Friday, September 28, 2012

A richly decorated object called the Stanard of Ur was found in the royal cemetery at Ur, an important city in southern Mesopotamia. It dates to about 2500 BC. Its two main panels depict scenes of peace (shown) and war in mosaic inlays of lapis lazuli, shell, colored stone, and mother-of-pearl.

Few interpretations of archaeological remains endure unchallenged. New data and new understandings of the way that societies operate lead scholars constantly to revise and refine their explanations of the past. Mesopotamia's archaeology is no exception: There are lively debates on topics such as the origins of agriculture, the beginning of writing, and the development of civilization, in which Mesopotamia features prominently, and other more local subjects from the prehistoric period, such as the significance of the Uruk phenomenon and the origin of the Sumerians, are also of absorbing interest to archaeologists.

In the historical period, one of the major problems is with chronology, although the sequence of development is generally well established, there are major areas of uncertainty. For the later third and second millennia, there is a difference of more than a century between the High and Low Chronologies: Each can be supported by pieces of convincing evidence, but only one can be correct.

The fabric of Mesopotamian chronology is draped like a curtain from a few secure hooks, and like curtain hooks, some of these are moveable. Between them there are lengths of solid fabric whose substance remains the same wherever they move along the rail, but the material between them is less solid and can be stretched or contracted. As a result, for example, the length of the period between the fall of the Akkadian dynasty and the accession of Ur- Nammu, the first king of the Ur III dynasty, is uncertain, although the duration of these dynasties themselves is well known. One hundred and sixty-seven and a half years, as the Sumerian King List says? Sixty-six years, a revised version based on the probability that some of the intervening dynasties were contemporary? Thirty years, the duration of the longest-lasting of these dynasties, that of Uruk? None, and in fact a small overlap, with the shadowy latest kings of Akkad contemporary with the early years of Ur-Nammu?

A huge volume of written data, such as royal inscriptions, official documents, letters, omen texts, and chronicles, provide the raw material from which the historical framework has been constructed. Well-documented periods, often those that had strong rulers and were politically stable, form the strong fabric of the curtain; anarchical or poorly documented periods are the gauzy patches between. Independently datable events that were recorded are the hooks on which the fabric hangs: the eclipse that occurred on June 15, 763 B. C. E., provides a secure hook on which to hang the strong fabric of first-millennium chronology, although even here there are gauzy patches, such as the ill-documented years 630-627 B. C. E., when it is unclear whether Ashurbanipal was still alive. In contrast, in the second millennium the moveable hook provided by the observations of Venus in the reign of Ammi-saduqa places that king's accession in three or even four possible places: 1702, 1646, 1582, or perhaps 1550 B. C. E.

Most scholars opt to use the Middle Chronology (dating Ammi-saduqa's accession at 1646 B. C. E.), not because it is most convincing but because it is a convenient temporary fixed point until the correct date is finally established: Scholarly consensus on the historical framework greatly facilitates discussion of other issues. Work to establish a firm chronology, however, continues, each little piece of evidence that can be discovered or deduced making the picture a little clearer.


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.


The Hanging Gardens of Babylon
By the third century B. C. E., the Hellenistic Greeks controlled the lands of many ancient civilizations, including Egypt and Mesopotamia. It was an age of cultural, scientific, and philosophical enquiry and technological inventiveness, in which the achievements of the older civilizations were critically compared with those of the Greeks and with contemporary works. Some were singled out as exceptional feats of architecture, craftsmanship, and engineering, a changing list that became known as the Seven Wonders of the World. Among these were the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

The earliest surviving mention of these gardens is around 270 B. C. E. by the Babylonian author Berossus: He wrote of a palace built by Nebuchadrezzar II in just fifteen days, in which a "hanging garden" was constructed to please the king's Median queen, an edifice resembling a mountain with stone terraces planted with trees. An inscription of the king himself described this palace as being high as a mountain and partially constructed of stone, although he did not mention a garden. Later Greek writers furnish more details of the gardens: They were built on stone foundations with brickwork above and layers of reeds and bitumen, all standard features of Mesopotamian architecture. A hidden mechanism fed the terraces with water to support the trees, and there were pavilions among the vegetation. Pleasure gardens stocked with exotic trees and plants were often part of Babylonian and Assyrian palaces, an extension of the common shade-tree gardens. What made those of Babylon a Wonder of the World was probably their magnificence, their tiered arrangement, and the engineering feat involved in supplying them with water.

