The Memories for Life project, funded by the Swedish Research Council, was initiated in 2017 to study the hundreds of objects dedicated by non-royal individuals to the divine in the ancient Near East. These objects, inscribed in the cuneiform script in the Akkadian and Sumerian languages, inform us about worship practices and dedicatory traditions spanning almost three millennia, from c. 2900BCE to 100BCE. In this article for The Votives Project, the project team tells us about some of the project’s aims, as well as the techniques and methodologies that are being used to study this fascinating corpus of inscribed votive objects. The team of the Memories for Life project includes: PI Jakob Andersson (Uppsala); Joint PI Christina Tsouparopoulou (Cambridge); Postdoctoral research associates: Nancy Highcock (Cambridge), Rune Rattenborg (Uppsala), Seraina Nett (Uppsala); research assistants: Silvia Ferreri (Cambridge), Philippa Browne (Cambridge), Nils Melin Kronsell (Uppsala) and Russell Clark (Cambridge).
The ancient Near East witnessed a long tradition of people from all walks of life dedicating various objects to the divine on behalf of themselves and their loved ones and depositing them in temples, neighborhood and domestic shrines, and other sacred spaces. This phenomenon dates back to the rise of the earliest city-states in the region of Mesopotamia, comprising modern day Iraq, Syria, and parts of Turkey and Iran, whose socio-economic life centered on the temples inhabited by deities believed to govern the natural phenomena experienced by the human population. The deities that populated the ancient Mesopotamian landscape ranged from major deities of a pantheon that stretched over time and space, such as Inanna/Ishtar, to more minor deities popular in particular places and/or periods, to personal gods of kinship groups. In all types of sacred spaces where such a diverse range of deities were thought to reside, from the primary temples of the patron god/goddess administered by the central authorities and an elite priesthood (figs. 1 and 2) to the household shrines accessible to only the family (fig. 3), residents of these early cities offered various objects leaving behind abundant, though cursorily studied, material evidence of their devotion.
The majority of these objects, which run the gamut from simple clay figurines to elaborate stone sculptures, were uninscribed, and clues to their donor and beneficiaries must be derived from their context, material, and type only. Objects inscribed with cuneiform inscriptions provide additional information, often including the donor’s name and other identity markers such as gender, profession, kinship relations, and chosen divine recipient. Objects inscribed with cuneiform first appear in the Early Dynastic I period (2900 BCE) and continue on through to the 1st century BCE, encompassing three millennia worth of data on dedicatory practice across a diverse and multicultural region. Despite this wealth of data concerning human-divine relationships and the worship dimensions of identity construction, scholars have often focused mainly on the inscriptions of royal objects – using them to help build regnal histories and explore the worship practices of the most elite members of ancient Near Eastern societies.
The ‘Memories for Life’ project is building upon earlier work (and especially Braun-Holzinger 1991) to analyse the c. 800 inscribed objects from Mesopotamian sites dedicated by so-called “private” individuals, in order to better understand the ways in which people in the past commemorated their own lives in the presence of the divine. By “private” people, we mean non-ruling individuals, so sometimes royal children and queens originating from outside the local royal family are included.
Analysing inscribed objects donated by those beyond the inner royal circle allows us to build a more diverse picture of private religion and its place in religious practices and society at large. Did private people dedicate the same types of objects to the same gods as the royals? Did they have access to the same temple spaces, raw materials, artisans, and scribes? What do these objects tell us about the identities of those who commissioned them? To answer these questions, we analyse all the information one can gather from these private objects: the objects’ material and type, the context in which they were found, and the inscriptions they bore on their surfaces (Tsouparopoulou 2016; forthcoming). Treating all these as entangled threads of ancient identities and religious praxis, we aim to elucidate the complex social dynamics of worship practice across the diverse societies of the ancient Near East over three millennia of history. The number of such objects, covering nearly 3000 years of history, was surely much greater than the c. 800 we have thus far collected, but several factors such as excavation technique and frequency, ancient discardment and recycling, and limited access to writing, may account for the seemingly limited corpus.
We have designated these inscribed objects as “commemorative”, which carry complex messages from the human to the divine world, and which crystallize the identity/ies of the devotee. Commemorative objects, embodying the intertwined relationship between human and object agents, create and reinforce social landscapes that include divine beings. The term commemorative also allows us to include both those inscribed objects which the devotee dedicates on behalf of themselves and those which the devotee dedicates on behalf of others. “Commemorative” highlights the cosmic time of such interactions, as the inscription carries the actions and memory of the individual into eternity (Andersson 2016). The object itself also continued to be effective after its original use, forging new relationships and taking on new meanings long past the end of the life of the individual who dedicated it (Joy 2009; Gosden and Marshall 1999; Feldman 2009; Evans 2012).
Our assembled catalogue of inscribed commemorative objects covers an area similar in size to northern Europe, with finds coming from places as far apart as Malta in the Central Mediterranean and Hamadān in western Iran. At the level of discrete archaeological sites, our c. 800 individual objects are distributed across c. 40 different locations, ranging from huge +1,000 hectares metropoles like Babylon or Nineveh down to small peripheral towns.
