Ancient History & Civilisation

24/WOOLLEY: THE OLDEST CULTURE IN THE WORLD

How many of us realize that our superstitious impulse to turn back when a black cat crosses our path stems from the people of old Babylon? Do they come to mind when we look at the twelve divisions on our watch face, when we buy eggs by the shock (sixty), when we look up at the stars to read our fate in their movements and conjunctions?

We should be so reminded, for a part of our thinking and feeling derives from Babylon. More accurately: from Babylonia, as a geographic entity, though not necessarily from the Babylonians as such.

As we get to know more about the history of mankind, the time comes when we begin to feel the faint breath of the eternal wafted to us across the great gap of the years. We begin to see glimmerings of evidence that little human experience during five thousand years of history has actually been lost. We see, too, that often what was deemed good is now deemed bad, what once was true is now false. Regardless, the forces of the past still live on and exert their influence on us, though we may not be consciously aware of this. It is frightening to realize in full depth what it means to be a human being: that is, to realize that we are all embedded in the flux of generations, whose legacy of thought and feeling we irrevocably carry along with us. Most of us never become aware of the importance of this heritage that man alone of all mammals lugs forward through time. And seldom have we any notion how to make the most of our given burden.

Babylonian map. 1: Assyria. 2: City. “Biru” is a linear measure giving distance between “districts.” Bitter River, made up of ground water, sea, and the “heavenly ocean” (rain), flows in a circle about the land.

It was an astounding experience for the archæologists when, so to speak with every turn of their spades, they found new data showing how much in our thinking and feeling, in our conscious and unconscious, had already been thought and felt in Babylon. But the excavators were thunderstruck when evidence piled up that the lore of Babylon had been inherited from a people much older than the Semitic Babylonians, older, indeed, than the Egyptians.

In 1946 the American scholar Samuel Noah Kramer began to publish his translations of documents left behind by this people in the form of clay tablets. In 1956, after twenty-six years of most intensive and grueling labors of decipherment, he published his book, boldly entitled History Begins at Sumer. In this book he presented the fruit of his investigations, disencumbered of scholarly impedimenta, as a straightforward story. And he told it wittily. He established no fewer than twenty-seven historical “firsts” discovered or achieved or recorded by this people; nor did he hesitate to use the most up-to-date terms in naming them. They are as follows:

  1. The First Schools.

  2. The First Case of “Apple-Polishing.”

  3. The First Case of Juvenile Delinquency.

  4. The First “War of Nerves.”

  5. The First Bicameral Congress.

  6. The First Historian.

  7. The First Case of Tax Reduction.

  8. Law Codes: The First “Moses.”

  9. The First Legal Precedent.

10. The First Pharmacopoeia.

11. The First “Farmer’s Almanac.”

12. The First Experiment in Shade-tree Gardening.

13. Man’s First Cosmogony and Cosmology.

14. The First Moral Ideals.

15. The First “Job.”

16. The First Proverbs and Sayings.

17. The First Animal Fables.

18. The First Literary Debates.

19. The First Biblical Parallels.

20. The First “Noah.”

21. The First Tale of Resurrection.

22. The First “St. George.”

23. Tales of Gilgamesh: The First Case of Literary Borrowing.

24. Epic Literature: Man’s First Heroic Age.

25. The First Love Song.

26. The First Library Catalogue.

27. World Peace and Harmony: Man’s First Golden Age.

In reading this list, one might be prone to the suspicion that it is a case of an enthusiast forcing modern terminology upon social events that took place thousands of years ago under quite different skies. But when one reads Kramer’s brilliant translations themselves, they are truly breathtaking. The lamentations of the father about his delinquent son, and about the youth in general going to the bad, recorded on seventeen clay tablets three thousand seven hundred years ago (but many centuries older than that in their original form), for example, read as though they might be contemporary utterances of a father and son from one’s immediate neighborhood. The text begins with the father’s question: “Where did you go?” Answer: “I did not go anywhere!”

The discovery of the existence of these older races was one of the human intellect’s most shining accomplishments. It evolved incidentally from the reflections of the cryptologists who worked on the decipherment of the cuneiform script. The existence of these mysterious people was, as it were, extrapolated.

One of astronomy’s greatest triumphs was accurately to predict that a certain planet, as yet unnamed and never seen by human eye, would appear at a certain place in the sky at a definite time, following a prescribed path, which event actually took place.

And something of this same sort happened when a Russian chemist, recognizing a hidden order in the physical elements discovered up to his day, arranged them systematically in a table, and on the basis of the gaps in this table predicted the existence of as yet unknown elements.

