Nuzi & the Hurrians:
Revealing A Slice of Mesopotamian Life in the 14th Century B.C.
By Ilene Springer
A government official is accused of illicit sexual relations in office.
He is also charged with embezzlement, using government property for private
purposes, false arrest and theft. Today's national headlines? Not this time.
Depositions in the case "The People of Nuzi vs. Mayor Kushshiharbe" recount
the charges heard in an impeachment trial that occurred almost 3500 years
ago. Recorded on cuneiform texts in the ancient Mesopotamian language of Akkadian,
the depositions detail an all-too-familiar list of political and personal
improprieties. Texts like these and other artifacts of Hurrian life in the
small town of ancient Nuzi are on display in the new exhibit, Nuzi and the
Hurrians: Fragments from a Forgotten Past, which opened in April and runs
through December 2001.
Over 100 people attended the opening lecture and reception on April 20th.
The husband-and-wife team of Giorgio Buccellati and Marilyn Kelly-Buccellati
lectured on "The Discovery of Urkesh: Lost Capital of the Ancient Hurrians."
Urkesh (Tell Mozan) was a major center of Hurrian power in northeastern Syria
during the late third millennium B.C. Excavations there by the Buccellatis
since 1984 have helped illuminate the world of the Hurrians, a world which
has until now been largely obscured.
"The work done by the Buccellatis at third-millennium Urkesh puts second-millennium
Nuzi into the wider Hurrian context," says Assistant Director Joseph Greene.
"If the Museum had exhibited Nuzi, say, twenty years ago, it would have been
interesting, but the connection between finds at Nuzi and the recent discoveries
at Tell Mozan puts the whole exhibit into sharper focus."
On display are more than 100 objects from the Museum's collection of over
10,000 artifacts excavated at Nuzi, including cuneiform tablets, seals and
seal impressions, pottery, bronze weapons and tools, jewelry and some of the
earliest known glass. The exhibit is housed in the Museum's newly renovated
Floor II Gallery. "One of the challenges was to take a space classically designed
with Greek Doric columns and make it Mesopotamian," says exhibit curator
James Armstrong. "So we added some Mesopotamian touches: arches, niches and
rabbets (recesses in the doorway). The ideas came from the architecture of
Nuzi itself." From the exhibit visitors can get a clear impression of what
daily life was like in Nuzi, a small, ordinary Mesopotamian farming town
in the years around 1400 B.C.
"When it was excavated, Nuzi opened a window on a world we barely knew existed,"
says Dr. Armstrong. Nuzi, which is now called Yorghan Tepe and lies near the
heart of the oil fields of northeastern Iraq, was excavated by Harvard from
1927 to 1931. Two things make Nuzi an excellent place for studying life in
Near Eastern towns of the second millennium B.C. The first is the nearly complete
archaeological exposure of the site. The 1927-31 expedition uncovered the
town's main center with its principal temples and the administrative complex.
It also investigated the suburbs where the town's wealthier citizens had
built villas. The second was the recovery of nearly 5000 cuneiform texts through
which it is possible to trace the political, social and economic life of
Nuzi over several generations. These texts, the Nuzi Tablets, have helped
both to identify the site and to clarify its history. This extraordinary trove
of documents ironically only helped to confirm the utter ordinariness of
ancient Nuzi. Nuzi was not a large, powerful urban center nor a wealthy royal
city. It is a small provincial agricultural settlement. "Nuzi's material remains
and extensive archives," says Dr. Armstrong, "give us the opportunity to
reconstruct daily life in this little town of ancient Mesopotamia in a way
that is unparalleled in the Near East."
Featured in the exhibit are several of the clay tablets that reveal the
public and private lives of the Nuzian citizens. Many of them record the
government goings-on in this small town. A set of fourteen texts contain
depositions telling of Mayor Kushshiharbe's alleged offenses. And these were
numerous: he is accused of misusing labor gangs for his own purposes, of
diverting tax collections for his private use, of kidnaping and bribery and
of installing a gate at his home made from wood belonging to the palace.
Most notorious is the report of how two of Mayor Kushshiharbe's cohorts helped
arrange a secret rendezvous for him with a young woman named Humerelli. The
texts containing the verdict were never found, so we are left to judge the
case for ourselves.
Other texts in the exhibit detail the many private real estate transactions
that were contracted in Nuzi. These record a rather peculiar practice intended
to circumvent the prevailing attitudes against the outright sale of real property.
If a landowner needed to sell a piece of property, the buyer was "adopted"
as the seller's "son," in return for which the new owner gave his new "father"
a "gift", in reality the purchase price of the property. A wealthy man or
woman at Nuzi who acquired property through such transactions might be adopted
by dozens of "fathers."
The Nuzi tablets were for the most part written in Babylonian, a well known
ancient Semitic language, but most of the inhabitants of Nuzi spoke Hurrian,
a poorly attested and not well understood ancient Near Eastern tongue that
is neither Semitic nor Indo-European. (It may be related to languages spoken
in the Caucasus region.)
The Hurrians were surrounded by much better known ancient Near Eastern peoples.
The Assyrians were immediately to the east, to the north were the Hittites,
to the southwest lay Syria, Canaan and Egypt, and to the southeast lay Babylonia.
"The middle second millennium is a critical point in Near Eastern history,"
says Dr. Armstrong. "It was the Age of Internationalism in which large states
were reaching out to each other for the first time. There were intensive contacts
between the rulers of widely separated regions, and we believe the Hurrians
played a significant role in transmitting both trade goods and cultural ideas
among the great empires of the Middle East and out into the Mediterranean
world." The Pharaohs of Egypt corresponded with the Hurrians, seeking suitable
wives for Egyptian princes, and Syrian musicians performed Hurrian compositions
Strong circumstantial evidence suggests that Hurrian legends helped shape
Greek mythology, particularly stories about conflicts between younger and
older gods. There are other instances of cultural mediation at Nuzi. Says
Dr. Armstrong, "Here we have a relatively small town, in the kingdom of Mittani,
tucked away on the eastern side of the ancient Near East. Yet there we find
Aegean and Egyptian motifs in the art and artifacts. The Egyptian goddess
Hathor shows up in wall frescos in the suburban villas of the wealthy. We
find the distinctive "Egyptian blue" among the beads on necklaces and bracelets.
In Egypt we find in the tombs of foreign wives of Thutmosis III marvered glass
(glass which has been made to resemble marble) identical to that found at
Nuzi. This kind of glass was exotic to Egypt, and is one of many examples
showing how artifacts and ideas were transmitted back and forth over vast
In large part, though, the Hurrians were borrowers. Wanting to resemble
their powerful neighbors, they borrowed the Babylonian writing system of
cuneiform to express their language. The Hurrians also copied the Imperial
Akkadian style of naturalistic art. This is represented in two bronze foundation
pegs in the form of lion statuettes (almost certainly found at Tell Mozan)
bearing inscriptions in Hurrian. Reproductions of both lions, one from the
Louvre and one from the Metropolitian Museum of Art, are displayed in the
In their own right, the Hurrians were a dominant political power in the
region of Urkesh from the end of the third millennium B.C. It is said that
even the mighty Hittites of ancient Turkey feared the approach of their armies.
But the ascendancy of the Hurrians, beginning around 1500 B.C., lasted fewer
than three hundred years. By the thirteenth century, they had been blotted
out of existence by the Hittites and the Assyrians. But now, because of the
discovery of their archives and artifacts, the Hurrians have emerged from
obscurity to take their place in the history of the ancient Near East.
Kathy Alexander puts the finishing touches on the
painting of Ishtar-Shawushka for the temple case.