Open Sesame (Sesamum indicum L.): exploring its modern and ancient exploitation in Iraq

Working on various archaeological fieldworks in Iraqi Kurdistan, I was offered by E. Qader to visit the city of Amedi, well known for the traditional production of tahini, a sesame seed paste. As an archaeobotanist, I took this formidable opportunity to report how farmers cultivate sesame in this region and to learn how the seeds become this delicious paste. But as indicated by archaeological evidence, the use of sesame is not new in Iraq. In the view of data collected in Amedi, I explore archaeological records highlighting the presence and processing of sesame in Mesopotamia.

Sesame cultivation in the region of Amedi

Sesame is an annual herb from the Pedaliaceae family which grows 60–150 cm tall and produces capsules containing several seeds (figure 1a&b). It is originally from East Africa and Asia and can bear high temperature and drought stress. Sesame seeds have a significant economic importance and are consumed worldwide, including in Iraq where it is one of the major crops cultivated in both, northern and southern regions. The seeds are sprinkled on breads, pressed into oil or ground into paste to make halva and tahini.

Fig. 1a: Plant of sesame with its capsules.
Fig. 1b: Sesame capsules containing the seeds arranged in rows.

Amedi is a small town located in the governorate of Duhok, c. 17 km from the Turkish border (figure 2). The town lies on the top of a small plateau that emerges from a large valley situated in the Upper Zagros at an altitude of 1200 m. The climate is of Mediterranean type with mean annual rainfall of c. 900 mm, with a high intra-annual variability (figure 3) but allowing the development of a forest vegetation. Farmers cultivate wheat and barley, a wide range of vegetables but also tobacco and sesame.

Fig. 2: The town of Amedi, lying on the top of plateau.
Fig. 3: Graph presenting monthly average precipitations and temperatures, recorded at Amedi.

In the surroundings of Amedi, including the nearby village of Havendka, farmers cultivate small plots of sesame [approximately 200 x 10m]. One of them explained us that they usually start to prepare the land in May by ploughing, followed by broadcast sowing of the 1kg of seeds mixed with sand to facilitate even distribution across the plot. The field is left undisturbed until July to avoid encouragement of weeds. In July, they remove the weeds by hand and begin irrigation. There is a second round of weeding in August and regular watering [a total of 4-5 per growing season] from July to the harvest. The harvesting season occurs in September-October when the plants are uprooted (Fig. 4), gathered in bundles and sun-dried for ten days standing in the field to allow the seed capsules to ripen. The stems are then gently shaken by hand to release the seeds onto a plastic sheet (Fig. 5a & b). As usually only the seeds from the upper half of the capsule are collected by this process, the plants are allowed to dry for 3 more days and the process is repeated. After that, the seeds are collected and sieved (approx. 4mm) directly in the field to remove the coarse undesirable material, such as leaves, capsule fragments or arable weed seeds (figure 6). These by-products as well as the stems are then burnt or occasionally they are cut into small pieces and given as fodder for sheep. The field yielded on average 150-200kg of seeds. The same field can be used for another year of sesame growing but then the crop has to be moved to another field to allow the soil to rest.

Fig. 4: Uprooted plant let to dry for a few days.

Fig. 5a: Farmer shaking the dried bundle to release the seeds from the capsules.
Fig. 5b: Product (seeds) obtained before sieving.

Fig. 6: By-products (‘waste’) including emptied capsules, fragments of stems, leave, weeds, etc. after sieving in the field.

Tahini production in Amedi

At Amedi, a significant proportion of the harvested sesame is used to produce tahini. There are currently two family-run factories that use the same traditional process and the following description is based on information provided by Haiwar Ibrahim, owner of one of them. Fibre bags containing the sesame seeds are soaked in fresh water for 2 days (Fig. 7) before the seeds are gently ground to remove their seed coat (husk) (Fig. 8).

Fig. 7: Bags containing the sesame seeds (obtained after preliminary sieving in the field) soaking in fresh water for 2 days.
Fig. 8: Gentle grinding aiming at dehusking the seeds.

The separated embryos (endosperm) and seed coats (testa) are placed in a basin filled with salted water, where the seed coats sink to the bottom of the basin and the embryos float on the surface. The floating embryos can easily be collected with a strainer (Fig. 9) before being placed in a double kiln (mainly using pinewood) to be dried and toasted (Fig. 10). The toasted seeds are then sieved through a fine mesh sieve to remove remaining impurities (Fig. 11).

Fig. 9: Embryos and seed coats soaked into salted water to separate them: embryos (dehusked seeds) are floating whereas seed coats (husks) are sinking to the bottom of the basin. Embryos are collected with a strainer.
Fig. 10: Embryos are placed in a double kiln (mainly using local pinewood) to be dried and toasted.

