Sunday, February 27, 2011

Ancient Mesopotamian tablets reveal “complex” anti-witchcraft ceremony

The sun rises over modern day Iraq. The long version of the
anti-witchcraft ceremony was performed during the night and into the following
morning. Photo by Todd Morris CC Attribution share-alike 2.0 generic

O Samas (Sun God) these are the images of my sorcerer;
These are the images of my sorceress...
You, Samas the judge, know them, but I do not know them.
These are they, these are their images.
Since they are not present, I bear aloft their images.
You, Samas the judge ... overwhelm them so I not be wronged!
(All translations in this article are by Professor Tzvi Abusch)
About 3,000 years ago Mesopotamian rulers, and other elite members of society, feared that witches were working against them.
Ancient records say that witches had the ability to use magic to harm those whom they wanted too. Stories say that a witch could make “an image in the likeness of her victim and then twist his limbs so that he suffers agony and debilitating disease,” said Professor Tzvi Abusch of Brandeis University.
Another gruesome tale says that “the witch may even open up a grave and place the representation of her victim in the lap of a dead person.”
The fear of Mesopotamia’s rulers was such that an elaborate ritual called maqlu (which means “burning”) was created to combat this perceived threat. The ceremony was used in the region throughout the 1st millennium BC, and appears to have died off sometime before AD 1.
It was developed and used by a group of exorcists known as “asipu.” An early version of the ceremony had 10 incantations and was performed in the morning. Later it evolved into a 100 incantation long ritual that started in the night and went through dawn. Tablets describing maqlu have been found in Nineveh, Assur and Uruk, among other Mesopotamian cities.
 “In the main the incantations and rituals of maqlu are directed against witches and witchcraft” said Professor Abusch. “The ceremony was intended to counter-act and dispel evil magic, and its effects, to protect the patient, and to punish and render ineffectual those responsible for the evil.”
Abusch has been studying the maqlu tablets for nearly 40 years. He said that these documents were “long thought to be a random collection of witchcraft materials (however) an important breakthrough in the understanding of maqlu came with my discovery – some years ago – that it was a single, complex, ceremony.”
This discovery means that he is now able to put the ceremony together and come up with a translation. Recently he gave a presentation at the University of Toronto where he discussed his findings. His work has appeared in scholarly publications but so far has received little attention in popular news media. 
Why were witches vilified?
From the maqlu tablets, and stories told about witches, it is clear that Mesopotamia’s rulers and nobility felt that they posed a real threat. But were the stories true? Or were witches persecuted for other reasons?
“As an explanation for misfortune witchcraft had the advantage of shifting much of the responsibility for one’s suffering away from oneself and onto other human beings,” said Professor Abusch.
The use of magic, in itself, would not have made them outcasts. “In contrast to some later western societies, magic in Mesopotamia was regarded as legitimate and as part of the established religion,” said Abusch.
He believes that the witch started out as a “neutral character,” someone who was “sometimes bad, sometimes good.” References in ancient documents suggest that most of these witches were women.
In contrast the asipu, the exorcists, were men, something that may have played a role in the vilification of the witches. What “the asipu did, I think, is to transform this woman – who (is) I said sometimes good, sometimes bad, into a bad person,” said Abusch. “This is genderized in the sense that the asipus are, as far as I know, always male.”
Their efforts were certainly effective. The references to witches in the maqlu ceremony are chilling.
Judge my case, render my verdict!
Burn the warlock, and the witch!
Devour my enemies, consume my oppressors!
Let your fiery red light overwhelm them!
May they come to an end in a trickle like water from a waterskin!
The ceremony
The shorter 10 incantation long ceremony was performed in the morning and involved four basic actions.
-Judging the witch before the sun god Samas
-Burning a representation of her
-Dowsing the remains with water
-Disposing of the remains 
There were two participants in the ceremony, the exorcist (asipu) and the patient. Since they would not have known who in the community was a witch, the two of them created figurines to represent them.
“Raising up statues to the sun, the plantiff identifies the statues that he holds as representations of witches who have performed acts of witchcraft against him and have harmed him unjustly,” said Abusch. “The statues are then bound and placed in a brazier.”
Nusku, god of light and fire, is then invoked to protect the victim and counteract the witches.
A warlock has bewitched me; bewitch him with the witchcraft with which he bewitched me,
A witch has bewitched me; bewitch her with the witchcraft with which she bewitched me...
 “The playfulness of these lines should not obscure their power,” said Abusch.
After Nusku is invoked the speaker sets statues of the witches ablaze.
I am raising the torch and burning their statues
(Those) of the demon, the spirit, the lurker, the ghost...
The next section focuses on the release of the witchcraft and liberation of the victim. The last incantation in this section is particularly important, although difficult to translate exactly.
[Ea has (now) unbound] the ligaments that you have bound up,
[Asalluhi has (now) released] the images that you have twisted and fettered.
The knot that you have knotted against me, the pl[lot that you have plotted against me]
May blazing Girra [use the wind to carry off]...
“As the brazier in which the statues have been burning is stirred, and the fire comes forth in a final climatic blaze, the victim speaks this incantation, and recalls that everything that the witches have done, has been undone and has been bounded against them,” said Abusch.
The third section focuses on the use of water to extinguish the fire and what’s left of “the life of the witch.” By the end of it “The witches are pacified and become harmless ghosts.”
...My mouth is water, your mouth is fire:
May my mouth extinguish your mouth,
May the curse of my mouth extinguish the curse of your mouth,
May the plot of my heart extinguish the plot of your heart!
The final section of the short version of maqlu deals with the disposing of the remains of the witches. In this case the charred and washed out figurines. “A mountain stone is placed on the brazier containing the charred and sodden remains of the statues. The speaker here expresses the wish that the mountain confine and pulverize the witches,” said Abusch.
May the mountain cover you,
May the mountain hold you back,
May the mountain pacify you,
May the mountain hide you,
May the mountain enshroud you,
May the mountain turn you back
May the mountain pulverize you...
During the final incantation “A circle of flower is linked out and the speaker commands the ghosts to depart and adjures them never to return,” said Abusch.
Be off, be off, begone, begone,
Depart, depart, flee, flee!
Go off, go away, be off, and begone! ...
“The ashes from the brazier are then cast out through the gate, thus the witches are separated from the (community).”
An evolving ceremony
Professor Abusch’s research indicates that over time this short 10 incantation long ceremony evolved into a 100 incantation long ritual. It started in the night and went into the dawn. It was carried out during the month of Abu, that’s July/August “a time when spirits were thought to move back and forth between the netherworld and this world,” said Abusch.
“The main activities of the ceremony are the recitation of the incantations and the performance of such rites as burning of figurines, fumigation... washing, disposal and protection against future attack.”
The start of the ceremony is beautifully written:
I call upon you, Gods of the Night,
With you I call upon Night, the veiled bride,
I call upon you Twilight, Midnight and Dawn...
The ceremony also ends on an interesting note. As the sun rises, and a new day begins, the plantiff washes and welcomes the morning.
At dawn my hands are washed.
May a propitious beginning begin (the new day) for me,
May happiness and good health ever accompany me,
Whatsoever I seek, may I attain...
“Not only does washing cleanse one of evil, it also serves as an act of punishment and revenge for it carries the evil back to the one who initiated it,” said Abusch.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Maya exhibition coming to Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum in November, will also appear in Ottawa

