Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Sumerian Origins - Archaeology

(We will begin this page by repeating Samuel Kramer's full quote given as the heading of this section.)

Woolley at Ur
Archeology, and particularly the study of man's more ancient past as revealed in the excavations of long buried cities and villages, is by its very nature usually most articulate about his material culture; for archeological finds consist primarily of bricks and walls, tools and weapons, pots and vases, jewels and ornaments, statues and figurines, in short, all the varied products of man's arts and crafts. His social life, his economic and administrative organization, and particularly his world view as revealed in his religious beliefs, ethical ideals, and spiritual yearnings-all these usually have to be inferred and surmised from the artifacts, architecture, and burial customs and then only in the form of vague and loose generalizations. The situation is quite different, however, in the case of Sumer, for here the excavators have unearthed tens of thousands of inscribed clay tablets-literally so-and these add what might be termed a dimension in depth to our understanding of its ancient culture [italics mine]. To be sure, more than 90 per cent of the inscribed material consists of economic and administrative documents, and these, significant as they are in many ways, reveal relatively little of the spiritual life of the ancient Mesopotamians (2147).

The written word is always to be preferred over the tentative interpretation of artifacts and cultural remains. Thus we have a distinct advantage in the case of the Sumerians. The details that they reveal give us a realistic picture of the environment and culture into which the Jaredites had been born, were nurtured in, and in which they probably participated, at least to a limited degree.

The archaeological discoveries began in Mesopotamia during the nineteenth century with minor excavations at the sites of ancient Babylon and Ninevah. The more important sites, as far as the Sumerians were concerned, were southward near the mouth of the Tigrus and Ephrates rivers, with the most important being that of the cities of Ur and Erech.

The political situation in the Middle East has always been somewhat unstable, and this has periodically interrupted the excavations in Iraq. This was especially true during the first and second World Wars, during the Israeli - Arab conflicts, during Saddam Hussein's rule, and during the present war in Iraq. These situations have discouraged and limited those scholars, who would have other wise conducted much more intense and thorough investigations into the ruins of the Sumerian civilization.

Kramer observes: "Following the war years, there have been only two major foreign expeditions excavating in Sumer (436). It [was] the Erech expedition that created a kind of relative dating for all Sumerian finds by sinking a large test-pit through some twenty meters of stratified occupation down to virgin soil and carefully studying and typing the finds of the numerous levels and periods, beginning with the very first settlers and ending with the middle of the third millennium B.C. It laid bare Sumer's earliest monumental buildings known at the time, dating from about 3000 B.C. Among its innumerable smaller finds, there was an alabaster vase, close to a meter in height, that was decorated with cultic scenes highly revealing for early Sumerian rite and ritual; there was also a life-sized marble head of a woman dating from about 2800 B.C., which indicates that early Sumerian sculpture in the round had reached unsuspected creative heights. In one of the early monumental temples more than a thousand pictographic tablets were unearthed, which made it possible to trace the cuneiform system of writing back to its earliest stages (389)." 
"From Biblical Erech we turn to Biblical Ur, or Urim as it was known to the Sumerians, the city which was excavated from 1922 to 1934 with skill, care, and imagination by the late Sir Leonard Woolley. Woolley has described his discoveries at Ur time and again, both for the scholar and for the layman-we need mention here only his latest work, Excavations at Ur (1954). Through his writings its royal tombs, ziggurat, and 'Flood-pit' have almost become household words. Less well-known, but equally significant, contributions have been made by the epigraphists on the expedition ... who have copied, studied, and published a large part of the written documents discovered at Ur-documents which have shed new light on the history, economy, culture not only of Ur, but of Sumer as a whole (402)."
"Except for the ... the sacred area of the city with its main temples and ziggurat, the Sumerian city was hardly an attractive site. To quote Woolley, 'If the residential quarters excavated at Ur give ... a fair sample of the city as a whole, we see something that has grown out of the conditions of the primitive village, not laid out on any system of town-planning. The unpaved streets were narrow and winding, sometimes mere blind alleys leading to houses hidden away in the middle of a great block of haphazard buildings; large houses and small are tumbled together, a few of them flat-roofed tenements one story high, most of them two stories, and a few ... of three. Lanes sheltered by awnings and lined with open booths correspond to the bazaars of the modern Middle Eastern town (1204).'"

During these excavations many Sumerian artifacts have been discovered, the most important of course being the all important cuneiform tablets. Some of these writings date to as early as 3000 BC (3818). Many votive, and other style, statues have been found. These show the manner of dress, appearance, and mode of worship of these people. Other physical artifacts like weapons, tools, jewelry and adornments, money, household utensils, and musical instruments were uncovered. Written documents such as lists of kings, legends and myths, histories, scholarly essays, medical treatise, farmers manuals and legal codes were discovered.

Sumerian Lapis Figurine
In excavating some of the royal tombs valuable caches of gold, silver, jewels and other artifacts were recovered. It was also found that some of the royal dead were attended by sacrificial victims who were killed to accompany the elite personages on their journey to the underworld. 
An example of the jewelry found: "The ancient royal Sumerian tombs of Ur, located near the Euphrates River in lower Iraq, contained more than 6000 beautifully executed lapis lazuli statuettes of birds, deer, and rodents as well as dishes, beads, and cylinder seals (http://www.knowledgerush.com/kr/encyclopedia/Lapis_lazuli/)."

Unfortunately, the work of discovering this ancient civilization has not progressed as rapidly as might be desired. As mentioned above, the political climate has often hampered progress. In addition, a large portion of the discovered cuneiform documents still await translation. Kramer points out that: "While most of the documents were excavated more than half a century ago, the piecing together and translation of the compositions inscribed on them made relatively little progress over the ensuing decades [writing in 1963] (2166). As late as 1935 only a relatively small portion of the Sumerian literary documents had been made available in spite of the devoted efforts of numerous cuneiformists (2171). 

Since Kramer's comments, a number of groups have been working on the translations of the tablets. One such group is the Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature or ETCSL. This is sponsored by the University of Oxford and they have translated nearly 400 texts dating to late 3000 to early 2000 BC. These translations can be accessed on their website (http://etcsl.orinst.ox.ac.uk/). The funding for this project ended in 2006 and the project is currently inactive. In spite of the efforts of these commendable projects, the majority of the tablets remain undeciphered.

Jaredite parallels:
Among the early formative and Olmec peoples we find excellent examples of sculpture, jewelry, and other advanced stone working in the Sumerian style. Instead of some of the precious stones used in Sumer, they worked mostly in jade.  The images are very life like and with accurate, three dimensional forms and shapes.  A number of votive style pieces have been found.  
Sumerian pictograph
Olmec pictograph
Few examples of writing have been found, but the older ones, called Epi-Olmec, are similar to the early Sumerian pictographs.
There are examples of mass burials of elite personages where victims have been sacrificed to accompany the ruler in his journey to the world of the dead.  

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