29 October 2006
Artifacts in Syria hint at ancient burial rituals
Six years ago, archaeologists uncovered a solitary, undisturbed tomb in the ruins of an ancient city in northern Syria. Now, in subsequent excavations, they have exposed seven more tombs at the site, making this the only known elite, possibly royal, cemetery in Syria in the Early Bronze Age, from about 2500 BCE to 2200 BCE.
The discoverers said the tombs contain skeletons of adults and some infants and children, several of them embellished with jewelry of gold, silver and lapis lazuli. Of special interest, they said, was the evidence of ritual animal sacrifices, including the bones of puppies and decapitated donkeys. "Nowhere else in the region have we seen this elaborate example of animal sacrifices as part of burial rituals," said Glenn M. Schwartz of Johns Hopkins University, leader of the excavations. "I dare to call it a royal cemetery, but it definitely seems to be devoted to the burial and veneration of the most important people of that community," he added.
The modern name of the ruins is Umm el-Marra, about 35 miles east of Aleppo and 200 miles northeast of Damascus. Scholars think this is the site of ancient Tuba, the capital of a small kingdom that thrived on the east-west trade route connecting Mesopotamia with Aleppo and ultimately the Mediterranean Sea. Because it's also bordered by an agricultural zone to the west and a steppe zone to the east that was home to nomadic pastoralists, Schwartz believes Umm el-Marra was a crossroads where people traded their wares, such as dairy products and wool from the east for grain from the west. In addition to the tombs, the work has yielded the remains of houses, pottery kilns, metallurgy installation and fortification walls spread over at least 60 acres. But no ruins of a palace or a temple have yet come to light.
Given differences in ceramic objects found in the tombs, Schwartz and his team have concluded that they were built sequentially over three centuries, from about 2500 to about 2200 BCE. The tombs were built next to each other, with the complex expanding horizontally. Since they found no more than eight skeletons per tomb, the archaeologists hypothesize that these are tombs of different families or dynasties. The tombs, lined with mud bricks, were apparently dug into the ground but may have been partly above ground. These may have had vaulted roofs, the archaeologists said, but there is no evidence of stone superstructures. The first tomb, discovered in 2000, is 12 feet long and 8 feet wide; the largest of the tombs is 30 feet by 15 feet. One of these earliest tombs, and the largest, held the bones of a man and an assortment of gold and silver toggle pins, and beads of lapis lazuli and gemstones. An unlooted tomb, from about 2400 BCE, was more lavish and had two burial levels. Remains of two women and a man were found in the lower level, associated with gold and silver ornaments, ivory combs, furniture inlays of ostrich eggshells and many ceramic vessels. The upper level held the bones of a man, a woman and a child; next to the woman were silver diadems and seven silver vessels.
In five subterranean brick structures in the cemetery, archaeologists found skeletons of animals and, in some cases, of human infants, which raised some speculation that they may have been sacrificed along with the animals. Most of the animals were equids, members of the horse family like donkeys, onagers or a hybrid of the two. The bones of 27 individuals were found, with their decapitated skulls usually placed on nearby ledges. Two sets of three puppy skeletons were in the ruins.
Dr. Zettler said that animal sacrifice was unusual in these societies but not unknown. Equid breeding and exporting was vital to the economy of ancient Tuba. Donkeys, in particular, were highly prized. "I suspect that the sacrifice of these equids in our tombs has something to do with their association with the highest rank of society," Dr. Schwartz said. "It would be like a wealthy person today being buried with his or her Rolls-Royce."
There is still much to be explored and analyzed before the archaeologists fully understand the tomb complex and all it can teach them about rulership and ritual in early urban Syria, Schwartz said. "We hope to excavate below the tombs already identified to investigate the origins of the mortuary complex," he said.
Sources: All Headlines News (23 October 2006), EurekAlert!, The New York Times (24 October 2006), Telegraph.co.uk (28 October 2006)