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Entitled: E: Late Mesopotamian Constellations
6: Kassite kudurru iconography as constellations?
BM 102485. Kassite kudurru (height: 14.25 inches/37 cms, greatest width: 9.25 inches/23 cms, greatest width: 5 inches/13 cms) circa 1100 BCE in the British Museum, London. (See: Babylonian Boundary-Stones and Memorial-Tablets in the British Museum by Leonard King (1912) Pages 76-79, Plates I-IV.) A kudurru had to be reasonably large to contain the text of the grant and the images that accompanied it. The BM 102485 kudurru consists of a boulder of dark limestone that is tapered more toward the top than towards the base. The faces (i.e., obverse and reverse) have been slightly flattened by rubbing in order to take inscriptions and sculptures in relief. Approximately 40 kudurru from the Kassite period have survived, however, about half of these are damaged or unfinished. There is no convincing evidence that the kudurrus constitute an observational record.
One of the earliest significant Mesopotamian monuments to be brought to Europe was a kudurru (boundary-stone). It was found in 1788 south of Baghdad on the west bank of the Tigris River by the French amateur botanist Antoine Michaux and brought by him to Paris (France) in 1800. It was named the Caillou de Michaux. A kuduru is a small conical block covered with symbols and an inscription recording a grant of agricultural land.
The Kassites were established in Babylonia during the period 1600-1500 BCE. The origin of the Kassites is obscure. No text in the Kassite language has been preserved. Kassite rulers retained power in Babylonia for about 400 years (circa 1530-1155/1160 BCE), and for longer elsewhere. Kudurrus were used in (southern) Mesopotamia from at least the 14th-century BCE to the first half of the 7th-century BCE. Most were produced during circa the late Kassite period. The Kassites introduced a system of land grants in which the King awards extensive tracts of land to a wide variety of favoured subjects. (For a discussion of the form of documentation of royal land grants, and attached symbols, in a later period see: Neo-Assyrian Royal Grants and Decrees by John Postgate (1969).) The kudurrus are the only artworks to survive from the period of Kassite rule.
The text on the kudurru invokes nine gods/goddesses to protect it. These are:
The upper portion of the obverse is basically devoted to engravings, in low relief, of a series of emblems. Seventeen divine symbols are depicted.
Near the top of the stone the eight-pointed star of Ishtar (Venus)
is accompanied by the crescent of Sin (the Moon), in the middle,
and the rayed disk of Shamash (the Sun), on the right.
A snake is prominently depicted down one side of the kudurru.
Other symbols on the monument refer to other deities (i.e., the triangular spade to Marduk, and the wedge-shaped stylus to Nabu) and some may also have astral connotations i.e., be related to constellations (but this is not certain). It is not established that constellations or constellation symbols are being depicted on kudurru. It is established that god/goddess symbols are depicted. The view that the symbols on the kudurru represent the signs of the zodiac, or in part signs of the zodiac and in part other constellations, was accepted by many early Assyriologists. However, neither the zodiac or a scheme of 12 zodiacal constellations existed as early as the Kassite Period. What is presented is symbolic representations of certain gods/goddesses. Some gods/goddesses, the Sun, Moon and Venus, are astronomical bodies and naturally their symbols are representations of these astronomical bodies.
There are four classes of items represented by the symbols:
(1) The seats or shrines of the gods/goddesses,
(2) The weapons of the gods/goddesses,
(3) The animals of the gods/goddesses, and
(4) The bas-reliefs of the gods/goddesses.
Babylonian boundary-stone (kudurru) iconography of the Kassite Period (circa 1530-1155/1160 BCE) includes the following depictions:
• Furrow (= Virgin)
• Hired-Man (= Ram)
• Goat-Fish (= Goat)
The symbols on kudurru have no relevance to Mesopotamian astronomy. In the early period of Assyriology it was common to identify these symbols as depictions of the zodiacal constellations. Further work in Assyriology has changed this assumption. It is not certain they represent gods/goddesses in an astral character. It is not established that constellations or constellation symbols are being depicted and the gods/goddesses are identifiable with certain stars/constellations. It is established, however, that god/goddess symbols are depicted. The symbols on kudurru are the symbols of gods/goddesses who are invoked in the curses on anybody who breaks the terms of the land deed recorded on the monument.