It was the same, too, in the anthropological field when, on a purely theoretical basis, Haeckel constructed an intermediate form between the anthropoid apes and Homo sapiens, which he named Pithecanthropus. This “missing link,” Pithecanthropus, was actually found by Eugene Dubois in 1892 on the island of Java, and showed a close correspondence in detail to the Haeckel construct.

When the cuneiform specialists, after the difficulties of decipherment had been solved by Rawlinson’s successors, were able to concentrate on such special questions as the origin of the characters, linguistic relationships, and the like, their investigations in divers curious directions led them to the following theory:

The multiple meanings of the Babylonian and Assyrian cuneiform groups could not be explained aus sich selber—that is, idiocratically. Such a complicated writing system, such a mixture of alphabetical, syllabic, and pictographic scripts could not have developed spontaneously when the Babylonians suddenly appeared in the forefront of history. The written language of the Babylonians must have been handed down from an earlier age. As the results of hundreds of accumulated linguistic analyses, the idea took shape that the cuneiform script had not been invented by the Semitic Babylonians and Assyrians, but rather by another, and very probably non-Semitic, people from the eastern highlands. Up to this point, however, the actual existence of such a people had never been demonstrated by so much as a single find.

This was a very daring hypothesis. Yet as the years passed, the archæologists and language experts became so sure of its validity that they even went so far as to give their presumptive people a name, though not a single inscription had ever been found to serve as concrete evidence. Some called the precursors of the Babylonians the Akkadians; others, particularly a Franco-German, Jules Oppert, called them the Sumerians, and the latter name stuck. Both names were taken from the title of the earliest known ruler of the southern part of Mesopotamia, who had called himself “King of Sumer and Akkad.”

This was the evolution of the theory, reduced to its essentials. And as the planet, elements, and Pithecanthropus were duly found, traces of the mysterious people who had bequeathed a system of writing to the Babylonians and Assyrians were eventually brought to light. Was the legacy limited to a script? This seemed most unlikely. And it was not long before the discovery was made that the Sumerian culture adumbrated almost everything in Babylon and Nineveh.

This brings us again to Ernest de Sarzec, the French consular agent mentioned previously, another archæological “outsider.” Before de Sarzec came to Mesopotamia he was completely ignorant of the problems and procedures of archæological excavation. His curiosity was aroused, however, by the ruins and mounds of the land between the two rivers, as Paul Émile Botta’s had been some forty years before. But he had beginner’s luck with his first hit-and-miss attempts, finding at the base of a mound at Telloh a statue of a hitherto unknown type. He continued to dig, found inscriptions, and eventually came upon the first traces of the “predicted” Sumerians.

The most precious piece that de Sarzec, together with other valuable articles, loaded aboard ship and sent to Paris and the Louvre was a statue in hard diorite of the provincial governor, or priest king, Gudea. It was carved in a style previously not known to exist in Mesopotamia. It was, to be sure, artistically related to other finds, yet at the same time it was more archaic and monumental. What excitement this find stirred up among archæologists! Even the most conservative Assyriologists had to admit that some of the newly discovered stone fragments dated back to 4000 and 3000 B.C., to a culture older than the Egyptian (see Plate XXI).

De Sarzec dug for four years, from 1877 to 1881. From 1888 to 1900 the Americans Hilprecht, Peters, Haynes, and Fisher excavated in Nippur and Fara. From 1912 to 1913 the Deutsche Orient-Gesellschaft worked at Erech, and later, in 1928, undertook newexcavations. In 1931 an expedition sponsored by the American School of Oriental Research dug under the direction of Erich F. Schmidt, again at Fara.

Impression from a cylinder seal used by Gudea of Lagash, one of the mighty provincial princes of early Babylonian times.

Great buildings were uncovered, ziggurats that were recognized as belonging as definitely to the temple where they were found as the minaret to the mosque, the campanile to the chiesa, the steeple to the church. Inscriptions were found that made it possible to trace the history of the Mesopotamian world back into the very dawn of history. The discovery of this primitive world was of the same importance for the understanding of Babylonia as the discovery of the Cretan-Mycenæan culture had been for the understanding of Greek antiquity.

There was one difference, however; the Sumerian culture went much farther back in time. It seemed almost as if its beginnings coincided with the times described in Genesis. The Sumerians might well be the same people, it was thought, who populated the earth after the punitive deluge that wiped out all humankind but Noah and his kin.

Did not the epic of the demigod Gilgamesh, pieced out by George Smith of the British Museum from the million shards on the mound of Kuyunjik, record a flood?

In the twenties of this century the English archæologist Leonard Woolley began to dig in the Biblical Ur of Chaldea, home of Abraham. Eventually Woolley was able to show that the great flood of the Gilgamesh Epic and the Biblical deluge were identical, and that, moreover, the Flood was a historic fact.

