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DISPLAYING POSTS TAGGED: babylonia (2)

An eye for an eye

Author
by Kate C
Publish date
29 February 2012
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Whether you know it best from the Bible, the Torah or Nick Cave's song The Mercy Seat, you might not know that the common phrase 'an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth' has Mesopotamian origins.

prosthetic eye and teeth Left: Acrylic eye prosthesis made by Loyer Artificial Eyes, Burwood,Victoria, circa 1999. (HT 23234) | Right: Porcelain artificial teeth made by DeTrey's Diatorics, circa 1925. (HT 11829)
Source: Museum Victoria

It describes principle of retaliation – a harsh system of justice that permits someone suffering an injury at the hands of another to return like for like. The concept was first documented in the Code of Hammurabi, an upright stone pillar inscribed with 282 Babylonian laws by King Hammurabi (1792–1750 BC). It was uncovered in modern-day Iran in 1901 and is exhibited in the Musée du Louvre in Paris. 

Code of Hammurabi Code of Hammurabi on display in in the Musée du Louvre.
Image: Nick Olejniczak
Source: Used under CC BY-NC 2.0 from nicholasjon
 

Detail of the cuneiform on the Code of Hammurabi Detail of the cuneiform script on the Code of Hammurabi.
Image: Boris Doesburg
Source: Used under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 from batigolix
 

Museum Victoria is borrowing a cast of the code from the Australian Institue of Archaeology to display during The Wonders of Ancient Mesopotamia exhibition. The cast, purchased by the AIA in 1968, is an exact replica made in very limited edition by the Musée du Louvre.

Much of the code addresses contracts, payments, terms of transactions and marriage laws, but a handful of laws are paraphrased in the well-worn 'eye for an eye'. In the 1915 translation of the Code of Hammurabi by LW King, the contributing laws are stated explicitly:

196. If a man destroy the eye of another man, they shall destroy his eye.

200. If a man knock out a tooth of a man of his own rank, they shall knock out his tooth.

But it's not as simple as that. In Babylonian society, there were three distinct social classes: the freemen, the second-class citizens, and at the bottom of the heap, the slaves. If a slave suffered the injury, retribution was less about flesh and more about cash:

199. If one destroy the eye of a man's slave or break a bone of a man's slave he shall pay one-half his price.

The Code's rules, penalties and payments are a fascinating (and often contradictory) glimpse into the lives and values of the Babylonians. For example, if you leased a field and your crops were lost to the storm god Adad, it was your own problem. Yet if you hired an ox to work your fields and it was eaten by a lion, the loss was borne by the ox's owner. If the ox's death was caused by a god, an oath to that effect absolved the hirer of any responsibility. (It sounds like ox-hiring was a tough gig in Babylon.)

King Hammurabi's legacy persists and many of the philosophies of his code still ring true today. It established concepts such as medical malpractice, penalties for negligence and the role of government in resolving family matters like inheritance and divorce. Another important idea enacted in the Code of Hammurabi was assumed innocence, whereby both parties in a legal dispute were required to provide evidence of their claims – even if the evidence was no more than an oath that a god killed your ox.

Links:

The Wonders of Ancient Mesopotamia exhibition at Melbourne Museum

1915 translation of the Code of Hammurabi by LW King (PDF, 128 KB)

Code of Hammurabi in the Musée du Louvre

Q&A with Dr Andrew Jamieson

Author
by Adrienne Leith
Publish date
22 February 2012
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Adrienne creates and presents public programs at Melbourne Museum and coordinates Museum Victoria's lecture series.

A new major exhibition is coming to Melbourne Museum this year called The Wonders of Ancient Mesopotamia. To learn more about the history and significance of Mesopotamia, I interviewed an expert in ancient civilisations, Dr Andrew Jamieson.

Can you first tell us a bit about yourself and how you are involved with the exhibition?

