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Q&A: Shining a Light on Starr

The Standard of Ur.

One of the things we try to do here at All Mesopotamia is shine a light on the not-sung-enough heroes doing great things for Mesopotamian history.

This time we’re shining a light on someone you might remember being mentioned in a few of our posts or tweets, or you might have his awesome website bookmarked. He is Mr. Jerald J. Starr, aka sumerianshakespeare.com.

Simply put, Starr is your (and our) go-to guy for anything Sumerian, like the Standard of Ur (pictured above). His passion for the rockers of the cradle of civilization is what drives him to not only gravitate toward what’s already known about them, but also to make his own fascinating discoveries of a people long gone, but whose all-encompassing legacy of civilization still reverberates thousands of years later.

Now, I asked Starr a few questions to find out what he is all about.  I was pleasantly surprised by all his answers, and think you will be too!

1. You’re kind of an enigma. I communicate with you regularly about the history I cover on the blog, but I hardly know anything about you. Who is this enigmatic expert I’m talking to and what is his background—what makes him the expert he is on everything Sumerian?

Your readers may be surprised to learn that I am not a “properly accredited” Sumerologist. I am just an amateur. I have no formal training in the field, neither do I have a college degree in the subject; although with the thousands of hours I’ve spent researching Sumerian history I could have easily earned a PhD, perhaps several.

“…my mind is 4,000 years away, in the land of ancient Sumer.”

If I am to be considered any kind of “expert” (your word, but thanks) it’s only because Sumerology is my obsession, my sole preoccupation. Often when my friends are talking to me, I barely hear what they are saying because my mind is 4,000 years away, in the land of ancient Sumer.

It also helps that there are very few other experts in the field. At last count, there were only about 400 Assyriologists in the entire world, of which only a few are dedicated to the Sumerians exclusively. One day it suddenly occurred to me that I am probably “the world’s foremost expert on the Standard of Ur.” Then I realized that I am probably the world’s only expert on the Standard of Ur!

2. Ever since I came across sumerianshakespeare.com, it has been my go-to website for reliable information and great pictures. In fact, my only complaint about your website is that you only cover the Sumerian material. Having said that: what drew you to the Sumerian civilization in particular out of all the others that thrived in Mesopotamia, and do you ever delve into any other group of Mesopotamian peoples?

When I was in college, I read The Story of Civilization by Will and Ariel Durant. It wasn’t part of a reading assignment for a class I was taking; I was reading it for my own pleasure. I remember how impressed I was that the Sumerians seemed to invent civilization entirely on their own, when the rest of the world was still living in the Stone Age. I didn’t pay much attention to the Sumerians after that; I had other interests to pursue.

Fast-forward several decades later to about five years ago. I was with a girlfriend, Loring. We were looking at a display of cuneiform tablets at the Frist Museum here in Nashville, Tennessee. I said, “Wouldn’t it be great to own one of these tablets? I’d love to own something so ancient, when writing and civilization were first invented.” Those were the exact words I used, “when writing and civilization were first invented.” I didn’t give the remark a second thought until two months later when Loring gave me a cuneiform “tablet” for my birthday. At first I didn’t know what it was. It was an odd cylindrical shape with writing down the sides. I later found out that it was actually a Gudean “foundation cone” from the temple of the god Ningirsu. I decided to write a thank-you note to Loring, in Sumerian, to show my appreciation for her sweet and thoughtful gift. Nothing fancy, just a few signs written on notebook paper. Little did I know what I was getting into.

The Gudea Foundation Cone was Starr’s inspiration.

It’s not for nothing that Sumerian is known as the world’s most difficult language. Even the Sumerian scribes had difficulty writing it! I was immediately frustrated by the fact that it was difficult to learn even a few Sumerian words, much less learn enough grammar to write a complete sentence. I could have just strung some words together like beads, they didn’t have to be grammatically correct; but noooo, that wasn’t good enough. So then it became an intellectual challenge. As described in “Adventures in Cuneiform Writing,” it became an all-consuming passion, to the exclusion of everything else – like eating, sleeping, and bathing. Even at the time I would sometimes wonder, “Why am I so obsessed? Who cares about this stupid dead language?” Sometimes I seemed more “possessed” than merely obsessed. It was a lot like that scene in the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind, where Richard Dreyfuss feels compelled to create a huge clay mountain on his kitchen table, without knowing why. As it turns out, there was a predestined purpose for all of this. If I had not been so completely obsessed with writing Sumerian correctly, I never would have learned enough of the language to translate (“decode”) Tablet #36, the story of The Great Fatted Bull. This tablet would not give up its secrets to just anyone, to some sort of “dilettante.” It was Tablet #36, along with my reawakened interest in Sumerian history inspired by the Gudea cone, that led to all my other discoveries in Sumerology.

Starr cracked the code of the mysterious Tablet #36.

This leads me (finally!) to the second part of your question. I consider myself to be a Sumerologist, in particular, rather than an Assyriologist (someone who studies Mesopotamian history in general). As a matter of fact, I make a deliberate effort to sort out the Sumerians from the Akkadians and the Babylonians, who are routinely jumbled together in the history books. I usually write about the Akkadians and Babylonians only in reference to the Sumerians. I feel called upon to be an advocate for the Sumerians, to be their voice. So for the time being I will continue to dedicate my efforts solely on their behalf.

As for the rest of Mesopotamian history, we have All Mesopotamia for that.

Starr concluded that this otherwise anonymous statue bears the actual true face of Gudea. Read about Starr’s research here.

3. What does your research on the subjects you discuss on your website entail? Do you work alone, or are you a part of a team or organization?

