Saturday, January 12, 2013

Discovery of ancient cemetery reveals aspects of burial rituals of Syria's upper class

Yet another old, but still interesting, item, as reported by John Noble Wilford of The New York Times, October 24, 2006:

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 B.C. to 2200 B.C.

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.

“Animal sacrifices were certainly a big part of this culture,” said Glenn M. Schwartz of Johns Hopkins University, leader of the excavations. “Nowhere else in the region have we seen this elaborate example of animal sacrifices as part of burial rituals.”

Dr. Schwartz said in interviews last week that the signs of sacrifices, the wealth of the grave goods and the cemetery’s setting — at the highest place in the center of the community — signified the importance of the tombs in the society of one of the most ancient cities in Syria.

“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 said.

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. The world’s first urban centers rose centuries earlier in the lower valley of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, known as Mesopotamia in antiquity, now part of Iraq.

Tuba, west of the Euphrates, was probably allied with the more dominant city-state Ebla, where archaeologists in recent decades have uncovered remains of imposing architecture and a library filled with clay tablets bearing cuneiform texts on northern Syria’s economy and diplomacy in the middle of the third millennium B.C.

“The tombs are an extraordinary find,” said Richard L. Zettler, a University of Pennsylvania archaeologist who excavates other Bronze Age sites in Syria and is familiar with but not involved in the Umm el-Marra research.

Dr. Zettler said the explorations there should “give us insights into the local elites and the cultures of moderate-size towns of that period, places intermediate between the Eblas and the small settlements.”

The team led by Dr. Schwartz has been digging at Umm el-Marra since 1994. 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...

...An examination of pottery styles found in the tombs showed that they were built sequentially over three centuries, Dr. Schwartz said. 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.

The two oldest tombs, from about 2500 B.C., are just east of the original discovery site. They and a few others had been vandalized, probably in antiquity by succeeding leaders, acting to discourage further ritual honoring of the individuals buried there.

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 B.C., 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.”

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