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Iraq temple may be ancient medical center.

Iraq temple may be ancient medical center

In a surprising discovery, archaeologists have found that a huge temple excavated in Iraq was dedicated to the Babylonian goddess of healing, until now considered a minor deity by researchers. The temple apparently served as a center of healing activities, reports McGuire Gibson of the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute, which released news of the discovery last week. Further work will yield important insights into early medical practice, he asserts.

The temple is in Nippur, the ancient religious center of Mesopotamia. Archaeologists first excavated the ruins in 1972. Soon thereafter, shifting sand dunes covered the site, preventing further work until digging machines cleared out much of the desert blanket in 1988.

From January through March of this year, Gibson's team examined a layer of the temple dating to between 1600 B.C. and 1200 B.C. At least five building levels lie beneath this layer, probably extending back to about 3000 B.C., he says.

Artifacts found in the temple indicate it was dedicated to Gula, goddess of healing. A lapis lazuli disk contains an inscription to Gula. Six dog figurines -- one in bronze, the rest in baked clay -- resemble objects associated with Gula worship at other Babylonian sites. The team also unearthed clay figurines of humans, each making a gesture referring to a physical ailment. For instance, one figure holds his throat while another holds his stomach.

Mesopotamians made regular pilgrimages to Nippur, and some probably sought healing remedies of Gula's temple, Gibson asserts. The prominence of the temple suggests "these people were very worried about their health," he notes.

The team will return to the site next January, hoping to uncover clay tablets describing medical practices at the temple. Medical prescriptions outlining herbal and mineral treatments appear on Babylonia clay texts dating to as early as 2000 B.C., but the ingredients' identities often remain unclear, says Robert D. Biggs of the Oriental Institute, an authority on ancient medicine. Known Babyloanian treatments, such as swamp-grass potions, probably had no important physiological effects, Biggs contends.

Gula's temple may hold pollen and seeds revealing other types of plants prescribed by Babylonian physicians, Gibson suggests. Moreover, he says, the site may illuminate the working relationships among an ancient trio of healing professions; physicians; magicians who deviced spells to drive out disease-causing demons; and priests who prayed for healing.
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Title Annotation:Nippur, Mesopotamia
Author:Bower, Bruce
Publication:Science News
Date:Jun 30, 1990
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