I quickly exhausted the limited selection of books on Sumerian history at the local library. I mostly use the Internet for my research. I use the CDLI, ePSD, ETCSL, and Sumerian.org for the language studies. Museum websites are also a good source of information. I enjoy seeing Sumerian artifacts in museums all around the world without leaving the comfort of my living room. One of my favorite research methods is image searches on the Internet, since I’m always trolling for good pictures to use on my website. This is how I found Tablet #36 in the Library of Congress, Ur-Namma in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gudea in the Barakat Gallery, and other original discoveries.

The man behind Sumerian Shakespeare. Starr told me this is where you will find him most of the time, sitting in front of his computer, researching and discovering everything Sumerian. (Photo courtesy of Jerald J. Starr)

The man behind Sumerian Shakespeare. Starr told me this is where you will find him most of the time, sitting in front of his computer, researching and discovering everything Sumerian. (Photo courtesy of Jerald J. Starr)

I work entirely alone. This is partly my preference. I am in contact with a few professional Sumerologists, but I am being boycotted by the other Sumerologists. I am the pariah of Sumerology. I have to admit, it’s my own fault. On December 6, 2008, I proudly posted my translation of Tablet #36, the story of The Great Fatted Bull. It was my first major discovery. The very next day, Bendt Alster, a world renowned Sumerologist, posted on his website that Tablet #36 wasn’t really about The Great Fatted Bull. He thought it was “A Dialogue between Two Women.” Mr. Alster was a pioneer in the field of Sumerology. If he said Tablet #36 wasn’t about The Great Fatted Bull, then who was going to listen to an amateur like me? So I might have over-reacted just a tad. I posted a new page on my website challenging him to a “Sumerian Showdown,” my translation against his. I am usually not so confrontational, but I was deliberately being provocative. I was hoping that someone would try to refute my translation, and failing that, would be forced to confirm it. I also thought I was being very clever and funny; satirical, like the scribe who wrote Tablet #36 (I was defending his work as well as my own). But I soon realized that I was just being a smart-aleck, to use the polite term. After all, Mr. Alster was merely expressing his academic opinion, which he stated in a polite and civilized manner (unlike me). Eventually I deleted the page from my website and sent a letter of apology to Mr. Alster. He made a gracious reply, so all was well between us. He was a really nice guy about it, which doubly made me feel like a heel. He passed away suddenly and unexpectedly a few years later, so I am grateful that I was able to make amends with him. But the damage had already been done. I had thoroughly alienated other Sumerologists. They still hold it against me and I can’t say that I blame them. In the meantime, the story of The Great Fatted Bull remains the only proven translation of Tablet #36.

4. The Sumerian civilization is where our modern world began to take shape. Writing, literature, the wheel, agriculture, and according to a very enthusiastic Discovery Channel documentary, earth-shattering beer…all these things and more. And yet it’s not nearly as popular as the Egyptian or Greek civilizations, which as great as they were with their own innovations and inventions, in my mind, they were mostly reinforcing and building upon foundations laid by Mesopotamians. Drawing from my frustrating experience, I must ask: why do you think my Western Civilization class in college detailed the Egyptian mummification process, but only briefly mentioned that writing was invented in Mesopotamia and very little else about the land between two rivers?

I know what you mean. When I try to talk to someone about the Sumerians, they get a blank look on their face and say, “Who?” I always want to reply, “The Sumerians; you know, the ones who invented civilization.” I don’t actually say this, of course; that would be rude. If people don’t know much about the Sumerians it’s probably because so little Sumerian history has survived to the present day. You can read all that remains of Sumerian history in a single afternoon. On the other hand, the Egyptian civilization continued for 2,000 years after the Sumerians had disappeared, so there is a lot more Egyptian history to cover. I think that’s why a class in Western Civilization gives a brief introduction to the Sumerians and then quickly skips over to the Egyptians. Surprisingly, very few Egyptian artifacts date back to the time of the Sumerians. If we only had Egyptian artifacts dated before 2000 B.C., we would know as little about the Egyptians as we do about the Sumerians. Only the Pyramids are as old as the Sumerians.

I agree that the Sumerians don’t get proper credit for their inventions. How many people today know that the Sumerians are the reason why we still divide a circle into 360 degrees? (The Sumerians used the sexagesimal number system, based on the number 60.) How many businessmen know that the Sumerians created formal bookkeeping methods? I think the problem is that people have been using these inventions for so long they’ve forgotten who invented them. For instance, I doubt that anyone using a handsaw would think, “This works great. I’m glad the Sumerians invented it.” I doubt that anyone sipping on a beer would say, “Thank you, Sumerians, for this wonderful gift.”

You are right in pointing out that the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians built upon the foundations of the Sumerian civilization. So even if we don’t always realize it, the Sumerians are still with us today, 4,000 years after they passed into history.

5. What are, or are there, challenges that you or any other Sumerologist face in this discipline, as opposed to an Egyptologist, for example?

The main challenge for a Sumerologist is that he/she doesn’t have a lot of material to work with. Very few Sumerian artifacts have survived the millennia — a few ruined temples, some pottery shards, a few statues, some jewelry. This is the opposite problem faced by Egyptologists. They cannot sink a spade in Egypt without hitting an artifact. A modern Egyptologist has tons of artifacts to work with (literally); more than can process in several lifetimes. Of course, a Sumerologist has access to countless cuneiform tablets, hundreds of thousands of them. The problem is that 97% of these tablets are “Administrative” (receipts, ledgers, inventories, etc.). Only 3% of the tablets are “Literature” (history, hymns, poems, proverbs, etc.) where the Sumerians actually tell us something about themselves. Imagine an archaeologist 4,000 years in the future trying to reconstruct 21st century America by using business accounting records.

