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Big Babylonian Dogs

Molossers were status symbols in the ancient Near East

The Near East is the geographical region that stretches from the eastern shore of the Mediterranean (modern Israel, Lebanon and Syria) to the Zagros Mountains that form the western edge of the Iranian plateau, as far north as Anatolia (modern Turkey) and south to the Persian/Arab Gulf.

The central portion of this region is called Mesopotamia (“the land between the rivers” – the Euphrates and the Tigris) and is roughly comparable to the modern state of Iraq.

This region was the wellspring of early urban civilizations that developed writing systems, accounting practices and legal codes, in addition to regularizing international trade as early as the third millennium BCE. The southern half of Mesopotamia, basically from modern Baghdad south to the Gulf, is generally called Babylonia, being named after the major city of Babylon. Babylonian can be applied to the people who lived there as well as their specific dialect.

The northern half of Mesopotamia is called Assyria. Its inhabitants, Assyrians, differed linguistically, culturally and religiously from the Babylonians. Over two millennia these two groups jockeyed for control of the entire area, at times expanding, sometimes contracting, depending on the skill of their various leaders as well as climate issues like droughts or floods.


The Earliest Mastiffs


Our earliest identifiable image of a mastiff comes from the 19th Century BCE and was found in Babylonia. Readers may be familiar with the big hunting dogs shown in the palace reliefs of the Assyrian king Assurbanipal (reigned 669-c. 631 BCE) at Nineveh and now in the British Museum. These relief date from the 7th Century BCE and so are substantially later than the early Babylonian examples.

The best-known Babylonian representation is a small carved stone figure excavated in 1904 at Telloh (ancient Girsu) in southern Iraq. This dog has the broad (brachycephalic) skull with short lop ears, the broad, blunt muzzle, pendent flews and dewlap, big chest, heavy bone and smooth coat that characterize the modern mastiff.


Telloh mastiff. Photos courtesy of the Musée du Louvre, Paris.



The sculpture bears an inscription:

For the goddess Ninisina, lady, good… wise physician, his lady,

for the life of Sumu-El, king of Ur,

Abba-duga, the lumakh priest, son of Urukagina, chief cantor of Girsu,

Dedicated to her with praise [this figurine] named “Faithful dog, a stand for a pot of life-giving medication.”

This dog is not associated with war, aggression or guarding, but with a goddess whose function is healing. The name of the king in whose honor the statuette was dedicated, Sumu-el, was king of Ur, another town in the region, from 1894 to 1866 BCE. Thus we have a secure date for this remarkable dog in the earlier 19th Century BCE. The black stone was imported, so this expensive gift emphasized the elite status of both the donor and the honoree.  


Stone mastiff statuette. Photo courtesy of Brooklyn Museum, New York. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Alistair B. Martin, the Guennol Collection, via Creative Commons.


Two other small stone mastiffs are known. The one in the Brooklyn Museum is carved of a variegated aragonite whose mottled surface suggests a brindle coat. The other sculpture, in the Near Eastern Museum in Berlin, is limestone and in a far more battered state. These two pieces do not have a documented provenance (point of origin), but are so close to the Telloh mastiff in size and style that they all must be part of the same “pack” — votive offerings or dedications by elite individuals in the earlier centuries of the second millennium BCE.


Status Symbols


Mastiffs (in Sumerian, ur-gi7-gal-gal —literally, “very big dogs”) are not necessarily easy to keep. They need sufficient high-quality food, and their body type is maladapted to the climate of southern Mesopotamia. The large, solid body, with its short, wide muzzle, does not disperse body heat as efficiently as do the lean, gracile bodies of the gazehounds, whose images appeared in art thousands of years earlier. Only someone with abundant resources could keep and breed mastiffs in Babylonia.

Most depictions of mastiffs were not stone but were made in the decidedly less costly medium of baked clay. They are not fully shaped figures in the round, but flat plaques of a small size, made in an open mold and rarely exceeding five inches in height. These plaques belong to a common, though little understood, class of objects well known from Old Babylonian sites, where they are found in both public places like temples as well as private homes.


Clay plaque with barking mastiff. Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art via Open Access. 


Made in multiples, the canine imagery of the plaques differs from the sculptures. Most plaques depict a single male mastiff with braided or otherwise decorated collar. Occasionally a standing or striding male appears with the dog, sometimes holding a line or leash attached to the collar.


