Archaeologists discover ancient untouched tomb in Syria

October 01, 2000

An ancient, untouched tomb of what may be royalty from one of the world's first city-dwelling civilizations has been discovered in Syria, containing human and animal remains, gold and silver treasures and unbroken artifacts that had not been disturbed for about 4,300 years.

The tomb was discovered during the summer by a team of archeologists from The Johns Hopkins University, working in Umm el-Marra, what is believed to be the site of ancient Tuba, one of Syria's first cities.

"This is one of the earliest urban civilizations in the world," said Glenn Schwartz, leader of the team and professor of Near Eastern studies in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences at Johns Hopkins. "By studying Syria, we can learn more about the different ways urban societies developed, why they developed when and how they did, and how they differed from each other. It's an important addition to our understanding of why cities, writing, states and social classes first developed."

The tomb was remarkably intact and contained five adults and three babies, some of whom were ornamented head-to-toe in gold and silver. It may be the oldest intact royal tomb yet to be found in Syria, Schwartz said. It included three layers of skeletons. The top layer includes traces of two coffins, each containing a young woman in her 20s and a baby. The women were the most richly ornamented of all the occupants of the tomb, with jewelry of silver, gold and lapis lazuli. Also of interest on this level was an accompanying lump of iron, possibly from a meteorite. One of the babies appeared to be wearing a bronze torque, or collar.

In the layer below were coffins of two adult males and the remains of a baby at some distance from both men, close to the entrance of the tomb. This differs from the placement of the babies in the upper layer, where they were placed next to the women's bodies. Crowning the older man was a silver diadem decorated with a disk bearing a rosette motif, while the man opposite had a bronze dagger. The third and lowest layer held an adult male with a silver cup and silver pins.

All the individuals were accompanied by scores of ceramic vessels, some of which contained animal bones that may have been part of funerary animal offerings. Outside the tomb to the south, against the tomb wall, was a jar containing the remains of a baby, a spouted jar, and two decapitated skulls, horselike but apparently belonging neither to horses or donkeys. The ceramics in the tomb date to around 2300 B.C., the latter part of Egypt's pyramid age.

Now back at Hopkins, Schwartz and his team are working to assess what it all means.

"An important aspect of this discovery is the intact character of the tomb," said Schwartz. "In contrast to elite tombs from the same period found along the Syrian Euphrates in recent years, the Umm el-Marra tomb was not plundered, allowing for unimpeded study of the mortuary ritual involved. What is unclear, at present, is why the tomb was not robbed, particularly if it was an aboveground structure and conspicuous on a high part of the city. Also unclear is the character of the tomb's individuals: why are the most richly adorned persons two young women, each accompanied by a baby? This peculiar aspect may hint at ritual characteristics, rather than a tomb simply reserved for royalty or elite individuals."

The tomb is clearly part of a larger complex: walls extend from the tomb in almost every direction and indicate further structures yet to be investigated. Whether it is part of a palace structure or a larger elaborate ancient cemetery remains to be found during future expeditions.

The city of Tuba was mentioned frequently in second and third millennium B.C. texts. Since 1994, Schwartz and a University of Amsterdam team directed by Hans Curvers have been excavating the city, located on a major east-west route that connected the Mediterranean coast with upper Mesopotamia. Umm el-Marra, the city's modern name, is located about 200 miles northeast of Damascus.

All of the bodies and artifacts found in the tomb remain in safe-keeping in Syria. In the meantime, the tomb has been re-covered with earth and hidden until the Hopkins team can return to it in a year or two.


Q: What was the importance of this civilization?
SCHWARTZ: This is one of the earliest urban civilizations in the world. Until recently, historians and archeologists have been primarily aware of Mesopotamia as one of the very first urban societies, with the first examples of writing; and of the Egyptian civilization, which appears about the same time as Mesopotamia or a bit later. But now we realize that Syria also had its own early variety of urban, literate civilization. By studying Syria, we can learn more about the different ways urban societies developed, why they developed when and how they did, and how they differed from each other. It's an important addition to our understanding of why cities, writing, states and social classes first emerged.

Q: 2300 B.C. ... what does that relate to in the time lines of other, more familiar civilizations?
SCHWARTZ: The people of this tomb lived around the time of the Sumerians in southern Mesopotamia (Iraq), and also around the creation of the world's first empire, the Akkadian empire, founded by Sargon of Akkad, also from southern Mesopotamia. They lived in the latter part of Egypt's pyramid age; for example, the Great Pyramid dates circa 2600 B.C.

Q: You said this is may be a royal tomb. Could it be a king? Or some lesser brand of royalty?
SCHWARTZ: Since the most richly decorated individuals are women, it's unlikely to be a king's tomb. Princesses? Queens? Concubines? One could compare it to the much later very rich tomb of queens of Assyria (circa 700 B.C.) found about a dozen years ago in northern Iraq. Those tombs were more elaborate, however, since Assyria ruled the entire Middle East at the time.

Q: How did you find this tomb?
SCHWARTZ: For several years, my team of Hopkins graduate students and I have been excavating in Syria. Our site is a tell, an archaeological term for a site that is in the form of a mound or hill. Tells develop because they were occupied by a community for many generations, with people repeatedly building new structures on top of the ruins of earlier ones. We were actually excavating the remains of one of the upper layers, for a city that existed later, around 1800 B.C. But one day, Alice Petty, a Hopkins graduate student, came across an unbroken pot, which is quite unusual -- usually we only find shards of pots -- and then another, and then another. That's when we knew we had found a structure whose contents were undisturbed -- and the pottery told us it was much older than we had anticipated. Then we hit some bone and knew it was a tomb.
Related Web sites: Some past findings from Johns Hopkins-University of Amsterdam Umm el-Marra excavations can be found here and here.

(Note to reporters: High resolution digital images of findings are available by request for media only)

Johns Hopkins University

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