Egyptology is a very old science; many ancient Greeks and Romans were “Egyptologists.” By comparison, Sumerology is relatively new. The modern world didn’t know about the Sumerians until the late 19th century. The world is still in the process of discovering the Sumerians. As a result, much of the information about the Sumerians is either contradictory or just plain wrong. Even the experts don’t always agree on it. You and I both know from personal experience the difficulty in finding reliable information on the subject. It’s hard to know who to trust when every major museum in the world includes some erroneous information about the Sumerians, even the Iraq Museum!

6. What do you think most distinguishes sumerianshakespeare.com from the other Sumerian websites?

First of all, it is the number of pictures I have on my website. The other websites have only a few, with the exception of All Mesopotamia. I realized that most people have no idea what the Sumerians looked like. We can easily imagine the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians because we’ve seen so many pictures of them, but most people have no “visual concept” of the Sumerians. By including a lot of pictures of the Sumerians, I hope to make them more familiar to the modern reader.

The face of Ur-Namma, one of Starr’s original discoveries.

Second, and more important, are my original discoveries. Many people think that I am merely parroting information I got from other sources, but most of my website is devoted to my own discoveries. Some of my major discoveries include Tablet #36, the portraits of Gudea and Ur-Namma, both Sargon victory steles, and everything about the Standard of Ur, among several others. I have also made a lot of minor discoveries, more than I can keep track of. I have to admit, I am very proud of these discoveries. They are the most noteworthy things I have ever done in a life that is otherwise devoid of accomplishments.

A detail from one of Sargon’s victory steles that Starr wrote about on his site, here.

7. What’s next?

More of the same, I guess. I’m hoping I can make some more discoveries. In any case, I will continue to write about the extraordinary civilization of the Sumerian people. It’s my new-found calling in life. This is what I was meant to do.

***

And we all agree that this is what you were meant to do, Mr. Starr.

 
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Posted by on May 8, 2013 in Q & A, Sumerian

 

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Gudea, the man who loved Lagash.

A white alabaster statue that could either be a priest or the priest king, Gudea of Lagash. One Sumerologist believes it is the most life-like representation of the Sumerian king. (Source)

You are looking at what Jerald Starr, an American Sumerologist and friend of All Mesopotamia, believes is the first realistic, recognizable portrait of a man in all of history. Gudea, a Sumerian king who ruled the Sumerian city-state of Lagash between 2140 and 2120 BC, has been the subject of many statues, but the statue pictured above is unique.

“I’ve seen a lot of pictures of Gudea during my research in Sumerian history, so I know what he looks like,” Starr writes in an article on his website, sumerianshakespeare.com, titled The True Face of Gudea. “I took one glance at the white alabaster face and the distinctive shepherd’s hat (the crown of a Sumerian king) and I said to myself, ‘That’s not just a priest, that’s Gudea.'”

You might be looking at the face in the picture and wondering what makes this particular statue so special. To sum it up, Starr explains what sets it apart:

“There are two things noticeably different about this statue compared to the other statues of Gudea. First, at 12.5 inches high, it is life-size. The seated statues of Gudea, which show his whole body, are less than 18 inches high (they’re called “Little Gudeas”). Second, and most importantly, this statue is a realistic portrait, unlike the other statues of Gudea which are rather formal and idealized, typical of royal portraiture in the ancient world.”

Consider these diorite statues we know are Gudea:

One of many stylized “Little Gudeas”, the type of which were mostly found at temples. (Source)

And another stylized little Gudea depicting the king, not the man. (Source)

Now scroll back up and look at the tilted white alabaster face, which should appear much more alive than the other two. As Starr puts it: “This is clearly the real face behind the other more idealized statues of Gudea.”

So, you’ve now seen the man who happened to be king. Let’s get to know the man, shall we?

There’s something about Gudea

To put it simply, Gudea of Lagash was a great, humble guy.

“He was the model of piety and virtue, working tirelessly for the gods and the welfare of his people,” Starr writes in an article on his website titled, Gudea.

Gudea’s reign brought with it some revolutionary social reform that even a modern eye would conclude made life easier for, and kinder to, the common man, woman and child living in ancient Sumer. He might not have written an extensive code of laws as famous as Hammurabi’s, but keep in mind that he also took the throne nearly 350 years before Hammurabi did. You’ve got yourself a pretty progressive guy here.

The Gudea Cylinders, housed at the Louvre in Paris. They celebrate Gudea of Lagash’s accomplishments. (Source)

“He was concerned about social justice, and not just the exercise of power,” Starr writes.

In The Building of Ningirsu’s Temple, a Sumerian myth inscribed on what is known as the Gudea cylinders, Gudea’s many accomplishments are celebrated, but what catches my attention the most are those of the social justice variety. Gudea worked to help improve the way servants and slaves were treated by their masters, and aimed to protect anyone who needed to be protected:

“He provided protection for the orphan against the rich, and provided protection for the widow against the powerful. He had the daughter become the heir in the families without a son.” – Translation of Gudea Cylinders A and B (Source)

And this raises the issue of motive…

Why was Gudea so darned nice?

Gudea was a great king, because he did what great and noteworthy kings do; he built walls to successfully protect his city and its people from clear and present danger(s), he also built temples, and helped things like art and social justice thrive under his rule. That’s pretty great and nice of him, but that’s what any ruler or leader is supposed to do, if not in ancient times, then definitely in modern times. There’s nothing too fascinating about that.

