Insight into the SoulThose were some lucky graduate students!
November 19, 2008
by Eti Bonn-Muller
An inscribed stele from Zincirli, Turkey, illuminates Iron Age beliefs about the afterlife
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.
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!"
By the way, kudos to the excavator and epigrapher for making the stele, including good photographs, available so quickly and in advance of the official publication.
(Heads up, reader Chip Hardy.)