University of Chicago archaeologists announced Wednesday the discovery of a 4,000-year-old Babylonian temple in the ancient desert city of Nippur, the religious heart of Mesopotamia.
The 20-foot-high temple south of Baghdad is as large as a football field and may have been built to honor Gula, the goddess of healing.
"This temple could tell us more about ancient medicine than we've ever known before," said University of Chicago professor McGuire Gibson, leader of the archaeological team that began uncovering the remains of the temple three months ago.
The temple is the latest find in a continuing excavation of Nippur begun by the university's Oriental Institute more than 100 years ago under an agreement with the Iraqi government.
Inside the structure, the University of Chicago archaeologists found human figurines made of clay that people apparently left for Gula in hopes of being cured.
"One figurine shows a man clutching his throat; another shows a man holding his stomach," Gibson said. "They're obviously showing Gula where it hurts."
The figurines were offered as sacrifices to the goddess in hopes she would cure their maladies, he said.
"We know from inscribed clay tablets that the ancient Mesopotamians used figurines in their rituals," Gibson said. "But we don't know much about their use in healing. I'm reminded of figurines that are left in Mexican churches even today as reminders to the saints to help cure someone."
In addition to the human figurines, the scientists also found figurines of dogs made of bronze and baked clay. A recurring symbol in the worship of Gula, dogs were thought to have healing powers and were used to lick people's wounds, Gibson said.
Several dozen burials of real dogs had been discovered at a temple for Gula in Isin, 20 miles south of Nippur. "The figurines served the same purpose as sacrificing a dog to Gula," Gibson said.
A few pieces of gold and silver jewelry were found at the new site, indicating there may be more. A piece of lapis lazuli bears the inscription "Gula."
Current knowledge of ancient medicine is based largely on herbal treatments prescribed in early clay medical texts, according to Robert Biggs, professor of Assyriology at the University of Chicago.
Mesopotamians had a highly developed system of health care that included physicians trained to cure illness, magicians who worked spells to ward off evil spirits, and priests who prayed for healing when the physicians and magicians were unsuccessful, Biggs said.
For internal maladies, people would drink potions made of various herbs mixed in beer, milk, water, wine or, occasionally, cow's urine. Other common practices involved enemas (made from wool soaked in liquids), suppositories and a feather to tickle the back of one's throat to induce vomiting.
For rashes, skin cancers and other external problems, they would apply herbs to the affected area.
Only the privileged had access to educated physicians, Biggs said. Most people had recourse only to the herbal doctor who learned his trade by observing others.
Nippur was less than 100 miles from Babylon, Mesopotamia's most famous capital city, which reached its greatest magnificence under Nebuchadnezzar II (604-562 B.C.). Mesopotamians believed that Enlil, the wind god and supreme deity, created man at Nippur.
In addition to excavating the temple and recovering its tablets and other artifacts, University of Chicago archaeologists plan to spend the next five years exploring the neighborhood around the sacred building to learn more about the daily lives of those who worked in the temple.
"No Mesopotamian temple has been excavated previously with these ideas in mind," Gibson said.
Researchers already have been surprised at the size of the temple, which is dedicated to what scholars have considered a relatively minor deity at Nippur.
"Nippur is the holy city -- what Rome is for Christians, what Mecca is for Moslems, what Jerusalem is for a number of faiths," Gibson said. "The discovery should paint a richer picture of temple life."
The prominence of the temple, Gibson said, may mean that concerns about health and medicine played a bigger role in the people's everyday life than had been suspected.