Visit Us | Contact Us | Membership | Make a Gift | Calendar | Order Online | What's New

Print this Page

Home > Research > Publications > News & Notes

NIPPUR, 1990: GULA, GODDESS OF HEALING, AND AN AKKADIAN TOMB

By McGuire Gibson, Professor of Mesopotamian Archaeology
The Oriental Institute and the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations
The University of Chicago

(This article originally appeared in The Oriental Institute News and Notes, No. 125, September-October 1990, and is made available electronically with the permission of the editor.)


"Woof, woof," said the usually serious graduate student, Joel Sweek, as I paused at the edge of Area WA. In his hand, he held yet another baked clay figurine of a dog. This was about the fifth dog that he had found behind the plaster on a wall of the Kassite period temple (c. 1250 B.C.). We had been having a running discussion as to whose temple this was. My conviction that we were digging the temple of Ninurta was beginning to waver as the evidence accumulated. Besides the baked clay dogs, there was one of bronze, with a loop so it could be worn around the neck. There were also baked clay figurines of human beings, one touching his neck, another holding his head, and another with hands on the chin and belly. What clinched the case against Ninurta was a small lapis lazuli disc with an incised inscription. After some resistance, I admitted that it did in fact say

a-na dGu-la "To Gula..."

So the sequence of temples that we first touched in 1972 has turned out to be dedicated to Gula, goddess of healing. She was the consort of the god Ninurta, who is a very important deity at Nippur, and you would think that her temple and his would be together. But Richard Zettler, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, tells me he has written proof that Ninurta's temple has to be next to the Inanna Temple, on the other side of the ancient river bed opposite WA.

Back in 1972 and 1973, we were able to excavate a few rooms of the Neo-Babylonian level (c. 575 B.C.) and dug below the floors of those rooms to investigate earlier versions of the temple. I should explain that what we have here is similar to what the expedition found during the 1950s in the Inanna Temple. That is, a stack of temples of successive dates, dedicated to one deity. The buildings were of unbaked mudbricks, which last about fifty years if they are replastered and repaired with regularity. When a temple became too decrepit, the builders would remove the wooden beams and reed mats that made up the roof and knock the building down to make a platform for the new temple. Usually this procedure meant that the walls of the demolished temple were left intact about a foot or so high, and the interiors of the rooms were filled with mudbrick rubble. That is why most excavated buildings in Mesopotamia look like ground plans instead of buildings.

From the work in 1972 and 1973 we knew that we had a sequence of temples dating from at least as early as the Isin-Larsa Period (c. 2,000 B.C.). I am fairly certain that there are even earlier temples below, perhaps dating from as early as 3,000 B.C. The earlier versions will probably be dedicated to a goddess of healing with another name, since Gula is not mentioned until about 2,000 B.C. She took over the functions of earlier goddesses such as Bau. This transfer of functions and names is comparable to the change from Enki to Ea, from Utu to Shamash, Nanna to Sin, and Inanna to Ishtar.

In the succession of temples, we hope to find tablets related to the goddess' role in healing. We also hope that we will be able to determine more clearly the relationship of this temple to the two kinds of medical practitioners in Mesopotamia. There was a herbal healer, the asu, who diagnosed illness, concocted remedies, instructed the patient on how to use them, and sometimes predicted the outcome. This person did not include ritual in his practice. The ashipu, in contrast, was a form of magician or exorcist, whose role was to drive demons out of sick people. He did perform of rituals and sometimes also used herbs. Bob Biggs tells me that the magician seems to have dealt with mental illnesses. What is not known is whether or not sick people went to the Gula Temple, but the presence of the figurines argues that they did. Did they go after they saw the doctor? Before? At the same time? We hope to find out.

Now that we have returned to Area WA, it will take us several seasons to excavate this sequence of temples. We abandoned the effort in 1973 because of the huge sand dunes that kept filling in our excavations. The sand has almost entirely left the mound, except for a rather large dune on the west side of WA, and now we have available earth-moving machines that were not there in 1973. We hired a shovel and two trucks for three weeks at the beginning of the season to remove much of the dune and two dumps that Pennsylvania had left there in the 1890s. When we return for the next season, we will hire another shovel to complete the clearance of the sand and three other dumps that rest on what we now think was the more sacred part of the temple. Thus far we have been excavating in the more utilitarian parts of the buildings where food was prepared and metal objects fabricated.

We are clearing a large area in order to excavate not only the temple but some of the houses around it. Already in 1972 we sank a deep pit in the southeastern end of WA, hoping to get a good idea of the occupations that awaited us far below. In this pit, called WA50c, we found a garbage dump that we could date to the Seleucid period (c. 200 B.C.). Among the finds in the dump were three cuneiform tablets with medical texts dealing with gynecological problems. Below the garbage layer was a sequence of house occupations. The lowest level reached was Akkadian (c. 2,300 B.C.).

