Death and Burial in Early Mesopotamia: The View from the Texts

Steve Tinney

Among the most valuable artifacts to have come down to us from ancient Mesopotamia are hundreds of thousands of unassuming clay tablets inscribed with a kaleidoscopic array of subject matter. The great majority are mundane documents from daily operations of institutions or individuals: receipts for incoming goods, records of disbursements, contracts for loans, and accounts of dowries, to name but a few. As a class of texts, Assyriologists label these "administrative" or "economic, legal, and administrative." Relatively few texts (although still numbering in the thousands) stem from the education of scribes: from basic writing exercises, to lengthy and complex lists of signs and words, to literary texts that themselves range from the simple to the advanced. Thousands more texts represent the training and reference materials of generations of diviners, exorcists, liturgists, and astronomers, and another major corpus comprises dedicatory and narrative inscriptions left for posterity by the ancient rulers. All in all, a textual gold mine.

Exploiting this mine, however, is fraught with problems. For one thing, we do not have a steady, constant supply of documents from all places and all times; instead, we have clumps of anything from scattered odd texts to tens of thousands of tablets from specific places at specific times. For another, the texts we have are not uniformly intelligible to us; early texts, from before about 2600 BC, are often nearly opaque despite the great strides that have been made in understanding in recent years, and administrative texts often utilize a code that modern bureaucrats would be proud of. In addition, the questions we would like to answer are often not those to which the texts were intended to speak; reconstructing complexsocial-psychological phenomena from administrative texts is difficult at best, and perhaps impossible. Finally, as a matter of principle, the written culture of ancient Mesopotamia tends to record the unexpected and the unusual rather than the well known and normal; what was well known could be left unwritten (taken as read). The implications of this fact for our study of the ancient cultures of the Near East are staggering: by definition, we should expect that textual records select the less obvious for description. Understandings based on these texts are guaranteed to be skewed.

Bearing in mind these reservations, then, let's review the literary texts that correlate with and, in some ways, shed light on the burials in the tombs of Ur: in modern parlance, The Death of Gilgamesh and The Death of Ur-Namma.


The Death of Gilgamesh describes the death and burial of the heroic early ruler of the city of Uruk. Whether Gilgamesh ever actually lived is to some extent a moot point, as he was certainly considered a real king in Sumerian tradition. Gilgamesh was believed to have been born to a mortal father, Lugalbanda, and a divine mother, Ninsun. Several Sumerian tales tell of Gilga-mesh's exploits. If Gilgamesh lived, we would place him around 2600 BC; the tablets on which the tale of his death is preserved all date to about 1800 BC.

The Death of Gilgamesh opens with the hero on his deathbed, mortally ill. In a dream, his fate is revealed to him: he has reached the end of his appointed time on earth and will become a lord of the underworld on a par with Dumuzi and Ningishzida. After Gilgamesh succumbs, the text turns to a description of his burial, which might equally apply to the tombs of Ur:

His beloved wife, his beloved son,
His beloved favorite wife and junior wife,
              His beloved singer, cup-bearer and...,
              His beloved barber, his beloved...,
His beloved attendants who all served
              (in) the palace,
              His beloved consignments--
When they had lain down in their place with
              (him), as in the pure palace in Uruk,
              Gilgamesh, son of Ninsun,
Weighed out the meeting-gifts for
              Ereshkigal, Weighed out the presents of

The text continues with similar brief descriptions of offerings being made to a series of about twenty deities and to several kinds of priestly functionaries, all of whom are dead.


Ur-Namma was the first king of the third dynasty of Ur (Ur III). He ruled from 2112 to 2094 BC; the literary text describing his death and journey to the underworld is known from tablets dating to about 1800 BC and evidently circulated in slightly different versions.

The text opens with doom and gloom: Ur-Namma, a true shepherd king, has left the city, and the people cower in their dwellings. The gods have reneged on the happy fate promised for King Ur-Namma; the moon god, Nanna, has frowned in divine displeasure, and the sun god, Utu, has not risen in the heavens; wailing fills the broad streets, where play is the norm. Ur-Namma, having died in battle, is brought to Ur, and the soldiers who marched with him into battle now follow him toward the underworld in tears. Ur-Namma's donkey and chariot are buried, and the path to his grave is disguised so that no one can approach it. As the renowned king presents his offerings to the seven gate-keepers of the underworld, the news of his death spreads throughout the realm of the dead. Ur-Namma understands that the food of the underworld is bitter and that the water of the underworld is brackish; he understands the rituals that are required of him, and he goes about carrying them out. First he sacrifices all the oxen, kids and sheep that he has brought with him. Then he proceeds to the palace of each of the underworld deities in turn and presents them with the appropriate offerings.

Text continues in the show's catalogue: Treasures from the ROYAL TOMBS of UR