Libmonster ID: UA-12162
Author(s) of the publication: Lyudmila AVILOVA

by Lyudmila AVILOVA, senior researcher, Institute of Archaeology, RAS, Moscow, Russia

What caught the eye of archeologists in the dig of the Royal cemetery of the city of Ur in Sumer was a set of tools in the grave goods pointing to a higher social status of the dead, i.e. the kings and their families. Leonard Woolley, who began these excavations in 1919, dated the burials to the Pre-Dynastic Period. Today such burials are dated to the Early Dynastic III Period (first half of the third millennium B.C.). Now this is a commonly accepted point of view.

First, a few words about the items found in the dig. The burial under the number 580 where a child was interred and also known as the "grave of a princess" has such things as festal weapons (a golden dagger, a spear made of electrum, natural alloy of gold and silver; a bronze adze). There is also a set of carpentry tools, like an adze of gold, two chisels of gold and one of bronze, and a saw of bronze.

Grave 800, likewise known as the burial place of Queen Shubad/Pu-abi, also has a large set of carpentry tools comprising several bronze saws and one of gold,

* Sumer--an ancient region in the Lower Euphrates River Valley. Sumerian--designating language of an ancient people of Babylonia, probably of non-Semitic origin. Also, the language of the Sumerians extinct since the third century B.C.-- Tr.

as well as five golden chisels of different types; a bronze drill and an adze.

Recovered from King Meskalamdug's burial (No. 755) was a saw of bronze alongside golden and electrum weapons (a dagger, broad battle axes).

As a matter of fact, precious royal regalia together with carpenter's tools were found not only in Mesopotamia of the Bronze Age but also in Anatolia, in the famous Priam's Treasure at Troy II where, along with two golden diadems, jewelry, vessels and poteria was also a bronze saw. That is, precious carpentry is present together with other valuables and holies.

Now why did Sumerians place carpentry tools side by side with jewelry and symbols of power in the tombs of kings and royal family members? This is quite natu-

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ral as far as the royal regalia and festal weaponry are concerned. But why carpentry? There was some ritual meaning to that.

The building activities were held to be an important function of deified rulers, the esnis or priest-kings (a term of the French archaeologist Pierre Amiet) in maintaining law and order in city-states. This is why the otherwise utilitarian tools could be also made of precious metal as symbols of royal authority (L. Avilova, 2008; 2010). More than that, carpenter's tools were thought to be attributes of gods--thus, the Sun-god Shamash was depicted holding a saw.

Thanks to the Sumerian and Akkadian* texts available to us we can collate archeological, pictorial and literary materials so as to get down to the true meaning of particular objects.

The motif of holding back the original chaos and establishing an orderly Cosmos (Weltordnung) keynotes the Sumerian and Babylonian myths. Man evolves as Creator-Demiurge impersonated in the gods Enlil and Enki. The Enki-Ninmah myth says that man was created from clay to toil for the gods, till the land, tend the cattle and nourish the gods with sacrificial food. The role of Enki as the builder establishing civilization and order in the Land of Sumer is the leitmotif of a long Sumerian epic text, "Enki and the World Cosmos". Enki, the god of wisdom, teaches fundamentals of civilization and life laws (the me notion). Listed as the core values are such things as the power of the gods, the power of the king, the royal throne, the symbols of royal power, the offices of priests; also peace, justice, weapons and, what is of particular interest to us, the practical skills like metal and wood working, and building. Enki the god lays foundations for houses with his own hands, he makes a mold for mud brick and builds homes, barns and sheepcotes, he "forges fortune" for Sumerian cities (Samuel Noah Kramer, 1965).

The many divine heroes were likewise involved in demiurgic activities. Enlil, for instance, invented the wheel and brought in grain cultivation; Enmerkar, he invented the written language, while Gilgamesh broke ground for town building by erecting a defense wall around the city of Uruk.

* With reference to Akkad, an ancient country north of Babylonia populated by the Akkadians, a Semitic people.--Tr.

Symbolizing the creative forces of Nature, the Sumerian gods were also the saint-patrons of city-states. Such supernatural ideas merged into the cult of a warlord, and then of a king and a priest-king.

