Preparation for our latest trip to ancient Sumer went on for nearly two weeks. The boys needed to be aware of some of the sights that would confront them at the burial of a great King in Sumer before visiting so that they would not feel too uncomfortable. Theo and I wondered whether the trip might prove too harrowing for little Tristan but after much research and discussion we all decided that he would be able to attend.
The time machine had a little incident on this occasion. Rather than taking us directly to the city of Ur it stopped off in Ancient Greece which was a surprise. Theo tinkered with various wires and circuit boards and soon had us back on course - we are looking forward to returning to ancient Greece soon.
We arrived in 'Ur' to witness the burial of a great King. The boys refer to him as the 'nameless King' because no one in our time period knows his name and unfortunately the rituals of the burial made it impossible for us to ask anyone directly - they were too busy.
In the heat of the cemetery we were able to watch as the deceased King was taken down into his burial chamber. He was escorted down a ramp into the chamber by his entourage of finely dressed soldiers, servants wearing their finest red cloth with ornaments of lapis lazuli and gold upon their heads, musicians playing lyres and two wagons pulled by six large oxen. Theo had discovered that the servants, guards, animals and musicians were buried with the King so that they could serve him in the underworld. So it was with understanding and great sadness that we watched the entourage sip poison from goblets in unison to speed up their entry to the underworld. It may have been that the musical instruments were played as 'harps of mourning' prior to the death of the entourage and were symbolic of the people's readiness to die. If this happened I'm afraid that we missed it this time so we can't confirm if that theory is accurate.
We could understand that the idea of serving the King in the underworld would have been a great honour yet we couldn't help think that if they had been given a choice they would probably have chosen to live.
The King was buried with musical instruments one of which was an elaborately decorated lyre. Before the tomb was sealed we managed to take a quick look at the lyre and the boys were very interested by the panel depicting various scenes on the front of the instrument. There were four scenes. The first depicts a man wrestling two large animals probably demonstrating the kings strength and power over nature. The second shows a lion holding a jar and another animal standing over a table of butchered meat. The third depicts animals playing music and shows an image of the lyre itself. The final scene shows the scorpion man - the guardian of the entrance to the underword. The panels tells of the funeral ritual culminating in the kings entry to the underword. The big golden bull who looks down over the panel represents 'Sharmash' the devine judge who can enter the underworld but return at sunrise to the land of the living.
The lyre is made from wood with the shell inlays set in bitumen. Sharmesh is golden with highly precious lapis lazuli eyes and beard - this particular artifact is truly fit for a King. Tristan wondered why a King would need musical intruments, people and wagons when he was dead - surely he would not require these things when he was dead? The Sumerians had a bleak outlook on death. They had no concept of heaven only of the underworld which is sometimes refered to as a mountainous place reached across water with the aid of a boatman or situated deep, deep underground. In the underworld the spirits of the dead would roam in a state of hunger and thirst so the living relatives had to visit the burial site to leave offerings for the deceased. The King would be accompanied in his time in the underworld by his servants and musicians who would see to his needs. The underworld was a pretty dire place to spend eternity.
Sumerians believed that man was doomed to a mortal existence because one of the gods tricked man out of choosing a drink which offered immortality. Instead he took a robe and oil only to discover he had been tricked into choosing a burial shroud and the anointing oil of death - from then on mankind was fated to lead a mortal existence. Theo came across this story whilst researching for the trip and commented that it was almost identical to the story of Adam and Eve. We have decided to look at some of the parallels drawn from Sumerian myths and biblical stories on another post soon.
As we sneaked about inside the soon to be sealed burial chamber, Tristan noticed a beautiful mosaic resting behind the shoulder of the King. The boys asked me what it was and what the pictures upon it were all about. They had stumbled upon the 'Standard of Ur' - two wooden panels decorated intricately with lapis lazuli, ivory and jasper set into bitumen. One side shows images of war, of soldiers presenting prisoners to a king-like figure, of spear men and great war carts ladened with spears. The other panel depicts a great banquet. There are people drinking, herders moving animals and the leader drinking beer with his soldiers. It has been suggested that this was a banner made to be carried but perhaps it was purely decorative. Either way the boys and I concluded that it was an extraordinary piece of art.
Our visit on this occasion had been rather an emotional one. We left with heavy hearts not at the burial of the great King but at the burial of all the other people and animals whose lives were cut short in the service of their leader. Sumerians had rather short life expectancies anyway with a person considered 'old' at forty which made the death of the servants even more horrific.
Back at home we discussed the historical significance of the place we had visited. The Royal tombs at Ur are as important as the discovery of Tutankhamun in Egypt. There were many other artifacts discovered by a famous archaeologist called Leonard Wooley between 1922 and 1934 including the gold helmet of Meskalamdug which is utterly exquisite. The boys looked at the British Museum website to find out more about the rituals and artifacts associated with burials in ancient Sumer. They enjoyed being able to inspect the items they had seen in the relaxed setting of their own front room - in the tomb we were all anxious that we would be sealed in for all eternity at any moment.
Our next adventure will be concerned with the myths of ancient Sumer. I do hope that you will join us as we look at an epic poem to reveal more interesting facts about Sumerian culture.