Archaeological Artifacts Only Hint at the Story, Language Speaks it Boldly
The above cuneiform letter was sent by a high priest to the king of Lagash telling him his son had died in combat. 2400 BC.
Prehistory is defined by the absence of deciphered written records. Our understanding of prehistory in the Fertile Crescent, as elsewhere, is limited to the artifacts found, analyzed, and contextually understood. Egyptian hieroglyphics were a mystery until they were found by Napoleon’s army on the triple-scripted Rosetta Stone decree, which led to their decoding, and the revelation of Egyptian history.
Cuneiform tablets of baked clay were found in great quantity and quality at ruins such as Mari, Ebla, and Hattusa followed by discovery of cuneiform on the triple-scripted Behistun Inscriptions in Persia, which led to its decoding, thus giving the key to all languages recorded in cuneiform. Once the languages were read, history was revealed back to the beginnings of the script, and prehistory in the darkness beyond.
We will recall our great difficulty hypothesizing Indus history from artifacts, since the Indus script has not been deciphered. But, even if it is deciphered, there are very few written records to inform us. As a result, what seems to have been a unique civilization will forever be only known by its physical artifacts.
Comparable to deciphering the more ancient languages of the Middle East has been the recent decoding of the ancient Mayan script and language family, which reveals a more brutal and macabre civilization than was imagined from most of the wall paintings and other artifacts. The Central American civilizations developed a few thousand years later than Mesopotamia, but were comparable both in late Neolithic and Chalcolithic technology, as-well-as in murderous rituals. The last politically correct fairy tales about Native American nonviolence have been debunked. They fought each other like the rest of the world.
When we decipher a language, we don’t just gain an understanding of history as it was occurring when the document was written. It is true that once we decipher a language, and as long as that language is used, we can learn what was happening from that point up to the present, or until that language was replaced by another. However, we gain much more, because not only do we gain understanding about current events within the writer’s horizon, but we also receive the writer’s perspective on what earlier happened within his horizon through his telling of old stories, lists of kings, legends, and oral history.
For these reasons, the most ancient documents are the most precious. Until the decoding of cuneiform and Egyptian demotic and hieroglyphics, the many available inscriptions in Mesopotamia and Egypt were simply gobbledygook. As the scripts were decoded, Mesopotamian and Egyptian inscriptions and documents were translated. The body of historical documents grew and was cataloged. Scholars studied them, devised hypotheses, opined about hypotheses, formed consensus through peer-reviewed publications, and produced more refined hypotheses about ancient history—subject to the accuracy of the original writers who labored under unknowable religious and racial biases, as-well-as self-interests.
Digging in Wooley’s Excavation at Ur in 1920’s. Credit.
Archaeology Uses Scientific Methods, But Can’t Avoid Preconceptions
As understanding of the ancient languages matured and translations of ancient writings became widely accessible, the previously used source of ancient Middle Eastern history, the Bible, was vigorously attacked by scholars. These applied their newly acquired language skills to deconstruct the Bible. People began to scoff at the Bible’s names for people groups and regions, as-well-as its overall credibility regarding history. This hubris grew unopposed for the better part of the nineteenth century – until it was confronted by results from modern archaeology in the early twentieth century.
By then, archaeologists were finding that most people groups in the Bible’s Old Testament with translated names ended in “ite” such as the Hittites, Amorites, Israelites, Ammonites, etc. were attested in newly found inscriptions and graffiti. The proud critics were forced to confront the fact that most of the ancient cities (Uruk = Erech in Aramaic/Hebrew) which were only attested in the Bible before the advent of scientific archaeology (and lampooned by these critics) were indeed real, and integrated into the Bible’s background.
Those archaeologists who used the Bible text as the best existing road map to Middle Eastern archaeology were leaders in early scientific archaeology, notably William Albright, Leonard Wooley, and Kathleen Kenyon. As the body of available records expanded from the 20th century’s excavations, Biblical archaeologists incorporated these records into their sources alongside the Bible. Since most of the Bible critics are deconstructionists and motivated primarily by an animus toward Biblical values, we find most of them tenaciously opposing any hypotheses incorporating Biblical references, thus making intellectual bedfellows of all Biblical deconstructionists, be they atheists, Christians, Jews, Muslims….
So there are three main camps of Middle Eastern archaeologists: those who include the Bible among all other sources, those who include all sources except the Bible, and the politically correct archaeologists who force today’s political fashions (e.g. gender , indigenous) into interpretations of social settings and cultural changes thousands of years ago.
City of Uruk (Tell Brak)
Uruk is widely considered the first large city in the world and gave its name to the Uruk civilization. But, that doesn’t mean just leading the way in population growth. There is more to civilization than the size of the real estate and population. Uruk led the world in building a long-lasting cultural center, from which other leaders spun off. Cultures north of the Black Sea such as Nebelivka in Ukraine had larger populations than Uruk into the early 4th millennium BC, but Uruk did take the lead in population by the early Bronze Age in the late 4th millennium. Below is an artist’s rendition of the city’s center, sans surrounding dwellings.
Uruk: first mega-city in the world. Credit.
The goddess Inanna was the patroness of the city of Uruk. The Mask of Warka (town near Uruk ruins) below was found in the ruins of Uruk and is the world’s oldest anatomically correct sculpture. Archaeologists suspect it to be part of a larger statue of Inanna, dating to 3100 BC. Perhaps it was located in that white temple above the ziggurat in the upper right hand corner of the above picture. The sculpture takes my breath away, given its serene beauty, but more so because it was sculpted 1800 years before the bust of Nefertiti and is easily competitive in representing feminine beauty.
Mask of Warka in Custody of Baghdad Museum
We will return to Uruk and its contemporary cities in Mesopotamia, and pickup where we left off.
Please forgive the premature launch of the earlier draft of this post. Once again, I touched the Publish button inadvertently while reaching for the Preview button during composition. I can’t promise it’ll never happen again, but I regret your inconvenience.
Thanks for visiting,
R. E. J. Burke