The chief of a Mesopotamian city-state (nome) of the Jamdat Nasr and Early Dynastic Periods (end of the fourth and early half of the third millennium B.C.) was actually a priest-leader in keeping with his basic social function (this name suggested by Igor Dyakonov, our Sumerologist). That deity supervised the procurement of farm products needed for sustaining the cult of gods and for building the temples; also, he was responsible for the proper performance of irrigation systems essential for the abundant supply of produce and reserve stocks used in exchanges; he oversaw the crafts largely centered around the temples. He also assumed the role of a warlord in the event of military conflicts. All that speeded up social stratification and called for an ideological premise for the leader as a divine ruler working for the commonwealth (Antonova, 1998).

The king's building activities were just as important as the defense against enemies and the people's prosperity. Available to us are the inscribed foundation pegs of King Gudea of Lagash (22nd century B.C.) concerning the renovation of the main temple of the patron-saint of the city, the god Ningirsu. Gudea lands his own role in the construction work.

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Gudea's statue has come down to us representing him as an architect with a slate on his knees that has a clear and geometrically true plan of the temple he had put up. Ur-Nammu, a king of the Third Dynasty of Ur (21st cent. B.C.), is depicted as a master builder carrying a kit of building instruments: an axe with a long shaft, a brick basket, a pair of measuring compasses, a mortar scoop, a trowel...

We see that building, above all the building of temples, was thought in ancient Mesopotamia, beginning from the Early Dynastic Period, to be an all-important sphere of the activity of a priest-leader, a deified ruler all set to cater to the city commune and Weltordnung. So it was quite natural to have a hoard of carpentry tools on the temple patch of the urban settlement Tell Hazna I, now in northeastern Syria. Working out there, a Russian field party discovered a hoard of tools: two different adzes, a wood chisel as well as what looked like a handsaw (Munchaev, 2005)--in the opinion of the excavator, it is a dagger supplied with a jagged blade.

The rise of city-states and statehood in Mesopotamia is closely interconnected. Temples of worship played a key role in this process--not only for celebrating the cult of local deities but also as the core elements of administrative and economic centers. The establishment of such temples preceded the setting up of cities (A History of the Ancient East, 1983). The officiating priests controlled farming and handicrafts; they amassed foodstuffs for exchange. Temples were the centers of learning and keepers of wisdom. Judging by the literary texts of the third millennium B.C., they were in charge of commodity exchanges and also evolved as consumers of imported building and finishing materials. Sumer in southernmost Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq and Kuwait), not mineral-rich at all, had to trade in farm produce for building and semiprecious stones. The rather sophisticated architecture of its temples attests to the high skills of their builders and craftsmen. The construction of temples spurred the need for architects,

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builders, masons as well as hands skilled in wood-and metalwork.

It would be in place to cite from Sumerian and Akkadian texts of the Gilgamesh epic and other poems (third and second millennia B.C.). Gilgamesh is a mythoepical character that had a real prototype, one of the kings of the First Dynasty of Uruk (first half of the 3rd millennium B.C.). These epics see building and woodworking as an important incentive of the hero. For example, the myth Gilgamesh and Humbaba is a tale about the journey of that hero and his warriors to a faraway mountain land with the aim of bringing to Uruk sacred cedars guarded by Humbaba the monster. Gilgamesh is motivated by the heroic desire to "raise his name". The hero procures seven cedars and slays the monster.

This epic furnishes the details of timber harvesting. One episode is impressed on a cylinder seal with a tall cedar growing on a high mountain in the center. The very placing of this event on a seal, the insignia of power, testifies to its importance for a better understanding of the hero's image and also to its importance for the owner of the seal.

