Babylon Revisited: Archaeology and Philology in Harness

By George, A. R. | Antiquity, December 1993 | Go to article overview

Babylon Revisited: Archaeology and Philology in Harness


George, A. R., Antiquity


The recent publication of cuneiform texts relating to Babylon allows a reassessment of the city's topography, and sheds light on the remains discovered by Robert Koldewey and more recent excavators. A comparison of the archeological and documentary evidence relating to selected structures of the city provides examples of the ways in which archaeology and philology can successfully complement each other.

It has long been a truism that in the study of the civilization of ancient Mesopotamia the field of enquiry is too vast to be encompassed adequately by most individuals. The result of this fact is that a situation has necessarily developed in which two different sets of scholars toil away separately at rediscovering the lost glories of the Sumerians, Babylonians and Assyrians. On the one hand are the archaeologists who excavate in the ruin mounds of Iraq, Syrian Mesopotamia and southeast Turkey, and process the material finds and scientific results of these labours. On the other are the experts in the Sumerian and Akkadian (Assyrian and Babylonian) languages who decipher the clay tablets and other inscriptions produced by such excavations, and reconstruct from this documentation the history, political structures and intellectual, social and economic life of the ancient inhabitants of Mesopotamia. This division of effort between excavators and linguists is less of a drawback than at first it might seem, for in those matters of detail with which most scholarly research is absorbed an ignorance of the whole picture is not necessarily fatal to progress.

But there are areas where a knowledge of both worlds is essential. One is social history, where obviously a balanced picture can only be obtained from a combination of evidence drawn from the excavation of material remains with data yielded by the study of such things as letters, administrative records and legal documents. Another is topography: where a site is excavated to such a degree that the lay-out of the settlement and its main features are properly understood, and where there is extensive documentation of the settlement's topographical features in the written sources, then archaeology and philology can be of real benefit to each other. A case in point is Babylon, the great imperial city which first came to prominence under the famous King Hammurapi (1792-50 BC in the conventional chronology). The last wholesale rebuilding of the city's monumental structures was conducted by the kings of the Chaldaean dynasty (625-539 BC), particularly Nabopolassar, Nebuchad-nezzar II and Nabonidus. It is their public works -- palaces, fortifications, streets and temples -- that were preserved, after the city's gradual decline and final abandonment centuries later, for the modern excavator. Parts of the site were thoroughly mined for inscribed clay tablets in the 1870s and '80s, officially by Hormuzd Rassam, working on behalf of the British Museum, and unofficially by local people, who were keen to supply the new market in such objects that the interest of European museums had created. But scientific excavation had to wait for the German expedition led by Robert Koldewey, which worked at the site from 1899 to 1917 and uncovered the principal buildings and the lay-out of some of the city's streets and defences (Koldewey 1990: 15-302). Further work by the Iraqi Directorate of Antiquities, from 1958 to the present, has largely concentrated on a programme of restoration, but has made intermittent discoveries of its own (for recent bibliography see Koldewey 1990: 437-40). A German expedition was also briefly active at Babylon in the early 1970s, while an Italian survey team from the University of Turin examined various parts of the site in the 1970s and '80s. Babylon is of course a big city -- the urban area proper, inside the double inner city walls, covers approximately 400 ha -- and the prospects of excavating it in its entirety, or even of retrieving the plan of the whole city by the archaeological methods which have yielded impressive results at the older, Sumerian city at Abu Salabikh, are nil. …

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