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K. Kris Hirst

Human Sacrifice at Royal Cemetery of Ur

By November 9, 2011

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A recent study of skulls from the Royal Cemetery of Ur in Iraq has shed a little light on the Mesopotamian elite burials discovered by C. Leonard Woolley back in the 1920s and 30s.

Wreath of Poplar Leaves
Wreath of poplar leaves (Length: 40 cm) made of gold, lapis lazuli and carnelian, found with the body of a female attendant crouched at the foot of Queen Puabi's bier, Royal Cemetery of Ur, ca 2550 BCE. Iraq's Ancient Past: Rediscovering Ur's Royal Cemetery, Penn Museum

One of the most explosive archaeological stories of the early decades of the 20th century was the royal cemetery at Ur. Sir Leonard Woolley was excavating at the Mesopotamian site of Tell al-Muqayyar in 1926-1927 when he began excavating what he would come to call the Royal Cemetery.

The Royal Cemetery had sixteen elite burials, that included special rooms for the royal personage, and grave pits filled with bodies of scores of retainers--people dressed in fine clothes and laid out in rows. Woolley postulated that these people were servants of the elite, who had participated in the festivities around the death and gone willingly to their deaths via some type of poison.

Archaeological evidence to date has supported Woolley's contention that they were servants--their bones show that they worked hard during their lives--but examination of their bones by modern methods not available to Woolley tells a different story. The servants were killed first, by blunt force trauma (probably a bronze axe); their bodies were treated by heating and/or by mercury to preserve them; and only after all that were they dressed in finery and laid into rows to attend their (presumably) former master or mistress to the after life.

Great Death Pit at Ur
Plan of the "Great Death Pit," so called because it held the bodies of seventy-three retainers. Reprinted from Woolley's The Royal Cemetery, Ur Excavations, Vol. 2, published in 1934. Iraq's Ancient Past: Rediscovering Ur's Royal Cemetery, Penn Museum

Interesting reading, in Antiquity earlier this year. Also--good timing, because there is an ongoing exhibition of the artifacts from Ur at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology this year, so you can go see the artifacts first hand.

More on Ur

Baadsgaard A, Monge J, Cox S, and Zettler RL. 2011. Human sacrifice and intentional corpse preservation in the Royal Cemetery of Ur. Antiquity 85(327):27-42.

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