Tower of Babel, Baked Bricks, Bitumen, & Archaeology

Tower of Babel, Baked Bricks, Bitumen, & Archaeology August 26, 2021

Also, Archaeological Verification of Sufficiently Available Bitumen and Wood for the Building of Noah’s Ark

Genesis 11:2-4 (RSV) And as men migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. [3] And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. [4] Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”

I’ve been writing many articles in which I seek to determine how much archaeology and historiography can be found to be in harmony with the Old Testament biblical data. The present topic presents an interesting case study, since we have two textual clues, ostensible historical facts that we can try to verify:

1) Kiln-fired bricks.

2) Use of bitumen for mortar.

The time-setting of the story of the Tower of Babel (whenever it was written), from appearances, seems to be right after the Flood. Genesis 6-9 present the story of Noah’s Ark and the Flood. Genesis 10 presents the Table of Nations (that I just wrote about). Genesis 11 abruptly tells the story of the Tower of Babel in just nine verses. Then 11:10 refers to the “descendants of Shem” (Shem being one of Noah’s sons) and notes that “When Shem was a hundred years old, he became the father of Arpach’shad two years after the flood.” Thus, it looks, prima facie, like the time period is shortly after the Flood occurred.

In order to objectively date the Tower of Babel, according to archaeology, we need to to establish when kiln-baked bricks and bitumen apeared in the flood plain of southern Mesopotamia, between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. “Shinar” is an alternate name of Babylon or southern Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq). Genesis 11:2 also refers to a “plain” that fits the area, which is as flat as a pancake. The ancient Babylonian cities of Erech (Uruk) and Akkad: the capital of Sargon the Great and his dynasty in the 24th-22nd centuries BC, are also mentioned in the same verse as Shinar and Babel, in Genesis 10:10. Genesis 11:8-9 states that the “city” being built in Shinar was “called Babel” (i.e., Babylon).

I found a goldmine of information along these lines in an article about archaeological evidence for the Tower of Babel, published at the Associates for Biblical Research website. First of all, this region is famous for the construction of ziggurats, which some think were regarded as artificial mountains, in such a flat area. Encyclopaedia Britannica‘s article on the topic estimates that “25 ziggurats are known, being equally divided among SumerBabylonia, and Assyria.” The ABR article describes the oldest ziggurats:

The structure at Eridu, the earliest structure that some designate a ziggurat, is dated in its earliest level to the Ubaid period (4300-3500). There are 16 levels of temples beneath the Ur III period ziggurat constructed by Amar-Sin (2046-2038) that crowns the mound. At which of these levels the structure may be first designated a ziggurat is a matter of uncertainty. . . . the so-called White Temple of Uruk [is] dated to the Jamdet Nasr period (3100-2900) . . . The Early Dynastic period (2900-2350) is the most likely candidate for the origin of the ziggurat . . . Mari also has a firmly established Early Dynastic ziggurat. At Nippur, superimposed ziggurats built by Ur-Nammu (2112-2095) and Naram-Sin (2254-2218) have been confirmed . . .

The article contrasts the bricks used in Palestine, with kiln-fired Mesopotamian bricks:

In Palestine, mud bricks (sun-dried) are first found in levels designated pre-pottery Neolithic A (8th-9th millennium BC) (Kenyon 1979: 26). This is the only type of brick found in Palestine. Kiln-fired brick is unattested. The practice was rather to use stone for the foundations and sun-dried brick for the superstructure (Kenyon 1979: 46, 87, 91, 164, etc.).

Source: Kenyon, K. 1979 Archaeology in the Holy Land, 4th ed. New York: Norton.

Kiln-fired bricks are first noted during the late Uruk period and become more common in the Jamdet Nasr period toward the end of the fourth millennium [4,000-3,000 BC] (Finegan 1979: 8; Singer 1954: 462; cf. Salonen 1972: 72ff).

Sources: Finegan, J. 1979 Archaeological History of the Ancient Near East. Boulder CO: Westview.

Salonen, A. 1972 Die Ziegeleien im alten Mesopotamien. Annales Academiac Scientiarum Fennicae 171. Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia.

Singer, C. 1954 The History of Technology, v 1. Oxford: Clarendon.

