Archive for the ‘Ancient Mesopotamia’ Category



Ringing in the New Year, Babylonian-Style

By: The Scribe on January, 2013

You think you had a good time celebrating New Year’s? Compared to what happened in Babylon during the 3rd millennium BC, our modern celebrations look like snooze-fests. Short snooze-fests. Short, boring snooze-fests with crappy food and even worse entertainment.

In Ancient Mesopotamia, the new year was rung in at a festival known as Akitu, which means “barley” in Sumerian. The festival was made up of two distinct festivals, each held at the beginning of the two half-years on the Sumerian calendar—one to celebrate sowing barley, and the other to celebrate cutting it.

The festival started on the 21st of Adar, running until the 1st of Nisannu. The two most important places during the festival were the Temple of the supreme god Marduk (the Esagila), and the “House of the New Year” in the north of the city of Babylon. The primary gods of the festival were Marduk (of course) and Marduk’s son, Nabu.

The first three days of the festival weren’t filled with a whole lot of excitement—mostly prayers, pleading for the safety of the city and people, and confessing. On the fourth day, seemingly reassured by three days of sad prayers, folks got a little uppity, and the party began! The high priest would recite the Enuma Elish—the Babylonian creation epic—in preparation for the following day, sort of like many people’s modern traditions of watching White Christmas on Christmas Eve, or watching the ball drop in New York’s Times Square before midnight on New Year’s Eve.

On the fifth day, the King of Babylon was required to “submit” to Marduk—essentially, the King would enter the Esagila, be stripped of all his objects of power, and then got slapped across the face by the high priest. Yes, that’s right—the high priest got to slap the king. And while slapping kings isn’t generally recommended for folks who plan on staying, well, alive, in this case the high priest was acting as a vessel of the god Marduk, forcing the King to remain humble and reflect on his blessings. In fact, the slap had to be hard enough to draw tears, and the more tears? The better!

While we don’t understand all the rituals that went on afterward, historians know that the sixth day and following saw a parade of sorts, perhaps several. The gods arrived in boats and traveled to the temples—that is, gold statuettes of the gods were carried and paraded around as the King made his rounds—and battles were recited and acted out with these statues. At the end of the seventh day, the procession was supposed to end up at the House of the New Year, amidst plenty of rousing songs and dances from the populace (no “Aud Lang Syne” at this party!).

Days eight through ten get a little shady in terms of historical knowledge of what happened, but perhaps that should be expected—when you’ve been celebrating for seven days beforehand, there’s bound to be a little forgetfulness at the bottom of one’s tankard of ale, if you catch my meaning.

We do know that on the eleventh day (or twelfth, depending on the source), the gods—ie. statues—boarded their boats to sail away for another year. And presumably everyone else went home and took a long nap.



The Behistun Inscription- The Iranian Rosetta Stone

By: The Scribe on March, 2011

Translating ancient languages can be difficult if there is no method of unlocking them. Archaeologists may have still been puzzling over ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics if it wasn’t for the Rosetta Stone. This was a stone that had text written on it in Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, demotic script and Ancient Greek. Although there were some differences between the three languages, they were similar enough that it was possible to translate back and forth between the three written languages.

This is a portion of the text that appears on the Behistun InscriptionArchaeologists discovered another similar piece of inscription on Mount Behistun in Iran. Unlike the Rosetta Stone, where the author is unknown, it was very clear that the author of the Behistun Inscription was none other than Darius the Great, the man who ruled the Achaemenid Empire. The empire included Egypt, Balochistan and even parts of Greece. The inscription was one of the many massive projects that Darius undertook. Many of his other projects were architectural in nature. During his reign, Darius constructed palaces in Persepolis and Susa and also linked the Red Sea to the Nile river by means of a canal. This was completed and opened in 497 BCE. While the piece was first discovered in the mid 10th century, it was not until 1598 that it was mentioned to Western scholars.