Another epic narrative, Gilgamesh, Enkidu and the Nether World, likewise supplies evidence on this precious tree and various items made of its wood. Growing in the garden of the goddess Inanna was a wonder tree, the Huluppu. Inanna wanted it for making a

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couch and an armchair for her own self. However, a serpent and a giant bird were living in it. Gilgamesh heeded her complaints, he chased the monster bird away and slew the serpent, and then made objects called pukku and mikku (most likely, a drum and drumsticks--Kramer, 1965) from its wood. One scene of this epic is also pictured on a cylinder seal, with Gilgamesh holding a tool supplied with a crankshaft handle, and cutting branches off the felled tree. The pictures of deities in horned tiaras (crowns) on the head and that of a star (a godhead's emblem) are meant to impart a cosmic scope to this scene.

It's another question as to what kind of wood was brought in to Mesopotamia and wherefrom. The earliest bits of evidence of texts related to the third millennium B.C. during the rule of Kings Gudea and Ur-Nanshe, point at the mountains of Lebanon and Aman, and also at Mount Hebron; the later-day texts also make mention of the regions of eastern Taurus Range and Zagros Mountains (Moorey, 1994). The logs were delivered in a variety of ways: on carts, by floating, on rafts and by boat (the logs tied fast to the boat). The same author (Moorey) examines in detail the kinds of wood brought in (juniper, cedar, cypress, oak, palm, tamarisk, poplar); he gives a circumstantial description of the particular parts of the buildings where such wood was used (floors, ceilings, walls, doors, interiors; Moorey, 1994).

Still another narrative epic, Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta also dwells on temple building, with the city ruler as master builder again. It gives a vivid description of exchanges between Enmerkar, the ruler of Uruk, and the lord of Aratta, a land lying in the north beyond the mountains and rich in gold, silver and stone. The cause of that obscure conflict was the need to erect a temple for the water god Enki in Eridu, a sacred town in Mesopotamia.

Enmerkar, the king of Uruk, dispatches a caravan of pack animals with grain supplies welcomed with glee by the highlanders, all that in exchange for building and semiprecious stones.

Then came a demand to the Aratta mountaineers on behalf of goddess Inanna who proves to be quite conversant with the art of metal mining.

There is a temple construction scene--also on a cylinder seal, the power insignia. It is not just a drawing from life but is meant to enhance the sacral motif and stress an intimate connection of the building process with religion and power.

The erection of urban fortifications was yet another sacred duty of a priest-king. In the Akkadian version of the Gilgamesh epic (He Who Saw the Deep) the hero,

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the Lord of Uruk, shocked by the compulsive thought about inevitable death because he had lost the herb of youth eternal obtained by great effort comes back to Uruk to seek solace at the sight of the city wall he had once built (The Epic of Gilgamesh, 2006).

We see that the building activity of Mesopotamian rulers of the Early Dynastic and subsequent periods, above all the erection and beautification of temples, was held to be an important job for the priest-king as keeper of order in his city and in the Cosmos at large. Understandably the utilitarian working implements intended for sacral rituals to be performed by the king and his family were made from the same precious metal as the highest symbols of royal power--the weapons, diadems, decorations and the like--and were within the ambit of such symbols. All the more so since the king's person was extolled and deified as one descending from gods, and upon death he became a local godhead and hero (like Gilgamesh did).

Such ideas persisted and lived on. The building trade traditionally perceived as a lofty and divine art continued to be thought so later on.

The Greek word demiurge (δημιουργός) stands for the artisan, artist, creator and seer; it is also God the Creator. In the Doric city-states of ancient Greece this word also denoted the supreme ruler (Weissman, 1991). The Russian language likewise interprets the moral aspect of the verb zdati (to build, construct, erect) as a supernal act of creativity.

The Bible (Old Testament) praises Divine Wisdom as a Procreatrix, a creating demiurgic be-all and end-all, as the Lord's "delight" (Parables, 8, 27-31). She builds the world in much the same way as a carpenter or mason would build a home abiding by the laws of the divine art. The home is a core Biblical value as part of the orderly Cosmos. "Wisdom hath builded her house, she hath hewn out seven pillars" (Proverbs, 9, 1).

The wise king Solomon regarded temple building as his great objective and deed. He commanded to "hew cedar trees out of Lebanon". The Bible furnishes a detailed description of how cedars were brought in (1 Kings, commonly called the Third Book of the Kings, 5; 6; II Chronicles, 3-5). The material used thereby was of special importance. For one, it was prohibited to use iron tools. "And the house, when it was in building, was built of stone made ready before it was brought thither; so that there was neither hammer nor axe nor any tool of iron heard in the house while it was in building" (I Kings, 6, 7).