Kadim Hasson Hnaihen’s article, “The Appearance of Bricks in Ancient Mesopotamia” (Athens Journal of History – Volume 6, Issue 1, January 2020 – Pages 73-96) is very helpful. It states on p. 80:

There were problems in the south of Mesopotamia where dry bricks did not meet the building requirements, because it was irresistible to moisture, in addition to the high groundwater levels in the area, the lack of stone and the difficulty of carrying it out of northern Mesopotamia. At the same time, people already knew ceramics and its properties that were resistant to moisture, so the builders began to burn bricks before being built, and thereby appeared burnt bricks with new properties such as being resistant to humidity. Moreover, for the first time evidence of the baked brick appeared during the Uruk period, and exactly in the buildings of Eridu city. [28] According to Mr. Hussin, excavations in Ur discovered burnt bricks with inscribed information about the inhabitants of Ur during the Uruk period, and building a palace in dry brick chisel used clay to merge brick and its road was built of fired-brick in 3500 BC. [29]

References: 28. Abas A. Al-Temimi, “Mud Bricks in Ancient Iraq, Production and Patterns” [in Arabic], Sumer 38 (1982): 2 277.

29. Setar H. Hussain, “Ways to produce bricks and its type” [in Arabic], Sumer 43, no. 1 (1984): 258; Mohammed Ali Mustava and Seaid Alrwishdi, Fired brick production [in Arabic] (Baghdad: General Directorate of Ancient Monuments, 1992)

The presence of kiln-fired bricks (“burn[ed] . . . thoroughly”: [Gen 11:3] ), at the right time and right place to be available fore the Tower of Babel seems solidly established.

Paul H. Seely, in his article, “The Date of the Tower of Babel and Some Theological Implications” (Westminster Theological Journal 63 [2001] 15-38, stated about kiln-fired bricks:

[W]e know when baked bricks first appear in the archaeological record of the ancient Near East as building materials.

Nor are we arguing from silence. There are hundreds of archaeological sites in the ancient Near East which have architectural remains. A number of them display layer after layer of architectural remains covering many centuries or even millennia. These architectural remains date from the beginnings of architecture in the ninth millennium down through the entire OT period and even later. Further, baked brick is virtually indestructible; so it would almost certainly be found if it were present.

The ancient Near Eastern archaeological data regarding building materials used in the ancient Near East is so abundant and clear that every modern scholar writing about the history of architecture in the Near East comes to the same conclusion: although unbaked brick was extensively used for architecture from c. 8500 B.C. to Christian times, baked brick, though used occasionally for such things as drains or walkways, did not make an architectural appearance until c. 3500 B.C. and it was rarely used in architecture until c. 3100 B.C.

Whether viewed in terms of breadth as at Chatal Huyuk with its dozens of unearthed buildings or in terms of depth as at Eridu with its eighteen successive building levels from c. 5000 to c. 2100 B.C., the archaeological data from the Near East universally testify that prior to c. 3100 B.C. the bricks used in architecture were unbaked. Indeed, Jacquetta Hawkes indicates in her archaeological survey that baked brick was not used for architecture anywhere in the entire world until c. 3000 B. C. (p. 17)

Let’s move on, then to the question of “bitumen for mortar” (Gen 11:3). I dealt with bitumen’s availability in ancient Egypt during Moses’ lifetime at great length twice (one / two) over against an atheist who foolishly claimed this was a biblical anachronism. Was it available in southern Mesopotamia, c. 3100-2900 BC?

According to a Khan Academy article by Dr. Senta German: “White Temple and ziggurat, Uruk”, the aforementioned Anu Ziggurat in Uruk (modern Warka) — a very beautiful structure indeed — was built in c. 3517-3358 BC. She states (based on the findings of excavations):

The flat top of the ziggurat was coated with bitumen (asphalt—a tar or pitch-like material similar to what is used for road paving) and overlaid with brick, for a firm and waterproof foundation for the White temple. . . .

To the north of the White Temple there was a broad flat terrace, at the center of which archaeologists found a huge pit with traces of fire (2.2 x 2.7m) and a loop cut from a massive boulder. Most interestingly, a system of shallow bitumen-coated conduits were discovered.

