HomeTechGuess this catchphrase sprawled all over an ancient temple

Guess this catchphrase sprawled all over an ancient temple


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The mysterious 2,700-year-old symbols have baffled experts for a century (Picture: New York Public Library)

A lion, an eagle, a bull, a fig tree and a plough. Thousands of years ago, these five symbols appeared all over temples in the ancient city of Dūr-Šarrukīn – present-day Khorsabad in Iraq – and archaeologists had no idea why.

But now, Assyriologist Dr Martin Worthington believes he may have the answer – and it’s all down to a bit of narcissism. And a very early version of Catchphrase.

The symbols, thought to be around 2,700 years old, were first discovered by a French team excavating the region in the late 19th Century, and have been compared to Egyptian hieroglyphs. In this sense, it was thought perhaps the symbols were used to reflect imperial power.

At the time, the city was ruled by Sargon II, king of Assyria, but how did those symbols point to him?

This is where Catchphrase comes in, with its ‘say what you see’ motto.

Dr Worthington argues that the Assyrian words for the symbols contain sounds that spell out the Assyrian version of the king’s name, Šargīnu. However, it takes a little bit of figuring out, as the full words aren’t used in succession.

The eagle and the bull (Picture: New York Public Library)

In this case, starting with the lion, which in Assyrian is nēšu, just the ‘s’ is used. This is followed by the eagle, or arû, creating the ‘ar’ sound. The bird could have also been a crow, or āribu, which also fits.

Next comes the bull, or gumāḫu, which provides the ‘g’. Together that created ‘sarg’.

The tree, or iṣu, provides the ‘i’, and finally the plough, or epinnu, the ‘nu’.

Add it all together and what do you have?

Sarginu. With a rolled ‘r’ if you can.

How the sound of the symbols spells out King Šargīnu’s name (Picture: Dr Martin Worthington)

But that’s not all.

In some places, only three symbols were found – the lion, the tree and the plough. Here, using a mix of Assyrian and Sumerian, also spoken in ancient Mesopotamia, the same principle still applied, Dr Worthington believes.

Basically, the king just liked to have his name everywhere. On walls, in temples – and even in the stars.

The tree and the plough (Picture: New York Public Library)

According to Dr Worthington, each of the symbols can also be seen as a constellation. Some are more obvious than others, such as the lion representing Leo and the eagle Aquila. The plough is, well, the plough, and the bull is Taurus.

However, there is no constellation based on a tree. In this case, Dr Worthington argues that the fig tree is a stand-in for the hard-to-draw Jaw constellation. No self-respecting king really wants a jaw bone scrawled on his temples. A tree is much more regal, and iṣu sounds much like isu, which meant jaw.

Who was King Sargon II?

Sargon II is widely regarded as one of the great kings of Assyria. He reigned from 721 BCE until he was killed in battle in 705 BCE.

He was thought to be the younger son of Tiglath-pileser III, and a brother to his brother Shalmaneser V – who may have been deposed.

Sargon was at least 40 when ascending to the throne, and was promptly met with a huge rebellion in which he lost his crown in Babylonia.

Nevertheless, he kept his kingdom in Assyria and continued to campaign across the region, later even reclaiming the Babylonian crown.

He is thought to have been killed during a battle to retake the province of Tabal.

‘The effect of the five symbols was to place Sargon’s name in the heavens, for all eternity – a clever way to make the king’s name immortal,’ said Dr Worthington. ‘And, of course, the idea of bombastic individuals writing their name on buildings is not unique to ancient Assyria.’

Assyria was a kingdom in the northern part of ancient Mesopotamia, a region in southwest Asia covering parts of modern-day Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Kuwait.

The region is often known as the ‘Cradle of Civilisation’, and it is thought the art of writing began here around 3400 BCE.

‘Solving puzzles – or trying to – is an especially fun bit [of my work],’ said Dr Worthington. ‘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’

Dr Worthington, whose study is published in the Bulletin of the American Society of Overseas Research, added: ‘I can’t prove my theory, but the fact it works for both the five-symbol sequence and the three-symbol sequence, and that the symbols can also be understood as culturally appropriate constellations, strikes me as highly suggestive.  

‘The odds against it all being happenstance are – forgive the pun – astronomical.’

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