Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria

by Lewis Spence | 1917 | 108,912 words

Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, is a book that includes explanations of Babylonian and Assyrian legends and myths as well as the myths themselves. Lewis Spence, in the Preface, describes his purpose in writing the book as providing the reader with "the treasures of romance latent in the subject, the peculiar richness of which has...

Chapter XIV - Modern Excavation In Babylonia And Assyria

Image right: From Guide to the Babylonian and Assyrian Antiquities, by permission of the Director of the British Museum.

IN no land has excavation assisted history so greatly as in Mesopotamia. In Egypt, although spade-work has widened our knowledge of life and religion in the Nile country, most of what we know of these subjects has been gleaned from temples and pyramids, rock-tombs and masta.bas, for the proper examination of which little or no digging was necessary, and generally speaking it may be said that excavation in Egypt has furnished us with a greater insight into the earlier periods of Egyptian progress, its ‘prehistoric’ life. But in the Babylonian-Assyrian region, practically every discovery has been due to strenuous labour with pick and spade ; our knowledge of Chaldea in its hey-day has literally been dug up piece by piece.

The honour of beginning the great task of unearthing the buried cities of Mesopotamia belongs to M. Botta, who was French consul at Mosul in 1842. Moved by the belief that many of the great sand-covered mounds which are so conspicuous a feature of the Mesopotamian landscape probably concealed ruins of a vanished civilization, Botta commenced to excavate the large mound of Kouyunjik, which is situated close to the village where he resided. But he found little to reward his labours, and he does not seem to have gone about the business of excavation in a very workmanlike manner. His attention was called by an intelligent native to the mounds of Khorsabad, the site of ancient Nineveh, and he dispatched a party of workmen to the spot. Soon his perseverance was rewarded by the discovery of some sculptures, and recognizing the superior importance of Khorsabad for archaeological purposes, he transferred his establishment to that village and resolved to devote himself to a thorough investigation of the site.

Soon a well-planned sinking operation came upon one of the palace walls, and subsequent digging was rewarded by the discovery of many chambers and halls faced with slabs of gypsum covered with mythological figures, battle scenes, processions, and similar subjects. He had, in fact, unearthed a palace built at Nineveh by Sargon, King of Assyria, who reigned 722-705 B.C., one of the finest examples of Assyrian palatial architecture. He continued his excavations at Khorsabad until 1845, and was successful in bringing to light a temple and a grand porch decorated by three pairs of wings, under which passed the road from the city to the palace. Many of the fruits of his labours were removed to Paris and deposited in the Louvre. His successor, Victor Place, continued Botta’s work at Khorsabad, and discovered a city gate guarded by winged bulls, the backs of which supported the arch of the entrance.


Sir Henry Layard

Meanwhile Mr, afterward Sir Henry, Layard had visited the country in 1840, and was greatly impressed by Botta’s work and its results. Five years later, through the assistance of Sir Stratford Canning, he was enabled himself to commence excavations at Nimrūd. He soon unearthed the remains of extensive buildings—in fact he discovered two Assyrian palaces on the very first day of his excavations ! At the outset he had only eleven men in his employ, and being anxious to push on the work in fear that the local Turkish, governor or the approach of the winter season would put an end to his operations, he increased his staff to thirty men. The peasants laboured enthusiastically, but to the excavator’s disgust the Turkish authorities forbade him to proceed. Layard, nevertheless, hoodwinked the authorities, and succeeded in uncovering several large figures of winged bulls and lions.

Soon after this Layard spent Christmas with Sir Henry Rawlinson of the British Museum, with whom he cemented a warm friendship, and together they were able to overcome the unfriendliness of the Turkish officials. Hormuzd Rassam, an intelligent native Christian, came to Layard’s assistance, and operations were once more commenced at Nimrūd. Rassam’s labours were quickly crowned by success, for he came upon a large hall in a fine state of preservation. The serious work of excavation was not without its humorous side, for if they chanced to unearth a carven monster with the body of a bull and the head of a bearded man, the native labourers threw down their tools and ran. The Turkish Governor, too, hearing from a native source that ‘Nimrod’ had been found, sent a message to the effect that “his remains should be treated with respect and be no further disturbed.”

Layard had now unearthed many valuable sculptures, and he resolved to attempt their dispatch to England. Rawlinson sent a small steamer, the Nitocris , to Nimrud, but it was found impossible to ship the massive pieces on this frail craft, and even the smaller sculptures had perforce to be floated down the Tigris on rafts. Layard’s health was by this time in no very robust state, but a two months’ mountain holiday in Kurdistan refreshed him, and once more he recommenced his labours at Nimrud, heartened by the news that the British Government had awarded a grant for the continuation of his researches. The grant, however, was distressingly small, and its inadequacy compelled him to limit his excavations in the most unsatisfactory way. Despite this, the new operations were rich in results, especially those in the building known as the ‘ southwest palace.’ This palace, he ascertained from bricks unearthed, had been built by Esar-haddon, King of Assyria. Sculptures glorifying King Assur-nazir-pal (885-860 B.C.) were also discovered at the north-west palace, some of them of a most spirited character, representing the King in battle, crossing a river full of turtles and fishes, or leading his army.

Image right: The ‘Black Obelisk’ of Shalmaneser II;
Photo W. A. Mansell and Co.

It was in the central building, however, that one of his most important discoveries awaited him. This was the obelisk of Shalmaneser II (860-825 b.c.), nearly seven feet high, and in admirable preservation. The monarch had erected this in his palace to commemorate the leading military events of his career. It contains twenty small bas-reliefs and 210 lines of cuneiform inscription, alluding among other things to the receipt of the tribute of “Jehu, son of Omri.”[1] This priceless relic is one of the treasures in the keeping of the British Museum.

Layard devoted the first four months of 1847 to the exploration of the north-west palace, and disclosed painted chambers on which were represented hunting-scenes and various religious ceremonies, each design separated by a conventional representation of the sacred tree. Many of the lesser objects found here exhibited Egyptian influence. Here he also came upon the oldest Assyrian arch ever discovered.