But where did this bitumen utilized in Uruk come from? We know that, too. wrote the article, “The Archaeology and History of Bitumen” (ThoughtCo., 1-3-19). She informs us:

Research into bitumen sources has illuminated the history of the expansionist period of Mesopotamian Uruk. An intercontinental trading system was established by Mesopotamia during the Uruk period (3600-3100 BC), with the creation of trading colonies in what is today southeastern Turkey, Syria, and Iran. According to seals and other evidence, the trade network involved textiles from southern Mesopotamia and copper, stone, and timber from Anatolia, but the presence of sourced bitumen has enabled scholars to map out the trade. For example, much of the bitumen in Bronze age Syrian sites has been found to have originated from the Hit seepage on the Euphrates River in southern Iraq.

Using historical references and geological survey, scholars have identified several sources of bitumen in Mesopotamia and the Near East. By performing analyses using a number of different spectroscopy, spectrometry, and elemental analytical techniques, these scholars have defined the chemical signatures for many of the seeps and deposits. Chemical analysis of archaeological samples has been somewhat successful in identifying the provenance of the artifacts.
Schwartz and colleagues (2016) suggest that the onset of bitumen as a trade good began first because it was used as waterproofing on the reed boats that were used to ferry people and goods across the Euphrates. By the Ubaid period of the early 4th millennium BC, bitumen from northern Mesopotamian sources reached the Persian Gulf.
Reference: Schwartz M, and Hollander D. 2016. The Uruk expansion as dynamic process: A reconstruction of Middle to Late Uruk exchange patterns from bulk stable isotope analyses of bitumen artifactsJournal of Archaeological Science: Reports 7:884-899.
An article on bitumen at the All Mesopotamia site elaborated:

Although Mesopotamians were not the first to use bitumen as an adhesive, it seems they had a monopoly on the substance as more than an adhesive for putting tools and weapons together. Sumerians called it esir, and Akkadians called it iddu.

Bitumen oozed out of the ground at various locations in the ancient Middle East, but it did not flow quite like it did in the land between the two rivers, and the needs of the Mesopotamian civilization were such that bitumen played a much bigger role in Mesopotamia than anywhere else in the ancient world.

The city of Hit in central Iraq was, and remains a hub of bitumen deposits, which have been utilized for thousands of years. The Akkadian name for bitumen, iddu, is synonymous with the ancient Mesopotamian name of the city, Id, and iddu translates into “the product from Id.” Though excavations have found that bitumen from Hit was only used in Babylon, Mesopotamians all across the land between the two rivers used bitumen from a number of different places. (Ancient Mesopotamian Materials and Industries: Archaeological Evidence By Peter Roger Stuart Moorey) . . .

[A]lthough bitumen was in use even in prehistoric times, the first people to use it on a large and dependent scale were the settlers of the marshy land in southern Mesopotamia, who occupied the region as early as 4500 BC.

Known as the Ubaids, the settlers of the marshy lands lived in houses made of marsh reeds, which they would bundle together with bulrush fiber. Before bitumen, the Ubaids only coated their walls with mud, leaving them vulnerable to frequent flooding and other elements. Once they discovered bitumen deposits and observed the substance’s behavior as an adhesive and sealant, however, they ditched mud and began coating their homes with bitumen.

The Ubaids didn’t stop with their homes. They also used bitumen to seal their paddle boats, also made of marsh reeds. The Ubaids became the first seafarers to be documented in history, thanks to waterproofed boats allowing them to venture further out to sea.

Moving away from the marsh lands, Mesopotamians were building structures with bricks made out of clay up north, which were not much better than marsh reeds when faced with flooding. With the discovery of bitumen came the ability to build more durable bricks and structures, including the Ziggurat, and the Tower of Babel.

The Wikipedia article on the city of Hīt notes that “the town was known for its bitumen wells . . . During the Early Dynastic Period [c. 2900-2350 BC] the Sumerians discovered bitumen wells in the region, which they used in building the Ziggurats. They also used it in shipbuilding, to waterproof their boats.”

Seeley (ibid.) addressed the issue of bitumen as well:

The use of bitumen (asphalt) for mortar also gives clear evidence of the earliest date to which we can ascribe the events of Gen 11:1-9. Since there are extensive remains of brick buildings in the sites of the ancient Near East and bituminous mortar is nearly as indestructible as baked brick, it is easy to ascertain when bitumen began to be used as mortar for bricks. The evidence from thousands of bricks shows that bitumen was not used as a mortar for brick until baked brick appeared. Until c. 3500 to 3000 B.C., if mortar was used, it was gypsum or just mud. It is quite clear that bitumen was not used as mortar for brick buildings until the proto-historical period, that is c. 3500 to 3000 B.C.

