Earth’s magnetic field helps date gateway for sex goddess from Mesopotamia

Earth’s magnetic field helps date gateway for sex goddess from Mesopotamia

With a bit of luck, it can be seen again in the spring of 2027: the crystal blue Ishtar Gate in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. The museum is closed for an extended period of time due to renovations. This disadvantage has the advantage that the gate can be provided with new explanation signs in peace and quiet.

Knowledge about its construction history can then be updated, because a team of Italian, German and American researchers published an article about it last week in the scientific journal Plos One. They used the Earth’s magnetic field to map the gate’s construction more accurately.

Love, sex and war

The Ishtar Gate was built in the city of Babylon during the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar II, in the sixth century BC. We know this partly because his name is on some of the stones. The gate is named after the goddess Ishtar, who was about love, sex, fertility and war. German archaeologists excavated the structure in Iraq at the beginning of the twentieth century and shipped it to Berlin.

The authors of the article in Plos One were allowed to take a sample of five bricks from the gate to be examined in the laboratory. These were tiny chips of baked clay, from 2 to 10 millimeters in size. During the excavation it became clear that the gate had been built in three different phases. The aim of the study was to determine how close together these phases were – all during Nebuchadnezzar’s lifetime, or not?

The researchers used the Earth’s magnetic field for this. This changes permanently and leaves its mark in materials that are sensitive to magnetism, such as clay. When clay is fired, the magnetic field is fixed at that moment. This creates a ‘signature’ that makes it possible to date when the clay went into the kiln.

Chronological gaps

This is possible because in recent years a database has been built up with magnetic values ​​from the western part of the Middle East (the Levant) from the past three millennia. If the measured value of the Ishtar Gate is plotted on this curve, it will be in the year 569 BC, at the end of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign. Statistical analysis of the data further shows that there are “no significant chronological gaps” between the stones from the various construction phases. Therefore, the authors conclude that the second and third construction phases were part of the gate’s original design, and not later additions.

Because the fluctuations of the Levant’s magnetic field are known, researchers can link the construction of the Ishtar Gate to a major historical event: the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar in 587 BC. When the Babylonians burned the capital of the Kingdom of Judah, the heat captured the archaeomagnetic signature in refired bricks. The signal from Jerusalem differs significantly from that of the Babylonian bricks. Therefore, the authors argue that there must be “a certain chronological gap” between the fall of Jerusalem and the construction of the gate.

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The researchers are pleased that they have now added an important point to the database of archaeomagnetic values. This collection is well filled with figures from the Levant, but those from Mesopotamia are a lot rarer. Furthermore, dating using the earth’s magnetic field is useful, they write, because it is precisely in this period – around 2,500 years ago – that traditional dating with the carbon-14 method does not function properly and has a margin of error of plus or minus two hundred years.