He had now collected a large number of important sculptures, and of these he succeeded in sending three by raft to Basra, whence they were later shipped to England. By the middle of May 1847 he had finished his work at Nimrūd, and had commenced his search for the ruins of Nineveh in the mound of Kouyunjik, near Mosul, where Botta had laboured before him. He dug for the platform of sun-dried bricks which he knew by experience formed the foundation of all large Assyrian edifices, and came upon it, as he had expected, at a depth of twenty feet, shortly afterward discovering the entrance, flanked by the inevitable winged bulls. But the building itself had been so damaged by fire as to present little more than crumbling heaps of lime.

Layard returned to England in June 1847, and was appointed attache to the Embassy at Constantinople. Meanwhile his published works had created an extraordinary impression throughout Europe, and the pressure of public opinion so wrought upon the Government that he was requested to lead a second expedition to Nineveh.


Where Rawlinson Slept

Better equipped, Layard left Constantinople in August 1849 and arrived at Kouyunjik in October. Employing about a hundred men, he set strenuously to work, removing only as much earth as was necessary to show the sculptured walls. Having fairly started the work at Kouyunjik, Layard, accompanied by Rassam, returned to Nimrud, and recommenced work there. One morning he was inspecting the trenches when he found Rawlinson asleep on the floor of an excavated chamber, wrapped in his travelling cloak, “wearied out by a long and harassing night’s ride.” He was on his way home to England, which he had not seen for twenty-two years.

The rich finds in the painted palace of Sennacherib at Kouyunjik consisted chiefly of mural paintings and bas-reliefs. Of these Professor Hilprecht says :[2]

“Hundreds of figures cover the face of the slabs from top to bottom. We become acquainted with the peculiarities, in type and dress, of foreign nations, and the characteristic features and products of their lands ; we are introduced into the very life and occupations of the persons represented.

The sculptor shows us the Babylonian swamps with their jungles of tall reeds, frequented by wild boars, and barbarous tribes skimming over the waters in their light boats of wicker-work, exactly such as are used to-day by the inhabitants of the same marshes ; or he takes us into the high mountains of Kurdistan, covered with trees and crowned with castles, endeavouring even to convey the idea of a valley by reversing the trees and mountains on one side of the stream, which is filled with fishes and crabs and turtles.

He indicates the different head-gear worn by female musicians, or by captive women carried with their husbands and children to Nineveh. Some wear their hair in long ringlets, some plaited or braided, some confined in a net; others are characterized by hoods fitting close to their heads, others by a kind of turban; Elamite ladies with their hair in curls falling on their shoulders, bound above the temples by a band or fillet, while those from Syria wear a high conical head-dress, similar to that which is frequently found to-day in those regions.”

The excavation of Sennacherib’s palace with its seventy rooms, halls, and galleries was indeed one of the most striking results of Layard’s second expedition to Nineveh. But even more remarkable was the find of Assur-bani-pal’s famous royal library at Nineveh, which has already been described. Results at Nimrud, too, had been favourable, perhaps the most interesting being the discovery of the tower of Calah, regarded at first as the tomb of Sardanapalus. Now for the second time Layard began to feel the effects of overwork and exposure, and in April 1851, accompanied by Rassam, he turned from the ruins of Nineveh “with a heavy heart.” Twenty-four years later he was to become Ambassador at Constantinople, in which capacity he loyally assisted the zealous Rassam, his worthy subordinate.

Image: Outline of the Mounds at Nimrud;
From a drawing made on the spot by Sir Henry Layard

In 1851 Rawlinson was entrusted by the British Government with the excavations in Assyria and Babylonia. He had the invaluable assistance of Rassam as ‘chief practical excavator.’ Stationing his workmen at as many sites as possible, he unearthed the annals of Tiglath-pileser I at Qal’at Sherqat, discovered E-zide, the temple of Nebo at Nimrud, and a c stele ’ of Samsi-Adad IV (825- 8i2j B.C.). At Kouyunjik he came upon the palace of Assur-bani-pal. A beautiful bas-relief was recovered representing Assur-bani-pal in his chariot on a hunting expedition. The ‘ lion-room,’ the walls of which represented a lion-hunt, was also unearthed, and was shown to have been used both as a library and a picture-gallery, many thousands of clay book-tablets being found therein.

Abandoning excavation for a political appointment, Mr Rassam was followed by William Kennet Loftus, who did good work at the ruins of Warkâ in Babylonia. Meanwhile the French expedition under Fresnel, Oppert, and Thomes was excavating at Babylon, coming upon the remains of the Nebuchadrezzar period and excavating the mound of Babil.


George Smith

One who was to perform yeoman service for Assyriology now entered the field. This was George Smith, whose name is so unalterably associated with the romantic sidefof that science he loved so well.

Writing of himself he says :

“Everyone has some bent or inclination which, if fostered by favourable circumstances, will colour the rest of his life. My own taste has always been for Oriental studies, and from my youth I have taken a great interest in Eastern explorations and discoveries, particularly in the great work in which Layard and Rawlinson were engaged. For some years I did little or nothing, but in 1866, seeing the unsatisfactory state of our knowledge of those parts of Assyrian history which bore upon the history of the Bible, I felt anxious to do something towards settling the questions involved.”[3]

Smith found the Deluge tablets among the scores of fragments sent to the British Museum by Layard and Loftus, and this and other discoveries whetted his desire to go to Mesopotamia and unearth its treasures with his own hands. In consequence of the wide interest taken at the time in these discoveries the proprietors of The Daily Telegraph came forward with the offer of a thousand guineas for fresh researches at Nineveh, with the proviso that Smith should head the expedition and supply the journal with accounts of his discoveries. The offer was accepted, and Smith, now a member of the staff of the British Museum, received leave of absence for six months.

Arrived at Nimrud, Smith settled down to excavation there, commencing operations at the temple of Nebo; but he found little to justify his labour, as the structure was in a ruinous condition and had latterly been used as a granary. On each side of the entrance stood a colossal figure of the god with crossed arms in an attitude of meditation, and lesser images of him were found inside the ruined building. Smith’s reason for digging here was that he suspected the presence of inscriptions which might cast light upon the reign of Tiglath-pileser II (745 B.C.) and therefore upon Bible history. His industry was rewarded by the discovery of the upper portion of a tablet of this monarch, but further finds of importance were not forthcoming.


