Nabonidus: The First Archaeologist

How a Babylonian king undertook the world’s first excavation

The first archaeologist

The first archaeologist: Inscription on a basalt rock depicting the Babylonian king Nabonidus holding a scepter in his hand. Courtesy Saudi Heritage Commission.

While the modern field of archaeology is no more than a few centuries old, ancient texts show that the world’s first archaeologist lived around two and a half thousand years ago. That archaeologist was Nabonidus, king of Babylon (r. 556–539 BCE).


The World’s First Excavation

first excavation

Nabonidus’s Cylinder from Sippar. Ernest Alfred Wallis Budge (1884), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Although modern archaeologists frequently excavate things far more recent than the Neo-Babylonian period (c. 626–539 BCE), the title of world’s first archaeologist goes to Nabondius, the last king of the Babylonian empire, who excavated the Ebabbar temple in Sippar (in modern-day central Iraq). Recorded in a text called the Nabonidus Cylinder of Sippar, Nabonidus tells how he set about restoring several temples during his reign, including the Ehulhul of Sin in Haran, the Ebabbar of Shamash in Sippar, and the Eulmash of Anunitum in Sippar-Amnanum.

In describing his reconstruction of the Ebabbar temple, Nabonidus states that he excavated the ruins of the temple in search of its foundations. During the dig, he came across an older inscription, left in the foundations by Naram-Sin, king of the Akkadian empire (r. 2254–2218 BCE). Nabonidus even attempted to date the inscription of Naram-Sin based on his excavation. But without modern techniques, he ended up misdating the inscription by well over a thousand years. While excavations may have occurred during other such reconstruction efforts, this is the only known text that describes the intentional excavation of a site and the dating and study of the finds.


Who Was Nabonidus?

Aside from being the world’s first archaeologist, Nabonidus is remembered for many other achievements, including the conquest of Arabia and an attempted large-scale religious reform to supplant Marduk as the head of the Mesopotamian pantheon. Nabonidus rose to the Babylonian throne following a coup against Labashi-Marduk (r. 556). It is not certain what, if any, connection Nabonidus had to the throne, but a few texts suggest that his mother held political clout within the kingdom and that his father may have been a distant relative of the royal family.

During his reign, Nabonidus carried out numerous campaigns, expanding Babylonian control across western Arabia and conquering as far south as the area of Medina in modern Saudi Arabia. However, for uncertain reasons, Nabonidus stayed in Arabia for a decade after his campaign ended, establishing a capital in the city of Tayma. Archaeological excavations of Tayma have revealed extensive construction in the city during the time of Nabonidus, and many architectural elements show clear signs of Babylonian influence. Numerous Babylonian inscriptions have also been found in the region, including a now famous example found at the mountain stronghold of Sela in southern Jordan.

In the free eBook, A Digger’s Life: A Guide to the Archaeology Dig Experience, step into an archaeological excavation and find out what it takes to find, prepare for, and work on a dig.

* Indicates a required field.

During Nabonidus’s stay in Tayma, which could have been a sort of self-imposed exile, Nabonidus’s son Belshazzar (possibly the same mentioned in Daniel 5) took control over Babylonia, although he did not take the title of king. Nabonidus returned to Babylon in 542, and likely carried out his archaeological excavation of the Ebabbar temple shortly thereafter. Only a few years later, however, the Persian king Cyrus launched his invasion of Babylonia, capturing it in only a month. Although Belshazzar was likely killed during the invasion, the fate of Nabonidus remains uncertain and some have suggested that he died in battle or that he was exiled and lived for several more decades.

Interestingly, while Nabonidus is not mentioned in the Bible, some ancient texts suggest that he may have been. One text, 4Q242 from Qumran, also called the “Prayer of Nabonidus,” recounts the story of the Babylonian king driven to madness, told in Daniel 4. The scroll, however, features several notable differences. Instead of the king being Nebuchadnezzar II, he is Nabonidus, inflicted with a sickness from God. According to the scroll, this sickness was why Nabonidus was forced to stay in Tayma until he was eventually cured by a Jewish magician, possibly to be understood as Daniel. Some scholars have suggested the exchange of Nebuchadnezzar II for Nabonidus represents a version of the story that is older than the one recorded in the biblical text.

Read more in Bible History Daily:

The Nabonidus Inscription at Sela

Dating Babylon’s Ishtar Gate

All-Access members, read more in the BAS Library:

Daniel and Belshazzar in History

What the Babylonian Flood Stories Can and Cannot Teach Us About the Genesis Flood

How Bad Was the Babylonian Exile?

Not a BAS Library or All-Access Member yet? Join today.

Related Posts

Jun 24
Oldest Deep-Sea Shipwreck Found Near Israel

By: Nathan Steinmeyer

Modern tefillin, painted black, being strapped to the arm. Courtesy Emil Aladjem, IAA.
Jun 21
What Color Were Ancient Tefillin?

By: Jennifer Drummond

Cuneiform tablets from the site of Nuzi in northern Iraq. Zunkir, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Jun 17
The Nuzi Tablets

By: Philippe Bohström

Write a Reply or Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Write a Reply or Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Send this to a friend