‘Memories for Life’ is integrating text and artefact datasets with spatial information assembled through remote sensing and GIS, and is therefore charting new ground in archaeological and philological research on the Ancient Near East. By making available the variable level of knowledge on object provenience –where an object was found– and provenance –its history from creation to the present day– we review inscribed objects in light of their contextual, local, and regional setting. Charting these objects across space also allows us to fill in gaps in our knowledge about some of these objects. For example, to assess the possible origins of unprovenanced artefacts, which make up around a third of our material, we consider the distributional patterns of provenanced ones. This allows us to suggest a possible provenance for c. 250 objects previously considered of unknown origin. Reliable geolocational data is also a significant aid in cultural heritage protection efforts, something that is particularly urgent for a number of public institutions across the Middle East today. Looking further, spatial data points will also allow us to compare distribution of commemorative objects with other material culture groups, such as cuneiform texts.
Private commemorative inscriptions are rather standardized and the message, written in either Sumerian or Akkadian, normally expresses that a gift is given for the benefit of the intended recipient. We can analyse these objects at different scales in order to glean information about individual choices as well as broader worship practices. For example, the bronze/copper object shown in Figure 6 and representing female genitalia, was dedicated by a woman named Hadītum to the goddess Ishtar and deposited in Ishtar’s temple in the city of Assur (near modern day Mosul).
The Akkadian inscription reads:
(i) i-⌈nu-ma⌉, dlugal-gin, énsi a-šùr, a-na dinana, a-šu-ri-tim, nin-a-ni, ḫa-dì-tum, dam en-na-⌈da?⌉, ta-ak-ru-ub, a-na ba-lá-aṭ, mu-ti-ša, ba-lá-ṭì-ša,
(ii) ù, ba-lá-aṭ šé-ri-ša, téš, tù-šé-ri-ib
‘When Sargon was ruler of Aššur, Hadītum, wife of Bēlum-nāda dedicated (this) to Assyrian Ishtar, her mistress. She placed the vulva for the life of her husband, her own life, and the life of her children.’
Dating to the early second millennium BCE, this object not only provides further information about Hadītum, including the name of her husband and mentioning her children, but also provides data on the contemporary king, Sargon, of the city-state of Assur, and highlights the particular manifestation of the goddess Ishtar who was worshipped in this city (Ishtar of Assur). Such connections, as well as the material from which this object is made, may indicate social status within her community, as not everyone could afford or have access to a specially commissioned and inscribed metal object. The fact that this is only one of two extant inscribed metal vulvae also points to the value of the material, as metal objects were often melted down for reuse, and points to the limited access non-royals may have had to scribes more generally. Indeed, there are several examples of uninscribed vulvae dedicated to Ishtar and coming from the same temple (Schmitt 2012: no 694–697); vulvae object types also appear in texts documenting their delivery to another of Ishtar’s temples, the Ishtar-Kititum temple in the city of Ischali (Paoletti 2016; here fig. 1b). Such offerings, like Hadītum’s bronze/copper vulva, are related to particular concerns with the female body, fertility, and sexuality that these female patrons wanted to express towards Ishtar, the goddess of (among many other things) love/sex (Evans 2019: 20–24).
Collecting and organizing this rich dataset allows us to also trace trends in dedicatory practice which relate directly to the expression of individuals and group identities such as class, profession, and gender. For example, analysing the dataset through the lenses of object type has provided surprising results. Of the 66 inscribed mace-heads dating to the third and second millennium, 56% were dedicated by men, 29% by a person of unknown gender, and 14% by women. In Mesopotamian textual sources and visual art, mace-heads are usually associated with the king’s martial prowess and coded as a symbol of male power. Therefore, the very existence of mace-heads donated by women is unusual. Indeed, in the Early Dynastic period (2900-2350 BCE), inscribed mace-heads were all dedicated by male donors, and most uninscribed mace-heads from Early Dynastic temples were those in which the resident deity was male (Evans 2016: 186; 2019: 16–17).
Toward the end of the second millennium BCE, however, we start to see a change in this practice: all eight of the known mace-heads dedicated by women date to this time and six of these were dedicated by the same woman, a certain Nin-kagina living in the southern Mesopotamian city of Girsu during the Lagash II Dynasty (2260–2110 BCE). This woman, though herself not a queen, was clearly of a status that enabled her to transgress the normative gendered divisions in dedicatory practices. This phenomenon is also most likely related to the divine recipients of her gifts who were all relations of the god Ningirsu, a god of war, the patron deity of her city, and a figure also associated with the mace-head. In this way, Nin-kagina, a member of an elite human urban sphere, was dedicating objects in order to model herself and her family on a divine social circle.
Viewing Mesopotamian religion through the lenses of private commemorative objects, embodying the material and spatial manifestations of religious practice, sheds new light on human-divine relationships across all levels of ancient Mesopotamian society and opens up new dimensions for reconstructing the human identities of long-gone individuals. By focusing on objects dedicated by non-royals to the city temples, we flesh out the overall social dynamics of self-commemoration and dedicatory practice in ancient Mesopotamian urban spheres. These dynamics can be traced both over the longue durée and in specific socio-historical contexts, such as late third millennium Girsu where certain elite women had access to the male-coded mace-heads. By exploring the materiality of these objects, how human and material agents mutually create and reinforce social and divine landscapes, we are in a position to better understand the diversity in ancient identities and dedicatory practice across Mesopotamian time and space.
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Tsouparopoulou, C. forthcoming. “A methodological solution to overcoming the text:artefact divide in Ancient Near Eastern Studies”, in Y. Heffron (ed.), Textual Archaeology, London.
For votive statuary from the Early Dynastic Period, one can also look at https://cnx.org/contents/k64PgmY0@1/Mesopotamian-Votive-Statuary-from-the-Early-Dynastic-Period