The Palace of Nimrud

Smith then instituted systematic excavations in the south-east palace, and made some interesting discoveries. On examining this part of the mound he saw a considerable tunnel in the south face, commencing on the sloping part of the mound. This tunnel appeared to go along the middle of a chamber, the floor having been cut through and appearing in a line on each side of the tunnel. Further on, the tunnel reached the wall at the end of the chamber, and the face of this had been cleared for some little distance; then, descending below the foundation of this wall, the passage ran for some distance into the base of the mound.

Image: The Palaces of Nimrud (Restored).
From a sketch by James Ferguson for Sir Henry Layard.

He commenced on the two sides of this cutting, and cleared away to the level of the pavement, soon coming to the wall on each. side. The southern wall of the chamber had fallen over into the plain, as it was here close to the edge of the platform, and the chamber commenced with two parallel walls running north and south. The right-hand wall, in a place near the edge where it was much broken down, showed three steps of an ascent which had gone apparently to some upper chambers. Further on it showed two recesses, each ornamented on both sides with three square pilasters. The left hand showed an entrance into a second chamber running east to west, and from this turned a third, running parallel with the first. Altogether in this place he opened six chambers, all of the same character, the entrances ornamented by clusters of square pilasters and recesses in the rooms in the same style. The walls were coloured in horizontal bands of red, green, and yellow on plaster ; and where the lower parts of the chambers were panelled with small stone slabs, the plaster and colours were continued over these. In one of these rooms there appeared a brick receptacle let into the floor, and on lifting the brick which covered this Smith found six terra-cotta winged figures, closely packed in the receptacle. Each figure was full-faced, having a head like a lion, four wings, with one hand across the breast, holding a basket in the other, and clothed in a long dress to the feet. These figures were probably intended to preserve the building against the power of evil spirits.

All the eastern and southern portions of the mound of Nimrud had been destroyed by being turned into a burial-place. The ruins had been excavated after the fall of the Assyrian empire, walls had been dug through, and chambers broken into, and the openings filled with coffins.

Mr Smith, then turned his attention to the ruins of Nineveh at Kouyunjik and Nebbi Yunas. Layard and even the Turkish Government had both been before him here. He commenced operations by cutting trenches at the south-eastern corner of Assur-bani-pal’s palace. But at first nothing of great interest resulted, and he diverted operations to the palace of Sennacherib hard by. Here he came upon a number of inscriptions which compensated him for his labour. At length the excavations in Assur-bani-pal^ palace bore fruit, for there were unearthed the greater portion of seventeen lines of inscription belonging to the first column of the Deluge narrative, and fitting into the only place where there was a serious blank in the story.

The palace of Sennacherib also steadily produced its tribute of objects, including a small tablet of Esar-haddon, King of Assyria, some new fragments of one of the historical cylinders of Assur-bani-pal, and a curious fragment of the history of Sargon, King of Assyria, relating to his expedition against Ashdod, which is mentioned in the twentieth chapter of the Book of Isaiah. On the same fragment was also part of the list of Median chiefs who paid tribute to Sargon.

The proprietors of The Daily Telegraph considered that with the finding of the Deluge fragment the purpose of the expedition had been served, and that further excavation in Mesopotamia should be carried on under national auspices. Mr Smith was therefore forced to return to England, but not before he had discovered further a valuable syllabary, and two portions of the sixth tablet of the Deluge story, as well as other minor objects of interest.

About the end of 1873, however, the British Museum authorities dispatched Mr Smith once more to Mesopotamia, where he recommenced operations at Kouyunjik, and unearthed on this occasion an inscription of Shalmaneser I, King of Assyria (1300 B.C.), recording that he founded the palace of Nineveh, and alluding to his restoration of the temple of Ishtar. Inscriptions of his son Tukulti-ninip were also found at this place, as were dedications of Assur-nazir-pal (885 b.c.) and Shalmaneser II (860 B.C.). Some very curious pottery, too, came from this spot, ornamentations being laid on the clay, as in many examples of the pottery of the Maya of Central America. At the same time fragments of sculptured walls representing marching warriors were brought to light, and some tablets of great importance giving the names of six new Babylonian kings, a sixth tablet of the Deluge series, and a bilingual tablet in fine preservation.

In the south-west palace Smith excavated at the grand entrance to see if any records remained under the pavement, but there were none. This part of the pavement had been broken through, and anything under it had long ago been carried away. He sank some trenches in the grand hall and found a fragment of inscription, and further on in the palace several other fragments. His principal excavation was, however, carried on over what Layard called the library chamber of this palace. Layard, who discovered the library chamber, describes it as full of fragments of tablets, up to a foot or more from the floor. This chamber Layard had cleared out and he had brought its treasures to England, but Smith thought on examining the collection at the British Museum that not one-half of the library had been removed, and steadily adhered to the belief that the rest of the tablets must be in the palace of Sennacherib.

On excavating he found nearly three thousand fragments of tablets in the chambers round Layard’s library chamber, and from the position of these fragments he was led to the opinion that the library was not originally situated in these chambers but in an upper story of the palace, and that on the collapse of the building they fell into the chambers below. Some of the chambers in which he found inscribed tablets had no communication with each other, while fragments of the same tablets were in them ; and looking at this fact, and the positions and distribution of the fragments, he was convinced that the tablets were scattered over a wide area and resolved to excavate over an extensive section of the palace.

“In the long gallery, which contained scenes representing the moving of winged figures,” says Smith,

“ I found a great number of tablets, mostly along the floor ; they included syllabaries, bilingual lists, mythological and historical tablets. Among these tablets I discovered a beautiful bronze Assyrian fork, having two prongs joined by ornamental shoulder to shaft of spiral work, the shaft ending in the head of an ass. This is a beautiful and unique specimen of Assyrian work, and shows the advances the people had made in the refinements of life.

South of this there were numerous tablets round Layard’s old library chamber, and here I found part of a curious astrolabe, and fragments of the history of Sargon, King of Assyria, 722 b.c. In one place, below the level of the floor, I discovered a fine fragment of the history of Assurbanipal, containing new and curious matter relating to his Egyptian wars, and to the affairs of Gyges, King of Lydia.

From this part of the palace I gained also the shoulder of a colossal statue, with an inscription of Assurbanipal. In another spot I obtained a bone spoon, and a fragment of the tablet with the history of the seven evil spirits. Near this I discovered a bronze style, with which I believe the cuneiform tablets were impressed. In another part of the excavation I found part of a monument with the representation of a fortification. In the western part of the palace, near the edge of the mound, I excavated and found remains of crystal and alabaster vases, and specimens of the royal seal.

