Modern discovery of Babylonia and Assyria

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For many centuries knowledge of Babylonia and Assyria was largely confined to the often dubious classical sources. See also Classical authorities of Babylonia and Assyria.

The Nineteenth Century

The excavations of P.E. Botta and Austen H. Layard at Nineveh and the successful decipherment of the cuneiform system of writing opened up a new world. Layard's discovery of the library of Assur-bani-pal put the materials for reconstructing the ancient life and history of Assyria and Babylonia into the hands of scholars. He also was the first to excavate in Babylonia, where C.J. Rich had already done useful topographical work. Layard's excavations in this latter country were continued by W.K. Loftus, who also opened trenches at Susa, as well as by J. Oppert on behalf of the French government. But it was only in the last quarter of the 19th century that anything like systematic exploration was attempted.

After the death of George Smith at Aleppo in 1876, an expedition was sent by the British Museum (1877 - 1879), under the conduct of Hormuzd Rassam, to continue his work at Nineveh and its neighbourhood. Excavations in the mounds of Balaw~t, called Imgur-Bel by the Assyrians, 15 miles east of Mosul, resulted in the discovery of a small temple dedicated to the god of dreams by Ashurnasirpal II (883 BC), containing a stone coffer or ark in which were two inscribed tables of alabaster of rectangular shape, as well as of a palace which had been destroyed by the Babylonians but restored by Shalmaneser III (858 BC). From the latter came the bronze gates with hammered reliefs, which are now in the British Museum.

The remains of a palace of Ashurbanipal at Nimrud (Calah) were also excavated, and hundreds of enamelled tiles were disinterred. Two years later (1880-1881) Rassam was sent to Babylonia, where he discovered the site of the temple of the sun-god of Sippara at Abu-Habba, and so fixed the position of the two Sipparas or Sepharvaim. Abu-Habba lies south-west of Baghdad, midway between the Euphrates and Tigris, on the south side of a canal, which may once have represented the main stream of the Euphrates, Sippara of the goddess Anunit, now Dir, being on its opposite bank.

Meanwhile (1877 - 1881) the French consul Ernest de Sarzec had been excavating at Telloh, the ancient Lagash, and bringing to light monuments of the pre-Semitic age, which included the diorite statues of Gudea now in the Louvre, the stone of which, according to the inscriptions upon them, had been brought from Magan, the Sinai peninsula. The subsequent excavations of de Sarzec in Telloh and its neighbourhood carried the history of the city back to at least 4000 BC, and a collection. of more than 30,000 tablets has been found, which were arranged on shelves in the time of Gudea (c. 2100 BC).

In 1886-1887 a German expedition under Dr Robert Koldewey explored the cemetery of El Hibba (immediately to the south of Telloh), and for the first time made us acquainted with the burial customs of ancient Babylonia. Another German expedition, on a large scale, was despatched by the Orientgesellschaft in 1899 with the object of exploring the ruins of Babylon; the palace of Nebuchadrezzar and the great processional road were laid bare, and Dr W. Andrae subsequently conducted excavations at Qal'at Sherqat, the site of Assur.

Even the Turkish government has not held aloof from the work of exploration, and the Museum at Constantinople is filled with the tablets discovered by Dr V. Scheil in 1897 on the site of Sippara. Jacques de Morgan's exceptionally important work at Susa lies outside the limits of Babylonia; not so, however, the American excavations (1903-1904) under EJ Banks at Bismaya (Ijdab), and those of the University of Pennsylvania at Niffer between 1889 and 1900, where Mr JH Haynes has systematically and patiently uncovered the remains of the great temple of El-lil, removing layer after layer of debris and cutting sections in the ruins down to the virgin soil. Midway in the mound is a platform of large bricks stamped with the names of Sargon of Akkad and his son, Naram-Sin (2300 BC); as the debris above them is 34 feet thick, the topmost stratum being not later than the Parthian era (HV Hilprecht, The Babylonian Expedition, p.23), it is calculated that the debris underneath the pavement, 30 feet thick, must represent a period of about 3000 years, more especially as older constructions had to be levelled before the pavement was laid. In the deepest part of the excavations, however, inscribed clay tablets and fragments of stone vases are still found, though the cuneiform characters upon them are of a very archaic type, and sometimes even retain their primitive pictorial forms.

The Twentieth Century

See also: Babylonia and Assyria

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