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Ancient Syria

Ritual Sacrifices?

by Mati Milstein, 24 October 2006

An ancient tomb complex filled with gold and silver treasures was reported in 2006 to have been uncovered in northern Syria following a series of digs which had been undertaken since 2000. It yielded crucial clues about life in some of the world's very first cities.

Highly unusual signs of ritual infant sacrifice were also found in the tombs, which were discovered at Umm el-Marra, a total of fifty-six kilometres east of the city of Aleppo.

If confirmed, the signs of sacrifice could have raised intriguing questions about the beliefs of the site's former inhabitants.

The first Umm el-Marra tomb, dating back to about 27000 BC, was discovered in 2000 by researchers from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. The latest discoveries to be reported, in 2006, revealed at least seven more tombs in the same complex, built over three centuries from about 2500 to about 2200 BC.

The tombs held a treasure trove of artefacts. One contained a wooden coffin with gold and silver toggle pins and beads of lapis, gold, and carnelian, a reddish mineral often used as a gemstone.

In another tomb, three adults were found buried with gold and silver ornaments and vessels, ivory combs, and furniture inlaid with ostrich eggshell.

Signs of ritual human and animal sacrifice - including puppies, decapitated donkeys, and the skeletons of infants - were also found.

The animal skeletons which were found were predominantly of equids, or members of the horse family, most likely donkeys, onagers (the wild cousin of the donkey), or a hybrid of the two. But archaeologists also found puppy bones in the tombs.

A previously-unseen variety of writing was also found carved into four small clay cylinders which were uncovered in one single location.

Aerial photo of Tell Umm el-Marra
An aerial photo showing the present-day mound of Tell Umm el-Marra, believed to be the site of the ancient city of Tuba

Johns Hopkins archaeologist Glenn Schwartz, who led the research, believed the tombs to be for members of the city's royalty or upper class. 'I suspect that the sacrifice of these equids in our tombs has something to do with their association with the highest rank of society,' Schwartz said. 'It would be like a wealthy person today being buried with a Rolls Royce.'

The new tombs were excavated in 2002, 2004, and 2006, with funding from the National Science Foundation, the National Geographic Society Committee for Research and Exploration, New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Dellheim Foundation of Baltimore, and Johns Hopkins University.

Elite burial

Umm el-Marra is located on the Jabbul Plain of northern Syria, just west of the Euphrates. The area was once the centre of a critical trade route, one which connected the Mediterranean Sea to points as far east as Afghanistan.

Schwartz said he believed that Umm el-Marra was the site of ancient Tuba, one of Syria's first cities and the capital of a small kingdom.

As urban centres began to form in Mesopotamia and what is now Syria, the newly emerging elites had to cement the legitimacy of their rule, Schwartz said.

The new finds at Umm el-Marra - its centrally located 'royal cemetery' is so far unique amongst cities of its era - may explain how those at the top got others to buy into the new social order.

'One of the ways they did it, it would seem, was by venerating rulers and burying them in the middle of the community. This made them constantly present,' Schwartz explained.

'The living rulers could point to their ancestors and say, "The same people which we are venerating as ancestors, they are my predecessors. Let it be recognised that they were illustrious rulers and my own authority is thus justified".'

Schwartz believed the tombs were also meant to convey these same messages of power to competing city-states. 'The elite in the different cities were trying to impress one another,' Schwartz said. 'These tombs are not subterranean - everyone can see them all the time.'

Babies sacrificed?

We may never know the answer to perhaps the most intriguing question: why were puppies and babies buried together with the deceased in Umm el-Marra?

There is almost no archaeological evidence to shed light on ancient Syrian society's rituals and beliefs, according to Augusta McMahon, a lecturer in Mesopotamian archaeology at England's University of Cambridge.

McMahon is sceptical of Schwartz's claims of infant sacrifice at Umm el-Marra.

'We have no other documentation that I know of,' McMahon said. 'There is no textual reference about this sort of behaviour.'

She suggests that high infant mortality rates may have led to mass burials of Umm el-Marra babies in the royal tombs.

'If there is an aspect of child sacrifice then you arrive at questions along the likes of: which children were they? Were they the children of upper classes, the elite, the people in power who belong in the tomb? Or are they children of lower classes who were forced into this? You are confronted by a whole lot of uncomfortable questions which demand explanations,' McMahon said.

While admitting that high infant mortality rates may explain the unusual burials in Umm el-Marra, Schwartz was sticking to his hypothesis. 'There is evidence of human sacrifice in other burial contexts,' he said. 'The most famous is in the city of Ur in southern Mesopotamia.

'We don't know for sure that these infants [in Umm el-Marra] were sacrificed. But I think it seems to be likely, because they are found in architectural features which otherwise contain the skeletons of animals which clearly were sacrificed.'

Both McMahon and Schwartz agreed that the newly-discovered material at Umm el-Marra would allow researchers to paint a much more elaborate and colourful portrait of early urban civilisation in Syria.

Tell Umm el-Marra excavations

The upper layer of Tomb 1 (click or tap on image to read more on a separate page)



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