Fig. 11: Toasted seeds sieved one more time to remove impurities.

The last step of the tahini production consists in grinding the seeds. In Amedi channel diverting water from the river has been constructed to feed a hydraulic system located above the factory (Fig. 12). The water pressure rotates the water millstone, and the seeds are poured into the centre of rotating upper stone and ground into a paste that is collected in a pot placed on the floor below the stones (Fig. 13a & b). Interestingly, a document published c. 1892 reported the production of sesame oil in Syria, following the same process as the one used in Amedi today.

Sesame is also widely cultivated in Syria, where, in preparing the oil, the grain is soaked in water for 24 hrs, and then placed in an oblong pot, coated with cement, on which two men work a wooden hammer of 20 lb. weight …. Efforts are not made to mash the kernels. The skins are separated in a tub of water, salted to a degree sufficient to float an egg. The bran sinks, while the kernels remain on the surface. The sesame seeds are now broiled in an oven, and sent to the mill to be ground. From the millstone the oil drops into a jar, and is thick, of a dark yellow colour, and sweet.

Law’s Grocer’s Manual, c. 1892
Fig. 12: Hydraulic system above the factory. A small hole located at the bottom of the basin allows the water to fall down.

Fig. 13a: Rotating millstones. Fig. 13b: Tahini paste collected and filtered before storage.

Archaeological evidence of sesame in ancient Mesopotamia

Despite the importance of tahini in modern Iraq, sesame is not native from the region. Earliest archaeological evidence come from India and consist in a possible single starch grain and seeds dated to the Mesolithic period (c. 5600-5000 cal. BCE) (García-Granero et al., 2016; Shinde, 2008). These discoveries suggest the exploitation of wild sesame (Sesamum cf. malabaricum). But most of the archaeobotanical records are dated to the second half of the 3rd mill. BCE (2600-2000 cal. BCE), and originate from sites in the Indus Valley. This period also marks the beginning of its spread out of its natural distribution – likely through trading networks – with evidence of sesame in Mesopotamia in the Early Dynastic III occupation of Abu Salabikh (Fig. 14), c. 2650-2500 cal. BCE (Charles, 1993, 1988). Seeds were recovered in various spaces of the House 6H (Charles, 2022), indicating the crop was associated with domestic activities. During the 2nd mill. BCE, sesame became common in India and was introduced to adjacent areas. During the 1st mill. BCE, the crop reached regions located further north and west, such as NW Iran, Armenia and Greece (Dan et al., 2019; Douché et al., 2021; Hopf and Willerding, 1988; Margaritis, 2014; Piotrovskiĭ, 1950, 1952a; Sarpaki, 2001).

Fig. 14: Map presenting archaeological sites where sesame seeds or cuneiform texts reporting sesame were recovered. Modern cities are in red.

Early Sumerian textual sources frequently mention sesame as an oil plant, but the archaeobotanical remains of sesame seeds are scarce in Mesopotamia (Fig. 14), which may be explained by the poor preservation of oil-rich seeds when exposed to fire, making them quite rare and hard to identify. Resumed excavations at Larsa since 2019 (Vallet et al., 2020) focused on the occupation of the city at the beginning of the 2nd mill. BCE. Several rooms of a large building (B.49) were excavated, and two of them yielded sesame seeds (Sesamum indicum) (Douché, 2022). A single seed of sesame was identified in room 1595, whose floor was entirely plastered with bitumen, leading to its possible function as a bathroom (Jacquet and Anid, 2022). Sesame seeds found in the adjacent room 1598 were associated with cuneiform tablets and envelops along with many grains of barley (Hordeum vulgare subsp. distichum), date stones (Phoenix dactylifera) and rodent pellets, suggesting these crops were stored. Pellets are often associated with stored cereals and intriguingly, cuneiform texts mention the existence of ‘sesame-eating mouse’ (Levey, 1957). These two sites, located in Lowland Iraq, highlight the introduction of sesame in this region as early as the 3rd mill. BCE. Evidence for an even earlier introduction is so far missing though this may well be in part the result of the lack of systematic recovery of plant remains from earlier deposits. The presence of sesame in the 2nd mill. BCE of Larsa also indicates its adoption at a regional scale, and its identifications in various contexts/spaces suggest it was widely consumed. Evidence from households at Abu Salabikh and from the monumental building at Larsa suggest that sesame was consumed by different classes of the population. As such, a tablet reports that a volume of c. 900.000 litres of sesame, harvested in the kingdom of Larsa, was expected but only half of it was delivered to the royal granary1. This evidence reinforces the economic importance of this oil crop for Mesopotamian societies and the written sources yield important information about the processing of sesame.


