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Insight into the Soul November 19, 2008
by Eti Bonn-Muller

An inscribed stele from Zincirli, Turkey, illuminates Iron Age beliefs about the afterlife

[image] This eighth-century B.C. basalt stele from Zincirli, Turkey, depicts a high official named Kuttamuwa at his funerary banquet. The 800-pound monument, the only inscribed example from this region ever found in its original architectural context, was discovered in an annex to Kuttamuwa's house, most likely a mortuary chapel or private shrine. (Photo: Eudora Struble)

An eighth-century B.C. funerary stele unearthed this summer at the site of Zincirli in southeastern Turkey, known in ancient times as Sam'al, is providing rare insight into Iron Age concepts of the soul. Archaeologists from the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute recently announced a translation of the monument's 13-line inscription, which is emblazoned beside a depiction of the deceased, a high official named Kuttamuwa.

Read right to left, top to bottom, the text states that Kuttamuwa fashioned the stele during his lifetime, and that at its inauguration in the mortuary chapel offerings were made to various gods, including the storm-god Hadad and the sun-god Shamash. But the part that is causing the greatest stir is a line explaining that one of the offerings was "a ram for my soul that is in this stele."

"That's quite a significant piece of information. 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 has been directing the Neubauer Expedition at the site since 2006 together with associate director Amir Fink, and with the financial support of University of Chicago trustee Joseph Neubauer and his wife Jeanette.

Scholars have long known that cremation was practiced in the region beginning in the Iron Age—at a time when Semitic and Indo-European cultural traditions were intermingled in the wake of the Hittite Empire—but they have wondered why and how, since farther to the south and in earlier periods, in the West Semitic world, burning one's bones was taboo because the soul was believed to live on in them. This inscription, which clearly states that the soul is thought to inhabit the stele, seems to reconcile the practice of cremation with the belief in the soul. "This is a bit of speculation right now," Schloen cautions, "but what you have here then is a theological explanation of how you can do cremation and still have a somewhat similar sense of the 'enduring soul' or the 'enduring identity' of the person to whom food offerings are brought by their descendants in the traditional West Semitic fashion."

The inscription is written in an alphabetic script, in a dialect called Sam'alian after the site. The script is derived from the Phoenician alphabet and the dialect is an archaic form of Aramaic. The word used for "soul" in the inscription is nebesh, Schloen points out, which is a variant of the same word for soul used in the Bible, nephesh. "Using terminology like nebesh is characteristic of West Semitic mortuary beliefs, or beliefs about death and afterlife," he says, "but it's quite unusual in other ways because this stele, with Kuttamuwa's soul in it, was found in a small, private mortuary chapel—no others have been found in their original architectural context at all—and so we never before had information about how these steles would have been used."

The stele was found in an annex to what is most likely Kuttamuwa's house, in a residential district outside the city's royal citadel and acropolis. (In an earlier phase, this annex was a kitchen that contained two large, circular clay bread ovens.) The 800-pound, three-foot-tall basalt monument was inserted into a flagstone platform against a wall in a corner of the small room and surrounded by remnants of food offerings, such as animal bones, and fragments of stone bowls similar to the ones depicted in it, indicating that the room was a private shrine. "It's possible that there was originally a cremation urn somewhere in the vicinity," says Schloen, "but at a later time when this room went out of use, it was moved or lost—or we just haven't found it yet."

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Archaeologists unearthing the royal citadel at Sam'al in 2007 (Photo: Eudora Struble) A reconstruction of the citadel, drawn by Robert Koldewey, a German archaeologist who excavated Zincirli in the 1890s David Schloen (left), who directs excavations at Sam'al, with Amir Fink, associate director (Photo: Sandra Schloen)

The inscription is etched above a masterfully carved image of the deceased, who sits at an offering table filled with food, symbolizing the lavish banquet he hoped to enjoy in the afterlife: duck in a pedestaled stone bowl, two loaves of bread that conform to the upward-curved shape of a flat-footed bowl, a ball of meat, and a square pyxis, likely an ivory box with a lid, which would have contained condiments for the feast. What is most striking about the image, notes Schloen, is how well it was executed. "If you look closely, the quality of the carving is really extraordinary," he says. "There are fingernails on those fingers!"

Kuttamuwa is shown with a beard, wearing a pointed cap with a tassel on it and a fringed cloak, which is how kings were typically portrayed. Even though he was only an official, explains Schloen, for some reason, the artist who carved his image made no iconographic distinction between royalty and non-royalty. In his left hand, Kuttamuwa holds a pinecone, a symbol of eternal life or regeneration, especially important in the surrounding Amanus Mountain region famous for its pine forests that provided a wealth of timber. In his right hand, Kuttamuwa grasps an Assyrian-style metal fluted drinking vessel, probably made either of silver or gold, and most likely filled with wine.