What’s fascinating about Gudea was that he went against the grain of typical royalty, even when he didn’t need to. Royalty wasn’t really concerned with the common people back then, and there was no one who could make them, and yet Gudea made social reforms that benefited people who’d never even been given a thought by royalty before.

Consider that up until he took the throne, Gudea lived in a time and place where kings were not only anointed by the gods, but were also granted divine status themselves. We need only look at Gilgamesh–he was a great Sumerian god king, and an epic was written about him that seems as much myth as it is a testament to the status a king holds in the eyes of his subjects, for better or worse.

Now, add to this that Gudea was not of royal blood. In fact, very little is known about his origins, save for having been fortunate enough to marry the right woman at the right time. Her name was Ninalla, and she was royalty, the daughter of King Ur-Bau (Ur-Baba). Lack of an attached dumu (son of) to his signature further obscures Gudea’s origins. “This would suggest that his father was only a minor nobleman and not a ranking member of the high nobility,” Starr says.

So, here we have this non-royal marrying into royalty, and suddenly he is in the king pool, and there’s absolutely no resistance to his ascension to the throne. I mean, come on, not only did Ur-Bau let his daughter marry this non-royal man, but he let that non-royal man ascend the throne without hiring a hit man to stop that from happening. That’s pretty amazing.

Another amazing thing that accompanied Gudea’s ascent to the throne of Lagash is that he was now king and he could be a god king, just like all the Sumerian kings who came before him, because that was pretty much part of the package at this point: become king and get one divine status free!

But he didn’t use that card.

“Gudea did not represent himself to be a god, but only as a man who was divinely favored, so it’s significant that Gudea is shown bareheaded, without his crown, and with his hands raised in the ‘reverence position’, as was required of a mortal man when in the presence of a god,” Starr writes about the Seal of Gudea. (See below)

The Seal of Gudea shows him with his head bared, being led and followed by deities to stand before Enlil, the chief Sumerian god. Gudea is the only figure without horns, which are a symbol of divine status. (Source)

Gudea’s humility also extends to him choosing to only refer to himself in inscriptions as ensi, ruler, rather than lugal, king.

Gudea wearing his crown, a typical stylized shepherd’s hat styled for him with curled lambswool. Well played, True Shepherd. Well played.(Source)

Gudea also worked hard to keep things peaceful and he did a good job, despite ruling during a difficult and dangerous time for Sumerian city-states. Akkadian rule had just been weakened by tribesmen from the north, known as Gutians. The Gutians constantly raided Sumerian city-states, but Gudea mostly only built walls and repaired them when needed for protection, appearing rather pacifist.

Unlike Gudea’s origins, his reign was very well-documented, and we know that he led only one major military campaign. Even the goods brought to Lagash from faraway lands were not the spoils of war, but rather those of commerce and trade, handed to him out of brotherly love, even from what are otherwise enemy lands.

“Unlike other ancient kings, Gudea did not routinely boast of his military prowess,” Starr writes. “He was not the kind of king…who would portray himself marching to victory over the bodies of his enemies.”

Charles Gates writes in his book, Ancient Cities: “For Gudea, a king best serves his city not as a warrior, but as a devoted servant of the gods.”

The Priest King

Another seemingly curious thing about Gudea’s wish and determination to be known as a peaceful ruler was his dedication to serving Ningirsu, the Sumerian god of war and the main god of Lagash. One of Gudea’s most notable accomplishments, in fact, was that he rebuilt a temple dedicated to Ningirsu, among others. Gudea was nothing if not religious, so that was one reason for his devotion.

Of what made the pious part of Gudea build the temple of Ningirsu, Gates writes: “The god Ningirsu ordered Gudea, in a dream, to rebuild his temple; the pious king duly carried out the order, and had the statue made, with an explanatory text carved on it, to commemorate the deed.”

But of what made the strategist part of Gudea build the temple of Ningirsu, Starr says Gudea was also a “tough-minded realist”, who knew where Lagash was on the map in relation to the Gutians, and that the city-state was not strong or big enough yet to fight them. He also knew he needed to build more than just a tough army.

So, temple rebuilding served two purposes, one pious, one strategic.

The rebuilding of the Ningirsu temple eventually helped Lagash and Sumer regain strength and power, because it renewed a feeling of nationalism for Sumerians that proved quite beneficial. It was a brilliant strategy that worked from inside out, and brought with it a fresh new attitude of reclaimed pride and nationalism, and an eventual Neo-Sumerian Revival that united and strengthened all the Sumerian city-states that eventually beat the Gutians and gained complete independence from the Akkadians.

“For Gudea,” Starr writes, “building and restoring the temple of the war god symbolized the re-emerging hopes of Sumerian independence, after two centuries of Akkadian domination and during the ever present danger of attack by the Gutian barbarians.”

Gudea meanwhile was able to build and strengthen his military in a peaceful climate. He produced maces, spears and axes, all in the name of Ningirsu.  (Source)

Gudea’s pride

The proud, yet humble priest king. (Source)

As I bring this post to a close, still unsure if I’ve done Gudea the man the justice he deserves, I go back to something I read on the Louvre’s website about one of the typical diorite statues of Gudea, which I think is very telling about the man:

“This stone [diorite] already had a kingly connotation in earlier periods, and it is known through a text that Gudea, anxious to ensure the durability of the work, imposed its use, importing it at great cost from the Gulf region.” – Gudea Prince of Lagash at the Louvre

Such insistence on using a type of stone with kingly connotation and lasting power might be testament to Gudea’s ego, but I don’t see it that way, not only because of all the clear humility he exercised, but especially when I remember something Starr wrote in his The True Face of Gudea article:

“It [the alabaster statue] is obviously modeled from life, with Gudea himself sitting for the portrait.” – Face of Gudea at sumerian shakespeare

The way I see the alabaster statue is that it is of a man who loved his city and his people. He never took what Lagash and its people gave him of good fortune and admiration and support for granted. He wanted future generations to know what he, a non-royal, common man, looked like, and he took the time to perhaps sit for the portrait himself like Starr suggests, so that they would know that anyone can benefit from the greatness of Lagash and Sumer.

