Author of the Month

There Were Giants Upon The Earth (cont.)
By Zecharia Sitchen

Systematic field archaeology of Sumer is deemed to have begun in 1877 by Ernest de Sarzec, who was then the French Vice-Consul in Basra, Iraq’s southern port city on the Persian Gulf. (Rumors at the time were that having been fascinated by the local trade in finds, his real interest was in finding objects for private sale.) He started excavating at a site locally called Tello (‘The Mound’). The finds there were so great—and they did go to the Louvre Museum in Paris, where they fill up galleries—and so inexhaustible, that French archaeological teams kept coming back year after year to this one site for more than fifty years, through 1933.

Tello turned out to be the sacred precinct, the Girsu, of a large Sumerian urban center called Lagash. Archaeological strata indicated that it had been continuously settled almost since 3800 B.C. Sculpted wall reliefs dating from a so-called Early Dynastic Period, stone sculptures bearing inscriptions in immaculate Sumerian cuneiform (Fig. 31), and a beautiful silver vase presented by a king named Entemena to his god (Fig. 32) attested the high level of Sumerian culture millennia ago. To top it all, more than 10,000 inscribed clay tablets were found in the city’s library (the importance of which will be discussed later on).

Some inscriptions and texts named a continuous line of kings of Lagash who reigned from circa 2900 B.C. to 2250 B.C.—an uninterrupted reign of almost seven centuries. Clay tablets and commemorative stone plaques recorded large construction undertakings, irrigation and canal projects (and named the kings who initiated them); there was trade with distant lands, and even conflicts with nearby cities.

Most astounding were the statues and inscriptions of a king named Gudea (circa 2400 B.C., Fig. 33) in which he described the miraculous circumstances leading to the building of a complex temple for the god Ningirsu and the god’s spouse, Bau. The task, detailed later on, involved divine instructions given in ‘Twilight Zone’ circumstances, astronomical alignments, elaborate architecture, the importation of rare building materials from distant lands, calendrial know-how, and precise rituals—all taking place some 4,300 years ago. The Lagash discoveries have been summed up by its last French excavator, Andrè Parrot, in his book Tello (1948).

A few miles northwest of the mounds of Lagash, a mound locally called Tell el-Madineh was located. The French excavators of Lagash peeked at it too; but there was not much to excavate, for the ancient city that had been there was, at some time, completely destroyed by fire. A few finds, however, helped identify that ancient city as Bad-Tibira. The ancient city’s Sumerian name, ‘Bad Tibira’, meant ‘The Metalworking Fort’; as other discoveries clarified later, Bad-Tibira was indeed considered to have been a metalworking center.

A decade after de Sarzec began excavations at Lagash, a new major archaeological player joined the effort to uncover Sumer: The University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. It had been known, from preceding finds in Mesopotamia, that the most important religious center in Sumer was a city called Nippur; in 1887 John Peters, a professor of Hebrew at the university, succeeded in lining up academic support at the university and financial support from individual donors to organize an “archaeological expedition” to Iraq to find Nippur.

The location of Nippur seemed easy to guess: At the geographical center of southern Mesopotamia, a can’t-be-missed huge mound rising some 65 feet above the mudplain was called Niffar by the locals; it fitted references to ancient Nippur as “Navel of the Earth.” The University of Pennsylvania’s Expedition conducted four excavation ‘campaigns’ at the site from 1888 to 1900, at first under the direction of John Peters, then under the leadership of Hermann Hilprecht, a German-born Assyriologist of international standing.

Nippur, the archaeologists ascertained, had been continuously settled from the 6th millennium B.C. to about A.D. 800. The excavations focused at first on the city’s Sacred Precinct whose location—as incredible as it may sound—was indicated on a millennia-old city map inscribed on a large clay tablet (Fig. 34, transcript and translation). There, the remains of a high-rising ziggurat (step-pyramid) in the city’s sacred precinct (reconstruction, Fig. 35) attested its dominance above the city. Called E.Kur (= ‘House which is like a mountain’), it was the main temple dedicated to Sumer’s leading god En.lil (= ‘Lord of the Command’) and his spouse Nin.lil (= ‘Lady of the Command’). The temple, inscriptions stated, included an inner chamber in which “Tablets of Destinies” were kept. According to several texts, the chamber was the heart of the Dur.An.Ki (= “Bond Heaven-Earth’)—a Command and Control Center of the god Enlil that connected Earth with the heavens.

The Expedition’s finds at Nippur, deemed by some to be “of unparalleled importance,” included the discovery of nearly 30,000 inscribed clay tablets (or fragments thereof) in a library of what had apparently been a special Scribal & Science quarter of the city, adjoining the Sacred Precinct. Hilprecht planned to publish no less than twenty volumes with the tablets’ most important texts, many with “mythological” context, others dealing with mathematics and astronomy and dating back to the 3rd millennium B.C. Among the Nippur inscriptions that were transcribed, translated and published was a remnant of the original Sumerian tale of the Deluge, naming its “Noah” Ziusudra (= ‘[His] Lifedays Prolonged’)—the equivalent of the Akkadian Utnapishtim.

In this Sumerian inscription (known to scholars by its reference number CBS 10673), it is the god Enki who reveals to his faithful follower Ziusudra a “secret of the gods”—that, at the instigation of an angry Enlil, the gods decided to “destroy the seed of Mankind by the Deluge” that was about to happen; and Enki (‘Cronos’ in the Berossus Fragments) instructs Ziusudra (the ‘Xisithros’ of Berossus) to build the salvaging boat.

But all the Expedition’s plans were cut short by a spate of accusations by Peters that Hilprecht was providing misleading ‘provenances’ (discovery locations) for announced finds, and that Hilprecht had made a deal with the Turkish Sultan in Constantinople (today’s Istanbul) to send most of the finds there—rather than to the university in Philadelphia—in exchange for the Sultan letting Hilprecht keep some finds as ‘gifts’ for his private collection. The controversy, which divided Philadelphia’s highest echelons and made headlines in the New York Times, raged from 1907 to 1910. A commission of inquiry formed by the University in the end found the accusations of professional misconduct against Hilprecht to be “unsubstantiated”; but in fact many of the Nippur tablets did end up in Constantinople/Istanbul. Hilprecht’s private collection ended up in Jena, Hilprecht’s university town in Germany.

The University of Pennsylvania, through its Archaeological Museum, returned to Nippur only after World War II, in a joint expedition with Chicago University’s Oriental Institute. The Peters-Hilprecht controversy is still regarded by historians as a major disruption of Near Eastern archaeology. But due to the ever-intervening Law of Unintended Consequences, in the end it led to one of the greatest advances in Sumerology, for it provided the first job to a young epigrapher named Samuel N. Kramer who then became an outstanding ‘Sumerologist’.

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