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 at Ugarit.

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 geographical areas."

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 exhibit.

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.