The history of Mesopotamia is not so much of a piece as, for example, is that of Egypt. It shows a certain similarity with the flow of the Greco-Roman culture. In this complex a strange people came from afar and set up bastions of their own culture in Tiryns and Mycenæ, which in time were overrun by the barbaric Achæans and Dorians who poured in from the north. Out of centuries of give-and-take a true Hellenism evolved. Similarly, Sumerian outlanders moved into the delta of the Euphrates and Tigris, bringing with them a mature culture, a system of writing, and a corpus of law. They, too, were eventually extirpated by barbarians after the passage of some centuries. Thereupon Babylonia grew up out of land richly manured with dead and flourished where the kingdoms of Sumer and Akkad once had stood.

Does not the Bible tell about the confusion of tongues at the Tower of Babel? In Babylonia there were, in fact, two official languages, the Sumerian and the Semitic, though in the course of time the Sumerian came to be used only in priestly and legal affairs. Then waves of Amorites, Aramæans, Elamites, and Kassites brought in new languages, and later the Lulubæans, the Mitanni, and the Hittites introduced their dialects into Assyria.

The first ruler to succeed in uniting a large part of Mesopotamia under his scepter—the area ran from Elam to the Taurus Mountains—was Sargon I (2360–2305 B.C.). The legend of his birth brings to mind Cyrus, Romulus, Krishna, Moses, and Perseus. His mother, a virgin, put him in a container, sealed it with pitch, and set it adrift on a stream. Akki, creator of waters, raised the foundling to be a gardener, and later the goddess Ishtar made him a king. For a long time it was believed that Sharrukěn (“legitimate king,” Sargon) had never really existed. Today the fact has been established that Sargon did live and wield a memorable historical influence.

His dynasty lasted for one hundred years, then collapsed. Aggressive mountain people, particularly the Gutians, laid waste the land. City kingdoms competed for power. Various priest kings (patesis, ishhakkus) such as Ur-Bau and Gudea for a time gained wide influence in Ur and Lagash. Despite the political confusion, arts and techniques unfolded out of the Sumerian heritage and attained a dynamic that still reverberates down through four thousand years of history.

Reconstruction of the Babylonian idea of the shape of the world. E: Earth; H1, H2, H3: Heavens 1, 2, and 3; HO: Heavenly Ocean; O: Terrestrial Ocean; T: Bottom of Terrestrial Ocean; M: Morning (east), Sunrise Mountain; TR: Seven Walls and the Palace (P) of the Kingdom of the Dead.

It was Hammurabi of Babylon (about 1800 B.C. or even a little later) who united the land through a series of political and military coups into a country and culture that could claim the leadership of the Mesopotamian world. Hammurabi was much more than a simple warrior. Once seated on the throne, he had the patience to wait for twenty-five years until his neighbor and enemy, Rim-Sin of Larsa, had aged enough to be easily struck down. Hammurabi was also the first great lawgiver of history. “In order that the strong should not oppress the weak, and that widows and orphans should be rightly dealt with, in Babylon, even in the Temple E-sagila … he had his precious words written on a stele, and this stele placed before an image of himself as the king of justice.” (Even before Hammurabi’s day there had been other legal codifications of a sketchy character. The kings of Isin and King Shulgi of Ur of the Third Dynasty had all established fixed laws. And when, in 1947, the American archæologist Francis Steele fitted together four cuneiform fragments found at Nippur, he found that he had discovered a section of the legal code of King Lipit-ishtar.) King Hammurabi’s great contribution, however, was to fuse local laws and precepts into a comprehensive legal code of nearly three hundred paragraphs. This code proved to be an active influence on men’s behavior long after the Babylonian kingdom had fallen to pieces.

The tremendous impulsion that resulted in unification exhausted the creative capacities of the Sumero-Babylonian civilization for a long time thereafter. The political power of the land became highly fragmented; its economic hegemony, which under Kadashman-Enlil I and Bunarbashi II had extended as far as Egypt, began to decline. (In this latter regard the finding of the correspondence between these two Babylonian kings and the third and fourth Amenophis of Egypt yielded much valuable information.) Even as the alienrule of the Kassites was being broken, Aramæan Bedouins, and the Assyrians who poured in from the north, for the time being precluded any chance of building up a new “kingdom.”

And again we see a striking developmental parallel between the Assyrio-Babylonian and the Greco-Roman cultures. The political power of Athens, its religion, art, and intellectual life, crumbled away and were absorbed into the technical and materialistic civilization of parvenu Rome. Exactly in this same fashion the culture of Babylonia and of its famous capital, Babylon, was reborn as “civilization” in newly rich Assyria and in Nineveh, a city standing in the same relation to Babylon as Rome to Athens.