Water-lifting devices were well known to the Mesopotamians. The simplest was the shaduf, used for lifting water from canals for irrigation, and for raising water from a lower to a higher watercourse or reservoir. To supply the hanging gardens with water in this way would have required an army of gardeners and, more importantly, would have been visible. The Greek texts refer to a hidden mechanism: This could have been an Archimedes screw, a device that seems to be described in the inscriptions of the Assyrian king Sennacherib, centuries before Archimedes. Can the Hanging Gardens be identified? Babylon has been thoroughly plundered by brick robbers, and only the foundations of its buildings remain. Following the texts, those of the Hanging Gardens should be of stone, massive enough to support a substantial tiered superstructure, and situated close to the river from which the water was raised. A possible candidate for this is the series of structures that lies between the river and the North and South Palaces. The Western Outwork is a walled enclosure built of baked bricks set in bitumen, with walls 20 meters thick. To its north lies an unexcavated area, west of the North Palace. Perhaps here there was once an arrangement of terraces supporting gardens planted with trees and irrigated with water drawn from the Euphrates: Detailed investigation of this area is needed to further this suggestion, which many scholars find unconvincing.

Some doubt that the Hanging Gardens of Babylon ever existed. Herodotus, who may have visited Babylon in the fifth century B. C. E., made no mention of the gardens, although he accurately described many of the city's most impressive features. Coupled with the difficulty of identifying a convincing location for the gardens in Babylon, this seems strong grounds for dismissing the Hanging Gardens as merely a legend.

Another theory, however, has recently been proposed. Herodotus, writing only a century after the fall of the Babylonian Empire, often did not distinguish between the Babylonians and the Assyrians, whose cities had fallen into decay after the Babylonians sacked them in 612 B. C. E. Babylon, however, continued to flourish for many centuries. Suppose the Hanging Gardens had been located not in Babylon, but in the now-ruined Assyrian capital, Nineveh, and the tale of their glories transferred to Babylon, famous for its magnificence? 

There is much to support this view, first suggested in the 1850s, forgotten, and recently proposed anew by Stephanie Dalley. The Assyrians constructed magnificent gardens in their palaces, described in royal inscriptions. Scenes from the palace walls at Nineveh often depict these gardens: One, for example, shows Ashurbanipal and his queen picnicking beneath a grapevine, laden with fruit, among the trees of their garden whose diverse varieties the sculptors have been careful to depict. Significantly, another of Ashurbanipal's palace reliefs shows the gardens of his grandfather Sennacherib's vast "Palace without a Rival:" They rise up over tree-clad slopes to a terrace with a pillared pavilion, and through them run streams fed by an aqueduct. Sennacherib took a keen interest in civil and hydraulic engineering and the creation of artificial landscapes. His inscriptions describe and his reliefs show a nature reserve outside Nineveh, a swamp created for water management, stocked with wild boar, deer, and fish, and attracting heron and other birds. The aqueducts, weirs, dams, and tunnels he constructed to bring water to Nineveh from the Zagros, some of which are still in use today, watered a huge area of arable land and orchards around the city as well as parks and gardens within it, of which the most sumptuous was the royal pleasure park beside his palace. This he described as "A park, the image of Mount Amanus, in which all kinds of spices, fruit trees and timber trees, the sustenance of the mountain and Chaldea, I had collected and I planted them next to my palace" (quoted in Leick 2001: 228).

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