Guabba, the Meluhhan Village in Mesopotamia

Often archaeology has to deal with wisps of clues that point in a certain direction even if certainty is elusive. Such is the town of Guabba (shown in approximate location in the map above) in ancient Mesopotamia, which we know only through cuneiform texts. "Since the Sumerian and Akkadian documents became available to the scholarly world, it was evident that the southern Mesopotamian region had direct contact with various foreign places (or countries) during the second part of the third millennium BC. From these far away places came a variety of goods, often exotic items, which were exchanged for local commodities," writes the author of this paper, who used these texts to present a compelling case that the ancient town of Guabba was a Meluhhan village around 2112 BCE –  2004 BCE. The Meluhhans, as others and the evidence in his argument suggests, were people from the ancient Indus civilization region.

Until Dr. Vermaak's paper (2008), no one had connected the known existence of a Meluhhan village in the Girsu/Lagash area with Guabba; the availability of more texts since the first connections were made by scholars like Asko Parpola allowed him to both locate it more precisely and tease out a number of other references that give us some sense of what these people did and were known for.

To begin, it is worth noting the larger context and background, as Vermaak does in another paper, The Foreign Triangle in South-Eastern Mesopotamia (link below) at the time: "The province of Lagaš had within its region three main centra [centers], namely Girsu, Lagaš and Nina a visible abundance of gods and temples which is quite different from all the regions in Mesopotamia, stretching over various periods before the Old Babylonian periods (cf. Selz 1995). This in itself is extraordinary and provides a wealth of information which could point in the direction of a large variety of cultural, ethnic or racial groupings which could have been responsible for otherness towards the rest of the Mesopotamian region," (p. 10).

What are some of the distinctive features of this Meluhhan village? For one thing, "When one calculates the amounts delivered by the Meluhhan granaries in comparison to other regions, towns or villages it was surprisingly high. It cannot exactly be determined why they delivered more barley (up to three times more) than most of the other granaries. It might be that the Meluhhan granaries had a larger region under their premises or perhaps they had to deliver more to the Girsu authorities due to their foreign origin, but this is pure speculation at this stage," (p. 457).

The Meluhhans also had a distinctive garden, with some kind of special wood and water, and two temples, for the gods Nanshe and Ninmar, where at least one group of workers had a Meluhhan overseer according to the cuneiform texts, "which is a good illustration of the Meluhhans being incorporated into the society of southern Mesopotamia," (p. 458). Ninmar temple seems to have had at least one Meluhhan garden.

Then there is reference to a Meluhhan bird, which may have been multi-colored, possibly a peacock, or a "hen" from India. There are reference to Meluhhan goats, and special woods that may have been used to build boats or used to incorporate ivory inlays.

Most interesting, however, is the connection of Guabba with the textile industry of the area (see Rita Wright's paper, What Lay Beneath: Queen Puabi’s Garments and Her Passage to the Underworld). Textiles were a large part of the economy in these ancient Mesopotamian city-states. "During the UR III period Guabba provides the largest group of people from Girsu working in the weaving sector, mainly women and children. In one text (HSS IV 3) 4,272 women and 1,800 children from Guabba are listed as being in the weaving industry (cf. Waetzoldt 1972:94). It still has to be determined why the largest group of weavers are to be found here, but if Guabba was indeed a Meluhhan village then one could speculate that this group could have been ancestors of a distant group which diffused into this area, bringing their skills of textiles into the region or being used as cheap labour" (p. 465). The importance of textiles to ancient urban civilizations in general cannot be underestimated, there were a lot of people to cloth, even if textiles are among the most invisible of goods; we also do not have corresponding Indus texts to those from Mesopotamia that show how important clothing was to culture and social hierarchies (as it still is today).

Vermaak's paper also discusses the possibility of a seashore closer to Guabba at one point (was it a port in even more ancient times?), and other hints about Meluhhan civilization, none of which seem out of place when we consider that Queen Puabi of Ur, not far away and a few centuries earlier, had been buried with what are numerous ancient-Indus style carnelian and other beads.

As Vermaak concludes in his Foreign Triangle paper: "According to Kamp and Yoffee (1980:99) “pure cultures” never existed in the ancient societies and “hybrid cultures” was the norm. With the unravelling of the early societies, one pursues to determine the core of societies, but is often hurdled with the reality of cultural changes that occur over a long period of time. Cultures often borrowed from each others’ ideas, customs, symbols, etc. (cf. Haviland 1989)," (p. 11).

We can only hope that future excavations and more decipherment of cuneiform inscriptions (according to Google, "between half a million and two million cuneiform tablets are estimated to have been excavated in modern times, of which only approximately 30,000–100,000 have been read or published") will help us unravel many more of these connections. It is a fair guess that much more about the Meluhhans is to be found.