Babylon's dirty secrets: No tablet left unturned

7/24/2005 12:38:38 AM

Experts in a 4,000-year-old language find Mesopotamians faced rising home prices, booming harems and doctors who laid it on thick

Only 200 or so people in the world are fluent in the Akkadian language. Scattered across four continents, they get together only once a year.

So by the time the scholars arrived in Chicago this week for their annual meeting, they had stored up a lot of things to discuss--from the harems of Assyrian kings to rising housing prices in ancient Babylon.

But they can't talk about them in Akkadian, because nobody knows how to speak it anymore.

Scholars learned to read the language through hundreds of thousands of written documents left behind by the Mesopotamian people who spoke it for 2,000 years. The documents are clay tablets covered in cuneiform: little, wedge-shaped characters that represented Akkadian words.

A mixture of government and business records, personal correspondence and literary works, the tablets have allowed scholars to draw some surprisingly detailed pictures of life in Mesopotamia 2,500 to 4,500 years ago.

Through Saturday, about 350 scholars, archeologists and art historians of the period--called Assyriologists--have gathered at the Oriental Institute on the University of Chicago campus for the International Congress of Assyriology and Near Eastern Archaeology.

Those able to read the cuneiform tablets have spent the week telling everyone what they've been reading for the last year. It's a rare chance for them to talk face to face, because only so many universities and museums see a need for a staff Assyriologist, and only a few of those could afford to hire more than one.

Akkadian was one of the world's first written languages, evolving more than 4,000 years ago in Mesopotamia, the birthplace of human civilization between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in what is modern-day Iraq.

The Oriental Institute is one of the most influential centers for Akkadian studies, as many scholars of the language came here to learn to read it. The institute is about to complete the definitive, 24-volume dictionary of the language, 50 years after the first volume was published.

"In our field, Chicago is a very important center," said Dominique Charpin, an Assyriologist at the Sorbonne in Paris. "For us, it is our Mecca."

Charpin, 51, and his wife, Nele Ziegler, 37, have been going over nearly 20,000 clay tablets generated during the reign of Zimri-Lim between 1800 B.C. and 1760 B.C. in the city of Mari, a ruin in Syria near the Iraqi border. French archeologists in 1933 found the tablets in a library in the king's palace, where they lay protected under a collapsed wall for roughly 3,700 years, after Hammurabi, the great Babylonian king, destroyed the palace.

Charpin discovered a text indicating that during a stretch of hard times in the kingdom, the king's mother and a high priestess lent grain supplies to many people--a transaction expected to be paid back with interest at the next harvest.

"When people borrowed silver or something else of value, a clay tablet record was made of the loan, listing the name of the person getting the loan, the amount and date for repayment and the name of somebody serving as a witness to the loan," Charpin said.

The two women, evidently concerned that so many people stiffed them on the loans, asked a scribe to inventory their outstanding debts. He listed them with oldest debts first, some four years or more in arrears. Charpin found no evidence any of it was ever paid back.

Meanwhile, back at the harem

Ziegler has been looking at clay tablets recording business of the king's harem and palace musicians.

"When he came into power, he had 350 women in the harem, some princesses, some concubines, some servants," Ziegler said. "Five years later, there were 650 women in the harem."

About 200 of the women were trained as court musicians, she said, some serving the dual purpose of concubines to the king. "There were also young girls in the harem being trained for palace life, not to serve the king," she said, "but to be given as gifts to other kings."

Music was so important that the music director was a government minister, one of the king's 10 most powerful aides.

The tablets that the scholars study are single slabs of clay that were hardened by baking in ovens or in the sun after scribes pressed inscriptions into the surface. The smallest were about the size of a matchbook; the largest, usually about the size of a modern stenographer's notebook.

Most surviving tablets are lists of commercial transactions such as purchases of animals or grain, or tax records and government reports. But there are also thousands of more literary texts, such as personal letters, poetry and diplomatic reports sent from abroad.

Often scholars choose to specialize in certain kinds of texts.

"It's not so different from the English language, where we see specialists devoted to reading and interpreting Shakespearean texts, and others who are experts in reading and interpreting Dow Jones stock tables," said Martha Roth, editor of the nearly completed dictionary and organizer of this year's Assyriology congress.

Heather Baker, 42, a British lecturer at the University of Vienna, has been looking at legal documents recording sales of houses and empty plots in Babylon between 700 B.C. and 500 B.C.

"We've known a lot about the temples and palaces of Babylon, many of which have been excavated," Baker said, "but we have very limited knowledge of residential and industrial neighborhoods."

Only about 40 residences in Babylon, most made of mud brick, have ever been excavated, she said, but the clay documents tell the story of thousands more, telling her "where housing was located, the size of them at the time of sale, the condition of the housing, who the neighbors were."

Real estate transactions were paid in silver, she said, with the more expensive houses being large dwellings up to 4,500 square feet and boasting two or three courtyards. The cheapest were 200-square-foot huts made of reed.

Location, location, location

Baker said that as population density increased in various parts of the city, land prices went up. Housing was a good investment, she said, as housing values steadily climbed over the 200 years she has been studying.

"You can see a lot of people were buying houses or parts of houses, then turning around and renting the units out for income generation," she said.

If the upwardly spiraling housing prices of Babylon ever turned into a burst real estate bubble, Baker can't tell, as the records she studies abruptly stop after 200 years.

Barbara Boeck, 37, a university researcher in Madrid, has inherited the work of her mentor and teacher in Germany, the late Franz Koecher, who translated pharmacological texts left by ancient physicians.

To the consternation of scholars, many of those recipes called for the excrement of animals--the droppings of dogs, pigs and other barnyard species--as key ingredients. Modern pharmacologists chalked it up to the ignorance of the ancients.

But Koecher found that the dung in the ointment--so to speak--actually was a clever ruse by the physicians.

"He discovered the physicians listed use of animal excrement simply as codes for actual secret plant ingredients that they didn't want their patients to know, so that the patients couldn't make their own medicine," Boeck said. "He discovered the equivalence lists, about 100 coded plant names."