Hidden Tombs of Ancient Syria

By Schwartz, Glenn M. | Natural History, May 2007 | Go to article overview

Hidden Tombs of Ancient Syria


Schwartz, Glenn M., Natural History


Evidence of animal and possibly human sacrifice suggests that burials at Tell Umm el-Marra were those of Bronze Age royalty.

Although nearly seven years have passed, I still vividly remember the events of June 10, 2000. Our archaeological team of students and specialists, about fifteen strong, had begun the third week of a two-month excavation season on the Jabbul Plain of northern Syria. We were bracing ourselves for the hot and dry summer days we could expect at our site, Tell Umm el-Marra. A tell (the word means "mound" in Arabic) is not a natural feature. Rather, it is an archaeological time capsule, with layers of mud bricks, stones, artifacts, and other materials that have accumulated for thousands of years as buildings were lived in, abandoned, fell into ruin, and finally served as the foundations for a new generation of buildings. AtTeIl Umm el-Marra the remains have accumulated to a height of twenty-seven feet across an area of fifty acres. The mound is one of scores that dot the otherwise featureless plain.

In earlier field seasons, our team had whittled away happily at parts of the mound, exploring the residue of a small city founded about 2800 B.C. But on this particular morning I was feeling disappointed. We had begun digging trenches in what we referred to as the "acropolis," a three-and-a-half-acre area at the center of the site. A six-foot-thick wall of mud bricks built around the acropolis in about 1800 B.c. was a tantalizing sign: if ancient inhabitants had taken the trouble to build such a wall, we reasoned, it must have enclosed an important building-a palace, perhaps, or a temple. But when we had dug down to the habitation layer dating from the time of the wall, all we found was a shapeless heap of stone cobbles and boulders.

Disappointed? Yes, but certainly not ready to quit. Could the stones and cobbles still be concealing the foundations of a palace or temple? I asked Alice Petty, a graduate student on our team, to remove the rocks in her trench-after carefully documenting them, of course-and dig deeper. As she did, she uncovered the tops of stone walls that enclosed a rectangular room about twelve feet long by eight feet wide. By the style of the pottery shards in the fill, I judged the room to date from an earlier period. Actually, though, it still didn't look very promising; I rather tepidly suggested to Petty that she keep digging and let me know if anything interesting turned up.

But as she proceeded with the work, my skepticism turned to excitement. Petty started finding unbroken vessels of pottery, which signaled that the contents of the room were unusually well-preserved. Then I heard her call me: "Glenn, there's metal here." I climbed down into the trench to take a look. Two large, lozenge-shaped metal objects were protruding from the soil. Could they be bronze spearheads? One of our colleagues, Sally Dunham, an independent scholar with a special interest in ancient art, came to the edge of the trench to see what was going on. Why would complete vessels and metal objects be found intact inside a room? "Maybe it's a tomb," she suggested. A few strokes with my brush next to the metal objects revealed part of a long bone. I quickly called over Jill Weber, our zooarchaeologist from the University of Pennsylvania, to have a look.

"Animal or human?" I asked her.

"Human."

We summoned our human skeletal expert, Barbara Stuart of the Beirut Archaeological Center, and she began work on what we now understood to be not a room, but a tomb-and a tomb of substantial size. The bones of an adult soon began to emerge, together with objects that had been buried on or near the body. Around the skeleton's neck were beads and amulets of lapis lazuli, the much-prized blue stone from eastern Afghanistan. One of the amulets was carved in the shape of a wild goat, with its horns sweeping elegantly backward. Closer inspection of the metal lozenges, our first find, revealed that they were silver, not bronze, and pierced lengthwise, perhaps for stringing as ornaments. …

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