Hello, and welcome to the Thin End of the Wedge, the podcast where experts from around the world share new and interesting stories about life in the ancient Middle East. My name is Jon. Each episode I talk to friends and colleagues, and get them to explain their work in a way we can all understand.
“Nothing in life is certain, but death and taxes”, as the old saying goes. Today, we turn our attention to one of the darker corners of the ancient Middle East. We’re used to studying objects made of clay, or less often of stone or metal. Organic materials survive poorly in the soils of Iraq. That includes also bones. So compared to many other ancient cultures, we spend relatively little time thinking about the physical remains of the people of the ancient Middle East, and how the living treated them.
Our guest is an archaeologist and one who specialises in the third millennium BC. Very simply put, that means the Sumerians. She has excavated in southern Iraq and her work there sheds light on the final moments of some of the inhabitants of an ordinary Sumerian town. How and where were Sumerians buried? What were they buried with? And what does this tell us about the beliefs of those ancient people about the one reality that we must all accept?
So get yourself a cup of tea, make yourself comfortable. And let’s meet today’s guest.
Hello, and welcome to Thin End of the Wedge. Thank you for joining us.
Hi, Jon. It’s really a pleasure to be here with you.
Can you tell us please, who are you and what do you do?
I am Licia Romano. I’m an archaeologist, a researcher in Sapienza University in Rome. I’m specialised in archaeology of the ancient Near East, especially in Mesopotamia of the third millennium BC.
You’re going to share with us some of the results of your work at a site called Abu Tbeirah. Could you start by introducing us to that site please?
Abu Tbeirah is a 42 hectare site located south of the city of Nasiriyah. So it is located in southern Iraq. It was a medium size Sumerian city dated to the third millennium BC, and with the last part of the settlement life that should be dated to the very beginning of the second millennium BC. We are digging Abu Tbeirah since 2012. And this is unfortunately the first year that we are not going to excavate the site, but we are really confident to come back to Iraq in the next autumn, inshallah.
There are so many sites in Iraq. Why was Abu Tbeirah chosen for excavation? Did you know in advance that there would be burials? And was that a reason why the site was chosen?
Abu Tbeirah was chosen on the basis of several considerations. First of all the scientific interest. We were interested, together with the Stony Brook University, in excavating a medium size and a small size settlement in the area of Ur. And moreover, we were searching for a third millennium site. So Abu Tbeirah was perfect. And furthermore, we were searching also for a place that was near Nasiriyah, because in 2012, there were some logistic problem[s] that forced us to choose … um … a site that was near a big city.
Moreover, the third millennium BC, in particular the end of the third millennium BC, is a period that is characterised by a series of changes and important changes both from the political and social point of view, and also from the climatic point of view. Abu Tbeirah is a[n] Early Dynastic site essentially, and Abu Tbeirah settlement and the people that lived inside Abu Tbeirah faced this very important period in which the organisation system in Mesopotamia changed from a city state based organisation to the first empire under Sargon of Akkad. So Abu Tbeirah with its medium size can be the right place in which to understand how these changes impacted on the people and on the daily life of the people. Not only these political changes, but also at the end of the third millennium BC we had climatic event, the so-called 4.2 ka event; that, it’s an arid period that influences also the Mesopotamian plain. A medium sized settlement like Abu Tbeirah is neither a capital nor a small village. This means that people were obviously able to survive some difficulties and to react, at least for a certain period. And this is the reason why we are very interesting (= interested) in starting this transitional period that is the end of the third millennium and the beginning of the second millennium.
And Abu Tbeirah is indeed giving us lots of very, very interesting information. When we decided to excavate Abu Tbeirah, the first thing that we did was to analyse satellite imagery, searching for evidences of the presence of buildings, and indeed, we were able to identify, especially in the southern part of the town of Abu Tbeirah, lots of houses, also big dimensions, so we decided to start excavating those buildings. When we went for the first time at Abu Tbeirah, however, walking, just walking, around the site, it was possible to see some graves eroding out from the surface. For example, we found some pieces of coffins pieces or also bronze vessels that were probably belonging to graves.
Where were the dead buried in ancient Sumer? Were they kept close to the family or were they placed in special areas either within or outside the city?
In Mesopotamia, especially during the third millennium BC, archaeologists have found a huge variety of funerary practice. First of all, people were buried both in cemeteries and under the pavement of the houses. But we have also differences not only in the place in which people were buried, but also in the way in which people were buried. For example, we have graves in simple pits, just dug, a hole dug in the soil, or people buried inside coffins, or again, people that were deposed inside chambers made with bricks or mud bricks.
Why were there such differences? Was it determined by how wealthy the person was? Or was there some religious significance?
The reasons behind the presence of these differences in the funerary practices is still under debate. But several scholars think that it might be linked to the presence of different beliefs, different social instances inside the Sumerian community,
Were people buried alone or in groups of some sort?
