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(Courtesy Eudora Struble)


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Kuttamuwa's Soul | Zincirli, Turkey
University of Chicago doctoral students Virginia Rimmer and Benjamin Thomas read an eighth-century B.C. stele inscription that is helping illuminate Iron Age concepts of the soul. (Courtesy Eudora Struble)

Archaeologists from the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute got a crash course in linguistics this summer. Digging at ancient Sam'al, capital of an Iron Age kingdom in southeastern Turkey, they were thrilled when they excavated an extremely well-preserved eighth-century B.C. funerary stele depicting a high official named Kuttamuwa. But a 13-line inscription on the basalt monument revealed that they had, in fact, unearthed something more. In it, Kuttamuwa refers to food offerings made where his stele was displayed, including "a ram for my soul that is in this stele."

"It's the first inscription to make really clear what these people understood about the afterlife in terms of the soul," says archaeologist David Schloen, who directs the Neubauer Expedition at Sam'al. The Sam'alians probably cremated their dead, a practice rejected by the kingdom's neighbors in the West Semitic world, who for centuries believed it taboo to burn one's bones, the soul's final resting place. "Here, the soul was thought to inhabit this stele," he says, "which may have been a way to preserve the individual's memory without the body or the bones."

The 800-pound stele, the only inscribed example ever found in its original context, was discovered in an annex to Kuttamuwa's house, surrounded by remnants of food offerings and fragments of stone bowls similar to those depicted in it, indicating that the room was a private shrine. The students who excavated it had just taken a class on the dialect in the inscription, notes Schloen. "Boy, did they luck out!"

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