Important antiquities are most commonly found in museums, but they often find their way into private hands, too. Money provided by private collectors has been both boon and bane to archaeologists. Sometimes wealthy folks will provide money for a dig, expecting some of the artifacts in return. More commonly, however, looters rip ancient tells apart with no regard to stratification or scientific study, looking only for items that can be sold on the black market.

I don’t know how he acquired such large private holdings, but a Norwegian businessman named Martin Shoyen has amassed quite a collection of artifacts and documents from around the world, including 107 from ancient Iraq that are just now being translated and published. One tablet contains an early version of the lawcode of Ur-Nammu, a Sumerian king whose casuistic edicts predate the more famous Hammurabi by several centuries. The newly translated text includes wide-ranging rules, including those governing the keeping of bar tabs with female tavern keepers.

The Schyen Collection: MS 2063More striking is a black stone stele celebrating the construction of a ziggurat at the order of King Nebuchadnezzar, famously known in the Bible as the Babylonian ruler who destroyed Jerusalem and exiled many of its residents (his name in Babylonian was Nabu-kudurri-utser; we know him as “Nebuchadnezzar” or “Nebuchadrezzar” from English versions of Hebrew transliterations).

The stele is notable in part because it includes an image of Nebuchadnezzar himself, wearing a cone-shaped crown, one of very few images of the king to have survived. The ziggurat, barely visible an the left side of the stele, was a tall stage tower shaped like a square wedding cake. The tower/temple was dedicated to the Babylonian god Marduk, and Nebuchadnezzar claims to have involved peoples from all over the known world in its construction: 

“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)

This is particularly interesting, because the biblical “Tower of Babel” calls to mind similar construction of a tower in Babylon, made of fired brick bound with bitumen. What’s notable is that, while Nebuchadnezzar attributes his construction to a cooperative effort by people from all over the known world (who would have spoken different languages), the biblical story says the tower project came to an end when the builders became too proud and God assigned to them multiple languages, making communication difficult.

As we begin 2012, the importance of communication remains at the heart of humanity’s future, and on a stage much larger than that of the ancient Near East. Will Americans, most of whom speak English, be able to communicate effectively in this election year, find some common ground, and reverse the unfruitful escalation of partisan polarties?

Will Israelis and Palestinians overcome rancor and competing claims to entitlement in order to find peace? Will countries roiled — and still roiling — from the “Arab spring” find their way to stable and humane governments? Will Iraq — the modern site of ancient Sumer, Babylon, and Assyria — find a way past sectarian boundaries to create a stable and effective goverment? Will Afghanistan and Pakistan emerge from their current muddle? Will North Korea, under a new leader, forsake its isolationist policies and engage the world?

We could ask similar questions of every country under the sun, and of every community, of every church, or every family.  And, in every case, the answer will depend on how effectively we commit to communicate — not only with the language of words, but with the language of mutual respect and a heart for the common good.

If there are resolutions to be made this year, the resolve to communicate carefully and care-fully should be high on our lists.

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