Two of these are very curious ; one is a paste seal, the earliest example of its kind, and the other is a clay impression of the seal of Sargon, King of Assyria. Near where the principal seals were discovered I found part of a sculpture with a good figure of a dead buffalo in a stream. Among these sculptures and inscriptions were numerous small objects, including beads, rings, stone seals, etc.”[4]

By January i, 1874, Smith had no less than six hundred men employed. But he had to encounter tremendous local difficulties, especially demands that he should pay immense sums to the proprietors of the land which he excavated. Soon afterward, the season being unpropitious, he returned to England. A third visit to Mesopotamia proved his last, as he became ill and passed away at Aleppo in 1876, to the universal regret not only of those who were privileged to have his friendship, but to all who had perused his works and were aware of his strenuous life and studies. From the position of a bank-note engraver he had raised himself to that of an esteemed scholar, and his kindness of heart and honesty of purpose, no less than his outstanding abilities, make him one of the most gracious figures in the history of a science to which many men of high endeavour have devoted their lives.


Hormuzd Rassam

Image right: Work of the Excavators in Babylon;
One hundred workmen laboured in digging this cut, which is 40 feet deep.
Copyright by Underwood and Underwood, London

The lamented death of Smith caused the British authorities to request Mr Hormuzd Rassam, who had retired into private life in England, to take up the vacant post. Mr Rassam at once accepted the trust, and started for Constantinople in November 1876. At first there was serious trouble with the Turkish Government, but in January 1878 Rassam was enabled to commence excavations, which he carried on almost continuously for five years. Layard, as ambassador at Constantinople, stood him in good stead. He took much advantage of native talent, which, if not up to the standard of European efficiency, he found in no wise despicable. But too many excavations were being carried on at one and the same time. Again, Rassam was prone to attempt sensational finds rather than to keep steadily at the more solid and less showy work of excavation. Guided by certain indications of the presence of objects of the Shalmaneser period at Kouyunjik, he dug there once more and succeeded in unearthing the bronze plaques which had covered the cedar gates of a large Assyrian building at least 2500 years old, and built by Shalmaneser II. They represented warriors and equestrian figures, and it was found that the site on which they were discovered had been the city of Imgur-Bel. Rassam also recovered further clay tablets from the library of Assur-bani-pal at Kouyunjik. With his return to England in 1882 it may be said that the Assyrian excavations of the nineteenth century, in contradistinction to those carried out on Babylonian soil, came to an end.


De Sarzec

With the excavations of the Frenchman de Sarzec at Tello the second great period of Chaldean archaeological research may be said to have commenced. Ernest de Sarzec was French Vice-consul at Basra, but by his private efforts he succeeded in making Tello ‘the Pompeii of early Babylonian antiquity.’ The two principal mounds excavated by him are known to Assyriologists as ‘Mound A’ and ‘Mound B.’ Digging in the former he soon collected sufficient evidence to convince him that he stood on a site of great antiquity. He found indeed that Mound A consisted of a platform of unbaked bricks crowned by an" edifice of considerable size and extent. He unearthed part of a great statue, on the shoulder of which was engraved the name of Gudea (2700 B.C.), patesi, or ruler, of Lagash, with which city Mound A proved to be identical, and later exposed numerous large columns of bricks of the time of Gudea, the ‘stele of vultures’ erected by King E-anna-tum, and two large terra-cotta cylinders of Gudea, each inscribed with about 2000 lines of early cuneiform writing.

On a later visit, at the end of 1880 and beginning of 1881, he further developed excavation in Mound A, and discovered nine large dolerite statues, fragments of precious bas-reliefs, and numerous inscriptions. He also came upon layers of more ancient remains beneath the building he had unearthed in Mound A.

The collection of early Babylonian sculptures regained by de Sarzec was hailed with acclamation in Paris. An Oriental section was instituted in the Louvre, and Leon Heuzy commenced the publication of a monumental work, Decouvertes en Chaldee par Ernest de Sarzec (Paris, 1884, seq.), which laid the foundation for a methodical treatment of ancient Chaldean art. The subsequent excavation of de Sarzec in Tello and its neighbourhood carried the history of the city back to at least 4000 B.C., and a collection of more than 30,000 tablets of the time of Gudea was gradually unearthed.

In 1886-1887 a German expedition under Dr Koldewey explored the cemetery of El Hibba to the South of Tello, and succeeded in throwing much light upon the burial customs of ancient Babylonia. A second German expedition under Dr Andrae, working at Babylon in 1889, laid bare the palace of Nebuchadrezzar and the great processional road, and subsequently conducted excavations at Qal’at Sherqat, the site of Asshur.

Image: Plan of Nineveh (Nippur);
A. Palace of Sennacherib. B. Palace of Assur-bani-pal.
By permission of the Director of the British Museum.


The American Expedition of 1889

There had been keen interest in Babylonian archaeology in America almost from the inception of the series of excavations dealt with in this sketch, and this was in all likelihood due to the popularity of Biblical studies in the great republic of the West. The Babylonian Exploration Fund was instituted on November 30, 1887. Excavatory labours were commenced at Nippur in 1889, and on first beholding the immense mass of the mounds which concealed the ruins of the temple-city the members of the expedition were not a little disturbed.

“Even at a distance I began to realize that not twenty, not fifty years would suffice to excavate this important site thoroughly,”

writes Professor Hilprecht.[5] The ruins resembled “a picturesque mountain range” rather than “ the last impressive remains of human constructions.” But the Americans ‘sat down’ before the mass with the courage of their race, resolved to probe into its innermost secrets. At first they speculated as to the character of the buildings hidden from their view. The director, Dr Peters, was rapidly exhausting his fund of $15,000 without coming upon anything of value, and recognizing the necessity for the prompt discovery of important objects if opinion at home was to be placated, Hilprecht pointed out to him the desirability of attacking an isolated mound which in his judgment contained the residences of the priests and the temple library. Peters agreed to the proposal, and almost at once an important series of tablets was discovered. The mound seemed, indeed, inexhaustible, and most of its contents were of a date about 2000 B.C., but there were also later tablets belonging to the reign of Nabopolasser, Nebuchadrezzar, Nabonidus, and even Cyrus, Cam-byses, and Darius. Shortly after this the first expedition was brought to a close.

