Bioarchaeology of the Near East, 15:25-54 (2021)

Bird species diversity in 3rd millennium B.C. Mesopotamia: The case of the Al-Ubaid bird frieze from the Temple of Ninhursag

Marcin Z. Paszke

Department of Mediterranean Archaeology,
Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology, University of Gdańsk
ul. Bielańska 5, 80-851 Gdańsk, Poland

Abstract: The present paper elaborates on the morphological features of limestone birds depicted on the famous Al-Ubaid frieze, dated to c. 2400 B.C. and discovered in southern Mesopotamia in the vicinity of the ancient city of Ur. The main purpose of this paper is to identify wild bird species that could have been the original sources of inspiration for the birds depicted on the Al-Ubaid frieze. The popular belief identifying the Al-Ubaid birds with ducks has to be abandoned due to the vivid differences in the varied morphologies of the body, head, and neck of the investigated birds. The research presented suggests that some of the Al-Ubaid birds have traits characteristic of short-neck geese or coots, both waterfowl species. Some of the Al-Ubaid birds may be also be regarded as pigeons or doves. This idea was developed by analyzing some selected traits of the Columbidae encountered on the Al-Ubaid bird frieze. The findings confirm that there exists a demonstrable problem with a proper identification of geese, ducks, swans and pigeons in ancient Mesopotamian art, a challenge that likely results from the lack of ornithological approach in the historical and archaeological discourse.

Key words: ducks; geese; pigeons and doves; Mesopotamian birds; Mesopotamian avifauna

Received 7 November 2018; accepted 28 November 2021; published online 31 December 2021.

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