What I see in the alabaster statue is that Gudea wasn’t proud of himself. Gudea was proud of his land that made him what he became…

The true face of Gudea. (Source)

Gudea of Lagash became a great man whose greatness will always be known.

Now that you’ve seen his true face, do you think you could recognize Gudea if you ran into him on the street? Let us know in the comments! (I personally think Phil Collins could be his living doppelganger. What do you think?)

Sources and further reading:

Gudea Cylinders http://www.louvre.fr/en/oeuvre-notices/cylinders-gudea

Picture of Gudea Cylinders http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:GudeaZylinder.jpg

Gudea entry at Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gudea

Ancient Cities http://www.scribd.com/doc/97236625/13/THE-NEO-SUMERIAN-REVIVAL-HISTORICAL-SUMMARY

Gudea of Lagash at the Louvre http://www.louvre.fr/en/oeuvre-notices/gudea-prince-lagash-seated-statue-dedicated-god-ningishzida

 
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Posted by on February 10, 2013 in Kings, Sumerian, Uncategorized

 

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What sets All Mesopotamia apart from the rest

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Setting the mood is a detail from the Victory Stele of Naram-Sin, housed at the Louvre. Photo property of All Mesopotamia.

We know we’re not the only ones out there with Mesopotamia on the brain and a wealth of information about it to pass on to you, from and through the internet.

We also know you can rely on us to always tell you where we got our information from, because, let’s face it, the internet is a labyrinthine palace, filled with endless information. The trick is to find information of value that won’t leave you with egg on your face. Being that we also don’t like egg on our face, here’s what we do to make sure we’re giving you good information:

  1. We never ever write a single word without having the source to back it up easily available to you.
  2. We search for and try to use the best and most reliable sources online.
  3. We will tell you when you should take a piece of information with a grain of salt when a questionable source is the only one that says something interesting. This way, if an expert comes across this item, he or she might be inspired to confirm it.

Another thing that sets us apart from the rest is that we always tell you where we got our pictures. The only time we upload pictures from a computer, as in from a disk drive, is when we’ve taken them ourselves, or have been given them along with the permission to upload them in that fashion by the rightful owner(s), who are always credited. Otherwise, you need only click on any image we’ve posted, and you will be led straight to the source.

We also strive to keep all links updated and functioning. We actually encourage and ask that you let us know when you encounter a dead link, so we may fix it as soon as possible.

Archaeologists, Sumerologists and Mesopotamia enthusiasts read our blog. They say they love what we do. A couple of them have even been contributors on our blog, and we expect to have more of them do the same. If you have something you want to contribute or share, or know someone who does, focusing mostly on the Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian and Assyrian civilizations that thrived in the land between two rivers, email us (allmesopotamia@gmail.com) and we will jump on it.

All Mesopotamia has been a great success, an unexpected success, thanks to readers and followers who consider us a trusted source. Readers like you. We thank you!

 
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Posted by on January 28, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

Q&A: Andy Lowings, a reincarnated Ancient Mesopotamian (I’m pretty sure)

The bull head of the Lyre of Ur peeks out of a beautiful cover sent to Andy Lowings by an Iraqi woman from Baghdad, who painted it by hand. `Iraqi bull just refused to be kept in!` Mr. Lowings said. (LPhoto courtesy of Andy Lowings)

A year ago, I discovered and wrote about the Golden Lyre of Ur Project, a multinational effort to recreate the 4,750-year-old instrument from scratch, just as the Ancient Mesopotamians did.

The project was spearheaded by Andy Lowings, a man who put his mind to doing something amazing and set out to do it. What he ended up with was a worldwide sensation (at times met and welcomed with a rose-petal-strewn stage, no less!) that brings to life an ancient world unknown to many.

Although the post mentioning the Golden Lyre of Ur Project has been on the blog since November of 2011, I wasn’t lucky enough to hear from Mr. Lowings until just a few months ago. It is an honor to now be in contact with such an amazing individual, who I’m sure is a reincarnated Ancient Mesopotamian!

So, without further delay, here is a Q&A I did with Mr. Lowings, through which I’m sure you will find him an inspiring individual that reminds us that no matter what we set out to do, passion drives us further than we can possibly imagine. He also makes it look easy, but rest assured that only he can carry it out so beautifully!

***

Can you tell us a little bit about your background, and how and when you became interested in Mesopotamian history?

Of course! It`s a nice thing to be asked about yourself from across the world, thank you for taking an interest!

I`m a Civil Engineer and I spent 9 years in Dubai and enjoyed building up the city there in the 70`s. I liked the Arab world and enjoyed the big mix of different people there in the Emirates.

At that time everyone was thinking big and changing the world with new airports and hotels and roads. Everyone mixed-in well there and got on with making it happen…no-one ever said anything was impossible. I came back to Britain and then worked on the Channel Tunnel..the longest 24-mile railway under the sea to France. I think they all taught me that you could do anything.