In the second expedition, also undertaken at Nippur, Dr Peters decided to dispense with the services of Messrs Hilprecht and Field, the expert Assyriologists who had been dispatched to advise him professionally. Himself not an Assyriologist, he laboured at a disadvantage without the assistance of these experts. The work of the first expedition had concentrated at three conspicuous points—the temple, the ‘tablet’ hill which had yielded such good results, and the ‘Court of Columns.’ The principal objective was now the conical hill of Bint-el-Amir, containing the zikkurat and temple of Bel.

Peters regarded the temple as having been built by a king “not far removed from Nebuchadrezzar in time,” but many of his inferences have been traversed by Hilprecht.

“In his endeavour to reach the older remains before the more recent strata had been investigated in the least adequately, Peters broke through the outer casing of the zikkurat, built of ‘immense blocks of adobe,’ in a cavity of which he discovered a well-preserved goose egg, and perceived that there was an older stage-tower of quite a different form and much smaller dimensions enclosed within the other.

By means of a diagonal trench cut through its centre, he ascertained its height and characteristic features down to the level of Ur-Gur, and came to the conclusion (which, however, did not prove correct) that the zikkurat of this ancient monarch was the earliest erected at Nippur.

‘Wells and similar shafts were sunk at other points of the temple,’ especially at the northern and western corners, where he reached original constructions of Ashurbanapal (668-626 B.C.) and Ur-Gur (about 2700 B.C.), and discovered scattered bricks . . . ‘showing that many kings of many ages had honoured the temple of Bel at Nippur.’”[6]


The Business Quarter of Nippur

The excavators soon concluded that they had hit upon the business quarter of Nippur, basing their belief upon the commercial character of the tablets found, the large number of day labels pierced for attachment to sacks and jars, books of entry in clay, and weights and measures. So much damage had been done to the buildings while excavating, however that the appearance and plan of any of the Babylonian business houses and warehouses could not be arrived at.

In August 1893 Haynes commenced a search for the original bed and embankment of the river Chebar, which he came upon at a depth of twenty feet from the surface. In the dried-up bed of the river or canal he found a round terra-cotta fountain in three fragments, decorated with birds from whose mouths the water passed.


The Fourth Campaign

The fourth campaign covered the years 1898-1900, and was under the direct control of the University of Pennsylvania. Excavations were commenced at the extreme south-eastern end of the west ridge. Spring and summer were spent by Haynes in a ‘nervous search’ for tablets, although a strictly scientific examination of Nippur had been asked for. Late tablets and coffins resulted from this search; finds of old Babylonian character were meagre. The director did not see eye to eye with his architects, and one of them, Mr Fisher, resigned, returning, however, in the autumn of 1899. The Committee in America requested Haynes to confine his efforts to the exploration of the eastern half of the temple court, and to this task he addressed himself with zeal if only with partial success. Tablets, according to the director, sufficient to institute “a distinct library by itself,” continued to pour out of ‘Tablet Hill.’ But technical and expert advice was lacking. The architects desired to remove a Parthian round tower, Haynes reluctantly consented, and upon its removal the gate of an ancient temple was unearthed.


Hilprecht Returns

Professor Hilprecht now reappeared, and his coming put a new complexion on affairs. A trained and efficient archaeologist, he saw at once that ‘Tablet Hill’ represented the site of the temple library, so resolved to leave its excavation to a later expedition, and meantime to settle “the more essential topographical questions.”

He saw that these once answered,

“it would be a comparatively easy task for the Committee to have the single mounds excavated one after another by somebody else, if necessity arose, who was less familiar with the ruins and the history of their exploration. Every trench cut henceforth—and there were a great many—was cut for the sole purpose of excavating structures systematically and of gathering necessary data for the history and topography of ancient Nippur. If these trenches yielded tangible museum results at the same time, so much the better ; if they did not,”

he says, “I was not troubled by their absence.”


“antiquities were found so abundantly in the pursuit of the plan described, that the principle was established anew that a strictly scientific method of excavating is at the same time the most profitable.”

Summarizing his ‘explanations’ of the ruins at Bint-el-Amir, Hilprecht writes :

“1.    A stage-tower of smaller dimensions existed at Nippur before Sargon I (about 3800 B.C.).

2.    In pre-Sargonic times the ground around the sacred enclosure was a vast graveyard, a regular fire necropolis.

3.    One of the names of the stage-tower of Nippur suggested the idea of a tomb to the early inhabitants of the country. In the course of time certain zikkurats were directly designated by the Babylonians as tombs of the gods.

4.    The stage-tower of Bel did not occupy the centre of the enclosed platform, but the south-west section of it, while the north-east part was reserved for ‘the house of Bel,’ his principal sanctuary, which stood at the side of the stage-tower.

5.    The temple of Bel consisted of two large courts adjoining each other, the north-west court with the zikkurat and ‘the house of Bel’ representing the most holy place or the inner court, while the southeast (outer) court seems to have been studded with the shrines of all the different gods and goddesses worshipped at Nippur, including one for Bel himself.

6.    Imgur-Marduk and Nimit-Marduk, mentioned in the cuneiform inscriptions as the two walls of Nippur (dūru and Shalkhū), cannot have surrounded the whole city. According to the results of the excavations conducted under my own supervision, only the temple was enclosed by a double wall, while in all probability the city itself remained unprotected.

7.    The large complex of buildings covering the top of Bint-el-Amir has nothing to do with the ancient temple below, but represents a huge fortified Parthian palace grouped around and upon the remains of the stage-tower then visible.”[7]

By means of careful tunnelling Hilprecht also unearthed the south-east side of a pre-Sargonic temple-tower, but the nature of the excavation, risking as it did a sudden collapse of soil and bricks, was too dangerous to permit of further labours upon it.


The House of the Dead

A building-record of Assur-bani-pal was brought to light which described the temple-tower of Nippur as E-gigunnū, ‘House of the Tomb.’ Before this other titles of it had been recovered which alluded to it as ‘Mountain of the Wind,’ and it was understood to have been a local representation of the great mythological ‘mountain of the world,’ Kharsag-kurkura. This was puzzling until Hilprecht found that the tower penetrated so far into the earth as to descend to the ‘city of the dead’ which, according to Babylonian belief, was directly below and within the earth.


