultures so dynamic. The presence and regular flooding of the rivers Tigris and Euphrates made the land around them especially fertile and ideal for growing crops for food. The abundance of natural resources for construction (reed) and food (wild animals and fish), with water easily accessible led to people cultivating plants, domesticating animals, coping with climate changes, staying in one place and forming permanent villages which then became cities. These cities welcomed large concentrations of people that organized their labour and society, created different social and economic classes, developed the earliest system of writing, built monumental buildings, and codified rules for correct behaviour. The latter, a rather neglected aspect, I believe contributed to demarcate group membership and, along with hygiene rules, protected groups from things that could damage the integrity of the Mesopotamian cultures contributing to their dynamism and success.
Above, an Encyclopaedia Britannica map of Mesopotamia, the land between the two rivers. This is largely modern-day Kuwait and Iraq (link opens Google Maps).

5) How did you get interested in ancient Mesopotamian culture?
I grew up in Sicily, surrounded by Greek monuments, and I was raised in a family where you could breathe Greek and Latin literature. It is not by chance that my brother is Professor of Latin at the University of Catania. Having said that, very few books at my parents’ house talked about the “Oriental” cultures that came before and inspired the later Greek culture. To contrast such a Classical dominant environment, I decided to explore the “uncharted” world of the Middle East and embark myself on the study of the “Oriental” cultures. After studying Egyptology and Near Eastern archaeology at the University of Pisa, I started my PhD at the Freie Universit├Ąt Berlin to conduct research on the courtly life at the Assyrian palace in the first millennium BCE. I then expanded this topic through postdoctoral positions at European universities (Germany and France). The grant I received for the GALATEO project allowed me to work at the University of Pennsylvania for two years and finally to get hired by the University of Messina as assistant professor of Near Eastern archaeology and art.
It was a long and hard journey to get into this interest professionally, but Mesopotamian culture really deserves an entire life to be fully known and loved.
Above, terracotta figurine from Ur. Many aspects of Mesopotamian culture are familiar from later ancient Greek culture. We have seen ritual libations, and here we see a figure playing a double pipe, much like the Greek auloi pipes. (Penn Museum, 31-16-882).

6) What does life as a Near Eastern archaeologist involve?
Being a Near Eastern archaeologist means astonishment and excitement daily because we deal both with impressively advanced past cultures and with extremely fascinating countries that still bear the splendour and mystery of their past. So, in a nutshell, you never get bored.

The research activity may still be afflicted by difficulties linked to the political conditions in the countries of the Middle East. However, past conflicts and destructions forced us to devote more energies and resources to find new solutions for excavation and preservation projects, and new paths of research. For instance, many Near Eastern archaeologists are now looking at more peaceful geographic areas that were neglected in the past and that are bringing to light exciting results. Others are working on conservation and preservation projects in order to protect endangered monuments and sites. Some scholars, instead, develop new research fields to study what has been excavated in previous excavations. In a sense, the GALATEO project was developed within the latter context to understand and reconstruct social and hygienic rules that helped Mesopotamians to survive crises and dramatic changes. So, I would say that a life as a Near Eastern archaeologist nowadays involves an extreme flexibility.
Above, a fragment of the Ur-Nammu Stele, used in the Worshipping the Gods animation. On the right, King Ur-Nammu offers a libation to the Moon God, Nanna, on the left he makes the same offering to the Moon Goddess, Ningal. University of Pennsylvania Museum, B16676.

7) Who’s your favourite ancient Greek?
My favourite figures are the famous heroes Gilgamesh and Odysseus. The former is a hero in ancient Mesopotamian mythology, the protagonist of an epic poem written in Akkadian, and probably a historical king of the Sumerian city-state of Uruk. Odysseus is the hero of Homer’s epic poem the Odyssey and king of Ithaca. Although they differ in several aspects, both embark on many journeys and challenges: Gilgamesh travels to find immortality, Odysseus to go back home, and both take up challenges and learn from experiences. But most of all, they do not give up looking for and achieving their goals, they persevere. It is their remarkable perseverance that I praise, and it is perseverance that every person wishing to embark the challenging but marvellous journey of archaeology needs to possess.


Many thanks to Dr Ludovico Portuese for speaking to us about how objects can give us insight into etiquette and manners.

If you’d like to visit the Manners and Etiquette in Mesopotamian Life exhibition at the Penn Museum, you’ll find details about visiting here: https://www.penn.museum/tickets/.
You may like to explore the Penn Museum collection online, through their collection database: https://www.penn.museum/collections/

The Penn Museum have also put together a Mesopotamian highlights collection …and a Video Tour of the gallery.

Stay posted for news on developments on the GALATEO project.

Above, the logo of the GALATEO project.