Given that sheep and goats formed the economic basis (as far as fauna are concerned) of the sacred economy in the ancient Near East, one would expect creative uses of such animals. That is, one used every conceivable part of the animal, and the animals performed all manner of functions. Some would be expected – fibre, milk, meat, bones – others less so. Such as:

If a woman quarrelled with her man, she could seek to overcome his anger by knifing a sheep, touching its death wound, holding a magnet in her right hand and an iron boat in the left – not to forget the necessary prayer to the goddess Ishtar. Why? Her man’s anger would be as dead as the sheep and he would – like the iron boat – find her magnetism simply irresistible.

More intriguing is the ritual for the man with a twinge of regret for intercourse with a goat. Yes, there is a ritual for this too. It goes:

You take hair from the she-goat. On the roof, before Shamash, you tie up a virgin she-goat and you take hair from a she-goat whose hair and body are red. You lay them out before the virgin she-goat and pour a libation of beer over them.

Of course one wonders why, but it may well be that the opposition between one’s recent dalliance and the goat with whom one has not copulated, along with the opposition between the colours red and white (hair from the respective goats), all point to the wish for separation.

It goes on:

You tie that hair up in a linen cloth. You put it on the ground before Shamash. You kneel on it and say as follows … You say this three times and report your doings and then prostrate yourself. You throw that linen cloth into the gate of a beer distributor and after fifteen days you remove it. The gain of the beer distributor will be diminished but the omen will stand to one side and its evil will not approach the man and his household.

Why a beer distributor? Not only was beer a crucial product of agriculture, perhaps one of the reasons why human beings gathered together in the first place, but it may also be due to the fact that the goddess Ishtar was the patron of both goats and sex.

What is the dominant institutional form of the ancient economy? Trade, tribute, plunder, debt? Wrong on all counts. Given that 95% of people were engaged in agriculture, that’s where we need to look. But did those entrepreneurial farmers produce surpluses of wool, meat, milk and grains to flog off to the highest seller, as Adam Smith would have us believe and a goodly number of archaeologists? Not at all. They were more interested in subsistence survival, which was the dominant institutional form.

Apart from grains, animals were the key. The typical herd had 67% sheep and 33% goats. Why? Sheep produce wool and meat in high volume, but they are less versatile in adverse conditions. Goats, on the other hand, are very versatile, keeping their body weight with a third of the regular diet and able to deal with water shortages and temperature extremes. And they are pretty good value for meat, milk and fibres. The mix ensured that if one part of the herd picked up a disease, the other part would still be there until the numbers return. They both breed well. The herd was culled regularly at all ages to keep its size manageable and the herd healthy. Surpluses? A small surplus in a good year was kept over for tough times that would definitely follow.

As Marx pointed out in the third volume of capital, specific items may turn up in different modes of production. But their function and relation to other items is very different. This feature shows up in all sorts of contexts: medieval Europe, Russia until the early 20th century, the early European settlers in North America, pre-Ottoman and Ottoman times, and many more. Imagine my surprise, then, when I came across a herd in Transylvania last week. The sheep and goats mingled with one another, were multi-coloured, and were in a ratio of 67-33%. It left me wondering about the best approach to animal husbandry in the quicksands of economic crisis.

The Sumerians kept four major breeds of sheep: udu a-lum, (udu) gukkal, udu kur-ra, and udu uli-gi.

It comes from a book called Animal Husbandry. The clarity, simplicity, transparency and immediate sense for the common reader is something for which I have been striving for many a decade.

Every now and then you come across an absolute gem of a book – in this case in relation to my ‘sacred economy’ project. The delight is always more exquisite when that gem is buried beneath a title like Animal Husbandry in Ancient Israel: A Zooarchaeological Perspective on Livestock Exploitation, Herd Management and Economic Strategies (Equinox, 2011). Written by Aharon Sasson, it has that tinder-dry, wooden style that threatens to flare up into a major bushfire at any moment.

What does he argue? Basically, you are what you eat. He means this not in terms of some faddish diet-conscious modernity, desperately struggling against flab. No, what you eat provides a window into economic practice and class differentiation. Sasson’s method – a relatively new one – is to analyse the remains of animal bones across all available archaeological sites. Laced in with comparative, spatial, sagittal and ethnographic approaches, is a battery of sophisticated chemical, physical and computer analysis.

