Courtesy of the Schøyen Collection

“The house, the foundation of heaven and earth, Ziggurat in Babylon,” reads the inscription on a stela found in 1917 near the base of the great ziggurat of Babylon by its excavator Robert Koldewey and now in Schøyen’s collection. This great stepped pyramid, originally built by King Ur-Nammu in the 21st century B.C., has been immortalized in the Bible as the Tower of Babel. It was rebuilt and expanded in the sixth century B.C. by King Nebuchadnezzar II (the same ruler who destroyed Jerusalem). This stela commemorates the remodeling of the ziggurat and contains a realistic rendering of a side view of the structure (see detail), a plan on its upper surface of the temple that stood on top (see detail), as well as the king himself holding the architectural plan for the remodeling and, in his other hand, a spear.

The inscription, which identifies Nebuchadnezzar II by name, continues: “I made it the wonder of the people of the world, I raised its top to heaven, made doors for the gates, and I covered it with bitumen and bricks.” Bitumen is a kind of asphalt used for mortar. Genesis 11:3 also records that the Tower of Babel’s masons used bitumen. Koldewey’s excavation recovered baked bricks from the ziggurat, including the one now in the Schøyen Collection; it is printed with the name of Nebuchadnezzar, and still has bitumen residue on it.