The astronomical interpretation of kudurru dates back to Astronomisches aus Babylon (1889) by Joseph Epping and Johann Strassmaier. The publication of Babylonian Boundary-Stones and Memorial-Tablets in the British Museum by Leonard King (1912 (accompanied by an Atlas of Plates)) was a key publication in helping to cement the mistaken idea of an early zodiac. In the Preface by Ernest Budge (E. A. Wallis Budge) and in the Introduction by Leonard King both (mistakenly) speculate that the kudurru symbols have an astral connection with zodiacal constellations. In this speculation Ernest Budge is less cautious than Leonard King. The concept of zodiacal constellations along the ecliptic did not exist as early as the Kassite period. The undoubted primary purpose of the symbols is representing the gods/goddesses invoked as guardians of the property title. Attempts to identify the symbols with a set of constellations quickly breaks down because of the varying order and number on different kudurru. Attempts at identification with various constellation positions in the sky, using the register positions of the symbols, has also been unsuccessful.
The attempt to use kudurru symbols to draw a map of the Babylonian constellations was undertaken by the Panbabylonists. An early, fully elaborated, (but erroneous) theory of kudurru symbols as zodiacal signs was proposed by Fritz Hommel (Aufsätze und Abhandlungen, 1900, Pages 236-272, 350-372, and 434-474). The most detailed attempt was also later made by Fritz Hommel (Zu den babylonischen Grenzsteinsymbolen (1920)) who perceived in the kudurru symbols an equatorial zodiac dating to the 5th-millennium BCE. In their article "Eine neue Interpretation der Kudurru-Symbole." (Archive for History of Exact Sciences, Volume 41, 1990/1991, Pages 93-114) the authors Ulla Koch, Joachim Schaper, Susanne Fischer, and Michael Wegelin also attempt to identify and date constellations. They proposed that the symbols placed on kudurrus were star maps for a given date. This has not been acknowledged as successful. Attempts to date kudurru by assuming their iconography has astral significance and then using the arrangement of their iconography to establish astronomical dates is both speculative and unproven. Over 40 symbols appear on kudurru. The arrangement of symbols do not occur in a fixed order on kudurru but vary.
Ursula Seidl, a present-day kudurru expert, maintains in her article "Göttersymbole und -attribute." (Reallexikon der Assyriologie (Dritter Band 3, 1957-1971, Pages 483-490)) that kudurru iconography has no astral significance. (See also her book: Die Babylonischen Kudurru-Reliefs Symbole Mesopotamischer Gottheiten (1989). In this book, regarded as the standard study of kudurru iconography, she maintains her scepticism that kudurru symbols have an astral significance.) More recently (2008) Peter van der Veen has pointed out the '7 dots' (commonly symbolising the Pleiades) do appear on Kudurrus but only on Kudurrus from year 8 of Nabu-shuma-ishkun (circa 760-746 BCE) and Shamash-shum-ukin (667-648 BCE).
Appendix 1: Symbols Depicted on BM 102485
(1) Solar disk,
(3) Eight-pointed star,
(4) Horned head-dress upon a shrine,
(5) Horned head-dress upon a shrine,
(6) Turtle upon a shrine,
(7) Twin spirals upon a shrine (the spirals curl inward and spring from a stem),
(8) Wedge upon a shrine (the thicker edge of the wedge is indented, and its face is ornamented with a decorative band),
(9) Spear-head upon a shrine.
(10) Lightning-fork upon a shrine,
(11) Lamp upon a shrine,
(12) Yoke upon a shrine (the shrine depicted here is of a quite unusual type),
(13) Scorpion upon a shrine, Dog upon a shrine,
(15) Lion-headed mace upon a shrine (the portion below the head is is scaled like a serpent). (The emblems on the lower register are separated from the shrines on which they rest by a plain band.)
Below the second register:
(16) Sheaf of corn (the stems are continued below the horizontal band suggesting we have a sheaf or bundle).
Top of kudurru:
(17) Serpent (snake) (engraved down one side of the kudurru).
Appendix 2: The Earliest Surviving Boundary-Stone
The oldest surviving boundary-stone (the Cone of Entemena) dates to the Sumerian king Entemena of Lagash circa 2400 BCE. It is a national boundary-stone - a record of a treaty of delimitation. It records a line of division between respective territories.
Copyright © 2001-2014 by Gary D. Thompson