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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Stone Believed to Hold Soul of the Dead

University of Chicago archaeologists working in southeastern Turkey have found a chiseled stone monument, or "stele," that commemorates the life—and, it was believed, holds the soul—of an eighth-century royal official named Kattamuwa. The funeral monument, which includes an incised image of the man and an inscription, is believed to be the first written evidence that the people in that region believed the soul was separate from the body. The slab is 800 pounds, three feet tall, and two feet wide.
The archaeologists found no evidence of a burial or tomb in the remains of the ancient city of Sam'al (near the Syrian border), but they have found cremation urns dating to the same period in neighboring excavation sites. The archaeologists think the people in Sam'al also practiced cremation—a practice that breached biblical law, according to Semitic cultures like the Jews, who felt the body and soul were inseparable.
The stone's inscription, which was translated by Dennis Pardee, a professor of Near Eastern languages and civilization at the University of Chicago, reads, in part: “I, Kuttamuwa, servant of [the king] 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 god] Hadad, a ram for [the god] Shamash and a ram for my soul that is in this stele.”
In the chiseled picture, a bearded man (presumably Kuttamuwa) wears a tasseled cap and fringed cloak, and raises a cup of wine with his right hand. He's sitting in front of table full of food, believed to symbolize the afterlife he expected to enjoy, and the inscription calls on his descendants to regularly bring food for his soul—further evidence that the people in this ancient city believed the soul lived not in the bones of the dead, as in traditional Semitic thought, but in the stone. (In front of the stone, archaeologists found food remains and fragments of the same type of bowls depicted in the picture.)
The stele was discovered last summer at a site called Zincirli (pronounced Zin-jeer-lee) by the Neubauer Expedition, led by David Schloen of The Oriental Institute. Later this week, Schloen and Pardee will present their findings in Boston at meetings of the American Schools of Oriental Research and the Society of Biblical Literature. —Heather Wax