A 2,900-year-old gravestone from the ancient kingdom of Sam'al, located in what is today southeastern Turkey, has shed light on an ancient religious belief heretofore unknown. The gravestone, called a stele, is in nearly pristine condition and archaeologists were able to translate all the writing on it. Now they've gained new insight into what people of the Iron Age believed about souls and death.
A team of archaeologists from the University of Chicago will discuss their findings at a conference this weekend. The man who created the stele was named Kuttamuwa, and he describes himself as a "servant" of King Panamuwa. Kuttamuwa's stele, in pristine condition, was found in a suburb of the walled city, far from the palace - archeologists speculate it was probably the man's own house. Though the city of Sam'al was influenced by local Semitic cultures in many ways - including their language - Kuttamuwa and Panamuwa are names that show the Indo-European cultural influence. Also, Kuttamuwa was cremated, a practice shunned by Semitic tribes of that era.
Apparently Kuttamuwa had his stele made while he was still alive, and last summer the archeological team found it, translating its inscription like this (there are question marks for translations they aren't sure of yet):
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.
Written in an alphabet derived from Phoenician, the language is a West Semitic dialect similar to Aramaic and Hebrew. The stone depicts Kuttamuwa himself, eating at a table laden with food and drink.
What this reveals, according to research lead David Schloen, is that Kuttamuwa's people believed in a split between body and soul. This was a relatively novel belief at the time, and many neighboring peoples like the Israelites believed the body and soul were one. Kuttamuwa, however, planned for his soul to remain in the stele while his body was cremated. That's why he requested a "feast" in the chamber to feed his soul. Researchers found remains of food offerings in ancient bowls around the stele.
According to archeologist Schloen:
Kuttumuwa's inscription shows a fascinating mixture of non-Semitic and Semitic cultural elements, including a belief in the enduring human soul—which did not inhabit the bones of the deceased, as in traditional Semitic thought, but inhabited his stone monument, possibly because the remains of the deceased were cremated. Cremation was considered to be abhorrent in the Old Testament and in traditional West Semitic culture, but there is archaeological evidence for Indo-European-style cremation in neighboring Iron Age sites.