Tombs Found in Syria Hold Riches, Signs of Ritual Sacrifice

Mati Milstein in Tel Aviv, Israel
for National Geographic News
October 24, 2006

An ancient tomb complex filled with gold and silver treasures has recently been uncovered in northern Syria, yielding crucial clues about life in some of the world's very first cities.

Highly unusual signs of ritual infant sacrifice have also been found in the tombs, which were discovered at Umm el-Marra, 35 miles (56 kilometers) east of the city of Halab (Aleppo)(see Syria map).

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

The first Umm el-Marra tomb, dating back to 3000 B.C., was discovered six years ago by researchers from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.

The latest discovery has revealed at least seven more tombs in the same complex, built over three centuries from about 2500 to about 2200 B.C.

The tombs held a treasure trove of artifacts. 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 found are predominantly of equids, or members of the horse family, most likely donkeys, onagers (donkeys' wild cousins), 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 uncovered in one location.

Johns Hopkins archaeologist Glenn Schwartz, who led the research, believes the tombs were 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 his or her Rolls Royce."

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