National Geographic : 1951 Jan
A Dead Assyrian Is Furnished with Provisions forthe Beyond BURIAL CUSTOMS in Mesopotamia differed widely accord ing to period and the particular cultural group in volved. Bodies might be extended or flexed and put to rest in jars, wooden caskets, stone sarcophagi, or ordinary cloth wrappings. The burial place might be a hole in the ground, a tomb lined with sun-baked bricks, or a large chamber with vaulted ceiling. Finally, throughout much of Mesopotamian history, burials took place in special areas set aside for cemeteries. In some instances, however, there were no formal cemeteries outside the inhabited section. The dead were interred within the residential precinct, on a mound that may have gone through numerous previous occupations, and frequently inside the property of the deceased. The Assyrian graves of the first millennium B. c. reflected the view that the dead belonged inside the house which they had occupied during their lifetime. In this manner the spirit could remain close to the family and receive from the bereaved the care without which it would be doomed to restless wandering. Where the decedent had been well to do, his body was not placed directly under the floor, but was laid instead in a vaulted chamber, sealed off by a sturdy door that could be reached through a steep shaft. Our scene depicts the interior of the house of an Assyrian nobleman just "gone to his fate." The details of the room are based on Walter Andrae's reconstruction of the so-called Red House in Ashur. The solid wooden doors swing in; the poles rest in sockets lined with metal and are surmounted by ornamented knobs. The niche with the sacrificial table and anopening for a figurine of the house godisaplace suitable forprivate devotions. A service for the deadisbeing performed by the eldest son of the house. The master hasjust been removed from his deathbed and placed onthe stretcher, onwhich hewill be borne to his grave, his right hand resting onaplate filled with the food he will need inthehereafter. The widow's grief will probably not become vocal until thebody has reached the vaulted tombfor thelast rites. The excavators of Ashurfortunately uncovered theburial vault of Ashurnasirpal II, together with hishuge stone sarcophagus. The floors were paved with large dolerite slabs, and the walls rested upon three layers ofthesame type ofslab engraved with an inscription oftheking repeated 18times. The dolerite sarcophagus was about 12feet long and some 6 feet in height and in width. It,too, carried onthree sides an engraved inscription ofthemonarch. Of special interest is the two-inch round opening inthe massive lid of the sarcophagus. The Epic ofGilgamesh tells us that the hero's departed friend, Enkidu, appeared to Gilgamesh through an aperture intheearth. The opening was for the use of the spirit ofthedead. In addition to the platewith food, thebody was buried with all the personal belongings ofthe interred: ornaments, weapons, favorite vessels.Asmall niche inthe wall was for an oil lamp, to be left burning after thelidhad been fastened down and the door of thechamber had closed forever.