A Sumerian “sacred code” has been deciphered, revealing divinely inspired building instructions echoed in the Bible.
Experts have been puzzled since unearthing the 4,000-year-old statue of a leader called Gudea, which features an architectural plan, an inscription claiming he built a temple commanded to him in a dream, and a “ruler” of undeciphered measurements.
British Museum archaeologists have now cracked the “sacred code” of these mysterious measurements after finding a lost temple in Iraq, which they have established to be the divinely mandated holy site mapped out by Gudea’s plan.
The discovery of the temple in the ancient city of Girsu in Iraq allowed experts to test their theories about the “ruler” measurements, and establish that it marked out an extremely precise and to-scale representation of the Sumerian holy site.
Dr Sebastien Rey, director of the British Museum’s project in Iraq, said: “It is like the precise measurement we see in the Bible in a much later period, those of the Arc, or the Temple of Solomon.”
He added: “This has taken 140 years to crack, it is a very important moment.
“Mathematics would have seemed divine to the Sumerians. This was a sacred mathematics on architectural plan, a sacred code.
“This shows that Gudea did indeed build a temple after being told to do so in a dream, and reveals that Sumerians were capable of scaling models up and down. The plan matches the temple site perfectly.”
The team recently unearthed a fragment of a tablet in a ruined palace complex which bears similar measurement markings, and could prove to be another architectural plan, suggesting the widespread use of these ancient “blueprints”.
The Sumerian civilisation was the world’s first, inventing writing, numerical systems, bureaucracy and the state, and texts from the 3rd millennium BC provide details of a particularly cultured ensi (priest-ruler) called Gudea.
The ruler governed the now ruined city of Girsu in southern Iraq, where French archaeologists in the 19th century first rediscovered the Sumerian civilisation and pulled several statues of Gudea from the clay.
One of these shows the ruler sitting with an architectural plan on his lap which has a “ruler” running along one side, complete with an inscription proclaiming that he was instructed in a dream by the Sumerian god Ningirsu to rebuild his temple in the 21st century BC.
The measuring “ruler” appeared like a tally going up in marks from one line to six lines before stopping, in a system that has perplexed experts for more than a century.
Dr Rey’s team worked on a theory that, unlike distance where numbers keep going, the Sumerian system worked more like time on a clock, getting so far before the measuring began again. The ancient architectural plan would therefore be divided into repeating fractions of distance.
In 2022, the British Museum working in Girsu in Iraq unearthed a vast temple complex which they believed must have been dedicated to the city’s patron deity, Ningirsu, and its vast outer walls appeared to correspond almost exactly to the architectural sketch on Gudea’s statue.
They then mapped on to the newly unearthed site the fractional measuring system they had been theorising, and realised that it worked perfectly and the site was divided into distances of “one to six” in the Sumerian system, whose terminology is unknown, with each unit corresponding to around eight modern metres.
The thickness of the temple walls is four metres, which maps perfectly on to half a Sumerian unit.
Dr Rey said that the system would have been flexible, and other measurements could have been inputted into turn system of units which could be scaled up or down.
The modelling proved the Sumerians appeared to work from precise plans, like the one immortalised on the Gudea statue, that they could scale up to the huge dimensions of a temple.
Re-examining the foundations of civilisation itself
The muezzin summons the faithful in the hours before dawn, and is answered by the clattering of shovels in the darkness.
The congregation that assembles in the remote Iraqi village of Nasr has not come to pray but to dig, cutting through a mountain of dust with a British Museum team which is re-examining the foundations of a sacred city, and of civilisation itself.
The team and the villagers set out each morning along dirt tracks for the 5,000-year-old city of Girsu, a ruin whose discovery first revealed to the world the existence of the Sumerians, the ancient society which devised cities, writing, the state, and the myth of a devastating global flood which would be echoed in the Bible.
Archeologists working on Girsu recently discovered that a monumental structure on the site was a hydraulic device intended not to defend against floods, but civilisation-threatening drought, and the latest revelation has further piqued the interest of Iraqi officials keen to explore its touristic potential.
It is the task of the British Museum’s team to ensure that this asset and monument to human ingenuity, a city which flourished with water before collapsing without it, is not washed away by the fickle element that has shaped its history.
“Everything starts with water, and it ends with water,” said Dr Sebastian Rey, archaeologist and director of the Girsu Project which is excavating, researching, and preserving the site. This site is dangerously exposed to erratic Mesopotamian rains and floods caused by the shifting climate in southern Iraq.
“Water brings life to the flat floodplain of Iraq, but it can also bring devastation, and this since time immemorial,” said Dr Rey. “It is no coincidence that the Flood story originates in Sumer.”
The work of excavation and preservation is carried out by a British Museum team which is billeted in a concrete block house circled by stray dogs and breezeblock walls, all watched over by armed police and an archaeological force which ensures the safety of the Girsu site and its artefacts. In Iraq, the theft of ancient artefacts carries the death penalty.
The sheikh of the local tribe has also pledged his protection, and smooth management of the local labour force which at 4.30 each morning joins the British Museum’s experts to travel from the palms of the village to the barren escarpment of Tell Telloh, the Arabic name for the Girsu site.
