In 800 B.C., a royal official in the city of Sam’al in what is now Turkey, ordered a stone monument be inscribed after his death directing his mourners commemorate his soul.
Archaeologists who found the stele last summer believe it’s evidence the locals believed in an eternal soul separate from the body, which is notable for the time and the area.
“Normally, in the Semitic cultures, the soul of a person, their vital essence, adheres to the bones of the deceased,” said David Schloen, an archaeologist at the university’s Oriental Institute and director of the excavations. “But here we have a culture that believed the soul is not in the corpse but has been transferred to the mortuary stone.”
A translation of the inscription by Dennis Pardee, a professor of Near Eastern languages and civilization at Chicago, reads in part: “I, Kuttamuwa, servant of [the king] Panamuwa, am the one who oversaw the production of this stele for myself while still living. I placed it in an eternal chamber [?] and established a feast at this chamber: a bull for [the god] Hadad, a ram for [the god] Shamash and a ram for my soul that is in this stele.”
There might be an Egyptian influence in this theology. An Egyptologist cited in the article notes that the ancient Egyptians broke our notion of a soul up into two parts, one of which, the bit that includes personal characteristics, leaves the body after death.
There’s no evidence of direct Egyptian influence, though, and there were all kinds of cultures interacting in the area at that time.
The are in which the stele was found has a fascinating history:
The site, near the town of Islahiye in Gaziantep province, was controlled at one time by the Hittite Empire in central Turkey, then became the capital of a small independent kingdom. In the eighth century, the city was still the seat of kings, including Panamuwa, but they were by then apparently subservient to the Assyrian Empire. After that empire’s collapse, the city’s fortunes declined, and the place was abandoned late in the seventh century.
It wasn’t until the post-Schliemann Germans excavated the area at the turn of the century that the rich history of the city began to be revealed, and after that was another 100 years of neglect until the University of Chicago archaeologists began excavations in 2006.