The inscription was written in Old Persian, Elamite and Babylonian. Translating it would prove to be very difficult for several reasons. One was the obscure nature of some of the languages that made up the inscription. The second was the positioning of the inscription itself. While it is quite large (the entire piece measures 15 meters high by 25 meters wide) it is located 100 meters above the ground. There is a ledge that runs below the inscription but the area is hard to get to as individuals who want to study the inscription need to deal with a limestone cliff that makes it difficult to reach the inscription. Some areas of the inscription are difficult to reach because of the presence of chasms, but scientists have constructed bridges in order to reach the areas that could not be recorded in the past.The terrain makes the inscription hard to reach for study

While the majority of the inscription is text, there are some illustrations as well. The piece features several bas-reliefs. One is of Darius I, the Great. In the piece, he is shown with a bow in his hands, an ancient symbol or sign of kingship. He has his left foot resting on the chest of a figure who is lying before him. This is believed to represent Gautama (a magus who was believed to have impersonated a relative of two ancient Persian kings).

The inscription has had to withstand more than just weather and time. Like many of the monuments in ancient Egypt, the inscription also sustained damage after being used for target practice during World War II. Starting in 1999, archaeologists began to document the inscription and the damages it suffered. They are using photographic methods to record the inscription and preserve it in case the site became damaged further in the future. They are also attempting to conserve it and have turned the site into a UNESCO World Heritage Site.



An Ancient Glass Mosaic from Caesarea (600 A.D.)

By: The Scribe on January, 2008

This 1,400-year-old glass mosaic was discovered in a palace located in northern Israel’s Caesarea.

Discovered in a palace from the ancient city of Caesarea, a 1,400-year-old glass mosaic is thought to be the only one of its kind to exist in the current archaeological record.

The city of Caesarea was located on the western coast of the Sea of Galilee, and had successive occupations during the Roman period and the Byzantine era, and it also contains some ruins from the Crusades. The history of the palace that was being excavated, where the mosaic was found, is relatively unknown – the owner of the palace has yet to be discovered, and the time of the building’s original construction remains to be seen. However, judging by the history of the surrounding area, the occupants were likely Christian.

The gleaming glass mosaic found here is unique because of the style of tiling used in its construction: there were two motifs used, both crosses and eight-petal rosettes, while some tiling was done with gold glass and other portions were done using the traditional, multicolored & opaque glass tiles.

Another view of the glass mosaic from Caesarea.

The mosaic’s preservation over the centuries was incredible, likely due to the way the panel fell: face down onto the earth, which protected the blue, green, and gold shades from damage and fading.

What the panel was originally used for is unknown – and whether it belonged to a window, or was simply a decorative piece, was unclear from the excavation context. Regardless, the mosaic is a one-of-a-kind discovery, and a clear testament to the high quality of craftsmanship at the time.

Want to read more?

Tomorrow: More Ancient Standard



Who Wants an Ancient Jar of Baby? (ca. 2nd C AD)

By: The Scribe on November, 2007

A glass jar with the ashes of a baby was found at the Syrian site of Palmyra, a trading and caravan center in the ancient Near East.]

Amongst the ruins of the ancient Syrian site of Palmyra, archaeologists came across an ancient glass jar which held some rather curious contents: the ashes of a baby. This kind of item had never been found before, and the discovery indicates that there were different funerary practices at this important city than had been previously assumed.

The jar was found in an ancient cemetery inside of the city, and the diameter measured approximately 24cm x 18cm (9.5in x 7in) – with the cremated remains resting inside. Other items found within the cemetery were things like small pieces of furniture, lamps, pottery, and even small, glass vials that mourners could place their tears inside and then leave the vials at the gravesite.

While further studies on the baby’s remains are pending, it would be very important to learn about new funerary practices at Palmyra. The city is located about 240 kilometers away from the Syrian capital, Damascus, and rose to prominence through its location along the primary caravan route through Mesopotamia. Traders and travelers from all across the world came through Palmyra, and the city later became the center of an Arab client state to the Roman Empire.

Since cremation of infant remains had not otherwise been known to exist as a regular funerary practice in Palmyra, it is possible that the child belonged to someone moving through the city and who simply felt the need to conform to their own traditions – or perhaps this new method of burial developed under Roman rule, which means that other jars of baby ashes might turn up once the cemetery is more fully excavated.

Want to read more?

Tomorrow: Ancient Blood Sculptures



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