The ancient city of Palenque will be the focus of the new exhibition. Photo by Tato Grasso,
CC Attribution share-alike 2.5
A major exhibit focusing on the ancient Maya will open at Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum in mid-November.
It’s called Maya - Secrets of their Ancient World.
The Ancient Maya flourished in Central America throughout the first millennium AD, before collapsing in the 8th and 9th centuries. They built cities in the jungle, developed their own writing system and created a complex calendar. The Mayan people are still around today, struggling to survive in a region that has greatly changed.
The exhibit will stay in Toronto through the New Year and into 2012. Plans are also being made for it to appear at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa.
Dr. Justin Jennings, lead curator of the exhibit, briefly discussed the project just hours ago at an event held by Friends of Archaeology, one of the societies that support the museum.
“Really what we’re going try to do with this Maya show is take you all the way back to the 7th century AD and take you back to the classic Maya,” he said.
A good portion of the exhibit will focus on the ancient city of Palenque. The centre of a kingdom, the site is known for its palace and temples and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In addition to artefacts the exhibit will include reproductions of parts of the ancient city, showing what it looked like in antiquity. “It’s going to look like, not what you’re going to see at Palenque today,” said Dr. Jennings, but rather “Palenque back in the 7th century, we’re trying to give you a sense of that.”
Details on specific artefacts are slim but Jennings did discuss how the exhibition is set out.
“The way which we’re going to start this show – Secrets of their Ancient World – is to begin by going back to the initial moments of discovery,” he said. In the 19th century, explorers penetrating into the jungles of Central America came across the ruins of Mayan cities. Overgrown with vegetation the discovery piqued their interest, leading to formal scientific study in the century ahead.  
Continuing on, the exhibition turns to the city of Palenque and its hinterland, followed by a section on Mayan warfare and sacrifice. It then leads to the palace. “Where a projection or maybe even something built (will be) showing the front of the palace,” said Jennings.  
The exhibit will also look at the modern Maya and the famous Mayan calendar which, some argue, predicts the end of the world in 2012. “We’ll talk about 2012 and how you’re world is going to end or not end.”
A rushed timeline
Jennings said that the curators have faced a rushed timeline in trying to put it together. “Usually what you want to do with a show like this, you want to have at least three years from the time you decide you’re going to do it, to when you open the doors,” he said.  
“We’ve had less than a year and a half.”
The reason for the rush is that originally the museum was going to do a show on the Aztecs, another ancient Mesoamerican culture based in Mexico. That didn’t work out. “We found that the objects we had hoped (to get) ended up being in Australia and New Zealand at same time they were supposed to be in Toronto.”