Clay plaque with mastiff and man. © Trustees of the British Museum via Creative Commons.


These humble works are clearly of a different class than the beautifully carved stone sculptures. No known plaque depicts the mastiff with a deity or with a woman. There is no reference to the healing arts or a goddess. The only oblique reference may be found in a series of plaques showing a mastiff bitch nursing four fat puppies.


Clay plaque with mastiff bitch nursing puppies. Photo courtesy of Musée du Louvre, Paris.


Why do these clay mastiff plaques appear only in the Old Babylonian period (19th-17th centuries BCE)?

The late 19th-Century BCE was a period of turmoil in the Near East as a variety of military men jostled for power. These warlords and chieftains joined in ever-shifting alliances with members of a non-local group who called themselves Amorites. This was a tribal identity, though their nomadic pastoral origins were long past.

A clever and accomplished Amorite strategist named Hammurabi — who reigned from 1792 to 1750 BCE — eventually achieved control over most of the region and chose as his base the important city of Babylon. With the military and political successes of Hammurabi came a change in the social structure of Babylonia: The most important inhabitants were now called awilum, Amorite people distinct from — and more important than — freemen (muškēnum). The distinction between awilum and muškēnum was one of class and rank, not necessarily wealth. Both classes, however, were superior to a wardum, or slave.

The privatization of the previous temple-oriented economic institutions coupled with the altered societal structures led to, among other things, a problem of personal debt. The old social dynamics were overturned, and situations developed in which city-based merchants could be wealthier than land-rich awilum but could not share their higher status; conversely, the merchant could go bankrupt and become a debt-client — in effect, a wardum. Added to this uncertainty was the absorption of most religious imagery to the Amorite ruler Hammurabi. Only he could address the gods directly.


Basalt stele with law code showing Hammurabi receiving legal authority from the sun god Shamash. Photo by Maurice and Pierre Chuzeville, courtesy of the Musée du Louvre, Paris.


All these shifts in society necessitated new ways of indicating, if obliquely, one’s social rank or affiliation. Images of prestigious dogs may have been one solution.


Cultural Evolution


Big dogs have long been signifiers of class and rank. In Europe, such dogs, often called guard dogs, were also the signifiers of high status and wealth. They protected the residence and property of the wealthy owner, often by virtue of their appearance alone.

The entry of Thomas Becket into Paris in 1158 to negotiate a royal betrothal between Henry II’s son “Young” Henry and Margaret, daughter of the king of France, Louis VII, was recorded by William FitzStephen (died 1191), an eyewitness, who wrote in Vita Sancti Thomae:

In his company he had some 200 horsemen… all in ordered ranks … He had 12 sumpter horses and 8 chests of table places, gold and silver… Every horse had a groom in smart turn-out; every chariot had a fierce great mastiff on a leash standing in the cart or walking behind it …

These dogs were not necessary to guard the betrothal gifts, but were a statement of the status of Henry II, the giver of the gifts.

Four hundred years later, the same conflation of protection and status is seen in the large dog in the lower right corner of Diego Velázquez’s royal portrait of the Infanta Margaret Theresa with her attendants painted in 1656 and usually called Las Meninas. The dog is thought to be descended from two mastiffs from Lyme Hall in Cheshire, given by James I of England to Philip III of Spain in 1604. The dog’s presence near the Infanta and her attendants invokes not just protection and status, but international affiliations as well.


Las Meninas ("The Ladies in Waiting") by Diego Velázquez. Oil on canvas, 1656. Museo del Prado, Madrid. Source: Wikimedia.


Thus, the big Babylonian mastiffs may be seen as a badge of the awilum class, for they had status and property to protect. Or perhaps they were a sign of a wealthy muškēnum affiliated with, and patronized by, the awilum class. The plaques that depict these mastiffs do not show them guarding houses or attacking robbers. Their significance is symbolic or aspirational, not anecdotal.

The depiction of these great mastiffs, which served as status markers, guardians and undoubtedly as pets, ended with the waning of Amorite power in Babylonia. By then there were other ways of indicating one’s rank. Surely the ur-gi7-gal-gal, the big Babylonian dogs, continued to be bred, and used, but there was no longer a reason for them to appear in art. The culture had changed.



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