Tukulti-Ninurta I (c. 1250 B.C.) was the first Assyrian to take a Babylonian king prisoner. Under Tiglath-Pileser I (c. 1100 B.C.), Assyria became a first-class power but attained such little stability that the nomadic Aramæans were able not only to take it unawares, but to settle down permanently on Assyrian territory. The new kingdom did not rise again until the reigns of Assurnasirpal (885–859 B.C.) and Salmanassar IV (781–772 B.C.), during which regnal intervals Assyrian armies forced their way to the shores of the Mediterranean, conquered all of Syria, and exacted tribute from Phœnician cities. To Assurnasirpal the Assyrian capital, Kalah, was indebted for its splendid dynastic palace, and Nineveh for its Temple of Ishtar. Semiramis (Shammuramat) reigned for four years. Her son, Adadnirari III (810–782 B.C.), according to the principle that “Rome is worth a Mass,” tried to introduce the Babylonian deities into Assyria. But it was not until the reign of Tiglath-Pileser III (known in the Bible as Pul), a remarkably resourceful usurper, that Assyria achieved the status of world power and could act accordingly. Under this same Tiglath-Pileser (745–727 B.C.) the boundaries of the Assyrian kingdom were extended from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf. Armenia and Persia were invaded and hitherto untamable peoples brought to heel. Damascus was also subdued, and a large section of northern Israel fell under Assyrian hegemony.

Scattered among the rulers mentioned above were many others of lesser importance. Their names and dates are known, but they do not merit being included in a brief survey.

The next King worthy of mention was Sargon II (722–705 B.C.), conqueror of the Hittites of Karkemish (Carchemish). Under his rule Assyria achieved perhaps the greatest degree of political cohesion in its history. Sargon II was the father of Sennacherib (705–681B.C.), the mad destroyer of Babylon, and the grandfather of Esarhaddon (680–669 B.C.), who rebuilt Babylon, conquered the Cimmerians of the north, and in 671 B.C. took Egyptian Memphis, plundering it to fill the treasure chests of Nineveh. And finally there was Assurbanipal (668–626 B.C.), Sargon’s great-grandson, who lost tributary parts of Egypt to the Pharaoh Psammetich (Psamtik) I, but with great energy and a keen sense for intrigue drove his brother, Saosduchin, King of Babylon, to commit suicide. In Nineveh, Assurbanipal founded the greatest library of remote antiquity, a collection not to be surpassed until Alexander’s famous store of papyri had been assembled. Assurbanipal, despite his numerous military expeditions, is chiefly remembered as a man of peace.

Among the kings who followed Assurbanipal, Sin-shar-ishkun (625–606 B.C.) went down in history as the ruler who lost control of the Assyrian kingdom. He was unable to cope with the ever more powerful onslaughts of the Medes and in his weakness allowed the armies to be led by Nabopolassar, the Chaldean, who proved to be a traitor. When the Medes were finally storming through the streets of Nineveh, Sin-shar-ishkun committed suicide, together with his wives, in the flames of the burning city, and destroyed his treasure. (According to Diodorus, who cites Ctesias, the treasure of Sin-shar-ishkun consisted of one hundred and fifty golden couches and as many golden tables, also ten million talents of gold, one hundred million talents of silver, and a great number of costly purple robes.)

Was this the end of Assyro-Babylonian history? In the person of the disloyal General Nabopolassar, Babylon came under a usurper’s rule. Nabopolassar paved the way for his much greater son, Nebuchadnezzar II (604–562 B.C.), who became a “Cæsar” of the Mesopotamian region.

The might and splendor that now unfolded in Babylon was no longer indigenous; the tradition of the ancient city threw out roots in a new direction. The Babylonian matrix had been broken by the incursion of Assyrian Nineveh. Though the new Babylon apparently felt the influence of old cults, customs, and social forms, actually the carry-over did not completely heal the fracture of the older tradition. The New Babylonian kingdom, as we call it today, was a decadent civilization built on an old cultural base. Prolix memorials record Nebuchadnezzar’s technical achievements—canals, gardens, dams, and innumerable buildings for uses both sacred and profane.

It is usual for signs of incipient decline to appear at the peak of any civilization. Six years after Nebuchadnezzar’s death the dynasty was wiped out in a palace revolution. The last ruler, Nabunaid (Nabonidus) (555–539 B.C.), was a hypocritical dabbler in antiquities. He was burned to a cinder during the storming of the royal citadel by the Persians, after traitors had betrayed the city into the hands of Cyrus.

It was in the reign of Nebuchadnezzar that Mesopotamian culture drew its last great breath.

In 1911 Mrs. Winifred Fontana, wife of the British consul, had three young archæologists as guests in her home. She herself was an amateur painter, which explains her noting in her diary that “… all three [would make] very beautiful models.” The three archæologists were David Hogarth, T. E. Lawrence, and Leonard Woolley.

