Image: Nebuchadnezzar and ziggurat
Schoyen Collection MS 2063
This portion of a stele depicts King Nebuchadnezzar II standing beside a ziggurat he built at Babylon, a tower dedicated to the god Marduk. It is one of only four known depictions of Nebuchadnezzar known to exist, and the best preserved. The ziggurat, visible as a step pattern on the left side of the stele, may serve as a parallel to the biblical "Tower of Babel."
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updated 12/19/2011 11:54:17 AM ET 2011-12-19T16:54:17

A trove of newly translated texts from the ancient Middle East are revealing accounts of war, the building of pyramidlike structures called ziggurats and even the people's use of beer tabs at local taverns.

The 107 cuneiform texts, most of them previously unpublished, are from the collection of Martin Schoyen, a businessman from Norway who has a collection of antiquities.

The texts date from the dawn of written history, about 5,000 years ago, to a time about 2,400 years ago when the Achaemenid Empire (based in Persia) ruled much of the Middle East.

The team's work appears in the newly published book "Cuneiform Royal Inscriptions and Related Texts in the Schoyen Collection" (CDL Press, 2011).

Nebuchadnezzar's tower
Among the finds is a haunting, albeit partly lost, inscription in the words of King Nebuchadnezzar II, a ruler of Babylon who built a great ziggurat — massive pyramidlike towers built in ancient Mesopotamia — dedicated to the god Marduk about 2,500 years ago.

The inscription was carved onto a stele, a stone slab used for engraving. It includes a drawing of the ziggurat and King Nebuchadnezzar II himself.

Some scholars have argued that the structure inspired the biblical story of the Tower of Babel. In the inscription, Nebuchadnezzar talks about how he got people from all over the world to build the Marduk tower and a second ziggurat at Borsippa.

"I mobilized (all) countries everywhere, (each and) every ruler (who) had been raised to prominence over all the people of the world (as one) loved by Marduk..." he wrote on the stele.

"I built their structures with bitumen and (baked brick throughout). I completed them, making (them gleam) bright as the (sun)..." (Translations by Professor Andrew George)

It wasn't the only time Nebuchadnezzar made this boast. In addition to this stele, similar writings were previously discovered on a cylinder-shaped tablet noted Andrew George, a professor at the University of London and editor of the book.

George points out that the image of Nebuchadnezzar II found on the newly translated stele is one of only four known representations of the biblical king.

"The relief thus yields only the fourth certain representation of Nebuchadnezzar to be discovered; the others are carved on cliff-faces in Lebanon at Wadi Brisa (which has two reliefs) and at Shir es-Sanam," George writes in the book. "All these outdoor monuments are in very poor condition and their depictions of the king are much less impressive than that on the stele."

On the stele, a bearded Nebuchadnezzar wears a cone-shaped royal crown with a bracelet or bangle on his right wrist. In his left hand, he carries a staff as tall as he is and in his right he holds an as-yet-unidentified object. He also wears a robe and what appear to be sandals, common footwear in the ancient world.

George goes on to say that the stele was likely originally placed in a cavity of the Babylon ziggurat before being removed sometime in antiquity. (He declined an interview request due to time constraints.)

Conquest of Babylon
Another intriguing inscription, which discusses violence, looting and revenge, dates back about 3,000 years. It was written in the name of Tiglath-pileser I, a king of Assyria. In it, he brags about how he conquered portions of Mesopotamia and rebuilt a palace at a city named Pakute.

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One section deals with his conquest of the city of Babylon, defeating a king named Marduk-nadin-ahhe.

"I demolished the palaces of the city of Babylon that belonged to Marduk-nadin-ahhe, the king of the land of Kardunias (and) carried off a great deal of property from his palaces," Tiglath-pileser writes.

"Marduk-nadin-ahhe, king of the land of Kardunias, relied on the strength of his troops and his chariots, and he marched after me. He fought with me at the city of Situla, which is upstream of the city of Akkad on the River Tigris, and I dispersed his numerous chariots. I brought about the defeat of his warriors (and) his fighters in that battle. He retreated and went back to his land."

Grant Frame, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who translated the boastful inscription, writes in the book that the Babylonians may have provoked the Assyrians under the rule of Tiglath-pileser I into attacking them. 

When a female tavern keeper gives you a beer ...
Another newly translated document is the oldest known copy of the law code of Ur-Nammu, a Mesopotamian king who ruled at Ur about 4,000 years ago. He developed a set of laws centuries before Hammurabi's more famous code from 1780 B.C., which includes the "an eye for an eye" rule.

In some ways, Ur Nammu's code is more advanced. For instance, it prescribes a fine for someone who takes out another person's vision, rather than an eye for an eye. Scholars are already aware of much of the code from later versions.