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The stele features an image of Kuttamuwa in the afterlife, sipping wine and enjoying a meal of meat and bread set on an offering table (detail). The base of a pedestaled stone bowl was found near the stele, in the annex to Kuttamuwa's house. It is nearly identical to the one depicted in the monument (middle object on the table), which held duck for the deceased's funerary feast. (Photos: Eudora Struble)

In the Iron Age, Sam'al was a substantial city about 100 acres in size with a massive circular fortification wall. It was the capital of a kingdom of the same name, mentioned in Assyrian texts, which dominated the region northwest of the Euphrates along the eastern side of the Amanus Mountain range, nearly 800 square miles in area.

Various Iron Age kingdoms had developed after the Hittite Empire period and were gradually absorbed or conquered by the Assyrians. Eventually, they were directly ruled as provinces with Assyrian governors. The Kuttamuwa Stele comes from a time when Sam'al had already been incorporated as a vassal kingdom paying tribute to the Assyrian Empire, but was not yet directly ruled by an Assyrian governor. Kuttamuwa was a servant of King Panamuwa, who in turn was a vassal of the king of Assyria.

Later, in the seventh century, Sam'al became a directly ruled province. It was known not only for its timber, but also for its control of the main caravan route that stretched from the Euphrates across the northern pass of the Amanus Mountains to Cilicia (the same route Darius III took when he went to meet Alexander at Issos in 333 B.C.—and surprised him from the rear).

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The stele was discovered in an annex to Kuttamuwa's house in a residential district outside the royal citadel. The room most likely functioned as a private shrine. (Photo: Eudora Struble) Found just eight inches below the surface of a wheat field that had been farmed for generations, the stele was lightly damaged on the top by plows. Although the inscription and image of the deceased remained intact, the machinery destroyed the top register, which once featured a winged sun-disk motif. Remnants of the feathers and "curlicue" designs can still be seen. Archaeologists left the decorated surface covered with dirt until they could bring the stele back to the dig house and excavate it under laboratory conditions. (Photo: Eudora Struble) University of Chicago graduate students Virginia Rimmer, the excavation area supervisor, and Benjamin Thomas, who specializes in Northwest Semitic philology, examine the stele in situ. The monument was carved from a single block of basalt, which was obtained locally and used widely for building material throughout the site. Its rounded back was undecorated. (Photo: Eudora Struble)

When graduate students from the University of Chicago, led by Virginia Rimmer, the excavation area supervisor, first uncovered the monument's rounded top, they noticed vertical lines incised across it. "They wondered if that was writing so they started looking at these scratches, trying to figure them out," Schloen says. The lines, it turns out, were from modern plows. The stele lay fewer than eight inches below the surface of a wheat field that had been farmed for generations.

A workman carefully exposed the object further and next saw its rounded back, which the archaeologists thought might be a grindstone. But when the workman saw the top line of clear writing, he called Rimmer over right away. Working in the area were two graduate students specializing in Northwest Semitic philology, Samuel Boyd and Benjamin Thomas, who had just taken a course in exactly the kind of inscription and dialect on the stele. "None of the rest of us were experts on this particular script," says Schloen. "They translated it on the spot!"

Schloen's team dug a probe trench around the stele and left a layer of soil over the decorated surface to protect it. They wanted to excavate it under laboratory conditions, but since it was so heavy, they had to get a truck with a hoist, a mechanical winch, to bring it to the dig house. Schloen immediately thought of posting a guard to deter looters and asked for a member of the local police force to be stationed there. But since the governor of the province had come to see the find, it had already attracted the attention of local news media. "So we got a whole squad of gendarmes—these are paramilitary guys with an armored personnel carrier—four or five of them, staying there all night, making a perimeter around the place," says Schloen. "I stayed up all night, too, just to make sure it didn't run away on me! There was kind of an excitement about all the hubbub of discovering it and having to remove it very carefully and make sure we didn't lose any information. But it's a pretty sturdy piece—it survived all those plow scars."

The Kuttamuwa Stele is now in a local museum in Gaziantep, awaiting further research. Analyses of the text and iconography will be published promptly in an academic journal in 2009. "Linguistically, it adds a substantial amount of data to our corpus of the Sam'alian dialect of the language spoken in this region," says Schloen. "It is also giving us a better understanding of Iron Age beliefs about the afterlife, in particular this notion of a soul or an enduring identity—the locus of the soul after death and the practices associated with that in terms of regular offerings by descendants." In addition, the stele is providing invaluable information about the social dimension at the site. "When you have this kind of mortuary monument in a domestic area—and as far as we can tell physically attached to part of a house—it indicates quite clearly the kinship basis of the society and the importance of the kin group as those who honor the ancestors," he says. "And that's interesting to think about. That's actually most interesting to me as an archaeologist. It raises many questions as we continue to dig."

Eti Bonn-Muller is managing editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.