Investigating a Neo-Babylonian inscription in modern Jordan
In the sixth century B.C.E., the Neo-Babylonian king Nabonidus inscribed imperial propaganda on a cliff at Sela, a mountain fortress in modern Jordan, after conquering the site. Both his conquest of the Edomite fortress and his carving of a monumental inscription displayed his military might. Sitting on top of a 600-foot-tall mountain, Sela was well fortified. A variety of natural rock formations, walls, and towers encircled the summit, and a large gatehouse guarded the only entrance to the site—reached by a single staircase carved into the cliff’s eastern site.
Nabonidus led an army up the staircase and defeated the fortress. Then, he carved a 10-by-6.5-foot inscription 300 feet above ground—halfway up the cliff! This monument contains a weathered inscription and depictions of a moon, solar disk, star, and King Nabonidus, wearing a long robe and conic crown and holding a staff in one hand. Although the text of the inscription is only partially preserved, it likely commemorates his victory.
The Nabonidus Inscription was not easy to carve, and it is not easy to examine. Yet Rocío Da Riva of the University of Barcelona goes to great heights to study this inaccessible inscription in the November/December 2019 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review. In her article, “Dangling Assyriology,” she explains how she and a resourceful team managed to analyze the inscription.
From the first time she visited Sela in spring of 2014 to the moment when she inspected the inscription up close in the fall of 2018, Da Riva details the stages of her expedition. Here, the lengthy, thorough process is broken into 10 steps:
(1) First, Da Riva and a team visit Sela, Jordan, identify the location of the inscription, and explore Sela’s summit (2014).
(2) They form the Sela Archaeological Project and spend two seasons surveying Sela’s summit, taking soundings, and studying water management structures—to gain as much archaeological context for the inscription as possible (2015 & 2016).
(3) Back in Spain, Da Riva lectures and raises awareness about the Sela Archaeological Project and the challenges of accessing the Nabonidus Inscription. At one of her lectures, she meets Arcadio Noriega, an expert climber and amateur archaeologist (2017).
(4) Da Riva and Noriega assemble a team of professional climbers. They form a plan to reach the inscription and begin making preparations.
(5) They practice climbing and abseiling.
(6) She completes a massive amount of paperwork to enable the expedition.
(7) They practice some more.
(8) Then they travel to Sela, set up their equipment, and rappel down to study the inscription (2018).
(9) After that, they rappel down the rest of the cliff face to inspect it for evidence of how the Babylonians made the inscription, and they transverse Sela’s perimeter to verify that the rock-cut staircase is the only way to access the summit (2018).
(10) They share their exciting discoveries with the public.
Sela is a difficult site to access, and its inscription is even more so. Yet This intrepid team did not let this stand in the way of archaeological investigation. As a result, they not only have gained new insight into the inscription, but they also have been able to determine how and why Nabonidus chose to carve his inscription in that spot. To see those answers and learn more about Da Riva’s innovative research, see her article “Dangling Assyriology,” published in the November/December 2019 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
Subscribers: Read the full article “Dangling Assyriology” by Rocío Da Riva in the November/December 2019 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
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