ANCIENT MESOPOTAMIA - CONTINUING CONTROVERSIES II

Friday, September 28, 2012





The picture is of the burial scene where the VIOLS of the King went with him into Sheol. These were living victims of the death of the king. They stood where they were and were burried alive to give the king comfort including instrumental music in sheol. Notice the bull image harp in the middle.


The Royal Cemetery at Ur
When Leonard Woolley uncovered sixteen ED tombs at Ur full of rich grave goods and bodies, he was in no doubt that he was seeing the remains of royal burials accompanied by sacrificed retainers. The orderly arrangement of the bodies and the presence beside each one of a goblet from which, he surmised, they had drunk poison, led him to believe that these were voluntary sacrifices, lovingly accompanying their master or mistress to the netherworld. The persuasive and eloquent language in which all Woolley's reports are written has entranced generations of readers, archaeologists and non-archaeologists alike, and for a long time his interpretation remained the accepted view. There was even textual evidence to support it. In the fragmentary Sumerian poem "The Death of Gilgamesh," a large number of servants and family, including not only his wives but also his children, seem to have been laid in the grave along with the dead man. But the text is incomplete, and the meaning is not entirely clear. In the years since Woolley uncovered this cemetery, only one further instance of apparent human sacrifices has come to light in Mesopotamia, an ED cemetery at Kish (Cemetery Y), where several graves furnished with a cart and draught oxen contained a number of individuals: In this case, however, it is possible that these were family graves in which the bodies of family members were successively interred, a common practice. Human sacrifice, therefore, was not a general Sumerian custom, although on occasion a slave (seen as a chattel rather than a person) was included among the grave goods.

In more recent years, doubts have been cast both on the royal identity of the sixteen principal burials within the Ur tombs and on the sacrificial nature of the other burials. Inscribed seals have been found in some of the graves, but their position in the grave makes it possible that they were gifts from the living rather than certainly possessions of the deceased. Of the named individuals, only two, Akalamdug and Meskalamdug, are known from other sources to have been rulers of Ur. Meskalamdug's burial differs from the sixteen "royal" interments: He was placed in an ordinary grave, distinguished only by the richness of its grave goods and its association with the name of a known king. Among the several thousand ordinary graves in the cemetery there were a number that were richly furnished. What distinguish the "royal" graves from these are the stone or brick-built vaulted tomb chambers in which the principal burial was laid and the associated "sacrifices."

Clearly these individuals were special in some way, but they need not have been royalty. Another plausible theory is that they were priests and priestesses of Nanna, the tutelary deity of Ur; in later times the temple precinct at Ur included a crypt in which Nanna's priestesses were buried. A further suggestion is that they were individuals who had acted as substitute king when omens predicted the monarch's death. To avert this disaster the chosen individual would assume the role and duties of the king during the crisis period and would thereafter be killed along with his queen and his retainers. Although in principle this seems to match the burials at Ur, the practice was rare, and it seems unlikely that as many as sixteen such episodes should have occurred at Ur in as little as a century.

Archaeologists are divided in their opinions on the supposed sacrifices. Some suggest that these graves were the mausolea of important people, kings, queens, priests, or priestesses, beside whose revered corpses were laid the bodies of those who wished or were entitled to be buried with them, including their relatives and servants. In this scenario the bodies of those who predeceased their lord or lady would have been stored up in a mortuary place, awaiting the latter's burial. Woolley's "poisoned chalices" can easily be explained, for burials of the period are often furnished with a cup. Other archaeologists are still convinced by Woolley's theory of voluntary suicide or at least accept that these people were sacrificed. Either way, the cemetery remains unique in Mesopotamian history, an enduring mystery.


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