An eighth-century B.C. funerary stele unearthed this summer at the site of Zincirli in southeastern Turkey, known in ancient times as Sam’al, is providing rare insight into Iron Age concepts of the soul. Archaeologists from the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute recently announced a translation of the monument’s 13-line inscription, which is emblazoned beside a depiction of the deceased, a high official named Kuttamuwa.
Read right to left, top to bottom, the text states that Kuttamuwa fashioned the stele during his lifetime, and that at its inauguration in the mortuary chapel offerings were made to various gods, including the storm-god Hadad and the sun-god Shamash. But the part that is causing the greatest stir is a line explaining that one of the offerings was “a ram for my soul that is in this stele.”
Scholars have long known that cremation was practiced in the region beginning in the Iron Age—at a time when Semitic and Indo-European cultural traditions were intermingled in the wake of the Hittite Empire—but they have wondered why and how, since farther to the south and in earlier periods, in the West Semitic world, burning one’s bones was taboo because the soul was believed to live on in them. This inscription, which clearly states that the soul is thought to inhabit the stele, seems to reconcile the practice of cremation with the belief in the soul. “This is a bit of speculation right now,” Schloen cautions, “but what you have here then is a theological explanation of how you can do cremation and still have a somewhat similar sense of the ‘enduring soul’ or the ‘enduring identity’ of the person to whom food offerings are brought by their descendants in the traditional West Semitic fashion.”
The inscription is written in an alphabetic script, in a dialect called Sam’alian after the site. The script is derived from the Phoenician alphabet and the dialect is an archaic form of Aramaic. The word used for “soul” in the inscription is nebesh, Schloen points out, which is a variant of the same word for soul used in the Bible, nephesh. “Using terminology like nebesh is characteristic of West Semitic mortuary beliefs, or beliefs about death and afterlife,” he says, “but it’s quite unusual in other ways because this stele, with Kuttamuwa’s soul in it, was found in a small, private mortuary chapel—no others have been found in their original architectural context at all—and so we never before had information about how these steles would have been used.”
The link contains a number of pictures.
Some transcriptions and translations: