From at least 4000 B.C Lapis Lazuli was being traded westward from Afghanistan to the burial grounds of Mesopotamia. Royalty felt safer for the journey to the underworld if they could placate the gods with gifts of sacred Lapis Lazuli. It was their insurance. In Lapis Lazuli – Mesopotamian´s Sacred Gem we will learn about important archaeological sites where impressive pieces art of Lapis Lazuli have been found. Sites like Ur where the famous Standard of Ur was found. Also sites like Uruk, Jiroft. Mari where the Treasure of Ur was discovered and also the famous libraries of Ebla.
The importance of Lapis Lazuli to the people of Mesopotamia can be revealed when talking of the three heavens of Mesopotamian lore. The upper heaven, assigned to the god Anu, is made of luludanitu stone, commonly identified with the purest Lapis Lazuli. The Middle Heaven is also lapis colored. The Lower Heaven is white. Lapis is also the stone used for the tablet of the Stars of the Heavens belonging to Nisaba, the goddess of writing.
Mesopotamia was also known as the Land of the Two Rivers. Never has Badakhshan Lapis Lazuli been so highly valued as it was intermittently over some two thousand years by the people of Sumer.
Some of the most beautiful lapis objects have been excavated in cities flourishing around the middle of the third millennium B.C.
Persuading the Gods
Some grave goods were clearly included to alleviate life in the underworld. Others such as sacred sanctifying Lapis Lazuli, might persuade the Gods to look more kindly on the new arrival. Lapis Lazuli or za-gin to the Sumerians of late third Millennium B.C. Ur was the great treasure. It was also synonymous with gleaming splendor, the attributes of gods and heroes.
Thousands of lapis beads and objects have been found in graves dug around huge temple complexes, as for instance at the greatest of Sumerian cities, Uruk and at the later city of Ur.
The deities of this ancient world were deemed to have a real passion for lapis lazuli. Specially the terrifying goddess Inanna. She was also known as Ishtar, goddess of fertility, of agriculture and also sexual love. Her power was demonstrated in terrible rages and also war. She was also greedy for the good things of life. Her partner was the gentler god Dumuzi, the shepard god, responsible for pastoral life, hence economic prosperity.
Sometimes Inanna was also the daughter of Anu, the supreme god, or of his deputy Enil, whose home was Nippur, religious heart of Sumer in Southern Mesopotamia where some of the great epics of Sumerian literature were first unearthed, impressed on clay tablets.
In the site of Shahr-I Sokhta, excavated by the Italian archaeologists Dr. Maurizio Tosi in the 1970´s, Lapis Lazuli was one of the main findings. It is huge site marked by immense sandhills covering the remains of temples, walls, staircase, houses and cemeteries. Lapis finished objects such as beads and seals, as well as evidence that craftsmen were actually working the lapis on site. As lapis being a fairly hard stone, sophisticated materials were needed to drill the beads and carve the objects. Piles of lapis waste as well as an extraordinary range of minute stone drills were found that would have been used to tool such objects. About 2500 B.C they might have been used also to chisel and drill the magnificent lapis jewels of Mesopotamia.
Another site can be found in the Kerman province. This is the most ransacked grave of Jiroft. The chief archaeologist, Professor Yousef Majidzadeh, even suggests a Jiroft origin for much Sumerian design. Among the Jiroft finds are Lapis Lazuli stamp and cylinder seals, beds and small pin heads, amulets, carved as humped backed bulls, sheep, lions, serpents and abstract symbols. A seal thought to have been carved at Jiroft even made its way to Upper Egypt.
The city of Uruk is the most impressive example of these sites. It has a history of some 5,000 years (from circa 4000B.C) and its site covering as much as 850 hectares at its peak in that early fourth millennium B.C when Lapis Lazuli was making its way appearance. It is also home to one of our heroes. Like we have read in Lapis Lazuli Legends, our hero Gilgamesh was the ruler of Uruk around 2750 B.C at the edge of Mesopotamian history.
Uruk had two huge temple complexes from that early fourth millennium period. One dedicated to Anu, the other to Innana. Both temples were extensively excavated. Included in the findings were clay tablets with writings, also there were cylinder seals (some of lapis). In one of the great Sumerian epics, the one of the mythical ruler of Uruk, Enmerkar, the ruler is credited with inventing writing.
Uruk marks the beginning of the Lapis Lazuli craze in Sumer. It was most spectacularly sustained in mid-third millennium B.C, when quantities of it was discovered in the course of European excavations that followed World War I.
When we talk of contemporary sites we can include Ur, Mari, and also Ebla.
Ur, also called Ur of the Chaldees was once on the banks of the Euphrates. A city with an agricultural economy and a far-reaching trading network. This demanded records so it lead to the creation of writing, first at Uruk then all over Sumer. It appeared most often on seals (some were made of lapis lazuli). Sometimes the seals were carved with minute details of ceremonies, battles, gods and goddesses. Professional craftsmen flourished. Heavenly blue stars-studded Lapis Lazuli was found in these sites.