Monday, February 14, 2011

How did they survive? New research shows Jordanian city survived climate change disaster 4,200 years ago

4,200 years ago Tall el-Hammam survived a climate change disaster that
decimated civilizations throughout the Middle East.
A map of Tall el-Hammam, archaeologists believe that an abundence of
water resources helped this city survive the arid conditions that hit the
Middle East 4,200 years ago.
Evidence suggests that, as the climate grew arid, there was an
increasing number of nomadic groups in the Levant.  This gate at
Tall el-Hammam was blocked off about 4,200 years ago,
likely in an attempt to keep them out of the city.

(4) Shows the blockage, (1) and (2) show the passageway walls of the gateway
(6) shows the walking surface as it was 5,000 years ago. (3) shows the
surface as it was 4,500 years ago and (5) shows fill that was put in
to level the gateway with the ground 4,500 years ago.
It's estimated that nearly 1,000 dolmens existed at Tall el-Hammam.
Archaeologists believe that they were used in ancestor worship.
NOTE - All photos and maps courtesy Tall el-Hammam Excavation Project

About 4,200 years ago a series of disasters struck cities and civilizations throughout the Middle East.
In Egypt the central government collapsed. The same state that had built the great pyramids, and kept pharaoh as the supreme authority, could no longer keep the country united. This ushered in an era of powerful provincial leaders (known as nomarchs) and rival claimants to the Egyptian throne.
A similar scenario happened in Mesopotamia where the Akkadian Empire, an entity whose power stretched from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean, also went under. This led to local rulers stepping in and taking up power. 
There is also evidence of social upheaval in the Levant. The city of Khirbet ez-Zeiraqoun in northern Jordan, whose inhabitants burrowed out hundreds of meters of water tunnels into the ground, was abandoned.
Climate change is believed to be a major reason for this upheaval. Research in the Middle East suggests that the environment became increasingly arid – making it difficult to support the intensive farming that is required to feed large cities.
“Paleoclimactic data from numerous sites, document changes in the Mediterranean westerlies and monsoon rainfall during this event with precipitation reductions of up to 30%, that diminished agricultural production from the Aegean to the Indus,” wrote scientists Harvey Weiss and Raymond Bradley in a paper they published.
“What that climate change is a result of is a mystery,” said Professor Steven Collins, of Trinity Southwest University. “There are even folks speculating on some sort of cosmic impact event like an asteroid strike at some point on the globe that created some sort of climatological disaster for the whole planet, not just for the Middle East.”
Together with Khalil Hamdan, of Jordan’s Department of Antiquities, Collins leads archaeological work at the Jordanian city of Tall el-Hammam. Located in the southern Jordan Valley, new research at this 36 hectare city shows that, remarkably, it continued to operate during this climate shift. “It was not only around it was thriving,” Collins said.  
An ancient metropolis
Archaeological work shows that people were living at Tall el-Hammam at least as far back as 6,000 years ago.
By the time the climate disaster hit, nearly 4,200 years ago, the city supported a population of between 15,000 to 25,000 people living in or nearby.
The team believes that it was the centre of a small kingdom ruled by a king. The city certainly had its share of amenities. A 100 meter by 100 meter raised platform served as the main hub of the city, containing temples and administrative buildings.
The city was protected by a massive fortification system with walls that Collins said were “about six meters thick and would have been about three times that high.” These fortifications had somewhere between 15 and 20 gates, giving outsiders access to the settlement.  
Domestic residences in the city were modest. Built of mud brick, they had stone foundations and walls that were half a meter thick. Archaeological work suggests that these houses were reused and modified over a vast amount of time. One residence the team found was used from between 4,600 and 3,600 years ago, with modifications being made occasionally.
One of the most enigmatic features of the city was its dolmen field. In ancient times the people of Tall el-Hammam built nearly 1,000 of these stone monuments. “They go up into the hills surrounding the east and south of the city state,” said Collins.
Many of the dolmens have either been destroyed or looted but the team has found a few intact examples. From the excavation of them “we pretty much concluded that they’re not primary burials, and they’re probably not even secondary burials,” said Collins. Rather “they seem to be memorial monuments related to some sort of ancestor worship.”
What may have taken place is that on certain days people would have opened the grave of an ancestor, taken a bone out and had it “ritually placed (near the dolmen) with some sort of small offering like a juglet of wine, or a juglet of oil, or a bowl of some sort of offering.”