In Mesopotamia, we have both single graves and multiple graves. So people are buried both alone and in groups. And I have to add also that we have different kinds of groups. Single burials are the most common one and are found in … both in cemeteries and under the pavements of the houses. Multiple graves instead should be divided in two big groups. The first one in which people are buried all together at the same moment. And to this group, for example, belongs the evidence from the Royal cemetery of Ur. For example, the Pu’abi’s grave, the rich Pu’abi’s grave, is a perfect case of graves in which not only the main body–that of Queen Pu’abi–was deposed, but also the bodies of all the servants were put inside the graves all together at the same moment.
What were the circumstances in which so many people would be buried together like that? And how common was it?
The Royal Cemetery of Ur is almost a unique context for Mesopotamia. The only comparable evidences were found at the site of Kish. The royal graves, however, are a representation of the highest level of the society obviously, and the grave does us the bodies of what can be interpreted as the queen or the king. And the queen and the king took with them in the underworld, in the afterlife, all their servants. These graves are a dramatic representation of the richness of the Ur elite, and are obviously, as I said, not common in Mesopotamia.
However, we have other kind of graves. We can imagine that there are other kind of graves in which people are buried all together at the same time. For example, at Abu Tbeirah we found a huge grave with three bodies in a courtyard. And these three bodies of young people were buried probably all at the same moment. And a huge funerary banquet was consumed by the people inhabiting the house. We can imagine that these three people died in a unique event. And so the people inhabiting the house we were excavating, were forced to bury them not under the pavement, but, for example, in this courtyard. This is just an hypothesis based on some ethnographic evidences in Asia in which people still performing sub-pavement burials used to realise graves with multiple bodies when they have the same moment more people dying at the same moment.
You were saying that there are two circumstances in which people would be buried together? What’s the other one?
The second kind of multiple grave is that in which bodies are added during time, and this is the case of, for example, multiple graves under the pavements of the houses. We have to imagine that people living inside a household realised a grave under the pavement when one of the member[s] died. After some years or some months, another member of the family dies, so they are forced to reopen the grave. Sometimes they move the body of the first occupant from its original position, and add a new body. So this is a very interesting case also for the archaeologists that excavated it. Because it’s very tough, but also exciting, to distinguish these different moments inside the position of the bodies inside these multiple graves.
As an archaeologist, how do you tell when there was a meaningful connection between buildings and burials? For example, what’s the difference between a building built on top of a burial ground and a building under which burials have been placed?
It is not always easy to distinguish between a burial dug in a cemetery and burial dug under the pavement of a(n) house. Especially in Mesopotamia, where there is a high surface erosion that we cannot quantify, however. So when we find immediately under the surface, for example, a grave this might belong to a building that is now eroded, for example. So we have to put together several evidences. For example, if a burial cuts previous structure, an earlier structure, this might be an indication that when the barrier was dug, the walls of the underlying structure were no more visible. Then we might also see if we have traces of abandonment of the area, so that we have no indication of a prosecution of the life of buildings in the place. For example, if we do not find any drainage pits that cuts the stratigraphy, this might be an indication that place, the area, was abandoned and then reused as a cemetery. Drainage pits were very important in the houses, because they allowed the water, the rainfall water, to flow, and not to rest on the surface. We have imagine that all the Mesopotamian soil is made mainly of clay and clay does not allow a good drainage
Were burials oriented in any particular direction?
The presence of a pattern in the orientation of the graves in Mesopotamia is still a matter of debate. First of all, in determining the presence of a pattern in the graves, it is important to establish which is the most important part of the body for the specific culture. For the Sumerian culture, I think that the most probable part in helping determining the orientation of the graves is the head. And though there is no recognised rule used by Sumerians in the orientation of the graves, I have to admit that my personal opinion is that graves were oriented mostly toward west. Indeed, most of the graves that we found in Abu Tbeirah have this orientation. They were all oriented with the head towards the western horizon. And I have made also survey of other burials in other contexts. And what came out is that almost the 70% of burials in the third millennium BC, were with their head towards the western horizon. This means from northwest to southwest, all these degrees. And very few burials, in comparison, were oriented with the head toward the eastern horizon. So also, in this case, we have no a unique rule, as we have seen, for example, for the way in which people were buried, or the place in which people were buried in third millennium Mesopotamia.
What was the significance of the west then? And if it’s so significant, why isn’t the pattern more consistent?
Now, the question is: which element is the link to this western orientation of the graves? What happens in the western horizon that can be linked to the burials and as to the funerary rituals and to the underworld. The western horizon is the horizon in which the sun, the moon, and the stars sets. So, it might be linked to the setting most probably of the sun or the moon. In Sumerian mythology, the sun god Shamash, or Utu for the Sumerian, is a god that has some chthonic aspect, so is connected to the underworld. So I imagine that is the sun that determines the position, the orientation of the graves. The sunset, or also the setting of the moon opposite, changes position on the horizon, on the western horizon, during the year. And this might justify the high variation along the western horizon of the position of the graves. However, this is still an hypothesis and we will work more on this in the future years.
