Death and Empire: The Genesis and Expression of Imperial Identity via Assyrian Mortuary Contexts

Petra M Creamer, University of Pennsylvania


The ancient Assyrian Empire at its greatest extent in the 7th century BCE, spanned almost one million square kilometers. As the world’s first regional-scale empire, it established control over many pre-existing settlements, drawing them into the fold of not only Assyrian political dominance, but Assyrian cultural influence. In the Middle Assyrian period—from the very beginning of Assyrian expansion in the 14th c. BCE to the collapse of the Bronze Age in the 11th c. BCE—the Assyrian empire underwent its first phases of expansion. After a brief period of contraction, the Neo-Assyrian period saw the culmination of this expansion, exploding outward to Western Iran in the east and Egypt in the west in the 8th and 7th centuries, before its fall in 609 BCE. Undoubtedly, this new Assyrian presence, known to us mainly through extensive provincial administration records, affected the local populations of new provincial centers from the inception of control onwards. The question I then ask is, to what extent were these populations affected by Assyrian culture, and was it enough to change the way they perceived themselves? I address these questions through an analysis of mortuary material, arguing that grave contents provide a unique avenue to explore cultural identity. Mortuary material is one of the most conservative forms of culture; it is deeply rooted in tradition, personal belief systems, and group identity. This dissertation argues that this long period saw the rise of a distinct Assyrian imperial identity through examination of mortuary data from both central and provincial sites within the Assyrian Empire. Middle and Neo-Assyrian burials from three geographically-broad areas serve as case studies: Aššur, as the cultural capital of the empire and our main source for the development of Assyrian mortuary practices; Tell Billa, as a major provincial site on the edge of the Assyrian core; and sites of the Balikh and Khabur rivers, located at the furthest edges of early Assyrian control. I argue that that distance from the empire’s center explains differences in how “Assyrian” provincial burial practices became, with Assyrian culture permeating in varying degrees through the local, non-elite populations. Ultimately, I conclude that the inhabitants of the provincial sites began to view themselves as authentically “Assyrian” in the late Neo-Assyrian period.

Subject Area

Archaeology|Near Eastern Studies|Ancient history

Recommended Citation

Creamer, Petra M, "Death and Empire: The Genesis and Expression of Imperial Identity via Assyrian Mortuary Contexts" (2021). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI28493356.