Ancient tombs reveal the heavy tax burden in the Assyrian empire, where the poor became increasingly poor

For more than seven centuries, from about 1350 B.C. to 600 BCE, the Assyrian Empire established a political dominance and cultural influence that extended over numerous settlements throughout the ancient Near East. Resource extraction policies, such as taxes and fees, have been extensively analyzed through textual and artistic sources. Now a recent study, conducted by researcher Petra M. Creamer of the Department of Middle East and South Asian Studies at Emory University, Atlanta, reveals new insights into the impact of these policies on wealth patterns through the analysis of burial materials, one of the most conservative and deeply rooted elements of group identity.

The researcher suggests that a trend toward a decline in both the quality and quantity of burial goods over time supports models that emphasize the heavy economic burden of Assyrian rule on its subjects. This comprehensive study provides a new perspective on how the extractive practices of the Assyrian Empire significantly affected lower social classes, reflected in funerary traditions.

The resource extraction policy of the Assyrian Empire was primarily aimed at the continued expansion and maintenance of the empire, which generated an increasing dependence on resources for both subsistence (agriculture and livestock) and exchange (precious goods and specialized services). Compared to other contemporary empires, Assyrian mechanisms of extraction involved an intensification of the use of labor, land use, and capital accumulation. Parallel examples can be found in the Inca Empire of South America, where similar strategies included taxing forced labor, stockpiling agricultural surpluses, and controlling artisanal production.

A comparison of regions of the Assyrian Empire expected to pay tribute and regions expected to offer 'gifts' to the imperial core
A comparison of regions of the Assyrian Empire expected to pay tribute and regions expected to offer ‘gifts’ to the imperial core. Credit: Petra M. Creamer

The Assyrian Empire employed a variety of flexible strategies inherited from the second millennium BC, including the imposition of tribute as a first step in provincial administration. Within the empire’s territories, provincial governors oversaw the collection of taxes, which often took the form of food products such as grain and livestock.

To assess the impact of these policies on the population, Creamer examined Assyrian imperial tombs over time because burial practices, due to their resistance to change, can provide valuable clues about the evolution of socio-economic conditions. Analyzing the relative wealth of the tombs can identify variations that reflect influential external factors, such as the economic pressures imposed by imperial policies.

The researcher found that the decline in the quality and quantity of burial goods over time indicates an increasing economic burden on the communities subject to the empire, a phenomenon visible both in the imperial core and in the more central provinces is. The older, wealthier tombs, filled with high-quality and plentiful objects, are in stark contrast to the later, more modest tombs with fewer goods.

Creamer’s findings suggest that as the Assyrian Empire flourished and expanded its reach, the communities under its control experienced increasing inequality, reflected in the declining ability of individuals to invest in burial goods. That is, as the empire grew and expanded, the poor became poorer, and according to the researcher: the gap between the lower and upper classes in the Iron Age widened, where Assyrian subjects were significantly poorer than in the Late Bronze Age.

A comparison of regions of the Assyrian Empire expected to pay tribute and regions expected to offer 'gifts' to the imperial core
A comparison of regions of the Assyrian Empire expected to pay tribute and regions expected to offer ‘gifts’ to the imperial core. Credit: Petra M. Creamer

This pattern of declining prosperity is therefore directly attributed to the economic burden imposed by imperial resource extraction policies. Parallel evidence from inequality studies using other measures such as household size often shows a similar increase in inequality between the Late Bronze Age and the Iron Age.

A comparison of wealth in mortuary contexts between the two periods has shown that not only was there less wealth available to non-elites in the Iron Age, but that this applied to residents of the capital as well as those in the provincial centres.concludes the researcher.

The study sheds light on a crucial aspect of the impact of the Assyrian empire that has been overlooked in previous analyses. The resource extraction policies not only affected the immediate economy of the Assyrian provinces, but also had long-term consequences for cultural traditions and social structure. The decline in burial wealth over time is a clear indicator of how imperial demands depleted the resources available to local communities, imposing a burden that was reflected in even the most conservative aspects of the culture.


Creamer PM. Inequality in the distribution of wealth within imperial Assyrian tombs. Antiquity. doi:10.15184/aqy.2024.81

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