However, the fact that this is the earliest known edition allows researchers to compare it with later copies and see how it evolved. For instance, the copy sheds light on one of the oddest rules governing what you should pay a "female tavern-keeper" who gives you a jar of beer.

Apparently, if you have the female keeper put the beer on your tab during the summer, she will have the right to extract a tax from you, of unknown amount, in winter.

"If a female tavern-keeper gives (in) summer one beer-jar to someone on credit its nigdiri-tax will be (...) in win(ter)..." (Translation by Miguel Civil)

The lesson? If you live in ancient Mesopotamia, don't put the beer on your tab.

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Explainer: Good times in ancient times

  • Courtesy Betsy Bryan  /  JHU

    Summertime fun isn't a modern invention: Ancient cultures liked to let the good times roll as well. Some celebrated with a few drinks. Others partied hard through the night. There were days at the spa, nights at the theater and time to play a little ball. The evidence for the good times in past eras comes from archaeologists who painstakingly dig through ancient remains. The fruits of their efforts help piece together tales showing how today's leisurely shenanigans are just the latest incarnation of cultural customs quite old.

    Take the ancient Egyptians, for example. Not only did they drink beer to excess, they had an annual "festival of drunkenness" dedicated to the cause. Participants got wasted, had gratuitous sex and woke the next day to blaring music, according to an Egyptologist excavating a temple in Luxor where the festivities occurred. The debauchery even had a point: re-enactment of a myth about an evil goddess who became a savior after being tricked into drinking mass quantities of beer. This drawing is based on a wall painting that depicts the festivities. Click the "Next" button above to learn about six more good times in ancient times.

    - John Roach, msnbc.com contributor

  • Wari brewskis

    The Wari, an Andean culture that pre-dated the Incas, made and drank their beer in style. Archaeologists working on a mountaintop in Peru discovered a 1,000-year-old brewery that churned out 475-gallon batches of spicy beerlike chicha. Elegant shawl pins found on the brewery floor indicate that elite women staffed the facility. The brewery was burned to the ground in a final festival that ended with ritualistic smashing of beer mugs in the embers. One of the mugs pieced back together is pictured here.

  • Roman hot-tub party

    Andrew Medichini  /  AP

    For a wealthy, 2nd-century Roman said to be friends with the Emperor Hadrian, nothing, apparently, beat a good hot-tub party. His two-story villa, spread out over 5 acres, included a lavish bath complex with mosaic floors and marble latrines. Archaeologist Darius Arya, who is leading the dig, told The Associated Press that such baths were popular places for Romans to pass their days: "You could eat well, you could get a massage, you could have sex, you could gossip, you could play your games, you could talk about politics - you could spend your whole day here." In this image, archaeologists work on the ruins.

  • Wine-tasting in China

    PNAS

    Oenophiles may lack the vocabulary to describe it, but an archaeological chemist is confident residues he found on 9,000-year-old pottery shards from the ancient Chinese village of Jiahu are from the world's first fermented beverage. The winelike liquid was made with rice, honey and fruit of the hawthorn tree or wild grape. About 6,000 years later, the wine makers had become a bit more sophisticated: The rice and millet wines found in sealed bronze vessels from the Shang Dynasty, including the one pictured here, were flavored with herbs such as chrysanthemum and pine resins.

  • Greek theater

    Georgia Tech

    Theater as we know it today has its roots in ancient Greece, where tragedy and drama played to swelling crowds. These productions trace their roots to songs sung at festivals related to the cult of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and the madness it inspires. Pictured here is the great theater at Epidaurus, which dates to the 4th century B.C. Scientists recently discovered that the limestone seats serve as an acoustic filter, hushing background noises from the unruly crowd and reflecting the voices of the actors on stage.

  • Play ball, Maya-style

    Image: Mars Polar Lander
    Andrew L. Demerest

    The Maya, like many ancient Mesoamerican cultures, gathered to cheer at ball games long before the dawn of soccer. Known as "pitz" among the Maya, participants in the ancient ballgame used their hips, knees and elbows to send a rubber ball through stone hoops attached to the sides of the court. Pictured here is a 1,300-year-old stone altar recovered from looters who took it from the royal ball court at Cancuen. It depicts King Taj Chan Ahk Ah Kalomte playing ball with another king. The game was often more ceremony than sport, used to seal alliances with neighboring kings.

  • Cana's miraculous wine?

    Ariel Schalit  /  AP

    According to the Bible, Jesus once turned water to wine. The miracle, said to be his first, happened at a Jewish wedding in the Galilee village of Cana where the celebratory drink had run dry. In 2004, archaeologists working in modern-day Cana found pieces of stone jars, including the one pictured here, that are thought to have contained wine. The site could well represent the biblical Cana. However, other researchers have found pieces of stone jars at a site several miles to the north that could also date back to the time of Jesus and is thus also a candidate for the biblical Cana.

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