Documentary Stirs New Interest in Schøyen Collection’s “Tower of Babel stele”

Also: Mystery of two provenance stories

From the website of the Smithsonian Channel:

SECRETS: SEASON 4: EPISODE 1
TOWER OF BABEL

Inside the legendary city of Babylon in modern-day Iraq lie the remains of a vast structure, which ancient records suggest was the Tower of Babel. Is it possible that this biblical stairway to heaven actually existed? Experts think it did, and thanks to satellite technology and new discoveries, they have pinpointed exactly where the legendary tower once stood, and what it looked like. Join us as we revisit the inspiration for one of the strangest stories in the Bible, and then recreate the spectacular skyscraper in all its glory.

The programme includes discussion of a seventh/sixth-century BCE stone stele that depicts E-temen-anki, the ziggurat of Babylon as rebuilt by Nebuchadnezzar II. This site has long been identified as the model for the Bible’s Tower of Babel, but the stele’s appearance on the show has inspired some excited reports on Christian media websites: “Scientists Discover Irrefutable Evidence Tower of Babel Was Real” (Charisma News); “Evidence for Bible’s Tower of Babel Discovered” (Christian Post); “Stone Tablet Believed to Confirm Tower of Babel” (WND); and so on.

These headlines are all over-stated. The former existence of the ziggurat has never been in doubt, and the site was excavated in the early years of the twentieth century. Further, although the site may have inspired the Biblical story, the story itself relates to a legendary structure that supposedly existed thousands of years earlier.

The stele is part of the Schøyen Collection (MS 2063), which is owned by a private Norwegian collector, Martin Schøyen. It is described in a 2011 book by Andrew George, Cuneiform Royal Inscriptions And Related Texts In The Schøyen Collection, although it was already known before this. George writes:

This extraordinary monument, popularly known as the Tower of Babel stele, has already been brought to the attention of scholarship and the wider public. As one of the Schøyen Collection’s most notable objects, a photograph of its face was early placed in the collection’s online checklist of manuscripts (www.schoyencollection.com/babylonianhist.htm), where it soon attracted comment (e.g. Van De Mieroop 2003: 264). The photograph has been reproduced several times in print, in both academic and popular publications (Schwemer 2005: 16, Montero 2005: 216, André-Salvini 2008: 229), and my drawing of it has already appeared in a popular book on early cities (Levy 2008: 31).

…The ziqqurrat of Babylon has fascinated many generations of antiquarians, from those romantically attracted to the notion that it was the Tower of Babel to those concerned with the detailed reconstruction of the cultic topography of Marduk’s sanctuary. 

This 2011 publication caught the interest of the Daily Mail, which ran a piece at the time under the headline “One of the Earliest Drawings of the Tower of Babel found on Ancient Stone Tablet”.

An inscription on the stele states that Nebuchadnezzar “mobilized [all] countries everywhere” for the construction project, and the current Schøyen Collection webpage for the object links this to the Bible story:

Obviously all the tens of thousands of workers speaking different languages, could not communicate with each other, and this caused a total confusion at this huge building project, which lasted 43 years. Neither the Babylonian gods nor Yahweh needed to come down from heaven to interfere and cause language confusion. And most importantly, the Jews taken into captivity in 586 BC after destruction of Jerusalem, were there in Babylon and observed the building of the Tower and the confusion. So when the Genesis text was composed by the Jews during the Babylonian exile and after return to their homeland in 539 BC, this down to earth chaotic building story had to be put in a theological context, and hence the present text in Genesis 11:1-9.

George endorses this (somewhat speculative) theory in an interview for the Smithsonian Channel show.

The webpage that is cited in George’s 2011 book is no longer active, and instead redirects to another part of the Schøyen Collection website. However, a quote from the lost webpage has been preserved on some other sites, and also appears in some academic sources:

The stele was found in a special hiding chamber, broken into 3 parts in antiquity, at Robert Koldewey’s excavations of the site of the Tower of Babel in 1917. Its importance was immediately recognised. A photograph was taken with 3 archaeologists standing next to the stele. With the imminent danger of war breaking out in the area, they decided to rescue it, and each archaeologist carried one part out of the war zone. One part was taken to Germany, one part to Jordan and then London, the third part to U.S.A.

This story appears to be alluded to in the Smithsonian Channel documentary; in a preview clip, a (rather bombastic) narrator explains that the stele “was discovered in Babylon over a century ago. Unbelievably, no one realized how important it was until Professor Andrew George, an expert in ancient texts, brought its faint carvings back to life”.

Oddly, however, this somewhat romantic story is no longer present anywhere on the Schøyen Collection website, and it is flatly contradicted in George’s book. George is certain that Koldeway had no knowledge of the stele, and he notes “the complete silence of nineteenth and twentieth-century archaeological records in regard to the stele”. George suggests that it was probably removed from Babylon during antiquity to some other site, perhaps Susa, and he concludes:

The stele, if it was also taken to Susa, clearly evaded discovery by [Jacques] de Morgan and subsequent excavators, but could have been found by local people in an interval between expeditions or after scientific exploration of the site ceased. Or it could have come from some other site where Babylonian antiquities were hoarded.

So how exactly did it come into Schøyen’s hands (the top part, showing the image but not the inscription, was apparently first exhibited in 1997, according to the current webpage), and where did the incorrect provenance story involving Koldewey and a photograph with “3 archaeologists” come from? It should be noted that the Schøyen Collection is controversial, with allegations that some items in the collection amount to “tainted cultural property”.

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