Winifred Fontana, when asked in later years about her impressions at the time, was so strongly influenced by the interim growth of Lawrence’s reputation that she replied: “It was Lawrence who constantly drew my attention.” A Syrian, also a guest at the consular house, was of the opposite opinion. “What an unhappy contrast ce jeune Laurens makes,” he said of Lawrence, “with Monsieur Woolley, who is such a man of the world, and a parfait gentilhomme.

Much later, in 1927 and 1928, at which time he was forty-seven years old, the “parfait gentilhomme” began to excavate at the site of the city of Ur, legendary home of Abraham on the Euphrates. Before long he had turned up unusually rich finds identified with the people of Sumeria. There he discovered the “royal graves of Ur,” and in them found valuable archæological treasures. More important than his finds of gold was the fact that he improved our fund of information on Babylonian prehistory to such a degree that this earliest segment of human culture took on real life and color (see Plate XXII).

Among the numerous finds two pieces were especially notable: the headdress of a Sumerian queen, and the so-called mosaic “standard of Ur.” Most significant for our knowledge of mankind’s earliest cultural experience, however, was a discovery that confirmed the historicity of one of the Bible’s most famous stories. Finally, Woolley made still another find, this a particularly gruesome one, which for the first time threw light on previously unknown burial customs of five thousand years ago.

Woolley opened up the usual trenches in the mound of Ur, an operation preliminary to almost every archæological field investigation. At a depth of thirty-eight feet he came upon a layer of ashes, decayed brick, clay shards, and rubbish. The inhabitants of Ur had shoveled graves for their rulers in the layer of debris. In the grave of Queen Shub-ad he found a rich array of funerary gifts, including gold vessels and two models of Euphrates boats, one of copper, the other of silver, each nearly two feet in length. It was in this same grave that the headdress was found. On a thickly padded wig were arranged three wreaths made from lapis lazuli and carnelian. From the lowest of these three wreaths hung golden rings, from the middle one golden beech leaves, and to the topmost were attached willow leaves and golden flowers, these last in an erect position. Above, stuck into the wig, was a five-pointed comb, decorated with gold flowers and with lapis-lazuli inlay. Spiraled gold wires ornamented the temples of the wearer, and heavy gold earrings of half-moon shape hung down from the Queen’s earlobes.

The “mosaic standard of Ur,” one of Leonard Woolley’s most interesting finds. The drawing does not give any idea of the actual richness of detail. The original is a picture book of Sumerian life for the careful observer.

Katharine Woolley made a model of the head of Queen Shub-ad wearing the headdress. The arrangement of the Queen’s hair was based on terra-cottas of a somewhat later epoch; the dimensions of the wig were gauged by measuring the gold ribbons of the headdress. This realistic model, now on exhibit at the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia, gives a good idea how far æsthetic standards and the art of working precious metals had advanced more than four thousand years ago. Among the precious ornamental pieces found in the royal graves of Ur there were some specimens that Cartier’s would not be ashamed to offer for sale.

The so-called mosaic “standard of Ur” was a highly informative find. Woolley dates it 3500 B.C.; this standard consists of two rectangular panels about 22 inches long by 11 inches wide, with two triangular extensions. They were probably carried in parades and processions atop a pole. They showed row upon row of tiny figures fashioned of mother-of-pearl and mussel shell, inlaid with lapis lazuli in asphalt on a wood base. Though far from being as richly detailed as the Egyptian wall paintings in the tomb of the great landowner Ti, from which Mariette learned so much about life in ancient Egypt, the standard nevertheless yielded Woolley an abundance of facts about Ur and its society of 5,000 years ago.

There is, first, a banquet scene (giving information on dress and implements); then, servants and farmers bringing animals (showing what domestic animals were raised); a gang of prisoners; a line of warriors (with weapons and the armor in use); and finally a number of chariots, proving that it was the Sumerians who, at the end of the fourth millennium B.C., introduced chariots into warfare—the same chariot contingents by means of which vast empires from the Babylonian, Assyrian, Persian to the Macedonian were all joined and shattered in turn.

Then Woolley made a hair-raising discovery: the royal graves of Ur contained the remains of corpses other than those of the King and Queen, remains which appeared to be the result of human sacrifice on a grand scale. In one tomb chamber lay soldiers of the guard, so identified by the copper helmets and spears found with their bones. At the end of another chamber lay nine ladies of the court, still wearing the elaborate gold headdresses probably donned for the royal funeral rites. By the entrance stood two heavy ox-carts—inside them lay the drivers’ bones, and beside the skeletons of the bullocks lay the bones of the grooms.

