Mesopotamia IIMetal ores were mined as far away as south-east Africa and carried back to Mesopotamia by specially designed cargo ships called MA.GUR UR.NU AB.ZU (‘ship for ores of the Lower World’). There, the ores were taken to Bad-Tibira, whose name literally meant ‘the foundation of metalworking.’ Smelted and refined, the ores were cast into ingots whose shape remained unchanged throughout the ancient world for millennia. Such ingots were actually found at various Near Eastern excavations, confirming the reliability of the Sumerian pictographs as true depictions of the objects they ‘wrote’ out; the Sumerian sign for the term ZAG (‘purified precious’), was the picture of such an ingot. In earlier times it apparently had a hole running through its length, through which a carrying rod was inserted. Several depictions of a God of the Flowing Waters show him flanked by bearers of such precious metal ingots, indicating that he was also the Lord of Mining.
The various names and epithets for Ea’s African Land of Mines are replete with clues to its location and nature. It was known as A.RA.LI (‘place of the shining lodes’), the land from which the metal ores come. A text listing the mountains and rivers of the Sumerian world states: ‘Mount Arali - home of the gold’; and a fragmented text confirms that Arali was the land on which Bad-Tibira depended for its continued operations.
The Mesopotamian texts spoke of the Land of Mines as mountainous, with grassy plateaux and steppes, and lush with vegetation. The capital city of that land was described by the Sumerian texts as being in the GAB.KUR.RA (‘in the chest of the mountains’), well inland. It was a land, all texts suggest, with bright days, awash with sunshine. The Sumerian terms for gold (KU.GI - ‘bright out of earth’) and silver (KU.BABBAR - ‘bright gold’) retained the original association of the precious metals with the bright (KU) domain of the gods.
Pictographic signs employed as Sumer’s first writing reveal great familiarity not only with diverse metallurgical processes but also with the fact that the sources of the metals were mines dug down into the earth. The terms for copper and bronze (‘handsome bright stone’), gold (‘the supreme mined metal’), or ‘refined’ (‘bright - purified’) were all pictorial variants of a mineshaft (‘opening/mouth for dark-red’ metal).