But I also played the harp, and after a while, through the new `Internet`, I looked at the first musical instruments of all … some found in Iraq in 1929. It seemed like a well-kept secret. No-one seemed to know of these great artifacts found in Ur. All so very, very, old!

I thought that it would be a nice thing to make one of the Lyres again and see how it sounded! I thought the Baghdad Gold Lyre was the nicest and so, one day, April 10th, 2003, I said I`d make that one.

The very next day the Museum in Baghdad was looted and the original Lyre was vandalised! It was just fate. It was all over the world press and it was clear that it was a well-loved Iraqi icon. So I had to make a playable version of it.

Lyre_in_downtown_DC_rs[1]

Transporting the Lyre into Washington DC to the Smithsonian Theatre! (Photo and caption courtesy of Andy Lowings)

;

How is the Golden Lyre of Ur project doing now that it’s been around for a few years?

What started just as a hobby suddenly became of interest to lots of other people, and I managed to involve them into helping…though to be honest it was clear what existing sympathy there was, for ordinary Iraqis after the war. People were very kind and offered to help in what fields they could.

Since then, we have discovered lots about other aspects connected to the instruments of the Royal Graves at Ur. There are cuneiform texts and linguists busy interpreting them, there`s musicians and archaeologists, precious metal workers, artists and museums…all who have lots to give, in connection to these ancient times.

So we have tried to involve them too, in the story of these first musical instruments. We go to talk about different aspects to various groups. People are eager to find out what we have learned or just to hear the story of how we made the Gold Lyre again and how it connects us all today. We go to museums, universities, schools, conferences and festivals all over.

But we always try to make the connection to Iraq and its past, and so it`s always special when we meet Iraqi people who are interested. We met the Baghdad Museum staff one day in London and they were amazed at what everyone had made.

Even Kadim Al Sahir came and sat inside the van to see the Lyre with me after his concert at the Albert Hall in London…whilst hundreds of fans were outside shouting! He was a great guy.

We have just performed at the local college to drama students and later this month we will go to Cambridge University for archaeologists there. We will be providing the music! So there are lots of ideas for how to bring the Gold Lyre of Ur to people`s attention.

But of all the places, we would rather go to Iraq, and show people our Gold Lyre there and bring it to life right there in Baghdad and Basra.

After the "Githarra al someria"  show.  With Prof. Donny George, Dr Hadi Hind (Iraqi Cultural Attache), Jennifer Sturdy and Andy Lowings. (Photo and caption courtesy of Andy Lowings)

After the “Githarra al someria” show. With Prof. Donny George, Dr Hadi Hind (Iraqi Cultural Attache), Jennifer Sturdy and Andy Lowings. (Photo and caption courtesy of Andy Lowings)

You said that the unfortunate looting of the Baghdad museum in April 2003 inspired you to recreate the Golden Lyre of Ur, which lay in pieces afterwards. You’ve also said that you’ve recently recreated some Sumerian jewelry. How did this latest project come about, and what did it entail?

The Gold Lyre was found with 68 women, and it`s likely that the last player who had her hand over it in death was a woman, so in many ways this is a project about women. The jewellery was so spectacular (most of it by the way is still behind the back of the museums in storage there is so much of it) that as part of a performance we could perhaps show a little of the style of the period too.

We went to the British Museum and asked to see the jewellery, and they were kind enough to give us free access. It was such a strange feeling to really hold such tremendous objects from so long ago. We had a little gold offcuts and so thought to make the “Gold choker” which we inspected there in London.

There are actually around 60 of them and thousands of beads and silver objects in the museum. Many of the items are amazingly detailed and as good as anything made today. Tiny details and scrolls and carvings were quite impossible for me to learn how to do. But a jewellery maker near here was giving lessons so I spent the winter making the simpler Gold Choker: alternating gold and lapis lazuli triangles in a neck band.

The finished Gold Sumerian necklace in its box. (Photo and caption courtesy of Andy Lowings)

The finished Gold Sumerian necklace in its box. (Photo and caption courtesy of Andy Lowings)

Every lady we show it to wants to put it on herself! It immediately makes them look like Queen Pu’Abi herself, and so it`s an added side to our performances. I`m sure in Iraq it would be hugely interesting to the women there.

Are there any other projects related to Mesopotamia you’ve worked on or are working on?

The languages of Mesopotamia are largely unknown or too complicated for people to understand. But only this year the book “Teach Yourself Spoken Babylonian” has been published and so now gives anyone the possibility to actually pronounce the dialects of the old regions! A Cambridge University don has discovered this and so we are making some songs in the real dialects of the time. With the Lyre as an accompaniment of course, it will be a new CD of Mesopotamian hit numbers… from their Sumerian Top “Sixty” maybe?

Recording our new Gold Lyre of Ur song, in November. Its called “The Flood” and its sung in the original Akkadian language by Stef Conner. (Photo and caption courtesy of Andy Lowings)

Recently, we played the Gold Lyre of Ur in Germany at Lake Constance to a conference of 450 world Lyre players. We were given a huge stage and lights and even a special welcome of rose petals strewn over the stage for the Lyre`s arrival. It was most moving.

So we thought that we might, in future, invite some dancers to make a collaboration with the Gold Lyre. And even to invite an artist to create some backdrop stage images; paintings, to set the scene for what the Gold Lyre of Ur is all about. Scenes of old Iraq, old civilisations and reconstruction and new civilisations..

Positive images for the future, I hope. Yet the last chapter of our book has not yet been written..and that must be the visit to Iraq.

How has doing the amazing work you do in educating the world about Mesopotamia in a most unique way changed your life?

