When an ancient bathtub is not for bathing
Archaeological artifacts are not always what they appear to be, and our lived experiences can deceive us when we determine functions and uses of artifacts from the distant past. An ancient bathtub, for example, may not have necessarily been used for personal hygiene.
Writing for the Spring 2023 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Laura B. Mazow looks at what most of us would call an ancient bathtub, only to conclude that this tub from the ancient Philistine city of Ekron (and many more tub-shaped artifacts from the Levant) were not originally used for bathing but for textile manufacture.
An associate professor in anthropology at East Carolina University, Mazow has been studying ancient technologies, and her research focuses on textile production in particular. In her article “Why All Tubs Are Not Bathtubs,” she provides an overview of the different types of vats and tubs from the ancient Near East and the larger Mediterranean world and explores the idea that not every ancient bathtub was in fact a bathing installation.
Mazow acknowledges that “bath-shaped vessels—typically made of ceramic, stone, or metal—are known from many sites across the ancient Near East. The earliest examples, dating to the 18th century BCE, come from the palace of King Zimri-Lim at the site of Mari in eastern Syria.” She then proceeds to describe three major types:
The first is elliptical to hourglass-shaped, with four handles or lugs—two on either of the long sides. […] The second type is rectangular or triangular, with one short straight wall opposite a rounded wall. […] Most of the ones found in Israel and Jordan are of this type and date from the eighth through sixth centuries BCE, when the region was under heavy Assyrian influence. The third type appears at Hellenistic and Roman period sites. It has a raised seat at one end and a sunken depression at the other, with no visible handles.
An ancient bathtub of the third type is well demonstrated with the terracotta exemplar from Greece, shown below.
Were all these vessels bathtubs? Surely not. The problem with identifying these vessels as bathtubs is in the circular argument that identifies them as ancient bathtubs because they were allegedly found in “bathrooms,” while such rooms were identified as bathrooms solely because of the presence of a tub. Trying to overcome this systemic bias, Mazow looked at artifacts and installations associated with tubs in their archaeological context. Intriguingly, the bath-shaped vessels often appeared associated with tools used in textile manufacture.
“I asked myself: How might a large basin function in the ancient textile industry? And there it was,” describes Mazow of her breakthrough. Starting with Sumerian writings in the late third millennium BCE, texts from the ancient Near East mention fullers—professionals involved in wool fulling, which is a process of beating woven woolen cloth to cause the opposing fibers to interlock and form a stronger weave that is more resistant to wind and water. This was done in large basins, using hot water and detergent. Belonging to the second type as described above, the Iron Age tub from Tel Jezreel (see below) could have been one such installation, before it was reused as a coffin.
Indeed, the archaeological context of many bath-shaped vessels suggests craft production. Scientific examination of selected tubs seems to support this revised interpretation, as “organic residue analysis on several eighth- and seventh-century BCE tubs from sites in Israel, Jordan, and Turkey identified a compound similar to date palm oil, which is traditionally used as a soap for washing textiles.”
Although some bath-shaped vessels were used for bathing, large numbers of ancient tubs in museum and archaeological collections were clearly used in textile manufacture and functioned as vats for washing laundry, fulling, and tanning.
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This article was first published in BHD on April 26, 2023.
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