The Human Journey
Pre-Axial Thought Introduction

Pre-Axial Thought


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double boat-shaped gold earings
Large double boat-shaped gold earring from Ur, 2500 BCE. (British Museum from the Ur excavations reference 122359.)
Ancient board game
Wooden game-board from Royal Cemetery at Ur, 2600-2400 BCE. The face is of 20 variously inlaid square shell plaques; edges made of small plaques and strips, some sculptured with an eye and some possibly with rosettes; on the back are three lines of shell triangular ornamental inlays. (British Museum from the Ur excavations reference 120834.)
Ancient jewelry from Ur
Jewelry and ornamentation from Royal Cemetery at Ur, 2600 BCE. Gold earring (double boat-shaped), gold comb, necklace of alternating beads of cornelian and gold; 81 of cornelian; 72 of plain gold; 9 segmented gold; gold round beads. Collar of gold and lapis lazuli alternating triangles; pierced for three strings. Gold ribbon from a head-dress. (British Museum Reference Numbers 122306, 122412 , 122318a, 122313 and 122302.)

Mesopotamians invented not only writing but many technologies including metal- and copper-working, glass and lamp making, textile weaving, flood control, water storage, and crop irrigation. They were one of the first Bronze Age people in the world. Palaces and temples were decorated with copper, bronze, and gold; copper, bronze, and iron were used for armor and weaponry such as swords, daggers, spears, and maces.

Since, in a sense, the role of human beings was to be a link between the heavens above and the underworld below, much of the social, economic and political activities of the cities concentrated around the temple area. Temple complexes were built in the center of each city-state and included courtyards, storage rooms, bathrooms, and living quarters. The most important part of the complex was the ziggurat, the massive sacred dwelling place of their patron deity. Additional ziggurats were built for other gods as well. As the “mountain of God” or “hill of heaven,” ziggurats connected heaven and earth, with the rest of the city-state built around them.


Pyramid-shaped structures are yet another example of how human beings expressed their psychological understanding of our place in the universe as three-tiered, so it is not surprising that ancient examples of such structures are found on at least three continents: in Asia, Africa and the Americas. They are of different constructions and serve different functions, but they all served to connect people to the heavens. And the human being’s heaven, the home of the god(s), is always above.

The pyramid is the simplest structure that humans could build that would function as a step to the heavens. Without modern reinforcement inside a tower or similar structure, the only way to build higher is to have the largest part at the bottom, and succeeding levels smaller, so the structure doesn’t topple.

representation of the Ziggurat of Ur-Nammu

Ziggurats, the stepped pyramid-like structures common to Sumerians, Babylonians and Assyrians, were temples whose function was to house the god and ensure that he/she remained close to them. Atop each ziggurat was a sacred shrine in which the god actually was present. Ziggurats date from the end of the third millennium BCE, a little earlier than the first Egyptian examples, until around the 6th century BCE.

Their designs evolved from simple bases upon which a shrine sat to receding tiers up to seven levels tall. They were built of sunbaked mud bricks upon a rectangular, oval, or square platform, with the shrine at the summit. The bricks were often glazed in various colors. Ziggurats could be massive: the construction of the Ziggurat of Ur measured 210 feet in length, 150 feet in width and possibly over 100 feet in height. It was finished by King Shulgi, (2095–2049 BCE).

During Shugli’s 48-year reign, the city of Ur grew to be the capital of a state controlling much of Mesopotamia. The royal tombs of Ur contained 74 carefully arranged skeletons all entombed at the same time, which implies that monarchs took their staff along with them to the next life.

Step pyramid and camel
Step Pyramid of Djoser (constructed c. 2630–2611 BCE)

Egyptian Pyramids were even bigger. The earliest among the Egyptian Pyramids is the step Pyramid of Djoser (constructed c. 2630–2611 BCE) during the third dynasty. It was 203 feet high and 411 feet at the base. Egyptian pyramids had a different function. For the Egyptians the afterlife was of paramount importance, so pharaohs had extravagant tombs built during their lives, which would assist their passage into the heavens above after their death. The stepped Pyramid of Djoser, named after the pharaoh, was designed to serve as a gigantic stairway by which his soul could ascend to the heavens.