The results:

1. Throughout bronze and iron age Levant, no one was engaged in producing basic goods for profit-driven ‘market’ exchange. Nomads did not ‘trade’ with sedentary agriculturalists; rural areas did not ‘trade’ their wares with the towns. This flies in the face of some half a century of assumptions by historians and archaeologists, who based their arguments on pure speculation, no evidence and not a little desire to make these ancient Palestinians and Mesopotamians nascent capitalists.

2. The basic economic strategy was subsistence survival. This requires a very different approach to economic life.

a. Optimal rather than maximal preservation of resources. Optimal means below carrying capacity in terms of water, arable and pasture lands, livestock and population size.

b. Small surpluses were kept as insurance against bad years rather than generated for sale and profit.

c. Every part of the animal was used rather than a particular product (meat, wool or milk) for trading.

d. The preferred mode of life was pastoral-nomadism, since this is the best way to survive in marginal ecological situations.

e. The key, however, is flock composition. The bone records show that the herds were primarily goats and sheep (caprines). Why? The flock composition of caprines averages out at no more than 67% sheep and 33% goats. Why? The aim was herd security and survival. Goats are very flexible in terms of feed, water and climate, while sheep are less so. However, sheep provide significant food and the vital element of wool. Both species breed quickly and well, so recovery from herd calamity (disease etc.) is easier. The mixed herds also mean that disease in one breed does not necessarily affect the other.

What about bovines? Very few turn up and the ones that do are mature animals. The reason is that they were used for ploughing. But you need only a few for that; any more and you threaten the subsistence survival requirements, since bovines use a shitload of water and fodder.

And the pigs? Very few pig bones turn up, which has of course led a good number to argue that the religious taboo (cultural-ideological factor) was already in force. Sasson simply points out that pigs are a poor option when subsistence survival is the key: they need to be watered daily, cannot manage temperature variations and do not move well. Eventually, this practical economic issue gave rise to the religious taboo.

All of which is extremely satisfying, since I have always had a hunch that ‘trade’ for profit was a not a consistent feature of the ancient Near East. What minimal exchange there was turns out to involve the acquisition of a few preciosities rather any form of bulk agricultural produce. To give but one example: I am sure that the pastoral nomads of the Levant would have looked forward to sampling Solomon’s latest shipment of ivory, apes, and peacocks (1 Kings 10:22). Just like all those medieval European peasants hanging out for the latest silk fashions coming along the Silk Road.

The state elections are under way in Schleswig-Holstein (my maternal ancestral home), where I was shown this intriguing poster during a brief stop in Lübeck:

It may be a new farmers’ party, with branches in, say, New Zealand or Russia (home to the largest number of sheep in the world). Or perhaps it taps into that German romanticist tradition. But pirates? (ht ag).

Should you (as Deane Galbraith did recently) wish to contact Tezza himself – now at the University of Lancaster – then you will eventually stumble on this page, where the following appears:

PLEASE NOTE: Terry Eagleton does not use email. If you wish to contact him please write to him at his departmental address: Professor Terry Eagleton, Department of English & Creative Writing, County College, Lancaster University, Lancaster LA1 4YD, UK.

However, being an inventive sort of chap and being too polite to contact Eagleton’s (fifth) wife, Deane chatted with his good friend, who suggested the following approach:

Creative writing? That’s pushing it a little, Tezza …

One of the highlights of last year was a bicycle ride from Groningen (Netherlands) to Haraldsted (Denmark), almost 700 km through the old Greater Frisia – my ancestral home. Apart from the endless canals and dykes, one can’t help noticing sheep: you ride through sheep shit, they wander along the dykes, they share your lunch …

And, naturally, you begin speculating about about sheep’s udders – as your mind wanders while your body works hard all day on the bike. The older bosoms sag and hang, while the younger ones, with less years of farmers pulling on them for the precious milk, are fuller and rounder. And I wonder without titillation: does one distinguish between A-cup, B-cup and C-cup for sheep?