Losing One's Head in the Ancient Near East: Interpretation and Meaning of Decapitation, 1st Edition (Hardback) book cover

Losing One's Head in the Ancient Near East

Interpretation and Meaning of Decapitation, 1st Edition

By Rita Dolce


92 pages

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pub: 2017-12-20
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In the Ancient Near East, cutting off someone’s head was a unique act, not comparable to other types of mutilation, and therefore charged with a special symbolic and communicative significance. This book examines representations of decapitation in both images and texts, particularly in the context of war, from a trans-chronological perspective that aims to shed light on some of the conditions, relationships and meanings of this specific act. The severed head is a “coveted object” for the many individuals who interact with it and determine its fate, and the act itself appears to take on the hallmarks of a ritual. Drawing mainly on the evidence from Anatolia, Syria and Mesopotamia between the third and first millennia BC, and with reference to examples from prehistory to the Neo-Assyrian Period, this fascinating study will be of interest not only to art historians, but to anyone interested in the dynamics of war in the ancient world.


"Building on a vast documentary record that covers the entire Syro-Mesopotamian tradition, Dolce's analysis offers an in-depth study in visual semiotics. She identifies specific 'semantic codes' and an explicit syntactical organization, through which a strong message was conveyed by means of visual imagery. This is iconology at its best: by highlighting the coherence of a representational program, and drawing on parallel written statements, our sensitivity is trained to appreciate the 'intrinsic meaning' of a topos such as the action of beheading – a topos with a valence that goes well beyond that of other types of mutilation precisely because of its ideological import."

Giorgio Buccellati, University of California Los Angeles, USA

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations



Image Credits



Chapter I

I.1. From the Distant Past to the Recent Past

I.2. An Unrepeatable Act

I.3. The Headless Body: Anonymity/Identity

Chapter II

II.1. Exclusivity/Multiplicity

II.2. Exhibition/Quantification

Chapter III

III.1. What Happens to the "Coveted Object"?

III.2. Destinations/Motivations

III.3. Exhibition and Multivalence

Chapter IV

IV.1. Severed Heads and Birds of Prey

IV.2. Eannatum of Lagash and the Birds of Prey

IV.3. Mari and the Birds of Prey

IV.4. Sargon I of Akkad and the Birds of Prey

IV.5. Dadusha of Eshnunna and the Birds of Prey

IV.6. The Assyrians and the Birds of Prey

Chapter V

V.1. Moving Through Space and Time

V.2. How Does the Head Travel?

Chapter VI

VI.1. "Other" Decapitations in Times of War

VI.2. What Happens to the Severed Heads of Statues?

VI.3. Moving Through Space and Time

VI.4. Annihilation/Catharsis



About the Author

Rita Dolce is Associate Professor of Archaeology and History of Near Eastern Cultures and Fine Arts at the Università degli Studi Roma Tre, Italy, and a member of the Italian Archaeological Mission in Syria, where she has excavated for 40 years at the site of Tell Mardikh-Ebla. Her research interests lie mainly in the figurative art, urban topography and architecture of the third millennium BC in Mesopotamia and Syria. She has written numerous books and articles focusing particularly on visual communication as the language of power and a means of dissemination in the societies of the Ancient Near East, and on the urban origins of Ebla, its palatial culture and the structure and significance of cult places in this important Early Syrian kingdom.

About the Series

Studies in the History of the Ancient Near East

Advisory Board of Associate Editors

Ra’anan Boustan, University of California, Los Angeles, USA; Zeba Crook, Carleton University, Canada; Elizabeth DePalma Digeser, University of California at Santa Barbara, USA; Matthew Gibbs, University of Winnipeg, Canada; John Lee, University of California at Santa Barbara, USA; Harry Munt, University of York, UK; Richard Payne, Oriental Institute, University of Chicago, USA; Lucy Wadeson, Université Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium; Philip Wood, Aga Khan University, London, UK; Alan Lenzi, University of the Pacific, USA.


Studies in the History of the Ancient Near East provides a global forum for works addressing the history and culture of the Ancient Near East, spanning a broad period from the foundation of civilisation in the region until the end of the Abbasid period. The series includes research monographs, edited works, collections developed from conferences and workshops, and volumes suitable for the university classroom.

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Subject Categories

BISAC Subject Codes/Headings:
HISTORY / Ancient / General
SOCIAL SCIENCE / Archaeology