Sowing, harvesting and processing

Textual evidence recovered in Mesopotamia report the existence of equipment, tools and/or places related to the processing and storage of sesame and to various products, reflecting different steps or ways to consume it. As described sesame is a summer crop and cuneiform texts indicate that the harvest of barley [in spring] was followed by the sowing of sesame, between April and June (Paoletti, 2021). Whatever its intended use, activities related to sesame processing were carried out in October (Paoletti, 2022a) – the harvesting season practiced nowadays –, and texts from Girsu report that the whole plant was uprooted (Paoletti, 2022b).

The terms “pounding” or “shaking” likely refer to the extraction of the seeds from their capsules. Equipment to process sesame after the harvest include (Paoletti, 2023):

  • a winnowing tray, to separate the seeds after threshing,
  • a large sieve (‘for groats’), to separate the products (seeds) from the by-products (leave, stem, etc.), the former ones passing through and the latter being caught in the mesh,
  • a fine sieve – usually for barley flour – to clean the seeds from impurities

An Ur III tablet recovered in the palace at Puzriš-Dagān, mentions the presence of two millstones equipped with mullers, used to grind the seeds of sesame (Sallaberger, 2021). While in Mesopotamia, the presence and exploitation of sesame mostly come from textual sources, one of the best archaeological examples illustrating the process of sesame comes from the Urartian city of Teishebaini (Karmir Blur) in Armenia. Fieldwork carried out in the citadel (1st mill. BCE) revealed the presence of rooms equipped for sesame processing (Piotrovskiĭ, 1952a, 1952b, 1950), similar to those reported in Mesopotamian texts. Excavation discoveries included seeds stored in clay jars placed in a small pit and an oil press workroom containing:

  • a large stone basin for cleaning and soaking the seeds
  • stone mortars, pestles and graters for dehusking the seeds
  • fireplaces for parching the seeds
  • conical basalt rocks and stone vat for oil pressing

From the 3rd mill. BCE onwards, sesame was likely used and consumed in various ways, though the main product mentioned in the texts is oil. Information about quantities required for the transformation of seeds into oil are reported: the volume of oil corresponds to c. 22-25% of the volume of processed seeds (Paoletti, 2022a).

Several tablets dated to the Ur III period mention the transport of pounded sesame seeds (Sallaberger, 2022) in reed baskets, and a text from Girsu refers to the transport of threshed sesame seeds on boats (Paoletti, 2022b), suggesting relatively long-distance trading networks.

Uses and consumption

From the second half of the 3rd mill. BCE, cuneiform texts report an oilseed called se-gis-i, that represents oil rations and ritual offerings (Jacobsen, 1982). Later Old Babylonian texts report the distribution and use of different (at least six) types of sesame oils such as filtered, sweet, first pressing etc. (Levey, 1957), each type and quality depending on the social status of the recipient (soldiers, auxiliaries, citizens, king). During this period, sesame oil was primarily used for cooking (meat, fish and pastry)(cf. Babylonian cookingand a single source reports its use to produce alcohol. Sesame oil was also involved in the production of perfumes (Middeke-Conlin, 2014). Tablets from the 1st mill. BCE report its use as anointing oil to cover the doors of temples (Strassmaier and Evetts, 1889). Finally, the by-products were also exploited, as indicated by the use of husks for medicinal purposes (Ebeling, 1919, p. 22). At Karmir Blur, remains of ‘cakes’, made with the emptied seeds resulting from the pressing, were also recovered.

Conclusion

Interdisciplinary studies offer a great opportunity to better understand the economic importance of crops such as sesame. Each discipline may have its own biases or gaps that may be completed by other archaeological sources. In the present study, we’ve tried to show that the comparison of archaeobotanical remains, textual sources and archaeological evidence gives an opportunity to explore the origin of the production and consumption of sesame in Mesopotamia. Sesame is now widely consumed throughout Iraq, included in the north as evidenced by the modern production of tahini at Amedi. This indicates the regional diffusion of the agricultural practice and crop processing.

Acknowledgments

I am very grateful to Eehan Qader, who guided me in the exploration of the sesame production at Amedi, introduced me to his cousin’s tahini factory and told me many stories on his home town. I also would like to express my sincere thanks to Saya, Mustafa and Silar Agha who accompanied me on this culinary adventure. Further, I would like to thank Mike Charles for his thoughtful comments, proofreading and English editing that greatly improved the present text. Finally, I would like to express my gratitude to the reviewers for their useful comments.

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L’autrice

Carolyne Douché is a post-doc researcher in archaeobotany, associated to the School of Archaeology, Oxford. 



Citer ce billet
Carolyne Douché (2024, 23 février). Open Sesame (Sesamum indicum L.): exploring its modern and ancient exploitation in Iraq. Bioarchéologies. Consulté le 19 juin 2024, à l’adresse https://doi.org/10.58079/vwdp

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