IN THIS AGE of bureaucratic sprawl, reports of a medical center the size of a football field might not merit a second thought. But it's a slightly different matter when the facility in question is 4,000 years old if not considerably older, and when it is being dug up by archaeologists in the deserts of southern Iraq. Iraq, of course, is the present-day landlord of ancient Mesopotamia, and a team of archaeologists from the University of Chicago recently unearthed just such a facility there after digging for some four decades in the leading Mesopotamian religious city of Nippur. Nippur may have had upwards of 40,000 inhabitants at its long-ago peak and may even have topped Babylon, its better-known neighboring city to the north. Such cities then and now are not known for superior hygiene, and it appears that Nippur may also have been one of the world's first centers for the practice of the medical profession.

Most people vaguely associate the birth of medicine with the Greeks -- Hippocrates, and all that. But Hippocrates had precursors both in ancient Egypt -- where antiquarians have the luxury of not only written accounts of disease and treatment but, in many cases, the actual mummified bodies that underwent it -- and in Mesopotamia, where Babylonian tablets have been found that describe symptoms, prescriptions and their effects in some detail. The Nippur temple offers something new and vivid, the possibility of working out the actual structure of the profession.

Diggers first found the sprawling temple building in 1973, when they struck an outer wall and dug along it for more than 50 meters without locating so much as a door. But it wasn't till this year that they started putting together evidence that this was an important site of worship of the healing goddess Gula, and that it served as a central location not only for priests but for practitioners, from herbal remedy dispensers to makers of drugs. The best evidence of the link between the "secular" pill-dispensers and the holy priests, who would presumably offer incantations to Gula for healing, is also the most charming. The temple complex contains large numbers of human figurines, some clutching their heads, some their necks, some their limbs or eyes -- all showing Gula where it hurts.

As in any hospital, these activities are the smallest corner of what went on inside the football-field-sized temple complex; Dr. McGuire Gibson of the Chicago digging team says that such places usually held rooms and courtyards for worship, for religious offerings, for the priests and administrators and their families, for care of the poor and, in short, the whole panoply of social services. All this ought to be of considerably more than passing interest, inasmuch as nobody we know these days is entirely sure how such things ought to be set up even now, and it can't hurt to have a look at how the Babylonians managed it. Who knows. ...