Comparative Guts

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3300-1200 BCE


Maddalena Rumor

Assistant Professor, Case Western Reserve University

Mesopotamia is the geographic region roughly corresponding to modern Iraq, parts of Syria, South-Eastern Turkey and Western Iran. The name itself, a Greek designation meaning “between the rivers,” defines the most salient characteristic of the area: the alluvial plain created by the course of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers from Eastern Turkey to the Persian Gulf. This two river’s valley witnessed some of the very first permanent settlements in human history from ca. 10,000 BCE. Over the course of several millennia it was inhabited by different groups of peoples of distinct cultural, ethnic and linguistic origins.

In the 4th millennium BCE one of these, the Sumerians, created a highly complex civilization in the south of Mesopotamia, arguably the first civilization in human history. Using the new tool of writing, they began to record their language, something that humans have been doing ever since. Many of those inscribed objects still survive, allowing scholars to reconstruct the history of this region using original sources, a unique circumstance in the study of ancient societies. What emerged is a long and complex history spanning three millennia. Babylonians dominated the scene in the first half (Old-Babylonian period) and, to a certain extent, also in the second half (Middle-Babylonian period) of the second millennium BCE, interwoven in a network of international relations with their neighbors outside of Mesopotamia. The Assyrians, in the north, controlled the region in the first four centuries of the I millennium BCE (Neo-Assyrian period), but their empire fell in 612 BCE, when the last Mesopotamian dynasty of kings, the Neo-Babylonian dynasty, destroyed their capital, and reorganized the land into an empire (6th c. BCE). At the end of the 6th c. BCE the Persian Cyrus entered Babylon and from that time on the land between the rivers was led by non-native rulers.

guts in ancient mesopotamia
In ancient Mesopotamia, the inside of the human body was never the object of autopsy or dissection for the purposes of research, and thus internal (human) anatomy remained unexplored for the entirety of its history. As a result, visual representations of human organs are completely absent from the record. While there seems to have been a rather general sense of where these organs were located, and with what diseases they were associated, the anatomical terminology used for the abdominal area is often vague and ambiguous (fig. 4). Animal anatomy, on the other hand, was much better known from the autopsy of sacrificial sheep, and its extensive terminology reflects the depth of that knowledge. Clay models (fig. 1), figurines (fig. 3), or drawings (fig. 2) have been found all over Western Asia that were used to teach extispicy, a science which was central to the life of the State, for it assisted a number of important decisions, predicting, for example, when it was time to prepare for impeding danger, such as war, draught or even epidemics. Abnormal features within the entrails of a sheep were recorded and studied by diviners (bārû, lit. “examiners”), as they were believed to carry divine messages regarding the future. The scrutiny usually began from the liver, proceeding to the entire exta, including the stomach (fig. 2) and intestines. The regular conformation of these, as well as the meaning of any irregularity therewith, would be taught to the apprentice diviner by means of clay models (fig. 1) or illustrations (fig. 2). In rare cases such irregularities could even create fantastic shapes resembling mythological figures (fig. 3), or animals (scorpions, dogs etc.), which would have conveyed special significance, and thus be recorded.Some general principles were involved in the interpretation of the exta that carry particular cultural significance. For example, the attribution of positive value to the right side (or negative to the left) is evident in the reading of these organs. Similar principles also governed medical omens, suggesting a possible connection between human medicine and divination. Such connection, however, remained on the structural level, and an influence on the knowledge of human internal anatomy remained negligible.