In the grave of Queen Shub-ad (see Plate XXIII) Woolley found ladies of the court lying in two parallel rows. At the end of one of these rows lay a man’s skeleton—that of the court harpist; his arm bones were still lying across his broken instrument, with its bull’s head of gold and lapis lazuli, which he had evidently been holding fast even as he died. At the Queen’s bier crouched the bodies of two women attendants, one at the head and one at the foot.

There could be only one explanation for all this: here the greatest possible sacrifice had been exacted of mortal men—their own lives. Woolley had discovered a scene of planned human sacrifice, probably carried out by priests intent on thus affirming the divinity of their King.

What conclusions did Woolley draw from these finds? “In no known text,” he writes, “is there anything that hints at human sacrifice of this sort, nor had archæology discovered any trace of such a custom or any survival of it in a later age; if, as I have suggested above, it is to be explained by the deification of the early kings, we can say that in the historic period even the greater gods demanded no such rite: its disappearance may be an argument for the high antiquity of the Ur graves.”

Woolley was anxious to get another step closer to this remote Sumerian past. He now proceeded to dig systematically at greater depths. Approximately forty feet down he came upon a layer of clay. This stratum was completely free from shards and rubbish, and not less than 8.2 feet thick.

Obviously Woolley had found an alluvial deposit, which could be best explained by the geologists. To lay down a deposit of clay 8.2 feet thick, at some time a tremendous flood must have inundated the land of Sumer. One could visualize the whole delta area being subjected to protracted rains, while exceptionally high tides and onshore winds backed up the waters of the Euphrates-Tigris estuary. In sum, as recorded in the seventh chapter of Genesis, the waters must have flowed over hill and vale, and “the same day were all the fountains of the great deep broken up, and the windows of heaven were opened. And the rain was upon the earth forty days and forty nights.… And the waters prevailed upon the earth an hundred and fifty days.”

Woolley was on the verge of a stupendous deduction. When he took into account the correspondence between the Biblical story and the much older Gilgamesh Epic, when he consulted the lists of Sumerian kings (the flood came; and after the flood, kingship was sent down from on high), and when, moreover, he considered how often old legends and Biblical lore had been validated by Mesopotamian excavation, he could not but believe that the alluvial deposit had resulted from nothing else than the Deluge of Genesis.

Naturally, this actual flood, which gave rise to the Deluge as myth, did not destroy the whole human race with the exception of Ut-napishtim—Noah and family. It must have been an unusually severe example of the characteristic local inundations that periodically drown the Euphrates-Tigris delta region.

Woolley dated his finds in the royal graves of Ur as of the fortieth century B.C. Before his discoveries our knowledge of the period had been limited to legends and myths. Woolley brought this early epoch into the historical continuum. Later he even succeeded in documenting the existence of one of the kings of the period—one of the oldest kings, that is, among mankind.

The existence of the Sumerians was originally assumed on the basis of scientific deductions. Today their existence is no longer doubted; too many examples of their art and handicrafts are on exhibit in our museums. We still know practically nothing about their origins, however, and so once again must extrapolate as best we can.

One fact is beyond doubt: the Sumerians, a non-Semitic, dark-haired people—“black-headed” is the term for them in the inscriptions—were the last to enter the great delta of the Tigris and Euphrates. Before their arrival the land had been settled by two, probably different, Semitic tribes. But the Sumerians brought with them a superior culture, some of its basic elements already developed to their final form, which they imposed upon the barbaric Semites.

Where was the Sumerian homeland? Archæology has yet to answer this question.

The Sumerian language is somewhat similar to the ancient Turkish, or Turanian. That is all that is known about them, and everything else is pure hypothesis. People who habitually represented their gods as standing on mountains, who prayed to them from high places, and who for this purpose even built artificial hills, or ziggurats, on the plains of their adopted land, could not, it seems, have come from flat country. Could they have stemmed, perhaps, from the Iranian highlands, or from the Asiatic mountain country even farther to the east and north? This possibility is supported by the fact that the earliest Sumerian buildings excavated to date in Mesopotamia are constructed according to the principles of a wood architecture, which normally would develop only in heavily forested highlands.

Reconstruction of a house in Ur.

And yet there can be no certainty; for this theory runs counter to some of the old Sumerian legends, which tell of a people who forced their way into Mesopotamia from the sea. And there are certain indicators to support the theory of a maritime origin.

After extensive research, Sir Arthur Keith concluded that: “One can still trace the ancient Sumerians eastwards among the inhabitants of Afghanistan and Baluchistan, until the Valley of the Indus is reached, some 1500 miles distant from Mesopotamia.”

Hardly had this announcement been made when the remains of a highly developed culture were discovered in the course of excavations in the Indus Valley. Among the artifacts unearthed at this site, of particular interest were some rectangular stamp seals, identical in form, in the style of their impression, and in their inscriptions with seals found in Sumer.