The Temple Library

Hilprecht now turned his attention to the temple library in c Tablet Hill/ with results most important for the science of Assyriology. This building, contemporary with the time of Abram, now yielded large quantities of ancient tablets, occurring in strata of from one to four feet in thickness, as if they had once been disposed upon wooden shelves.


A Babylonian Museum

An important find was made of a jar containing about twenty inscribed objects, mostly clay tablets, which constituted a veritable small Babylonian museum, evidently collected by a late Babylonian priest or someone connected with the temple library. Archaeology was probably fashionable about the time of Nabonidus (556-539 B.C.), himself a monarch of antiquarian tastes. The collector of this ‘museum’ had actually taken a ‘squeeze’ or impression of an inscription of Sargon I (3800 B.C.), in his time about 3340 years old, and had even placed upon it a label stating that the object was a ‘squeeze’ or ‘mould’ of an inscribed stone “which Nabūzerlishir, the scribe, saw in the palace of King Naram-Sin at Agade.”

Says Hilprecht concerning this remarkable collection,

“The owner, or curator, of the little museum of Babylonian originals must have obtained his specimens by purchase or through personal excavations carried out in the ruined buildings of Bel’s city. He doubtless lived in the sixth century, about the time of King Nabonidos, and was a man well versed in the ancient literature of his nation and deeply interested in the past history of Nippur. This follows from the fact that his vase was found in the Neo-Babylonian stratum of ‘Tablet Hill,’ and from the circumstance that the latest antiquity of his collection is dated in the government of Sin-sharishkun, the last representative of the Assyrian dynasty (about 615 B.C.).”

In the second year of this campaign Peters contented himself with ‘sounding’ as many places as possible rather than settling down to the steady work of excavation, in which preference he resembled Rassam. But his labours were crowned with no little success, for he came upon a large number of Kassite votive objects, the first great collection of antiquities of this dynasty ever found, and a shrine of King Bur-Sin I dedicated to Bel about 2600 b.c. The excavation of the large and important building remains grouped around the temple tower of Bel was, however, Peters’ principal task during his second campaign. But his hope of discovering many inscribed tablets while excavating these ruins was not to be realized. He was more fortunate, however, in the triangular mound (that known as ‘Mound IV’) to the south of the temple, which yielded some 2000 tablets, scientific, literary, and financial manuscripts, and even school exercises being turned up by the spade. About the same time excavations in the south-eastern wing of the large mounds disclosed the presence of thousands of tablets and many figures of Bel and his consort Beltis. Most of the tablets here were commercial, and of date about 2600 to 2000 b.c. In May the labours of the second campaign came to a close.


Haynes’ Work at Nippur

The third campaign (1893-1896) Peters delegated to Haynes, who commenced operations at Nippur in the great ridge which stretches along the southward bank of the Shatt-en-Nil, where numerous tablets had already been unearthed. In about four months he had collected some 8000 tablets, and when the supply of these began to fail he transferred his attention to the temple mound which had been worked at before, and which he continued to explore until April 1894. With the help of Joseph A. Meyer, a young American architect, Haynes concentrated his work on the zikkurat at Nippur. Unfortunately Meyer died in December, but not until he had rendered priceless service to Haynes in his capacity as advisory architect. Haynes, unable to continue the exploration of the temple-mound without expert advice, undertook to unearth a sufficient quantity of tablets to meet Peters’ demand for inscribed material. Later he pursued excavations at the Bint-el-Amir, where Peters had worked before him, cleared the zikkurat of Assur-bani-pal there and excavated the court of that building down to the water level. The excavation of the immense facade of this great erection was a work of enormous labour, hundreds of thousands of cubic feet of rubbish having to be removed before a partial clearance was effected.

The excavation of the south-west court of the zikkurat of Assur-bani-pal was the most interesting part of Haynes’ work on the temple of Bel. First he had to clear away the Parthian ruins superimposed upon the site, until he came to the brick pavement of Assur-bani-pal. He then came upon a pavement of the Sargonic period which extended through a considerable part of the mound as a dividing line. The rubbish which lay beneath this was about sixteen feet in depth, and had been accumulated within a period of more than three thousand years (3800-350 B.C.). The most important of the many strata of this rubbish-heap is that which lies between the pavement of King Ur-Ninib and that immediately below it. Over 600 fragments of vases, statues, and slabs were gathered here, all seemingly deliberately broken,

“by somebody who lived between the reigns of Ur-Gur of Ur and Ur-Ninib of Nisin”—perhaps the leader of an Elamite raid. The famous text of Lugalzuggisi, King of Erech, with its 132 lines of writing, was found here and restored by Hilprecht from sixty-four fragments.

Digging elsewhere, Haynes unearthed the oldest arch in the world at a considerable depth, drainpipes of the date about 4500 B.C., and pre-Sargonic cellars containing large wine- or oil-jars. In one chamber twenty feet below the surface were found the business archives of a great Babylonian firm, Murashu and Sons, bankers and brokers at Nippur (c. 464-424 B.C.).


Recent Research

Image right: Ruins of Babylon;
Uncovered after twelve years’ labour by German archaeologists, who began excavating in 1900.
Copyright by Underwood and Underwood, London

Recent research in Mesopotamia has centred around the site of Babylon, where results of a most interesting and encouraging description have been achieved. The German Oriental Society commenced work upon the site in the spring of 1899, and after twelve years of incessant labour under the direction of Dr Robert Koldewey, published the report of their labours in 1911.


The Babylon of Nebuchadrezzar II

The portion of the city laid bare in these twelve years of digging was contemporary with the reigns of Nebuchadrezzar II and Nabonidus, the last native King of Babylon, but certain parts of the ruins unearthed had been built in the much more ancient era of Khammurabi, the great law-maker, and even during the First Dynasty. The later Babylon is known to us from the pages of Herodotus and Ctesias, and the explorers speedily found that the accounts of these writers in nowise squared with the actual topographical conditions of the ruins unearthed and surveyed. Herodotus speaks of a Babylon 53 miles in circumference, and Ctesias is not much more modest in his estimate of over 40 miles. The city wall to the north-east side may still be traced in its entirety, and remains to prove that the city on this side measured not more than 2§ miles, and judging from this, we obtain an approximate circumference of 11 miles—a figure far short of the estimate of theFather of History.’