This site was excavated by British archaeologist Leonard Woolley. The ruins of Ur are about 350 kilometers south of Baghdad. He found a series of incredible royals tombs dated back to 2,400B.C.
Great Death Pit
Of 1850 tombs, 400 were from the third millennium B.C. This was also known as The Royal Cemetery of Ur. Woolley found incredible quantities of treasures. Sixteen of them were have been designated ‘royal’ graves because of the treasures inside. Some were single graves and others multiple. The strangest of these tombs was the one called the Great Death Pit. It contained about seventy bodies, men and women, animals, and royal occupants.
Woolleys vivid imagination said about this grave:
‘Now down the sloping passage comes a procession of people, the members of the court, soldiers, men servants and women, the latter in all their finery of brightly colored garments and head dresses of lapis lazuli and silver and gold and with them musicians bearing harps or lyres, cymbals, and sistra; they take up their positions in the farther part of the pit and then there are driven or backed down the slope the chariots drawn by animals, and these too are marshaled in the pit. Each man or women brought a little cup of clay or stone or metal, the only equipment required for the rite that was to follow.’
The court ladies were dressed with golden lyres inlaid with Lapis Lazuli.
Standard of Ur
One of the most beautiful objects found in this site was “The Standard of Ur”. According to Wikipedia it is 4,500 years old. It is a wooden box inlaid with Lapis Lazuli and shell. It had on one side a battle scene and on the other a religious banquet, dual aspects of Sumerian kingship, ‘the military leader and the mediator between humans and gods (the divine).’
Three of the richest tombs excavated by Woolley were identified by seals inscribed in cuneiform with the owner’s name. They were a lady named Puabi and the Kings Akalamelug and Meskalamdug.
The finest jewelry of all was buried with Puabi. There was a lapis seal beside her right arm, gold and lapis pins by her left arm, large lapis and agate beads by her right shoulder.
Another important finding was a lyre decorated with the bull´s head, whose hair, beard and eyes were of Lapis Lazuli. No one knows for sure if she was a queen or a priestess.
The whole ensemble of grave goods highlights the high standard of craftsmanship in Ur. As well as the wealthy patronage.
The findings of this incredible treasure was divided in three museums that were the Iraq Museum, the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia which had both helped finance the excavation.
The second of these contemporary sites is Mari, known today as Tell Hariri. It is on the central Euphrates now in south-eastern Syria. It had commercial ties with third millennium Ur.
In this site, a magnificent lapis and gold eagle was found in the 1930s in the ruler´s palace, with many other lapis objects. This site was excavated by French archaeologists, led by Professor André Parrot.
Most of the statues found in huge numbers in the temples are now in the Aleppo Museum have lost their Lapis Lazuli irises.
This was the powerful entrepot of upper Mesopotamia. Materials used for statuary and jewelry are an example of the ramifications of Mari´s trade, as that of Ur: gold, from Afghanistan or Anatolia, turquoise from eastern Iran, carnelian perhaps from Afghanistan or India, above all Lapis Lazuli from Afghanistan.
Treasure of Ur
One of the most emblematic discoveries in Mari was the so-called “Treasure of Ur”, dated around 2500-2000B.C. The Treasure of Ur is a large clay jar found in a temple within one of the palaces. It is known as the Treasure of Ur because in the contents it was found a bead made of Lapis Lazuli inscribed with the name of a king of the First Dynasty of Ur, Mesannepada. This gave the jar´s contents their claim to fame. It also contained fourteen pristine seals, three statuettes, a pair of stick pins, arm and neck rings and an incredible amulet.
This amulet is one of the superb examples of crafted Lapis Lazuli from the ancient world. It is about 12.5 centimeters high and 11.5 centimeters at it widest part. The amulet is a lion-headed eagle, the wings of purest blue lapis, the head and tail feathers of bitumen covered with gold leaf. It also represents the god Ningirsu, god of fertility and irrigation. It is a symbol of an era of Mesopotamian prosperity that would be hard to envisage today.
Ebla was a successful commercial center. Italian archaeologists excavate this site since the 1960s. Over twenty-four acres temples, palaces, a Royal Palace have been unearthed. Excavations still continue.
The most valuable of this site was the so-called “library”. Here the “State Archives” were found. These were two rooms with cuneiform tablets. Other libraries have been found in other sites but Ebla´s outnumbered the lot. It provided details for career of court officials, hierarchies, administration, above all economy. Here it was found a cache of about twenty-two kilos of un worked raw Lapis Lazuli.
A hym to Baal also describes the construction for him of “a mansion of brilliant Lapis Lazuli”.
Mesopotamian history shows us that there was a society wealthy enough to patronize superb craftsmanship anxious to conciliate temperamental gods. Land of gods, gems for the gods, Mesopotamia..