Yet the question whence this mysterious “black-headed” people came remains open. We must be patient, considering the hoary antiquity of their origin indicated by such scanty evidence of them as we have. If we consider the so-called king-lists as well, the prehistoric age from which they emerged recedes even farther.

All calendrical dating in early Babylon was related to some outstanding event that had taken place in years past. The first chronological fixing of the past occurred during the first dynasty of Isin (c. 2100 B.C.). The king-lists go back to this early period; they are schematic, yet archæologically valuable tables. There is also another, more elaborated version of the king-lists, far more recent (from the third to fourth centuries B.C.), identified with the Babylonian priest Berossos, who wrote in Greek.

According to these lists, the history of the Sumerians goes back to the creation of man. The Bible tells us that between Adam and the Deluge there were ten “mighty forefathers which were old.” The Sumerians speak of their “primal kings,” also ten in number. The Israelite forefathers boasted improbably long life-spans. Adam, who begot his first son at the age of a hundred and thirty years, is said to have lived for eight hundred years more. The great age of Methuselah has become a byword. Yet the life-spans of the ancient Sumerians, according to their legends, exceed these by far: according to one account, listing only eight of the ancestral kings, the total length of their reigns was 241,200 years; according to another, which lists all ten kings, it extended over 456,000 years.

Then came the Deluge. The progeny of Ut-napishtim founded the human race anew. The kings of this period were listed by the Babylonian chroniclers writing about 2100 B.C. as real historical figures. However, since several of the rulers named were identified as gods or demigods in the contemporary legends, and the first dynasty after the Deluge, numbering twenty-three kings, was said to have reigned for a total of 24,510 years, three months, and three and a half days, it is not surprising that European archæologists could not take these lists seriously, especially since not a single document confirming a royal name earlier than the eighth dynasty had been found before the twentieth century.

But when Woolley saw the most ancient culture known coming to light layer by layer, he began to set a new value on the old king-lists. His situation was somewhat like that of Schliemann with respect to Homer and Pausanias. Like that great dilettante, the professional archæologist also had his new faith confirmed by a lucky find.

At the mound of al-‘Ubaid, near Ur in Chaldea, Woolley discovered a temple dedicated to the mother goddess Nin-Khursag. This structure was equipped with stairs, terraces, vestibule, and wooden columns inlaid with copper. It also contained rich mosaics, showing sculptured lions and deer. It was one of the oldest pieces of construction in the world in which notable size was coupled with artistic handling. Among other objects, some valuable, some worthless, Woolley found a golden bead.

And on this bead was an inscription that gave Leonard Woolley his first information on the builder of the temple. The name A-anni-padda was spelled out in perfectly legible characters.

Then Woolley found a limestone foundation-tablet, with an inscription on it in cuneiform writing confirming the dedication of the temple by “A-anni-padda, King of Ur, son of Mes-anni-padda, King of Ur.”

Mes-anni-padda appeared in the king-lists as the founder of the third dynasty after the Flood, that is, at the head of the first dynasty of Ur. Accordingly one of the supposedly mythical kings had proved to be a real historical character.

This chapter on Sumerian excavations began by mentioning the superstition of the black cat, the “shock” (a lot or parcel of sixty pieces), and the duodecimal division of the clock face as common to the Mesopotamian ancients and ourselves. A line leads directly from the Sumerians down through the centuries to ourselves, though in places it is broken prismatically by the cultures that have lived and died in the long interim. The creative power of the Sumerian culture was extraordinary; its influence left a mark wherever it touched. The rich florescence of Babylon and Nineveh grew from Sumerian seed.

The Code of Hammurabi, inscribed on the great legal stele found at Susa, was nothing but an extension, research has disclosed, of the legal principles and customs of old Sumer. The astounding thing about this legal code from a modern point of view is the way it is governed by a clear and consistent concept of guilt. The purely juristic approach is stressed throughout, with consequent suppression of religious considerations. The vendetta, for example, which was an active feature of all later cultures and which continued to play a disruptive role in certain parts of Europe well into this century, was all but abolished by the Code of Hammurabi. The state—and this is the most modern aspect of the laws inscribed on the stele of Susa—replaced the individual as the avenger of injustice. Justice was harsh, and the many cruel physical punishments embodied in the code show all the earmarks of Oriental depotism. No matter, the objective tone of the Hammurabi Code set an example that was reflected in the codes of Justinian and Napoleon.