The Outer Wall

The walls themselves are of considerable interest. The outer wall was nearly twenty feet in thickness, and was built of burnt bricks impressed with the royal stamp of Nebuchadrezzar. Here and there its length was broken by towers for outlook or defensive purposes. Herodotus states that so broad was the top of the wall that a four-horse chariot could easily turn upon its surface, and that two of these vehicles had a sufficiency of room to pass one another without risk to horses or driver. Companies of men could be moved along this mural highway in time of siege, so that a supply of defenders could be brought with dispatch to guard any portion of the defences that was imminently threatened.


Bâbil as a Citadel

The mound of Bâbil, to which we have frequently referred in this account of Babylonian excavation, was recognized by the German expedition as a citadel built for defensive purposes by Nebuchadrezzar—a place of refuge to which the King and court could repair in case of the capture of the city itself. It contained the royal stores and treasury, a large armoury and arsenal, and there is reason to believe that the monarch resided there even in times of peace. It was, indeed, a miniature city, a lesser Babylon, containing everything necessary for^ the royal support and pleasure.


Babylon's Water-Supply

The question of a suitable water-supply agitated municipal Babylon just as keenly as it does any of our own great centres of population, and recent excavations have illustrated the manner in which the Euphrates was utilized for this purpose. Nabo-polasser has left inscriptions to show how he rebuilt the walls of a channel called the- Arakhtu to lead the river Euphrates past the city boundaries. Nebuchadrezzar built a massive fortification with walls of from fifty to sixty feet in thickness into the bed of the Euphrates to prevent the formation of sandbanks in the river which possibly caused the flooding of the left bank above the temple of E-Sagila. This left a narrow channel between the new wall and the old quay, and it is probable that this huge construction caused a subsequent change in the course of the Euphrates.


Nebuchadrezzar's Palace

Nebuchadrezzar’s palace was situated in the southern citadel on the mound known as the Kasr. On this building he lavished both time and treasure. When he came to the throne he found the site occupied by the residence of his father Nabopolasser, but when he returned from his triumphant Egyptian campaigns he despised the plain old place and, like some modern potentates,.resolved to build himself a royal edifice which would symbolize the power and majesty of the empire he had won for himself. He turned his father’s palace into a mere platform upon which to rear his own more flamboyant structure, and filled in its rooms, courts, and spaces with rubble.


The Palace without Windows

For the most part the palace was built round open courts, much in the Spanish fashion, and there is no trace of windows, a phenomenon which constantly recurs in ancient buildings in the East, in Egypt, and in Central America. But when we consider the extremes of heat encountered in these latitudes we can appreciate the desire for a cool semi-gloom which called for the windowless chamber. The flat roofs, too, were used for sleeping purposes, so that the inhabitants did not wholly dispense with fresh air.


The Great Throne Room

But by far the most interesting apartment in the palace is the great Throne Room of Nebuchadrezzar, the apartment upon which he lavished so much personal care and consideration. It stands immediately south of the Great Court, and is much the most spacious room in the palace. In the wall opposite the grand entrance from the court is a deep recess or niche, where it is thought the royal throne must have stood, so that not only the courtiers in the Throne Room but the lesser dignitaries thronging the courtyard without could have had sight of the monarch of the Eastern World seated in all his splendour upon his imperial throne. Strangely enough the walls of this great apartment of state were merely plastered with white gypsum, while the brickwork of the outer fagade which faced the court was decorated with brightly coloured enamels displaying the most involved designs, floral and geometrical, in blue, yellow, black, and white. Such ornamentation would probaby be banned from the Throne Room because of the high reflections from a brightly polished enamelled surface, and as we have seen heat and light were taboo in Babylonian interiors.


The Drainage System

Doors in the throne-room wall communicated with what were probably the King’s private apartments. The harem and other purely private suites were placed further to the west, over the earlier residence of Nabopolasser, the official portion of the palace being situated towards the east. There was a most elaborate drainage system which not only carried rain-water from the flat roofs but from the courts and walls as well. The larger drains had corbel-shaped roofs, but the smaller ones were formed of bricks set together in the shape of a ‘V’ and closed in at the top with other bricks laid flat. Vertical shafts and gutters were also in use, and these were conducted down the sides of towers and fortifications.


The Hanging Gardens

Image right: The Hanging Gardens of Babylon;
M. Dovaston, R.B.A.
By permission of Messrs Hutchinson and Co.

Another structure has been indicated as perhaps the foundation of the famous Hanging Gardens of Babylon. It consists of a number of barrel-vaulted cells, seven on each side of a central passage. These cells are roofed over with semi-circular arches, and are flanked on the north by the palace wall. It is known that hewn stone was employed in the construction of this ‘wonder of the world,’ and only in three other places in the palace demesne (the Sacred Road, the bridge over the Euphrates, and the Kasr Wall) is stone employed. This points to the identification of the site in question as being that of the Hanging Gardens, on which layers of earth were laid and the shrubs, trees, and arbours which decorated it planted thereon. Berossus distinctly states that these gardens were within the buildings by which Nebuchadrezzar enlarged his father’s palace. But the dimensions of this structure do not tally with those given by Strabo and Diodorus, and the imagination revolts at the conception of these famous and romantic gardens having for their foundation this obscure and prosaic cellarage. Archaeology must leave us something. By all means let us have truth and enlightenment—unless where truth is itself uglier than falsehood ! It has been shrewdly conjectured by Professor King[8] that these cellars formed the palace granary, and we must be grateful to him for the suggestion.


The Great Gate of Ishtar

It was in the spring of 1902 that Dr. Koldewey made the important discovery of the Great Gate of the goddess Ishtar which spanned the Sacred Way of the imperial city. This turreted erection, ornamented in relief by the figures of mythical animals in coloured brick, has been excavated clean out of the superincumbent earth, and constitutes a double monument to its ancient builders and to the patient archaeologists who recovered it from the sands of antiquity. It was the main gate in the north citadel wall, and had been reconstructed by the zealous Nebuchadrezzar. It is double (for the fortification line in which it stood was twofold), and in front consists of two high towers with gate-houses behind. The figures of the animals are so arranged that to the eye of one approaching the city they would seem advancing to meet him. At least 575 of these creatures were depicted on the gate, the favourite subjects being bulls and dragons, beautifully and realistically modelled in relief.


