The Worn “Back” Face

Isolated Scenes

Originally Published in 1987

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In the new reconstruction, the top register shows the king in a common position of adoration, with one hand raised to his lips. He must therefore be facing a divinity.  A problem of interpretation is, however posed by his extended left arm. One possibility is that the king is being led before the god by an interceding deity–one of the most common scenes on the cylinder seals of this period (Fig. 16). On the stela, however, there is a smooth surface in front of the king, and no room for such an interceding figure. It therefore seems more likely that the king is offering something with his left hand to the deity. No trace of the offering remains, but the preserved length of the king’s left arm indicates that the offering would have to have been quite small, and could not the usual goat or kid. Above the king, the angel bends her head low over the vessel she holds so that the streams of water well up and bathe her chin. These “heavenly” waters presumable fell over the king’s offering, in front of the god.

Two long-known scenes on the back face of the stela remain to this day unique. One shows a scene of sacrifice (Fig. 17). No better description can be made than that in one of Woolley’s lively reports from the field (University Museum Archives, March 1925):

…a male figure, either a statue or a ministrant on a raised base (only the lower limbs remain) holds a flail or whip; facing him is a man holding in his arms a he-goat; he has cut  off the head of the animal and pours the blood from the neck in front of the raised base. Behind hi are two men engaged in sacrificing a bull; the beast lies on its back, one man holds its fore legs and sets his foot on the muzzle, the other bending down seems to be cutting open the body perhaps to examine the liver for omens.

The most extraordinary scene of the whole stela was found in 1932 (Fig. 18). At right a divine figure seated on a high dais is attended by a nude youth. The youth holds a fly whisk to the deity’s head and a towel. He may be helping the god to wash after one of his daily meals. Beneath the dais a bald, shaven priest dressed in a long robe also carries a towel over his arm, which is extended as if to support a heavily bearded figure who appears to be bent over. The distorted arm seen under the beard of this figure, and the trace of another head and body along the broken left edge of this fragment are difficult to interpret. Woolley, following Legrain, tentatively suggested that the bearded figure may have been carrying a dead body. Recently, Jutta Borker-Klähn has proposed that a royal bath may be represented (1982), but this does not account for the contortion of the figures. The latter might be better explained if what is represented is a wrestling scene, an activity known to accompany rituals in early periods (see also Expedition 27[2]:7-9). Here again, two small scraps in storage which have been joined may be of importance. They show a leg pressed tight against a large raised surface which could well be the thigh of one wrestler.

The badly broken inscriptions on the back of the stela (Fig. 19) reports in column 1 the digging of several canals by Ur-Nammu. One, a border canal, is the I-nanna-gu-gal “Canal: (the moon god) Nanna is the canal inspector”; another is the I-gu-bi-eridu-ga “Canal:…of (the city of) Eridu.” The digging of canals by Ur-Nammu is also reported in an old Babylonian hymn from Nippur. In column 2, the preserved traces indicate a curse warning future kings to leave the stela intact and in place, the wrongdoer being cursed in words similar to those used by Amar-Suen, the second successor of Ur-Namma: “May Nanna, the Lord of Ur, and Ningal, the Mother of UR, curse him. May they terminate his offspring” (Amar-Suen inscription 3, col. 2) (Hermann Behrens, pers. comm.).

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"The Worn “Back” Face." Expedition Magazine 29, no. 1 (March, 1987): -. Accessed March 01, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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