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 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, social classes first emerged.
Q: 2300 BC.... 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 BC.
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 BC) 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 BC. 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.
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