Last season, in 1989, Augusta-McMahon excavated an even larger, deeper pit alongside WA50c. This operation, WF, was intended to investigate the Akkadian level more fully and to look at the transition from the Early Dynastic to Akkadian Period. She reached the Akkadian level, but it proved to be much more substantial than we had thought. We could not tell, at the end of the season, whether or not we had gotten into the Early Dynastic levels.

The finds in the Akkadian level were extraordinarily important, including the world's earliest man-made glass (two beads on a floor that could be dated by Akkadian tablets), and a very rich burial of a scribe named Lugal-DUR.

This season, we began work in WF by expanding the pit from 7 meters square to 10 meters. This allowed us to go more than two meters lower than we had in the previous season. At ten meters below the top of the pit, we were sure that we were in Early Dynastic levels. The most important information from this season's work in WF was the evidence for the transition from Early Dynastic to Akkadian. But more spectacular were the finds in a large tomb that took half of the season to excavate. Directly below the place where we had found the grave of Lugal-DUR last year, we found a large, squarish tomb made by cutting a chamber out of accumulated debris. On one side of the tomb there was a deeper shaft. Off this shaft were at least four small tunnel-like chambers, each with a skeleton and a few bowls. In the upper chamber were four more human skeletons. One had with it a "goddess-handled jar," that is, a jar with a handle in the form of a female wearing only a necklace. A second skeleton had a table-like pottery item that we traditionally call a "fruit stand." The goddess -handled jar and the fruit stand are types that began to be made in the Early Dynastic. We suggested some time ago that they continued into the Akkadian period. Now we can prove that they did because another skeleton a couple of feet away in the tomb had a wealth of pottery and other objects that must be dated to the early part of the Akkadian period.

This skeleton had a copper pin and a lapis lazuli cylinder seal (of official style) on its shoulder, a gold fillet on its forehead, gold earrings, and an elaborate necklace. The necklace included lapis, gold, carnelian, and agate beads. The dominant features of the necklace were two large circular agate discs mounted in gold, with silver attachments. The discs were cut so that they appear to be eyes, with black pupils surrounded by white. At the back of the neck we found a large V-shaped bead of banded agate (brown and white), with gold fittings on the ends. This was a counterweight, intended to balance the necklace and keep it in place. On the wrists of the skeleton were silver bracelets, one on each arm. In each armpit was a small copper bowl. (Early deodorant?)

Next to the body were copper vessels and another necklace of gold, lapis lazuli, and carnelian. An extremely important find was an inlaid box, badly smashed. Cap Sease, the conservator we had borrowed from the Field Museum, was able to reconstruct the pattern made by the tiny pieces of bone inlay on the lid. She was also able to suggest the position of two tab handles and a decoration that would have been on the side of the box. The box was of wood, preserved only in small fragments. Inlaid objects are rarely found in Mesopotamia. This is a fine example, especially being as early as it is.

At the head and feet were several copper and pottery vessels. One pottery jar had fallen and a white substance had run out onto and under objects and the skeleton. We think the substance is yoghurt. It is being analyzed at the Smithsonian Institution and we should know for certain fairly soon.

Under the skeleton were the remains of a complete onager, a type of equid. Next to it were three sheep, two adults without their heads and a complete lamb. David Reese, a faunal specialist, was with us this season and will write the report on all animal remains.

We could not consolidate and save the bones of the human skeleton for study, but, since the burial lacked weapons, we think this skeleton was female. The official style cylinder seal would ordinarily argue for its being a male, but the inscription on the stone had been erased, probably causing a crack that mars the seal. I would suggest that this seal had been the official seal of the husband of this woman. At some point, the seal was going to be re-carved and it cracked. The woman then received it to wear as a piece of jewelry. As to her husband, I think we found him last season. Lugal-DUR, clearly a very important official of some kind, with two extraordinary cylinder seals, was the last person buried in the tomb. In fact, he was buried by cutting into the tomb after it was filled. We are assuming that the persons buried in the tomb were related, probably one family.

The richness of finds, both in the houses and in the burials of the Akkadian levels of WF and WA50c, allow us a glimpse of the exciting seasons that are to come as we excavate the Temple of Gula and the surrounding area. The Akkadian level, especially, draws us not only because of the objects thus far recovered , but because the period is so little known through actual excavation. We recognize the accomplishments of the Akkadian empire in the stone and copper statues, relief sculptures, cylinder seals, and even in naturalistic baked-clay human figurines. But most of these art objects were saved and redeposited in later levels; we are only beginning to excavate in the levels of this period.


McGuire Gibson is Professor of Archaeology at the Oriental Institute. He currently directs the Institute's Nippur expedition and excavations in Hamoukar.

Revised: July 30, 2007

Home > Research > Publications > News & Notes