National Geographic
Menu

Iron Age Monument to the Soul Discovered in Turkey

soul-monument-1.jpg

The soul of a royal official in the service of  King Panamuwa of the eighth century B.C. was believed to reside in this carved stone.

Photo by Eudora Struble, University of Chicago

Archaeologists in southeastern Turkey have discovered an Iron Age chiseled stone slab that provides the first written evidence in the region that people believed the soul was separate from the body, University of Chicago researchers announced.

The Neubauer Expedition of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago found the 800-pound basalt stele at Zincirli (pronounced “Zin-jeer-lee”), the site of the ancient city of Sam’al.

The inscription reads in part: “I, Kuttamuwa, servant of Panamuwa, am

the one who oversaw the production of this stele for myself while still

living. I placed it in an eternal chamber(?) and established a feast at

this chamber(?): a bull for [the storm-god] Hadad, … a ram for [the

sun-god] Shamash, … and a ram for my soul that is in this stele.”

“The stele is the first of its kind to be found intact in its original location, enabling scholars to learn about funerary customs and life in the eighth century B.C.,” the researchers said. “At the time, vast empires emerged in the ancient Middle East, and cultures such as the Israelites and Phoenicians became part of a vibrant mix,”

soul-monument-4.jpg

The northeast city wall of the site of Zinceril.

Photo by Eudora Struble, University of Chicago

The man featured on the stele was probably cremated, a practice that Jewish and other cultures shun because of a belief in the unity of body and soul. According to the inscription, the soul of the deceased resided in the stele.

“The stele is in almost pristine condition. It is unique in its combination of pictorial and textual features and thus provides an important addition to our knowledge of ancient language and culture,” said David Schloen, associate professor at the Oriental Institute and Director of the University’s Neubauer Expedition to Zincirli.

Once the capital of a prosperous kingdom, Zincirli is now one of the most important Iron Age sites under excavation.

German archaeologists first excavated the 100-acre site in the 1890s and unearthed massive city walls, gates and palaces. A number of royal inscriptions and other finds are now on display in museums in Istanbul and Berlin. Schloen and his team from the University of Chicago have excavated Zincirli for two months annually since 2006.

soul-monument-3.jpg

A sketch that is a reconstruction of the citadel at

Zincirli.

Sketch by Robert Koldewey

“Zincirli is a remarkable site,” said Gil Stein, Director of the Oriental Institute. “Because no other cities were built on top of it, we have excellent Iron Age materials right under the surface. It is rare also in having written evidence together with artistic and archaeological evidence from the Iron Age. Having all of that information helps an archaeologist study the ethnicity of the inhabitants, trade and migration, as well as the relationships of the groups who lived there.”

soul-monument-5.jpg

A geomagnetic map showing the buried walls.

Map by Jason Herrmann, University of Arkansas

The stele, 3 feet tall and 2 feet wide, was discovered last summer in a small room that had been converted into a mortuary shrine for the royal official Kuttamuwa, self-described in the inscription as a “servant” of King Panamuwa of the eighth century B.C. It was found in the outer part of the walled city in a domestic area — most likely the house of Kuttamuwa himself — far from the royal palaces, where inscriptions had previously been found.

“A handsome, bearded figure, Kuttamuwa is depicted on the stele wearing

a tasseled cap and fringed cloak and raising a cup of wine in his right

hand,” the researchers said. “He is seated on a chair in front of a

table laden with food, symbolizing the pleasant afterlife he expected

to enjoy. Beside him is his inscription, elegantly carved in raised

relief, enjoining upon his descendants the regular duty of bringing

food for his soul. Indeed, in front of the stele were remains of food

offerings and fragments of polished stone bowls of the type depicted on

Kuttamuwa’s table.”

soul-monument-2.jpg

Students looking at stele recovered in Zincirli are Virginia Rimmer and Benjamin Thomas, both Ph.D. students in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations of the University of Chicago.

Photo by Eudora Struble, University of Chicago

The inscription on Kuttamuwa’s stele was written in a script derived from the Phoenician alphabet and in a local West Semitic dialect similar to Aramaic and Hebrew, according to the researchers. “It is of keen interest to linguists as well as biblical scholars and religious historians because it comes from a kingdom contemporary with ancient Israel that shared a similar language and cultural features,” the university release said.

“The finding sheds a striking new light on Iron Age beliefs about the afterlife. In this case, it was the belief that the enduring identity or “soul” of the deceased inhabited the monument on which his image was carved and on which his final words were recorded.”

David Schloen will present the Kuttamuwa stele at the meeting of the American

Schools of Oriental Research on Novemnber 22 in Boston, the major

annual conference for Middle Eastern archaeology. Dennis Pardee,

Professor of Near Eastern Languages and Civilization at the University

of Chicago, will present his translation of the stele’s 13-line

inscription the following day at the annual meeting of the Society of

Biblical Literature, also in Boston, in a session on “Paleographical

Studies in the Near East.”