The ancient city of Dūr-Šarrukīn, meaning “fortress of Sargon”, has long held mysteries that puzzled historians and archaeologists. Located in modern-day Khorsabad, Iraq, this ancient Mesopotamian site was home to King Sargón II, ruler of Assyria from 721-704 BCE.

One enigma that has intrigued experts for over a century involves a series of five symbols— a lion, an eagle, a bull, a fig tree, and a plow— prominently displayed in the city’s temples. Now, Dr. Martin Worthington, an Assyriologist from Trinity College Dublin, has provided a compelling interpretation of these symbols that could redefine our understanding of ancient Mesopotamian iconography.

The journey to uncover the meaning of these mysterious symbols began with French archaeologists in the late 19th century, who documented the sequence in their excavation drawings. However, despite their detailed records, the true meaning of these symbols remained elusive.

Late 19th century drawings of the eagle and bull symbols published by the French excavator Victor Place
Late 19th century drawings of the eagle and bull symbols published by the French excavator Victor Place. Credit: New York Public Library

Scholars over the years proposed various theories, suggesting the symbols might represent Egyptian hieroglyphics, imperial power, or even the name of Sargón II. But how these connections could be made remained a conundrum.

In his recent article in the Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, Dr. Worthington put forth a groundbreaking hypothesis: the sequence of five symbols, when understood in the context of Assyrian language and culture, actually spells out the name “Sargon” (šargīnu).

According to his research, each of the Assyrian words for the five symbols contains key sounds that, when combined, form the name of the king. This insightful interpretation suggests that the symbols were not only significant in their own right but also served a deeper linguistic purpose.

The Eagle on the left of the temple of Sîn
The Eagle on the left of the temple of Sîn. Credit: Institute for the Study of Ancient Cultures / University of Chicago

Adding to this discovery, Dr. Worthington found that the symbols could also represent constellations. For instance, the lion corresponds to Leo, and the eagle to Aquila.

While some constellations, like the fig tree’s substitution for the obscure “Jaw”, require a bit of linguistic imagination, Dr. Worthington’s theory offers a tantalizing glimpse into how the ancient Assyrians might have connected their earthly symbols with celestial bodies.

The broader implication of this discovery is profound: by using symbols that also map onto the stars, the ancient Assyrians might have been attempting to immortalize King Sargon’s name in the heavens. This would not only elevate the king’s status but also link him with the divine or eternal.

Late 19th century drawings of tree and plow symbols published by French excavator Victor Place
Late 19th century drawings of tree and plow symbols published by French excavator Victor Place. Credit: New York Public Library

Dr. Worthington acknowledges that his theory can’t be definitively proven, but the fact that it works for both the five-symbol sequence and a shorter three-symbol sequence suggests it’s more than mere coincidence.

As he noted, the chances of such a connection being accidental are, quite literally, “astronomical”.

As Dr. Worthington points out, solving puzzles (or trying to) is an especially fun bit, but Mesopotamian studies at large have the grander aim of understanding the complexity and diversity of a huge part of human societies and cultural achievements.

Late 19th century drawings of the lion symbol published by the French excavator Victor Place
Late 19th century drawings of the lion symbol published by the French excavator Victor Place. Credit: New York Public Library

Sources

Trinity College Dublin | Martin Worthington, Solving the Starry Symbols of Sargon II. Bulletin of the American Society of Overseas Research, doi.org/10.1086/730377 (PDF, 14.39Mb)


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