Saturday 15th September BAS AGM & Lecture:
The Donkey in Human History: an Archaeological Perspective
by Professor Peter Mitchell, St. Hugh’s College, University of Oxford
Donkeys are the forgotten domesticate. Notwithstanding an association with people that is at least 7000 years old, they are frequently lost sight of by both archaeologists and historians, in part a reflection of the low social status that they – and those keeping them today – are accorded. My book -The Donkey in Human History- is an attempt to redress this situation by exploring the range of connections between donkeys and people since their first domestication in Northeast Africa in the fifth/sixth millennia BC. It does so in a series of chapters investigating the role of the donkey in transport, trade, agriculture, and other endeavours in Egypt, the Near East, the Classical and medieval worlds, and the New Worlds (especially in the Americas) that opened up after 1492.
Summarising these themes, the talk focuses on three examples of the donkey’s importance. The first of these concerns Christ’s entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, effected not on a ‘humble ass’ as popularly conceived, but on a pure-bred animal rich in millennial-old traditions linking donkeys, kingship, and the divine. These associations are traced across the Near Eastern Bronze Age, including the vital importance of donkeys – and donkey hybrids – as pack-animals in long-distance trade networks and as the first animals to pull wheeled vehicles.
The talk’s second example turns to Rome and the role of the donkey (and its offspring the mule) in supporting Rome’s armies, as well as other systems of transport and communication. Archaeological evidence that the Roman state may have taken a direct interest in mule production is one of the topics discussed.
The talk then turns to the impact of mules and donkeys as hidden – but vital – actors in the logistical networks that powered Spain’s American empire, especially the production and transport of silver, and thus contributed to the processes of economic and social change that helped shape the emergence of the modern world.
As these examples show, the donkey’s historical trajectory in human societies has seen a gradual loss of elite and ritual associations in favour of emphasising its connections with the poor, the rural and the disadvantaged. Thinking about donkeys – and other animals – from this standpoint forces us to consider the ways in which both animals and people have been thought about, linked and treated by others, as well as requiring us to examine how far they should be attributed an historical agency of their own, rather than amply thought of (or overlooked) as passive, mute tools of their human masters.
Download AGM agenda here
2.00 pm for 2.30 pm at the RISC Centre, London Street, Reading RG1 4PS
Google map reference
Image from a 5th C mosaic in the imperial palace, Constantinople. The reproduction is part of a collection of reproductions compiled by The Yorck Project. The compilation copyright is held by Zenodot Verlagsgesellschaft mbH and licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License.