Sophia, the Divine Wisdom, was at home in Old Rus (Russia), where three cathedral churches (like one of Constantinople) were consecrated to St. Sophia, the patrona of the people's baptism, in the 11th century A.D. Sophia's iconography gained ground in the 15th and 16th centuries: she is represented as an angela with a fiery aspect and in regal robes (crown, shoulder-mantle, dalmatic); she personalizes a "sophos", enlightened Cosmos created in keeping with divine laws (Myths of the Peoples of the World, 1991).

Now in the New Testament Joseph, espoused to Mary and common law father to Jesus Christ, was carpenter: "Is not this the carpenter's son? Is not his mother called Mary?" (Matthew, 13, 55). The Greek word tekton (τέκτων) mentioned in the Greek translation of the Gospel according to St. Matthew denotes a builder in general (a mason, a carpenter), as well as a master and artist (Weissman, 1991). Joseph is a poor drudge: Mary, unable to bring a lamb to the temple, brings "two young pigeons, the one for the burnt offer-

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ing, and the other for a sin offering", that is, they were the poor people's offering (Leviticus, 12, 7-8). But on the other hand, Joseph, though he descended from King David (Matthew, 1, 1-16), did not find it reprehensible to play a carpenter's trade.

In the Middle Ages princes, kings and emperors were often represented as church builders.

Symbolic (nonutilitarian) tools made of precious materials were part and parcel of the ideology of nascent class societies meant to make routine labor a sacral thing. In this sense deified labor was not a Modern Age invention, and not only proper to Protestantism (Antonova, 1998). It is related to a uniform world outlook of archaic society and to its mythological perception of any phenomena and of routine, utilitarian activities. The "utilitarian" and "nonutilitarian" concepts cannot be clearly distinguished in institutions prior to social class stratification. Dr. Yevgeny Chernykh, an archeologist elected to the national Academy of Sciences, touched upon these aspects in 1982: he interpreted the "rational" as the progressive-utilitarian, and the "irrational" as what pertains to the spiritual (nonmaterial), ideological, neutral and even impeding social progress.

Such things pictured the social pecking order and inculcated it on people's mind. The labor tools placed in tombs of the most rich signify the social symbolism of such tools and point to the all-important function of the priest-king who is perceived as the keeper and guarantor of building works and Ordnung at home and elsewhere, that is, in the city-states of ancient Mesopotamia, Anatolia and Syria. The presence of precious replicas in burial complexes mirrors also the principal goals of the cult of the dead--the pledge to the defunct forefathers that their progeny in the land of the living will be well-off. In a broader context it is the pledge of well-being and prosperity to their families, their communities and their state.

The intricate pattern of interaction between ideology and the core mind sets as well as their tight ties (even allowing for a relative independence of ideology) poses great difficulties in making a distinction between these two aspects of the Sumerian civilization. Ancient societies in which the tie-in of the economic and ideological spheres was rigid pose problems to researchers. It is hardly justified to draw these spheres apart as some modern-day scholars do, for these two sides of being were in unity within one Weltanschauung. For this reason the very terms--ideology and economy--may look as a simplification, as a rough divide of the actual life realities. It is difficult, if not outright impossible, to evaluate the true significance of such realities for people of the day, for these realities were in a state of continual and interactive flux and were not apprehended as essentially different. Maybe the term "extra-rational" would be more careful, even though it carries a connotation alien to the principle of the unity of world perception. To conclude, I would like to recall what Arthur Hocart, a British archeologist, said in 1970: Temples are just as utilitarian as dams and canals are, for they are necessary for well-being; dams and canals are just as ritual as temples are, for they are part of a social system of searches for welfare.


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Lyudmila AVILOVA, THOSE DIVINE CARPENTERS OF SUMER* // Kiev: Library of Ukraine (ELIBRARY.COM.UA). Updated: 18.11.2021. URL: (date of access: 30.11.2021).

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