The Babylonian medical art, which was closely allied with magic—on this account the terms Babylonian and Chaldean have the connotation of “magician” in the Romance languages—came from Sumer. Babylonia had state-supported medical schools. In many cases the doctor’s art was governed by religious prescripts. In other instances doctors were responsible to the state. Indeed, the Code of Hammurabi at times specifically regulated the physician’s conduct. For instance, in paragraph 218 the penalty for a certain type of faulty practice was described in this fashion: “If a doctor operate on a man for a severe wound with a bronze lancet and cause the man’s death, or open an abscess in the eye of a man with a bronze lancet and destroy the man’s eye, they shall cut off his fingers.” The gods and rituals of the Sumerians, who were star-worshippers, are often found under other names and in slightly altered guise in Babylonia and Assyria, and even in Athens and Rome at much later date.

A knowledge of the heavens and the movements of the stars reached the stage of an exact science in Babylonia. Babylonian astronomy provided the basis for a planetary world-picture, a calendar, and a system of time reckoning. The temple towers on the ziggurats were observatories as well as shrines. Babylonian priests reckoned the motion of the planet Mercury more accurately than Hipparchus or Ptolemy. Indeed, they succeeded in determining the lunar revolution within four seconds of the figure arrived at by the most elaborate technical means.

Babylonian mathematics derived from a fusion of the Sumerian sexagesimal and the Semitic decimal systems. The practical difficulties in calculation arising from this cross were circumvented by the use of reckoning tablets—antique slide rules. Despite their cumbersome arithmetic the Babylonians were able to express astonishingly large numerical values. In this regard it must be remembered that large numbers are of comparatively recent conception in the Western world. The Greeks, for example, to whom we accord such high mathematical-astronomical regard, still thought of the number 10,000 as a “large, uncountable aggregation.” Not until the nineteenth century did the concept of a million become common in the West. By contrast, a cuneiform text found on the mound of Kuyunjik records a mathematical series the end product of which in our number system would be expressed as 195,955,–200,000,000. This means, in other words, a number that did not again enter the realm of calculation until the days of Descartes and Leibniz.

Yet Babylonian mathematics was unquestionably infected with astrological lore and soothsaying. The least desirable part of the Sumerian and Babylonian heritage is a pervasive superstition, a tendency to invest the smallest things and happenings with a magical connotation. At times the preoccupation with magic became a kind of religious madness, which found ominous manifestation in the transports of witchcraft.

By way of late Rome and Moorish Arabia this influence found its way into the West. The Malleus Maleficarum, or Witches’ Hammer, most intellectual of all such benighted works of the Western world, is a very late descendant of a cuneiform text, in eight tablets, called The Burning.

Leonard Woolley, whose work supplied much of our knowledge about the mysterious “blackheads,” cites an architectural example to illustrate the tenacity of the Sumerian influence:

“The arch in building was unknown in Europe until the conquests of Alexander, when Greek architects fastened eagerly on this, to them, novel feature and they, and later the Romans, introduced to the western world what was to be the distinguishing element in architecture. Now, the arch was a commonplace of Babylonian construction.—Nebuchadnezzar employed it freely in the Babylon which he rebuilt in 600 B.C.; at Ur there is still standing an arch in a temple of Kuri-Galzu, king of Babylon about 1400 B.C.; in private houses of the Sumerian citizens of Ur in 2000 B.C. the doorways were arched with bricks set in true voussoir fashion; an arched drain at Nippur must be dated somewhat earlier; true arches roofing the royal tombs at Ur now carry back the knowledge of the principle another four or five hundred years. Here is a clear line of descent to the modern world from the dawn of Sumerian history.”

And Woolley sums up his exposition by saying: “If human effort is to be judged merely by its attainment, then the Sumerians, with due allowance made for date and circumstance, must be accorded a very honourable though not a pre-eminent place; if by its effect on human history, they merit higher rank. Their civilization, lighting up a world still plunged in primitive barbarism, was in the nature of a first cause. We have outgrown the phase when all the arts were traced to Greece, and Greece was thought to have sprung, like Pallas, full-grown from the brain of the Olympian Zeus; we have learnt how that flower of genius drew its sap from Lydians and Hittites, from Phœnicia and Crete, from Babylon and Egypt. But the roots go farther back; behind all these lies Sumer.”

Having kept company with the archæologists in tracing our human flow back into the land between the two rivers, the land of the Deluge and the ur-kings, we begin to feel the cool breath of millennia stirring about us. And having seen the doing, the living, and the dying, in ways good and bad, more than five thousand years ago, we are driven to admit that thousands of years have been but a day in the cosmic river of time.

Up to this point we have limited our archæological explorations to a geographical area pretty much within the Mediterranean sphere. Now we shall take a great leap—geographically, if not temporally—into another land. We shall let ourselves be led by the men of the spade into a world dead for but a few centuries, yet withal stranger to us, more barbaric and in many respects more terrible and incomprehensible than any of the ancient worlds we have hitherto learned to know. With this, in sum, we shall move on into the jungles of Yucatán and the highlands of Mexico.

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