It`s been an honour to direct the course of a project. One which started just as a hobby and which now connects so many different people. One which can do some good.

Without doubt it has changed me and everyone who has been involved with it, though it`s not always been simple and easy, I have to say. We have met such great, great people. Brave people, and clever people, kind people who have not asked for anything in return for helping.

Last week a lovely hand-painted Lyre cover was sent to us from a lady in Baghdad (pictured at top of post)…”I wanted to help you,” she said.

I hardly know her name. Who wouldn`t be moved by such generosity coming this way?

***

Be sure to check out the Lyre of Ur website at http://www.lyre-of-ur.com, where you can learn more about the project, and see if you can witness it where you are!

 

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Feasting in Mesopotamia

Standard of Ur Banquet scene. (Source)

The Greek historian Herodotus said that when the city of Babylon fell to the Persians in 539 BC, what King Cyrus and his armies found behind its walls were Babylonians feasting. The Bible says the same about the event, which served to peg the very name of that great city to excessive luxury.

I started with the fall of Babylon, but luxurious feasts and banquets had been a part of Mesopotamian culture from the time of the Sumerians, the ones who started it all.

Why they feasted

We feast today to celebrate all things happy, from weddings to religious holidays. Mesopotamians were no different.

The famous Standard of Ur (pictured above) contains a rather detailed Sumerian banquet scene in which servants bring food and drink to seated figures, one of them higher and larger than the rest, with musicians performing. There are also cattle being led in to be prepared for the feast, which we know is a celebration of a war victory, thanks to an accompanying war scene. (Source)

The amount of detail in the Standard of Ur and other art depicting a feast or a banquet tells us of the significance of these rituals that continued to be important through the centuries.

Another depiction of a feast is found on Assyrian relief from King Ashurbanipal’s palace that dates back to the 6th Century BC. The detail of the “Garden Party” relief is incredibly intricate. It shows King Ashurbanipal (668 – 627 BC) reclining on a chaise-longue with his wife seated next to him as servants bring food and drink and play music, all in celebration of his victory against the Elamite kingdom.

The relief known as “Garden Party,” found at Ashurbanipal’s North Palace at Khorsabad.  (Source)

What makes this feast depiction so special is not only its intricate detailing, but that it also serves as a medium for gloating. Ashurbanipal’s ruthlessness is something that is echoed in most all of his depictions, and in this relief it is manifested in hanging of the defeated Elamite king Teumman’s head hanging from a nearby tree (far left tree, right in Ashurbanipal’s line of sight).

There were other occasions for celebratory feasting by kings in Ancient Mesopotamia, besides war victories and gloating. The Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II (883 – 859 BC) held a huge banquet to celebrate the inauguration of his new palace in 879 BC.

But kings weren’t the only ones who feasted. So did ordinary people. For example, Assyrians, presumably the concerned merchants, celebrated the arrival of new trade goods by having feasts in their homes. (Source).

What was on the menu?

When King Ashurnasirpal II celebrated his palace’s inauguration, he spared no expense in feeding his 69,574+ guests:

“1,000 oxen, 1,000 calves, 14,000 sheep, 1,000 lambs, 500 deers, 500 gazelles, 1,000 large birds, 500 geese, 500 cranes, 1,000 mesukku-birds, 1,000 qaribu-birds, 10,000 pigeons, 10,000 turtle doves, 10,000 smaller birds, 10,000 fish, 10,000 akbiru (a small rodent), 10,000 eggs, 10,000 containers of beer, 10,000 goatskins of wine, 10,000 jars of a hot condiment, 1,000 boxes of fresh vegetables, and large quantities of honey, pistachios, roasted grain, pomegranates, dates, cheeses, olives, and all kinds of spices.” (Source)

The guests at this banquet (which was boasted about in an inscription put on a stele) were local as well as foreign dignitaries and workers. The gods were also considered guests at such extravagant banquets, and that meant part of the food was designated for the gods. For the goddess Ishtar alone Ashurnasirpal II designated some 200 heads of cattle.

To drink, Mesopotamians served beer and wine at their feasts. They also performed toasts in honor of their host.

What an Assyrian toast might’ve looked like. (Source)

Here is a description of a scene in which nobles offer a toast to their king:

…the nobles sat at tables of four. In front of them was placed a dish of food as they toasted the king, raising a rhythm (cornucopia-shaped drinking cup) with a base in the shape of a lion´s head.” (Source

Finally, are you wondering just how flavorful a Mesopotamian feast might be? At History Tastes Like This, a blog about recipes from olden times, an attempt at a Mesopotamian Beef Stew recipe is described, and it sounds like a Mesopotamian feast would’ve made your taste buds sing. Maybe you could have yourself a different kind of feast this holiday season.

Bon Appetit!

Sources and further reading:

http://joseph_berrigan.tripod.com/ancientbabylon/id19.html

http://mesopotamia.mrdonn.org/commerce.html

http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/me/t/the_garden_party_relief.aspx

http://chloemiriam.hubpages.com/hub/standard-of-ur

http://www.ancientreplicas.com/ashurbanipal-feasting.html

http://historytastes.wordpress.com/2012/08/11/ancient-grains-mesopotamia/

http://www.gatewaystobabylon.com/myths/texts/life/recreation.htm

 
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Posted by on November 22, 2012 in Holidays

 

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Breasts in Mesopotamia

It took me a minute, but since it’s October, and October is Breast Cancer Awareness month, I decided to look and see what I could find about breasts in Ancient Mesopotamia, aside from the obvious fact that Mesopotamian women had them.

