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K. Kris Hirst

Kuttamuwa Stele

By January 25, 2009

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One of the top archaeology stories of last year was the discovery of the Kuttamuwa Stele, found in a private shrine in a house in the Neo-Hittite city of Zincirli in what is today southeastern Turkey. I was recently nagged to write about this stele by fellow twitterer nomadtoes, and since I hadn't covered it before, it seemed like a fun thing to do.

The Kuttamuwa stele is from an Iron Age residential structure in Zincirli, dated to the 8th century BC, the Neo-Hittite period to be specific. Zincirli is quite famous for its steles—numerous ones found at the site in the 19th century are at various museums in Europe today. The remarkable thing about the Kuttamuwa stele is that it has a 13-line inscription written in Samalian Aramaic, containing the earliest reference to a soul as separate from the body.

Kuttamuwa Stele, Zincirli, Turkey.
Kuttamuwa Stele, Zincirli, Turkey. Photo courtesy
University of Chicago

The inscription reads "I, Kuttamuwa, servant of Panamuwa, am the one who oversaw the production of this stele for myself while still living. I placed it in an eternal chamber(?) and established a feast at this chamber(?): a bull for [the storm-god] Hadad, ... a ram for [the sun-god] Shamash, ... and a ram for my soul that is in this stele."

The stele is made of a single block of local basalt, weighing about 800 pounds and measuring 3 feet long and 2 feet wide. The front has been shaped and illustrated, while the back of the stele is roughly rounded. Images on the stele show Kuttamuwa sitting at an offering table covered with food. Kuttamuwa is bearded, and wears a pointed hat with a tassel, indicating he was a high-ranking official. He holds a pine cone in one hand—symbol of eternity—and a cup in the other. On the table in front of him is a duck, two loaves of bread and a ball of meat.

The language is interesting because one of the characteristics of Zincirli is that the earliest inscriptions on steles from the site are in Phoenician, the language of the Bronze Age Canaanites, but by about the 8th century BC, many steles were written in a version of Aramaic, the common language of the peoples of the Assyrian empire.

The stele was discovered in the ruins of Kuttamuwa's house, in a residential area outside the main citadel of Zincirli, in a room probably used as a private shrine, used as described in the inscription. Also in the room was a pedestaled cup, possibly used to hold the foodstuff requested on the stele.

More on Zincirli and the Stele

The Zincirli site is quite an interesting site, with occupations starting in the Bronze Age and abruptly ending in the 7th century BC. Excavated first in the 19th century, Zincirli was reopened in 2006 by the Neubauer Expedition, a University of Chicago team at the Oriental Institute led by David Schloen and Amir Fink.

The Kuttamuwa Stele caused quite a stir in November 2008, when the inscription was first announced, so there are several news stories and reports floating around. These are the best I've seen.

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