Some scholars, such as the English Egyptologist I.E.S. Edwards, conjecture that the idea of the pyramid shape came from the image of the sun's rays coming through clouds; others that it referred to the Egyptian Nu the primal island of creation, and still others that it was influenced by the shape of meteorites, that tend to appear conical in shape when they land on the earth intact.

Example of a cone shaped (i.e. oriented) Meteorite

Recent evidence of roughly pyramid-shaped iron meteorites have been found in the US and elsewhere in the world: in Missouri, Colorado, Arizona, Nebraska and Alabama, São Paulo State Brazil, Omolon in Beringia, and Zaklodzie in southeast Poland.

Egyptian pyramids were often composed of local limestone, with finer quality limestone on the outer layer giving them a white sheen that could be seen from miles away. The capstone was usually made of granite, basalt, or another very hard stone and could be plated with gold, silver or electrum, an alloy of gold and silver, which would also be highly reflective in the bright sun.

Recent findings of equally ancient pyramid structures have been discovered in Brazil to the extent that archaeologists estimate that around a thousand pyramids were once built on the Atlantic coast in the south. The oldest so far found dates from 3000 BCE.

Pyriamid with grass growing on it
Ancient Brazilian pyramid

These pyramids were built exclusively of sea-shells. Because of this they were until very recently mistaken for domestic garbage from early settlements. Like the Egyptian, these pyramid structures also contain hundreds of human burials, complete with spectacular grave goods – including stone plaques, shell breast-plates and beautifully made stone birds, fish, whales and other animals.

One of the largest surviving examples – near the town of Jaguaruna in the Brazilian state of Santa Catarina – still covers 25 acres and stands 100 ft. high, which archeologists think is possibly up to 65 ft. less than its original height. Some of these pyramids – like their later Mexican counterparts – had structures on top of them, although the Brazilian examples are up to 3,000 years older than the ones in Central America.

Our new research shows that Brazil's prehistoric Indians 5,000 years ago were more sophisticated than we had thought and were capable of producing truly monumental structures,” said Professor Edna Morley, the director of the Instituto do Patrinionio Historico e Artistico National (National Heritage Institute) in Santa Catarina where most of the Brazilian pyramids have been discovered. (From:

ancient pyramids
The Caral pyramids in the arid Supe Valley, some 20 km from the Pacific coast.

Caral is an ancient ceremonial center in the Supe Valley in Peru, some 200 km north of Lima, dated to about 2700 BCE. The largest of the Caral pyramids, the Greater Pyramid, is 358 feet wide and 90 feet high. Caral spawns 19 other pyramid complexes scattered across the 35 square-mile area of the site.

reconstruction of the ziggurat of Ur
Ziggurat of Ur, c. 2100 BCE, mud brick and baked brick, Tell el-Mukayyar, Iraq (largely reconstructed).

Sir Leonard Woolley (1880-1960), a British archaeologist and an expert in Mesopotamian stories, led a team from the British Museum and University of Pennsylvania to the Sumerian site of Ur. He noted the following:

“Although ten of the Royal Tombs at Ur contained the remains of a central or primary individual, six of them were ‘grave pits’ or ‘death pits’: shafts leading down to the tombs and sunken courtyards built around the tomb or adjacent to it. These were filled with skeletons of retainers, most of them, like their monarchs, dressed in jewels and carrying bowls.

The largest of these pits was called the Great Pit of Death, located adjacent to Queen Puabi’s tomb and measuring 4 x 11.75 meters. Over seventy individuals were buried there, neatly laid out, wearing jewels and carrying bowls or cups. Bioarchaeological studies of these skeletons show that many of these people had labored hard during their lives, supporting the notion that some of these were servants, even if dressed in finery and perhaps attending a banquet on the last day of their lives.

Recent CT scans and associated studies of some of the servants’ bodies have revealed that they were killed by blunt force trauma, then preserved with heat and mercury, and later dressed in their finery and laid out in rows for the trip to the afterlife”. (

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