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10 February 2008
Royal goddesses of a Syrian Bronze Age state

It's been more than 30 years since Italian archaeologists found a vast archive of 17,000 cuneiform tablets at the Bronze Age site of Ebla in northern Syria. But the ancient city is still surprising those who work there. Last year archaeologist Paolo Matthiae's team discovered two almost perfectly preserved figurines that confirm textual evidence for a royal cult of the dead focused on the city's queens. They also found an unusual tablet that allowed scholars to reconstruct the political climate that led to Ebla's destruction in 2300 BCE when it was sacked by Sargon of Akkad.
     Both figurines are intricate representations of women, which are rare in Near Eastern Bronze Age art. One, made of steatite and wood, is depicted with her arms arranged in a gesture indicating prayer. The second figurine holds a goblet and wears an ornate gold dress. Both seem to have been used in a ritual mentioned in a tablet from Ebla that describes how the city's dead queens became female deities who were then worshiped privately by their successors. Matthiae suspects the steatite figure depicts a living queen who would have prayed to the gold-covered figurine, itself a representation of a dead queen who had become a goddess.
     In the same area, Matthiae found a cuneiform tablet which accounted for weapons distributed from Ebla to allied cities during a war sometime before 2300 BCE. "The military campaign the tablet mentions is possibly the one Ebla waged against the state of Mari," says Matthiae. Records indicate that Ebla defeated Mari, its great commercial and political rival, just before it in turn was destroyed. Matthiae thinks Ebla's military aggression alarmed the powerful states of southern Mesopotamia, such as Akkad, because soon after its conflict with Mari, Sargon launched his campaign against the city.

Sources; Archaeology, The Archaeological Institute of America (February 2008)

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