Mesopotamian Mystique

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Mesopotamian Mystique

Museum Exhibit Shows Origins of Science, Art and Writing

Mesopotamia was one of the earliest human civilizations, so mystical and ethereal to modern sensibilities that sci-fi movie makers including Steven Spielberg sought futuristic inspiration from it. In fact, stone images of Sumerian worshipers, with reverently folded hands and prominent gazing eyes, bear an eerie resemblance to a familiar movie character: E.T., the extraterrestrial creature stranded on earth in Spielberg's 1982 blockbuster movie.

Looking at one figure, which has E.T.'s gazing eyes and weird proportions, Ahn Sung-rim, curator of a new exhibit at the Seoul Arts Center, gushes: "Through studying records left behind, how exciting it is to relate the contemporary way of life to the world that existed nearly 10 millennia ago and find everything rational, even by today's standards."

The Exhibition of the Ancient Mesopotamian Civilization offers a rare glimpse of the fascinating world of our ancestors. The display features more than 720 artifacts owned by the H.M. Collection in Switzerland. It is the first public viewing in Korea.

Mesopotamian civilization dates to early settlements from the Neolithic period (roughly 7,000-3,500 B.C.) to the Iron Age (750-500 B.C.) in the region between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers near the Persian Gulf. The word "Mesopotamia" is, in fact, derived from Greek, meaning "between the rivers." The area lies in present-day Iraq and Syria. Ur is the ancient city of Sumerian civilization and the home of Abraham, father of the Hebrews.

The region is not blessed with ideal environmental conditions. It is about 400 meters (1,320 feet) above sea level, with 300 - 400 milliliters (about a pint) of rainfall during the wet season from December to February.

"What's truly amazing about this culture is how such a splendid civilization ever began in such harsh environmental conditions in the region," said Ms. Ahn. The area lacked natural resources, including timber, stone and metals. Virtually nothing was available to them, except for the bare earth and some water, which flowed in from Mount Ararat in Turkey when the glacial ice in the north melted.

Early examples of pottery are among the rich heritage left behind. Earthenware or terra cotta vessels, figurines and unbaked mud bricks were natural products of the region. Houses and shelters were made mostly from mud bricks and thatched weed roofs. Since clay works are more durable than those made of stone, they served as vital archaeological leads in discovering the splendid world that once prospered.

The Mesopotamians hunted and farmed. The discovery at one site of basic hunting tools, such as arrowheads, choppers and anvil stones, indicated that the people settled permanently in a formal society. Pictures inscribed on mud bricks suggest that farming with organized labor included breeding domesticated animals and making cheese and yogurt. As pictures on clay suggest, war was common. A depiction of a battlefield demonstrates how to engage in warfare, how weapons were used to kill, how prisoners were to be dealt with and how the dead were to be buried.

The Mesopotamians invented writing. No wood meant no charcoal, which also meant no form of primitive ink to write with. Instead, a stylus was carved out of a dry reed, and simple pictures were scratched into clay -- the first pictograms. A door with a pair of wings suggests a gate; a bowl placed in front of a person signifies eating; a man's head with upraised hair expresses anger (see the background motifs, left and right).

Abstract signs made up of wedges impressed in the clay with a stylus led to what is now known as cuneiform. As litaracy became wider spread, letters became more sophisticated, and they were used to communicate and to keep records. Rulers employed various methods to insure that their activities were recorded for posterity. The Clay Nail of Gudea (2141-2122 B.C.), pictured lower right, which bears the ruler Gudea's deeds, name and titles, was inserted into a wall to preserve his story.

Mesopotamian religious life centered on animist spirits and natural forces. Activities were dedicated to the gods and goddesses of the realm. The Mesopotamians created images of gods and defined the relationship between human and divine beings. They served their gods with prayers and offerings of scent. The body language of worshipers, as seen in the pictures, demonstrates a profound faith in supernatural forces. The belief in good and evil led to the creation of a basic human code of conduct, an ideology passed on in King Hammu-rabi's Commandments.

Personal devotion to gods was shown in the wearing of small amulets to protect against various evils. Often these amulets were used as seals, a characteristic features of ancient Mesopotamian material culture. The cylindrical seal, consisting of letters and images, was rolled to make an impression on clay, thereby authenticating personal identity and indicating ownership of property.

Along with amulets, sophisticated and elaborate jewelry made of precious stones such as lapis lazuli, carnelian, gold, silver and crystals were found among relics, along with cosmetic utensils. Stones and metals were imported from great distances, which suggests that the culture used boats or wheeled vehicles and domesticated animals of burden for transportation.

These early settlers were also ingenious inventors of technology, with a reverence for science rivaling that of today's developed societies. Sophisticated use of numbers began in Mesopotamia, although with a base-60 system rather than our base 10.

The number 40, a holy number in Judaism - as in the 40 years of wandering and 40 days of Noah's flood - was already sacred in the time of the Mesopotamians. In their interpretation, the number 40 signified purity or healing with soft water.

Using mathematics, they invented ways to measure weight and distance. Their world map describes a spherical world and suggests that other lands lay beyond the ocean. Records have also been found that indicate awareness of astronomy, including zodiac signs.

Mesopotamia's recorded stories enable us to connect to the distant yet familiar people who thrived upon a rich culture, science and philosophy that are profoundly human and down-to-earth. As they fervently recorded their way of life, they believed, as we do, that their future was connected to their past. Perhaps Mesopotamian culture, passed down to us in the forms its citizens were so eager to preserve, can have living meaning and relevance for the people of today.

The exhibition runs until Feb. 25 at the Seoul Arts Center (Yesuleui Jeondang) and is open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission is 5,000 won ($4) for adults and 3,000 won for children. To arrange a group tour in English, contact the curator, Ahn Sung-rim, at 02-587-0311 or 019-434-9406.


Two Birds Shaped Amulet-Seal Amulet-Seal (40th-30th century B.C.), shown actual size. Gems that once adorned the eyes have been lost.


Cylinder Seal (25th-24th century B.C., actual size). When impressed on clay, the picture tells the story of a warrior's fight with a lion. The seal often comes with a depiction of the owner and his name.



Clay Nail of Gudea (2140 B.C., 18 cm high) bears the record of the ruler Gudea inscribed with a stylus. The wedge-shaped letters constitute an early writing form known as cuneiform.



Mother Goddess (58th-40th century B.C., 12 cm high). Simple yet symbolic, the terra cotta figure, baked and painted, looks very familiar - a three-dimensional version of Henri Matisse's stencil prints in his book 'Jazz.'



Eye Idol (35th-32d century B.C., actual size). This divine representation is made of stone, a rare material imported into the region. Similar sculptures are available in various sizes from 3-18 cm.

by Ines Cho

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