Climate change survivor
All together the picture the evidence paints is that Tall el-Hammam was a thriving place when it entered the climate catastrophe. “It’s very dramatic and it’s obviously a very long enduring powerful city state,” said Collins.
When the climate changed, about 4,200 years ago, many of the cities and civilizations in the Middle East were wiped out. The increased aridity made it hard for them to grow crops and keep up an urban way of life.
“As a result the large majority of the cities in the Levant, particularly the southern Levant, completely went out of business,” said Collins.
But the people did not go away. As agriculture became untenable in many areas people became nomads, turning to pastoralism as a way to survive. It was a “period of extreme social upheaval in the region, there would have been a lot of nomads and semi-nomads ranging about, threatening cities, especially cities that were wealthy and thriving.”
Among those few cities still surviving was Tall el-Hammam. The team’s research reveals that the defences of the city were bolstered – with many of the city’s gates being blocked off, probably in an effort to keep those nomads out.
The effort seems to have helped, at least on some level. The city continued to be occupied throughout this period of climate collapse. Collins said that the team needs to do more excavation to get a complete sense of how the city was affected but so far the findings show that the houses were occupied “pretty much throughout (the) interruption.”
All in all “my gut feeling now is that the city footprint – residences, temples, administrative buildings, palaces – didn’t change appreciably or maybe even at all.”
Why did it survive?
This discovery raises an important question – why did it survive? Blocking off the entrances alone would not have done it. While that would have helped prevent nomads from getting in, it would not have helped the residents grow food.
Collins believes that access to water is the reason why the city survived. Unlike many areas in the Middle East, the people at Tall el-Hammam had it in abundance and coming from multiple sources.
“It really boils down to the water resources,” said Collins.
“You have the Jordan river which, even in the worst case scenario, never would have dried up.” Also “you have two perennial rivers one (on) the north, one on the south, that would have continued to flow most of the time, even in a very dry climate regime.” In addition a number of springs, fed by groundwater, also would have brought in water.
One other factor is the temperature in the southern Jordan Valley. Not only did people have access to a good amount of water but they also had the ability to grow crops year-round.
“With the right water resources you can grow several crops a year,” said Collins. “It might be snowing and freezing up in Amman or up in Jerusalem but down in the valley it will be 60, 70 or 80 degree (Fahrenheit).”
So what lesson can we take away from this? Like people 4,200 years ago our civilization is facing a period of climate change (although this time induced by humans). Is there something that the experience of this ancient city can teach us?
“The lesson is to be smart about the utilization of water resources,” said Collins. “People need to do what Tall el-Hammam did and very carefully manage their water resources so they can survive.”

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Work suspended at 4,600 year-old Seila Pyramid in Egypt

Work has been suspended for now at the 4,600 year old Seila Pyramid in Egypt.
The structure was built by the pharaoh Snefru, the father of Khufu.
Photo courtesy Professor Kerry Muhlestein
Archaeological work has been suspended at the 4,600 year-old Seila Pyramid in Egypt.
Excavation and research at the site has been going on for nearly three decades now by a team led by Professor Wilfred Griggs of Brigham Young University.
Seila is one of four pyramids constructed by the pharaoh Snefru. The father of Khufu, this ruler revolutionized pyramid building by constructing the first “true” pyramids, with flat sides that angle up towards the sky.
There is a vast cemetery near the pyramid, estimated to hold nearly one million mummies. Most of the people buried there date to Graeco-Roman times (starting ca. 2,300 years ago) or later.
The past few days have seen widespread protests across Egypt, with demonstrators demanding that President Hosni Mubarak, a man who has led the country for 30 years, resign.
Professor Griggs said in a telephone interview from Cairo that antiquities officials are not permitting work to be done at the pyramid, “they’re worried about robbing and looting.” With the US government urging its citizens to leave the country, the Brigham Young team will depart in a few days.
Griggs emphasized that he has no information to indicate that Seila and its cemetery has been robbed and thinks it unlikely. “I hope they have not been.” From his conversations with antiquities officials they are more concerned about the general area that the pyramid is located in – to the north looting attempts have been reported at the sites of Abusir and Saqqara.