Strong evidence of both kiln-fired bricks and availability and use of bitumen in Mesopotamia by the early third millennium BC is now established. The Bible had its facts right again, as far as we can determine from archaeology. In other words, the building materials for building the Tower of babel were indeed available at that time and place.

Based on the above hard data from archaeology, we can date the Tower of Babel to approximately 3000-2800 BC.

Moreover, it’s also significant that Noah’s Ark: built in the same general area just shortly before, was covered “inside and out with pitch” [same thing as bitumen] (Gen 6:14). Now we know that this availability is verified as well. Sumerian cuneiform tablets state that Noah lived in Shuruppak, which is right in the middle of the Mesopotamian flood plain, and archaeologically excavated (Tell Fara) as far back as 3,000 BC.

Genesis 6:14 says that the Ark was made of “gopher wood.” We can’t be certain of what type of wood this was, but the best guesses are thought to be cedar or cypress. Geologist Carol A. Hill, in her endlessly fascinating article, “A Time and a Place for Noah” (March 2001), delves into speculation as to how Noah obtained his wood, since the Mesopotamian plain had little of it:

The date palm was the only large tree native to southern Mesopotamia, and this wood is of limited value as building material. For a boat the size of the ark, a source of high-quality timber was needed. . . .

Precious wood is known to have come into Mesopotamia from three main sources–from Elam (now western Iran), from the Amanus-Lebanon Mountains (now Syria), and from Anatolia (now western Turkey, near Carchemish). Sumerian trade was based mostly on shipping along the Euphrates River, and large numbers and types of boats are mentioned in Sumerian texts. [117] . . . Probably the “gopher wood” of Gen. 6:14 was either cedar or cypress, with cedar perhaps being the best candidate, since cedar is a straight wood, ideal in the making of large boats.

It is known that trade had already become established with the Amanus Mountains by Jemdet Nasr time, and the transportation of cedar trunks up to 100 feet long from that area has been documented [119].The Lebanon-Amanus region was a rich source of timber to Mesopotamia in ancient times, and many Mesopotamian kings sent expeditions to fetch its famous cedars. To make the journey to Mesopotamia from the Amanus Mountains, the timber usually joined the Euphrates at Carchemish, Emar, or Habuba [120]. Or, if the timber came from the Anatolian highlands, it could have been shipped to the area of Malatya and then floated down the upper Euphrates. The export of timber into Mesopotamia could help explain the Uruk-Jemdet Nasr “enclaves” (colonies or trading posts) found along the banks of the upper Euphrates in both Syria and southern Turkey, [121] and it could also help explain the deforestation of these areas beginning in Uruk time [122]. Wood cut down in mountain forests could have been moved across the snow in winter, or by ox-cart along wagon roads to a suitable trading enclave on the Euphrates River or one of its tributaries. Then it could have been consolidated into larger rafts and floated down the Euphrates River to Sumer at the time of the spring flood [123].

References: [117] R. J. Forbes, Studies in Ancient Technology, vol. 8 (Leiden: Brill, 1964), 92.

[119] M. C. DeGraeve, The Ships of the Ancient Near East (Lewen: Department Orientalistich, 1981), 94.

[120] S. Dalley, Mari and Karana, Two Old Babylonian Cities (London: Longman, 1984), 6; Oates, “Trade and Power in the Fifth and Fourth Millenium B.C.,” 413.

[121] J. Oates and D. Oates, “An Open Gate: Cities of the Fourth Millenium B.C. (Tell Brak 1997),” Cambridge Archaeological Journal 7, no. 2 (1997): 287.

[122] G. H. Willcox, “A History of Deforestation as Indicated by Charcoal Analysis of Four Sites in Eastern Anatolia,” Anatolian Studies-Journal of the British Institute of Archaeology at Ankara 24 (1974): 132.

[123] M. B. Rowton, “The Woodlands of Ancient Western Asia,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 26 (1967): 272.


Photo credit: The Tower of Babel, by Alexander Mikhalchyk (b. 1969) [Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license]


Summary: I document how archaeology has shown that bitumen & kiln-fired bricks were available in Mesopotamia, c. 3000 BC (Tower of Babel), & bitumen & wood for Noah’s Ark in the same period.

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