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23 November 2008
Ancient monument to the soul unearthed in Turkey

Archaeologists in southeastern Turkey have discovered an Iron Age chiseled stone slab that provides the first written evidence in the region that people believed the soul was separate from the body. The Neubauer Expedition of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago found the 800-pound basalt stele, 3 feet tall and 2 feet wide, at Zincirli, the site of the ancient city of Sam'al. Once the capital of a prosperous kingdom, it is now one of the most important Iron Age sites under excavation.
     The stele is the first of its kind to be found intact in its original location, enabling scholars to learn about funerary customs and life in the eighth century BCE. The man featured on the stele was probably cremated. According to the inscription, the soul of the deceased resided in the stele. "The stele is in almost pristine condition," said David Schloen, Associate Professor at the Oriental Institute and Director of the University's Neubauer Expedition to Zincirli.
     German archaeologists first excavated the 100-acre site in the 1890s and unearthed massive city walls, gates and palaces. A number of royal inscriptions and other finds are now on display in museums in Istanbul and Berlin. Schloen and his team from the University of Chicago have excavated Zincirli for two months annually since 2006. "Zincirli is a remarkable site," said Gil Stein, Director of the Oriental Institute. "Because no other cities were built on top of it, we have excellent Iron Age materials right under the surface. It is rare also in having written evidence together with artistic and archaeological evidence from the Iron Age."
     The stele was discovered last summer in a small room that had been converted into a mortuary shrine for the royal official Kuttamuwa, self-described in the inscription as a 'servant' of King Panamuwa of the eighth century BCE. It was found in the outer part of the walled city in a domestic area—most likely the house of Kuttamuwa himself — far from the royal palaces, where inscriptions had previously been found.
     A translation of the inscription by Dennis Pardee, a professor of Near Eastern languages and civilization at Chicago, reads in part: "I, Kuttamuwa, servant of [the king] Panamuwa, am the one who oversaw the production of this stele for myself while still living. I placed it in an eternal chamber [?] and established a feast at this chamber: a bull for [the god] Hadad, a ram for [the god] Shamash and a ram for my soul that is in this stele." In addition to the writing, a pictorial scene chiseled into the well-preserved stele depicts the culture’s view of the afterlife. A bearded man wearing a tasseled cap, presumably Kuttamuwa, raises a cup of wine and sits before a table laden with food, bread and roast duck in a stone bowl.
     The finding sheds a striking new light on Iron Age beliefs about the afterlife. In this case, it was the belief that the enduring identity or 'soul' of the deceased inhabited the monument on which his image was carved and on which his final words were recorded. "Normally, in the Semitic cultures, the soul of a person, their vital essence, adheres to the bones of the deceased," said Schloen. "But here we have a culture that believed the soul is not in the corpse but has been transferred to the mortuary stone."
     According to Schloen, the stele vividly demonstrates that Iron Age Sam'al, located in the border zone between Anatolia and Syria, inherited both Semitic and Indo-European cultural traditions. In future excavation campaigns, the Neubauer Expedition, under Schloen's direction, plans to excavate large areas of the site in order to understand the social and economic organization of the city and its cultural development over the centuries.

Sources: NewsWise, The New York Times (18 November 2008)

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