After some research, I’ve found that breasts were quite prominent in the land between two rivers.

A statue from Samarra, ca. 6000 BC, believed to be of a mother goddess, with exaggerated breasts being held up for prominence. (Source)

Life and Breasts

To start, the Babylonians and Assyrians concentrated on what appears to be essentially the lifeline of a newborn child by listing the beginning of the life cycle as “a child at the breast.” Notice it is not just “a child is born,” but “a child at the breast.” This speaks volumes, especially when attached to all the other things I found.

As expected, Mesopotamians associated the female form with fertility. Many statues believed to be those depicting fertility have been unearthed throughout Mesopotamia. They usually feature mother goddesses with prominent breasts held up suggestively with folded arms underneath (see above), while some statues feature only one of the breasts being held up as if it were an offering. (Source)

Akkadian female figurines, ca. 2334-2147 BC. Note the figurine on the left holding up only one breast. (Source)

Emphasis was also placed on breasts in erotic scenes, as pictured below.

Plaque depicting Sumerian lovers in an embrace. Note the woman clutching her breast suggestively. (Source)

Mythological Breasts

The prominence of breasts in Ancient Mesopotamian culture is also evident in the descriptions of the defining characteristics of mythological figures. For instance, a characteristic of Lilith, a female demon who snatches and kills children, also a bearer of disease, illness and death, is described as having no milk in her breasts and unable to bear children. Nonetheless, Lilith’s epithet was “the beautiful maiden,” and would appear in men’s erotic dreams.

Although this relief is believed to be depicting Ishtar or Ereshkigal, it was thought to depict Lilith at one time. It serves as a good example of the demoness’s characteristics including woman’s breasts, bird talons for feet, and wings. (Source)

Lamashtu is another such demon, and her breasts are a prominent part of her description. She has the head of a lion, donkey’s teeth and a hairy body, but unlike Lilith, she is portrayed nursing a pig and a dog from her bare breasts. Instead of being the subject of erotic dreams, however, Lamashtu was bringer of nightmares, and was also considered bad news to children and their mothers, so much so that amulets were used to ward off her evil, particularly during childbirth. (Source)

Lamashtu had a lion’s head, donkey’s teeth and ears, naked breasts, a hairy body, long fingers and nails, and bird talons. She clutched snakes in her hands while nursing a piglet and a puppy at her breasts. Her image was put on metal or stone plaques with incantations to ward off her evil. Amulets were worn of the demon Pazuzu, who was believed to be the only one able to keep Lamashtu away from pregnant women, as she was believed to kill unborn babies by touching their mothers’ wombs seven times, or kidnapping them once they are born. (Source)

Even so, breasts were still a source of good nourishment in mythology, and it wasn’t just for humans (or mammals). The breasts of Nissaba, the Sumerian goddess of grain, served to nourish the fields ready for planting.

Breast Feeding

Of course, breasts were also associated with child bearing, but there is a flip side. On the one hand it was a source of nourishment for babies, serving as their lifeline, for up to three years. On the other hand, a woman’s breasts were also a birth control tool.

A woman’s fertility is relatively low while she is breastfeeding, and so the concept of the wet nurse became widespread in Mesopotamia, as it helped nourish newborn babies with breast milk when their mothers were unable to provide them with it, and it also helped keep the wet nurses themselves from getting pregnant during the time they were nursing.

Hammurabi (1728-1686 BC) wrote a law covering the category of wet nursing, in which a two to three-year contract is held between a wet nurse and her employer, and gives her the right to sell the child of that employer should she not be compensated properly. Yikes! (Source)

Breast Cancer in Mesopotamia?

Ancient Mesopotamians also believed that disease came from demons that would enter a person’s body through any opening and begin attacking certain areas. Babylonians believed that each body part was attacked by a designated demon, and the demon that attacked the breasts was Alu, a night-dwelling demon, who when not attacking breasts was bent on terrifying those trying to sleep. (Source)

A final piece I gathered in putting this post together is one that I feel is especially indicative of the prominence of the breast in Mesopotamia. In the ruins of the ancient city of Nuzu, in northeast modern-day Iraq, excavations unearthed an infant buried under a private home, its remains inside a jar in the shape of a woman’s breast. (Source, page 94)

So, having said all that, I think it’s safe to say that breasts were almost revered in Mesopotamian culture. And for all the right reasons, too. Do you agree? Let us know in the comments!

Sources and further reading:

http://www.academia.edu/873588/Womens_Roles_in_Ancient_Mesopotamia, page 94

http://factsanddetails.com/world.php?itemid=1521&catid=56&subcatid=363  (under “Mesopotamian Hygiene, Perfume and Sex”)

http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-d88npMh9sPo/TXDRGLhUeNI/AAAAAAAAAnw/9sGn7Xh-1XU/s1600/sumerian-love.jpg

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lamashtu

http://www.bibliotecapleyades.net/sumer_anunnaki/esp_sumer_annunaki15e.htm

http://www.bibliotecapleyades.net/sumer_anunnaki/esp_sumer_annunaki12e.htm

http://orthocj.com/2006/06/historical-perspective-on-breast-feeding-and-nursing/

http://www.answers.com/topic/alu-demon

http://www.acsu.buffalo.edu/~duchan/new_history/ancient_history/mesopotamia.html

 
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Posted by on October 23, 2012 in Art, Women

 

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EXTRA! EXTRA! EXTRA!

EXTRA! EXTRA! EXTRA!
Uruk Edition

All the news fit to print!

 
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Posted by on October 9, 2012 in Humor, Uruk

 

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