The Street of Processions

A portion of the Street of Processions upon which this gateway opened has also been excavated. This highway was of imposing breadth, and ran its course from north to south directly across the city. It was a species of Via Sacra, for over its stones was carried the image of Merodach upon his day of high festival. Its use was restricted to foot-passengers, and no chariots or other horse-drawn vehicles were permitted to make use of it. Its foundation is of burnt brick upon which is overlaid an upper pavement of breccia (conglomerate rock) in slabs.


The Temples of Babylon

Interest has naturally centred around the excavation of the five great temples of Babylon, the ground-plans of four of which have been laid bare. The temple of E-Makh, dedicated to the goddess Nin-Makh was the first to be excavated. It contains one of the only two altars found in Babylon, a structure of plain, crude brick, simple and unadorned, which stands outside its main entrance. As the only other example in the city occupies an exactly similar position, we must conclude that custom or ritual dictated an exterior site for the sacrificial altar. The temple of Nin-Makh was a simple shrine of mere mud-brick, decorated with black and white designs superimposed upon a scanty coating of whitewash. Nin-Makh (the great lady) was one of the titles of Ishtar. The temple appears to have been built round a large court, and to have been entered by a gateway flanked by a series of square, solid towers, three on either side. There is a long, narrow passage behind the shrine, which probably gave access to a concealed opening in the back wall of the temple behind the image of the goddess, who could thus have been made to give forth oracular utterances. In the courtyard was a well from which water was drawn for the purpose of performing lustral rites.

We are ignorant of the precise form of the upper part of Babylonian temples (apart from the zikkurats or towers), as only the lower portions of their walls in most cases remain to us. But from certain plaques and seals on which temples are represented we can glean that they were probably turreted or castellated in front and perhaps at the sides as well, and that the entrance was arched, the frontage presenting a picture not very unlike that of a heavily constructed castle of the Norman epoch. Indeed one unidentified temple bears resemblance to a prison, so forbidding is it in its almost unbroken line of turret and retaining wall. We must remember, however, that colour lent embellishment to these buildings, the otherwise heavy facades of which would have been dreary indeed.



The temple of E-Sagila, which was dedicated to Merodach, patron deity of Babylon, is of course by far the most important within the city bounds. It has not been wholly excavated from the mound of Tell Amran, but the main western portion of it has been brought to light, and has been shown, like other Babylonian shrines, to have consisted of a series of chambers built round an open court. In the centre of each side was an open gateway where once stood the famous eight bronze serpents, two to each entrance. The especial shrine of Merodach, which has not yet been unearthed, lay on the western side, and had a towered entrance and decorated facade which Nebuchadrezzar stated he caused ‘to shine like the sun.’ He coated the walls of the shrine with gold and roofed it with the choicest cedars from Lebanon, ‘the noble forest.’ Here, says Herodotus, the mighty figure of the god rested, which, with the throne, dais, and table before it was fashioned of pure gold, of 800 talents in weight. To the north of Merodach’s temple rose its zikkurat or tower. So far excavation upon it has in a measure disproved the account of Herodotus that it consisted of a stepped tower in eight stages with the ascent to the summit encircling the outside. The first stage, now uncovered, has a triple stairway built against one side of the tower, but we shall never know what the upper stories were like, for they have long since crumbled into desert dust. Dr. Koldewey considers that the great tower was built in one stage, decorated with coloured bands, and surmounted by a shrine.


The Great Tower of Nabu (E-Zida)

The foundations of the great tower of Nabu at Borsippa, a suburb of Babylon, still awaits excavation, but as it stands it rises to a height of over ioo feet above the desert. The clearing of its base will necessitate a colossal amount of labour, but when effected, our knowledge of these temple-towers will be considerably enhanced.


The Euphrates Bridge

The bridge over the river Euphrates is worthy of mention, since it represents the oldest bridge known to the science of archaeology. It possessed stone piers, built in the shape of boats, thus showing that it had been evolved from an earlier bridge of boats. The bows of these piers point up-stream, and thus break the force of the current. The river at the point where it was crossed by the bridge was at least sixty feet broad, and the passage-way of wood was laid across the boat-piers, and must have been rather narrow. The structure was the work of Nabopolasser.


The Elder Babylon

During the first years of their labours the excavators were under the impression that the destruction of the older portions of the city by Sennacherib had been so complete that but few of its remains were to be looked for in the course of excavation. But as time progressed it was found that the relics of the older quarters lay mostly beneath the present water-level. In the Menkes Mound a quarter of the ancient city has been unearthed at a depth of some thirty feet, and the outline of its streets clearly shown. Still lower were found houses dating from the period of Merodach-baladan I (1201-1189 B.C.) and Meli-shipok II (1216-1202 B.C.). A thick layer of ashes showed that a still earlier portion of the city had been destroyed by fire, and this archaic quarter has been identified as the city of Khammurabi, the princely law-maker (2123-2081 B.C.), and his immediate successors, according to dated tablets found among the burnt debris—mute witnesses of the disaster which overtook Babylon’s First Dynasty.



It is noticeable that the later streets follow closely the trend and plan of the older thoroughfares, which, generally speaking, ran north and south, parallel to the course of the Sacred Way. Professor King[9] gives it as his opinion that here we have a deliberate attempt at town-planning on a scientific basis ! He credits this to the Semitic element in the population, as in Sumerian towns there is no trace of town-planning. And yet Babylon was strangely conservative. As she commenced, so she continued, and her early efforts were only superseded in magnitude, not in quality of purpose.

Footnotes and references:


I But cf. 1 Kings xix 16, ff.; 2 Kings ix and x.


Explorations in Bible Lands (T. and T. Clark, 1903).


Assyrian Discoveries , p. 9 (London, 1875).


Assyrian Discoveries, p. 148 (London, 1875).


Explorations in Bible Lands (T. and. T. Clark, 1903).


Hilprecht, Explorations in Bible Lands, p. 232 (T. and T. Clark, 1903).


Explorations in Bible Lands (T. and T. Clark, 1903).


History of Babylon, p. 50 (1915).


History of Babylon, p. 85.

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