An ancient, untouched Syrian tomb that wowed the
archaeological world on its discovery by Johns Hopkins
University researchers nearly six years ago has revealed
another secret: It is not alone.
The tomb, which was filled with human and animal
remains, gold and silver treasures and unbroken artifacts
dating back to the third millennium B.C., is actually one
of at least eight located near each other in Umm el-Marra,
said Glenn Schwartz, the Whiting Professor of Archaeology
in the Krieger School's Department of Near Eastern Studies.
That northern Syrian city is believed to be the site of
ancient Tuba, one of Syria's first cities and the capital
of a small kingdom.
The newly discovered tombs contain signs of the ritual
sacrifice of humans and animals, including the skeletons of
infants and decapitated donkeys, as well as puppy bones,
Schwartz said. "Given these discoveries, it's likely that
the tomb complex is a royal cemetery," he said. "Animal
sacrifices were certainly a big part of this culture in
that offerings of sheep and other animals are given to the
gods to eat and also given to deceased royal ancestors."
Schwartz and his team have dubbed this site the Acropolis
Center mortuary complex.
The tombs are located about 35 miles east of the site
of Aleppo, the main city and dominant center in the region
dating at least as far back as 2000 B.C., Schwartz said.
Though the tomb complex is much less showy than the famous
one from the same period at Ur in Mesopotamia, which is now
Iraq, the Umm el-Marra complex is the only known one in
Syria from this time period.
Umm el-Marra is in the Jabbul plain of northern Syria,
just west of the Euphrates River. It is situated on what
was a vital east-west trade route connecting Mesopotamia
with Aleppo and ultimately the Mediterranean Sea. Because
it's also bordered by an agricultural zone to the west and
a steppe zone to the east that was home to nomadic
pastoralists, Schwartz believes Umm el-Marra was a
crossroads where people traded their wares, such as dairy
products and wool from the east for grain from the west.
Umm el-Marra's close proximity to one of Syria's largest
salt lakes must have added to its economic importance,
The new tombs were identified and excavated by the
Johns Hopkins team, together with colleagues from the
University of Amsterdam, in the summers of 2002, 2004 and
2006, with funding from the National Science Foundation,
National Geographic Society, Metropolitan Museum of Art,
Dellheim Foundation of Baltimore and Department of Near
Eastern Studies at Johns Hopkins. Given differences in
ceramic objects found in the tombs, Schwartz and his team
have concluded that the tombs were built sequentially over
three centuries, from about 2500 to about 2200 B.C. The
tombs were built next to each other, with the complex
expanding horizontally. Since the archaeologists found no
more than eight skeletons per tomb, they hypothesize that
these are tombs of different families or dynasties.
"The tombs were built on the highest and most central
part of the city and thus would have been visible from
everywhere else and would have dominated the local
landscape," Schwartz said.
Gold plaques found in Tomb 4's
lower level could possibly have been ornaments for the
sheath of a dagger.
Photo by Jay VanRensselaer / HIPS
The oldest tombs excavated were Tombs 5 and 6, east of
the first tomb discovered. Tomb 5 had been disturbed and
its entry on the east blocked with boulders, but pottery
and the bones of an adult male and an infant were found
within. Tomb 6, the largest thus far discovered, was partly
destroyed but contained the bones of an adult male inside a
wood coffin, gold and silver toggle pins and beads of lapis
lazuli, gold and carnelian. Like Tomb 5, Tomb 8 had been
disturbed and its entry blocked but still contained the
bones of two adults and much pottery, indicating a date
about 2450 B.C. Tomb 3, built slightly later, was similarly
disturbed but contained 62 vessels and the remains of one
adult and one child.
Schwartz does not believe that the damage to the tombs
was the work of modern grave robbers but more likely
occurred relatively close to when they were built.
"We hypothesize that these disturbances were
perpetrated intentionally by powerful individuals acting to
impede further ritual honoring the individuals buried
within," Schwartz said. "Perhaps such actions to sever the
connection between the interred persons and the living
community were taken because of political or dynastic
In contrast to the tombs just described, Tomb 4 still
had numerous lavish contents intact. Datable through its
120 ceramic vessels to about 2400 to 2350 B.C., the tomb
had two levels. Two adult females and an adult male were
found in the lower level. The bodies were buried with gold
and silver ornaments, ivory combs, furniture inlays of
ostrich eggshell and many other objects. The upper, later
level of Tomb 4 also contained three bodies: an adult male,
a child and an adult female. Next to the woman were gold
toggle pins, silver diadems, a silver torque and seven
silver vessels. It is striking, Schwartz said, that the
women in the tombs tend to have more grave wealth than the
men. A previously unseen variety of noncuneiform writing
was carved into four small clay cylinders found in this
level, a very interesting find requiring further
evaluation, he said.
Finally, Tomb 7, with the skeletons of three to four
individuals, dates to about 2200 B.C. and differs from the
others in that its construction disturbed an earlier tomb
(Tomb 6). It also differs in that it had multiple
Five subterranean brick structures as well as other
features near the tombs contained the skeletal remains of
animals and, in some cases, human infants. The animal
skeletons are predominantly of "equids" — members of
the horse family — most likely donkeys, onagers
(donkeys' wild cousins) or a hybrid of the two. Thus far,
the bones of 27 complete individuals have been retrieved,
often found standing upright. Each of the decapitated
skulls was found on a separate ledge or in other positions.
The equid remains were sometimes found adjacent to baby
bones, perhaps indicating that infant sacrifice went along
with equid sacrifice in rituals honoring the important
people buried nearby, Schwartz said. Sets of puppy bones
were also found in several of the brick structures. The
archaeologists also found spouted jars in the installations
and a large jar containing the skeletons of three
"Clearly, the interment of animals, especially equids,
as well as infants, accompanied by rituals of libation
implied by the spouted vessels, was a component of the
procedures enacted in the Acropolis Center mortuary
complex," Schwartz said.
While modern society might not find as much value in
them, donkeys and mules were thought of as royal animals
and superior to horses, which were newly domesticated in
the days of Tuba, Schwartz said. Donkeys had been
domesticated only in the fourth millennium and still had a
lot of cachet and were expensive.
"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
There is still much to be explored and analyzed before
the archaeologists fully understand the tomb complex and
all it can teach them about rulership and ritual in early
urban Syria, Schwartz said.
"We hope to excavate below the tombs already
identified to investigate the origins of the mortuary
complex," he said. "Clearly, there is much need for further
analysis and interpretation, but it is to be hoped that the
new evidence from Umm el-Marra will assist in expanding our
understanding of Syria's first complex societies, closely
connected to Mesopotamia and yet with their own distinctive
character and identity."
For more about Glenn Schwartz and his work, go to