Following the call to prayer a convoy of trucks bristling with shovels moves toward the jagged white ridge which rises conspicuously above the floodplain, appearing luminous in the dawn gloom along with the burning flare stacks of distant oil refineries.
As Dr Rey and the team hop from the four-wheel-drive trucks on to a vast moonscape of Girsu, their steps cut through a crust of baked clay and sink into the several inches of spongy powder that stretches for acres in all directions.
It is not sand but the remains of millennia-old mudbrick buildings that once housed Girsu’s sophisticated ancient inhabitants, and have since been dissolved into a thick layer of yellow dirt.
Trenches sunk into the clay
“When you walk at Girsu, you are walking on the ruins of a civilisation. It’s right there on the surface,” Dr Rey explained. “It has been reduced to dust.”
It was not always this way. In the relative cool of the morning, workmen in keffiyeh shuttle wheelbarrows to and from deep trenches sunk into the clay, clearing mudbrick foundations which have offered new insights into the old civilisation.
The site was inhabited from around 5000BC during humanity’s tentative first steps towards urban living, and by the end of 3rd millennium BC - before the total extinction of woolly mammoths - it had become a booming city with a literate bureaucracy and a system of canals which made it “like Venice or Bruges”, Dr Rey said.
By 2150BC it was enjoying a “golden age” under the priest-ruler Gudea, who ancient Sumerian texts declare was inspired in a dream to build a vast temple to the warrior god and Girsu’s patron deity, Ningirsu, which the British Museum team unearthed in 2022 despite a consensus among archaeologists that it did not exist.
The team also unearthed the thick mudbrick ramparts of a palace or “central archive” for a bureaucracy so meticulous that they recorded the deaths of individual sheep in their territory, as revealed by the hundreds of clay tablets carefully removed from the palace complex.
Experts have also solved the riddle of a Hellenistic temple that once stood on the site, theorising that it may have been founded by Alexander the Great himself.
In a maze of wadis cutting through the clay, the team found the only known preserved remains of Sumerian sacrificial bull, its gleaming white ribs still sticking to the remains of the mudbrick in which it was ritually interred.
These breakthroughs have been made despite previous French expeditions to the Girsu, one of which revealed the existence of the Sumerian to the world in the 19th century, “massacring” the site.
Frenchman Dr Rey has worked to repair the more invasive archaeology of his countrymen.
“They said the site had been ‘exhausted’, that there was nothing left to find,” the archaeologist and curator explains between draws on the thin and aptly named “Sumer” cigarettes sold in Iraq.
“We’ve gone back to the ‘scene of the crime’, you could say, but new techniques have allowed us to make new discoveries.”
Finds from the site are taken back to the block house and put through “archaeological production line” by the team of English, Turkish, Italian and Lebanese experts, with pottery first cleaned and examined in a courtyard blooming with bougainvillaea and pomegranates.
Stopping intermittently to light a “Sumer” and feed a kitten adopted as a mascot, the British Museum team registers, cleans, draws and photographs the finds continually pulled from the Girsu clay, and prepares the best artefacts to be shipped in a six-hour drive to Baghdad, all under the watchful eye of the dig’s Iraqi deputy director, Dr Fatima Husain.
Baghdad is showing an increasing interest in the site. Following paths along which Sumerian priests would have led crowds to worship, Ali Obeid Sholgham steps through dust of Girsu to inspect the site, with an entourage following at a differential distance under a mid-morning sun already approaching 30 degrees.
The Director of Iraq’s State Board of Antiquities is greeted with a chorus of “salaams” from the workmen in the trenches, and smokes through a breakfast laid out on a carpet in the the shade, listening as Dr Rey updates him in Arabic on the site which authorities hope to make a tourist destination.
Deep love for the Girsu site
Mr Sholgham told The Daily Telegraph: “When I first signed to my position, the first site I visited was Girsu.
“Girsu is a very important city, and had a very great effect on the whole of civilisation. There is deep love from me for the Girsu site, and it is much more important for me now.
“Girsu has many surprises for the future. We hope that Dr Sebastien and Dr Fatima will carry on being successful in this operation, to achieve great results in the future.”
Mr Sholgham examined the first information boards designed for the site, in anticipation of an unspecified date when the ancient city may begin receiving tourists as it once received devotees of the god Ningirsu, in its pomp as site of pilgrimage akin to a Sumerian “Jerusalem or Rome”.
The most important consideration in this plan is, as with all things Sumerian, water. Rain rushing through the wadis and gullies that intersect the site threatens to reduce to mud the Sumerian bricks which are all the remains of Girsu.
Dr Ebru Torun, a conservator with the British Museum’s team, directs local workmen to use the river clay once used by the Sumerians themselves to secure the brickwork, and stone dams have been constructed to prevent the city which succumbed to drought from being washed away in a deluge.
She said that heavy rain will turn ancient brick “back to mud”, and salts rising upward with the damp “expand and crack open the brickwork”.
Preserving the site is one of the British Museum’s priorities, and is made more urgent, experts have said, by the increasingly sporadic nature of the Iraqi rains, meaning downpours now come with a greater risk of flash flooding.
The rain is unthinkable as the sun climbs to its zenith, and the muezzin once again sounds across the plain, the signal to the team and workers to down tools and head back to the village to rest before the call to prayer once again sounds, and they are summoned to protect Girsu, the once sacred city.