Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Why Context is Crucial: The Oriental Institute's New Find at Zincirli

The Oriental Institute announces a major new discovery of a stele at Zincirli in southeastern Turkey. A funerary monument recovered there reveals that people who lived in an important Iron Age city there believed the soul was separate from the body. They also believed the soul lived in the funerary slab. (Photo at left by Eudora Struble.)

This find offers a great illustration of the importance of context to understanding artifacts, even when those artifacts include writing. As the University of Chicago press release points out,

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. 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.

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 was set against a stone wall in the corner of the small room, with its protruding tenon or "tab" still inserted into a slot in a flagstone platform. 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. 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.

Had this stele been looted, bought by a collector and presented to a museum, we would have no way of ever finding out whether cremation was practiced by this culture. Nor would we ever know for certain that the figure shown dining on the stele was being served real food as well. Nor would we be able to tell how or why religious ideas about the afterlife emerged when and where they did.

This is why looting must be prevented -- to preserve the very possibility of gaining these sorts of insights.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wow, I was just writing something on context using the same example. Great minds think alike? This stele really is magnificent though. Here's the NY Times article on it --