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Science: Diggers

4 minute read

Samothrace, a small island in the Aegean Sea, is now barren and only thinly inhabited. But in classical times it was the center of a fabulous religious cult. From all over the Graeco-Roman world, devotees came to worship “The Great Gods of Samothrace” and to be initiated into their ancient and secret mysteries.

The Great Gods (who never used their real names) were established on Samothrace before the Greeks arrived. For 1,000 years their priests grew fat on the votive offerings of well-heeled worshipers. Ulysses reportedly was a member of the cult; so was L. Calpurnius Piso, father-in-law of Julius Caesar. But in 395 A.D. the worship of the Great Gods was suppressed by the Christian Emperor Theodosius, and their temples were abandoned.

Since before World War II, a group of archaeologists led by New York University’s Dr. Karl Lehmann has dug among the ruins of the Great Gods’ shrine. The most famous relic, the Winged Victory of Samothrace, which stood on the bow of a marble ship heading toward the sea, had been removed to the Louvre, but marble fragments of the shrine’s buildings still choke a narrow valley.

Gifts for the Gods. Year after year Dr. Lehmann’s workers explored the once-sacred rubble. They uncovered the foundations of a great hall where initiation rites and orgies were once celebrated. They found the bones of sacrificed sheep, and the pits to receive their blood. So far as possible, they put the place in order, though much of the marble had been burned to lime, centuries ago, to make mortar for early Christian churches.

Last summer Dr. Lehmann’s workers attacked a shapeless mound near one of the larger buildings. Back in Manhattan last week, Archaeologist Lehmann described the results. Under the rubble they found a well-preserved stucco floor which had been painted red and later green. This, they decided, was the storehouse for votive gifts. Some of the gifts were still there, imbedded in cracks in the floor. Among them were a gold ring, a large silver nail, parts of gilded bronze statues. The style of the building showed that it dated from pre-Greek times, when the Great Gods were young.

On the floor stood a “float”: a block of stone with a handle on it, that was used to smooth stonework or stucco. Archaeologist Lehmann likes to think that the float was in use when Emperor Theodosius’ edict (and probably the Emperor’s soldiers) arrived in the sacred valley, and that it has remained there ever since the day the Great Gods died.

Green Stone. Another group of diggers, led by Dr. George Glenn Cameron of the University of Michigan, reported last week on their trip to the wild mountain country between Iraq and Iran. Their job was to get a perfect mold in a latex rubber compound of a green stone that stands in an inaccessible 11,000-ft. pass looking south toward Mesopotamia. The stone was erected by King Ispuinis of the Urartians, a civilized people who lived some 2,800 years ago on the northern border of the great Assyrian Empire. From time to time the Urartians challenged the mighty Assyrians; about 600 B.C. the Assyrians and the Scythians smashed the Urartians.

The Urartians left several hundred stone monuments inscribed in their own language, but no archaeologist has been able to make much out of them. A promising key to Urartu writing is the green stone in the pass—a sort of Rosetta Stone* with identical inscriptions in both Assyrian and Urartu.

Many earlier archaeologists have tried unsuccessfully to copy the inscriptions on the stone. Dr. Cameron’s party made two attempts last summer. The first, in June, was frustrated by deep snow still lying in the pass. The second was successful, yielding a perfect latex mold of the inscription on both sides of the stone.”

The side facing south toward Assyria is written in Assyrian. It tells how King Ispuinis erected the stone to prove he wasn’t scared of the Assyrians. The northern side of the stone, facing the Urartu country, repeats the boast in Urartu. By comparing the identical inscriptions, the scholars of the University of Michigan hope to improve their knowledge of the Urartu language, and read from their ancient monuments the stone-written history of the ancient Urartu nation.

* Found in Egypt during Napoleon’s occupation in 1799, it carried inscriptions in Greek, hieroglyphic and demotic (the popular script of the late Egyptian period) characters, giving the key to ancient Egyptian writing.

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