What would people take with them into the grave?
Almost all the dead were buried with an equipment in Mesopotamia. Obviously, the quantity and quality of the equipment was different on the basis of the richness of the people buried, or burying. The most simple one consisted in some pottery vessels. These pottery vessels can be interpreted several ways. They obviously contain some foodstuffs and beverages that might have been useful for the journey of the dead from the world of the living to the netherworld. Or also like provisions for his life in the underworld. Or again, as offerings for the gods of the netherworld. In some cases, especially when we found some drinking vessels piled inside the grave, we can interpret them as evidence of the celebration of a funerary banquet.
Beyond the pottery equipment, some graves have contains instruments that were used during the life of the deceased. For example, at Abu Tbeirah we found the graves of a woman that had with her some stone tools. We analysed the traces over these stone tools, and we discovered that they have been used for grinding and for working activities with, especially with, cereals So, this indicates that this were the instrument that the woman used during her life and during her household activities. Obviously, when you are lucky, you can excavate a grave that has also rich equipment. For example, we can find some jewels or some decoration for the dresses of the deceased, and also stone vessels and … or seals. And obviously, the most fabulous equipments were those found inside the royal graves of Ur, in which we have musical instrument(s), inlaid boxes, and rich jewels decorating the body not only of the main occupant of the grave, but also of the servants. Like in the case of Pu’abi’s grave, we have found chariots with onagers, and also boat models for example. So, we have also in this case, a huge variety of equipments.
What happened next? Was there an afterlife? Did the living visit the grave?
Life in the Sumerian netherworld was not a nice one. The underworld was made as a dark place with lots of dust, with the people going around naked and dressed with feathers like birds. And the same kind of destiny was not only for the common people, but also for the king. The only solution to this tough life in the underworld were the offerings made by the living. So ritual related to people already that were very important for the Sumerians. And we have indeed, some evidences of rituals repeated also after the burial. We have this kind of information not only from texts, but also from graves in which offerings were … had been discovered, over on the top of the graves.
Moreover, we have some proofs coming especially from recent excavations that Sumerian people not only made offerings to their dead, but also performed secondary ritual practices. We have found, for example, traces of skeleton manipulations. This mean that skeletons were unearthed after the primary burial, and the bones were reassembled and moved from their original place.
Beyond this kind of manipulation, we also have lots of graves in which just the skull is missing. Though in some cases, this evidence might be interpreted as looting, lots are the cases in which it’s more probable that we are looking at another kind of skeleton manipulation, in which just the skull was removed and placed in another grave. At Abu Tbeirah, for example, we have found that the sub-pavement burial in which the … just the skull was missing, we found exactly over the place in which was the head, we found the pit there. And the interesting fact was that the pavement over the grave was in use during both the burial and also the re-opening of the grave. And always at Abu Tbeirah, we found a pit in which … the very small one in which just the skull was buried with some pottery vessels. This kind of secondary practices and skeletal manipulations might seem strange and unusual, but they are attested in lots of cultures. Also in Italy, for example, in southern Italy, up to the 19th century, corpses of priests for example, were first put in kind of rooms, special rooms called colatoria, that in Italian mean like “strainer rooms”, so that the corpse(s) were left there in order to dessicate, and then placed in their final burial. So we might imagine that something similar happened also during the Sumerian period.
As an archaeologist, how do you approach excavating burials? What are the ethical, legal and practical considerations?
Excavating burial is an hard task from lots of points of view. First of all, it’s really time consuming. We usually spend at least two days in excavating a single burial. Everything that you find in the burial should be documented, both with pictures, photos and drawings. Every single vessel should be recorded in its position, for example, and also the content of the vessel is sieved in order to find, for example, the presence of seeds or other artifacts, or biofacts contained inside the vessel. And also the content is also sampled for chemical analysis. Moreover, the excavation of the skeletons is really tough. We use always very soft instruments that do not damage the bones. And each bone is collected in a separate bag and then is analysed in the lab by our physical anthropologist. And the analysis of the bones is very important, because can give us lots of information about the way of living of the ancient Sumerians. On the bones, you can find, for example, evidences of ancient pathologies, ancient illnesses, like, for example, deficiencies in the palaeo-diet or damages to the bones due to physical stresses like hard work like the hard work made by the deceased during his life. From the legal point of view, and the ethical point of view, we are helped by our Iraqi colleagues, and the bones after have been studied and also sampled for analysis are usually stored in the Nasiriyah museum or buried again in … in the field in a specific location.
How can we follow your work?
We have a wonderful and very active Facebook page at Abu Tbeirah. And also an Instagram profile in which you will find lots of funny and wonderful picture of southern Iraq. But if you want to read something more specific on Abu Tbeirah, please you can visit my academia.edu profile.
Thank you very much.
(thanks in Italian). It was really, really a pleasure to be with you. Thank you again.
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