Aromatics of all kinds: Cuboid incense burners in the ancient Near East from the late Third to the late First Millenia BC

William Gerard Zimmerle, University of Pennsylvania


Cuboid incense burners were first identified as räucherkästchen or smoking-burning boxes, by the German archaeologist Robert Koldewey in the 1901 Deutsche Orient- Gesellschaft excavation season at Babylon. This dissertation examines the form and function of a catalogued assemblage of excavated incense burners from southern Mesopotamia, Arabia and the Levant from 2250 BC at R’as al-Jinz until the end of the First Millennium BC. The study argues that the form of the four-legged incense burner was bi-directionally exchanged along overland trade routes to the west, and through seafaring routes via the Arabian Gulf and the Euphrates River to the east. From every quadrant of the Middle East, their local reproduction was an attempt to emulate räucherkästchen indigenous to the Arabian Peninsula under the economic guise of Mesopotamian empires controlling the "invisible" yet lucrative trade in aromatic gum- resins. After first presenting the historical background to the ancient Near East for trading frankincense and all kinds of aromatics from the Third through the late First Millennium BC, a new typological standard for portable cuboid burners from the Levant and Mesopotamia is evaluated through the lens of the types of incense burners that were available from Southeastern Arabia. In the final section, the investigation concludes with ethnographic analogies collected by the author from the Dhofar, the southernmost region of the Sultanate of Oman, where frankincense (Boswellia-sacra) trees are cultivated. This region, where environmental factors favor the development of a domestic ceramic specialization, is also known for its terra-cotta cuboid incense burners [mibkhara/mibakhirah; majmar/maj amirah], which are crafted today in a similar form and style as in the Pre-Islamic past. From interviews conducted on the ground, potters revealed important information on how they crafted incense burners from local clays, using wooden tools to impress geometric patterns culled from the architectural surroundings onto the central fields of view, the most important spaces of the cuboid incense burners. From such evidence, it was concluded that the iconic legacy of the incense burner in the Arabian Peninsula today attests to the importance of this manifold artifact-type as a holdover of domestic material culture whose fumigation functions were multifaceted in antiquity.

Subject Area

Archaeology|Near Eastern Studies|Ancient history

Recommended Citation

Zimmerle, William Gerard, "Aromatics of all kinds: Cuboid incense burners in the ancient Near East from the late Third to the late First Millenia BC" (2014). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3671000.