I am an archaeologist from the Classics and Archaeology program at the University of Melbourne, and for the past 25 years I have been working on archaeological projects in the Middle East. I'm helping with the development and presentation of The Wonders of Ancient Mesopotamia at Melbourne Museum, and I'm looking forward to sharing some of my knowledge at some public lectures at the museum.

Where exactly is Mesopotamia?

Ancient Mesopotamia corresponds with the area known today as Iraq, north-east Syria and south-east Turkey. The word 'Mesopotamia' is of Greek origin (meso 'middle' and potamia 'river'), meaning the land between two rivers – the Tigris and the Euphrates. Both the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers start in the mountainous regions of Turkey and flow into the Persian Gulf.

It was here, in a land through which the two rivers flowed, that some of the world's first great empires flourished - the Sumerian, Assyrian and Babylonian empires.

Statue of King Ashurnasirpal II Statue of King Ashurnasirpal II that was placed in the Temple of Ishtar at Nimrud where Ashurnasirpal established his capital city.
Source: @ The Trustees of the British Museum
 

So why is Mesopotamia so significant?

Mesopotamia is important for a number of reasons.  For example, Mesopotamia witnessed experiments in agriculture and irrigation, the invention of writing, the emergence of cities and complex society, and developments in art, literature, science and mathematics. Mesopotamia is also sometimes referred to as the 'fertile crescent' or the 'cradle of civilisation', because the crescent-shaped region was a moist and fertile land, and because the first complex societies emerged in this region.

Why is Mesopotamia relevant to us today?

For me, Mesopotamia is relevant today because it represents the origins or beginnings of western civilisation. Ancient Mesopotamia has a long and rich history that continues to influence our lives.

The Mesopotamians were amongst the first people to build and live in large cities. They also developed many aspects of technology including metalworking, pottery production, glassmaking, textile manufacture and leather-working.

The oldest writing yet discovered comes from southern Mesopotamia and dates to circa 3500 BC. It consists of pictographic signs incised on clay tablets that record the Sumerian language. The earliest writing was used to communicate basic information about crops and taxes. A few centuries later the pictographs were transformed into more abstract cuneiform ('wedge-shaped') characters. This distinctive script was incised on wet clay with a stylus (pen-like instrument), usually cut from a reed. Over thousands of years, Mesopotamian scribes recorded daily events, trade activities, astronomy, myths, and literature on thousands of clay tablets. So successful was this system of writing that it was used over three millennia by the different peoples of the ancient Near East.

Early cuneiform writing tablet, c. 3000 BC Early cuneiform writing tablet, circa 3000 BC. Quantities of barley allocated to officials listed by rank. The impressed circles and half-circles represent numbers.
Source: @ The Trustees of the British Museum
 

What can people expect to see in the exhibition?

The Wonders of Ancient Mesopotamia is specially designed for Melbourne Museum It features over 170 objects highlighting significant episodes of Mesopotamian civilisation, including masterpieces from Sumer, Assyria and Babylon. It is rare for the British Museum to tour such priceless pieces. Some of these objects include an early Sumerian cuneiform writing tablet, a fluted gold cup with spout found in the death pit of the tomb of Queen Puabi at Ur that may have been used for drinking beer, a large stone statue of the Assyrian King Ashurnasirpal II inscribed in cuneiform giving his titles and lineage, and much more.

Gold cup Gold cup with spout found in the death pit of the tomb of Queen Puabi. The long spout would have been used like a drinking straw, probably for drinking beer.
Source: @ The Trustees of the British Museum
 

The Wonders of Ancient Mesopotamia is a collaboration with the British Museum. It is on at Melbourne Museum from 4 May to 7 October 2012.

Links:

The Wonders of Ancient Mesopotamia

Video: What is Mesopotamia?

Video: The Mesopotamian Minute

Pre-purchase exhibition tickets online

Dr Andrew Jamieson at the University of Melbourne

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Updates on what's happening at Melbourne Museum, the Immigration Museum, Scienceworks, the Royal Exhibition Building, and beyond.

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