The world’s earliest urban states arose in ancient Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) around 5500 years ago. Over the course of the 4th millennium BC, this region saw the development of the Uruk city state, where the Beveled Rim Bowl – the most well-known vessel type of ancient southwest Asia – was produced.
As the Uruk culture expanded, it became the first mass produced ceramic bowl, and has been attested in their thousands at Late Chalcolithic sites across southern Iraq, Syria, and into the highlands of eastern Turkey and Iran.
Now, recent analysis of Beveled Rim Bowls excavated from a site in Iraq has challenged traditional interpretations that they were primarily used for storing cereals, instead revealing that local groups adapted the vessel for other functions including as containers for meat stews or broths.
Beveled Rim Bowls are thick-walled, conical vessels formed by hand or in a mould. They are mentioned in early cuneiform tablets and were long thought to have been used to distribute rations of leavened bread or cereals such as wheat, emmer, and barley – a main source of wealth and power for early states and their elites – as payment to labourers.
In the study, published in The Journal of Archaeological Science, organic residue analysis was conducted on sherds from ten Beveled Rim Bowls excavated at the site of Shakhi Kora, which is centred around the river known in Kurdish as the Sirwan and in Arabic as the Diyala, in the Kurdistan region of north-east Iraq.
An international team of researchers led the University of Glasgow have carried out excavations at the site since 2019, as part of the Sirwan Regional Project. They have revealed an occupation sequence spanning from the early 4th to the turn of the 3rd millennium BC, during which the settlement appears to have developed close ties with the Uruk culture.
To identify the source of the lipids extracted from the ceramic sherds, gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS) and gas chromatography combustion-isotope ratio mass spectrometry (GC-C-IRMSO) were used.
The analyses revealed that the bowls had contained meat-based foods, and possibly also dairy- and plant-based products. Evidence also indicates that the contents were in liquid form, leading researchers to suggest that stews or broths containing bone and marrow were stored inside – meals that would have been produced at some economic expense.
Professor Claudia Glatz from the University of Glasgow, and director of the Shakhi Kora excavations, said that their findings ‘demonstrate that there is significant local variation in the ways in which Beveled Rim Bowls were used across Mesopotamia and what foods were served in them, challenging overly state-centric models of early social complexity.’
‘Our results point towards a great deal of local agency in the adoption and re-interpretation of the function and social symbolism of objects,’ Glatz continued. ‘As a result, they open up exciting new avenues of research on the role of food and foodways in the development, negotiation, and possible rejection of the early state at the regional and local level.’