The Johns Hopkins Gazette: October 9, 2000
October 9, 2000
VOL. 30, NO. 6


JHU Team FInds Ancient Tomb

Mysterious skeletons ornamented in gold and silver suggest royalty

By Leslie Rice

Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

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 by a team of archaeologists from Johns Hopkins, working during the summer 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 (pictured at left), leader of the team and professor of Near Eastern studies in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences. "Until recently, historians and archaeologists 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," he continued, "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 developed."

Glenn Schwartz, second from right, shares afternoon tea with some of the workers at Umm el-Marra, where his team of archaeologists discovered an intact tomb replete with treasures.

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 showed traces of two coffins, each containing a 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. One of the babies appeared to be wearing a bronze torque, or collar. Also of interest on this level was an accompanying lump of iron, possibly from a meteorite.

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.

In the second of three layers bearing skeletons, archaeologists found the remains of two adult males. Those of a baby (not shown) were at a distance, close to the entrance to the tomb.

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 nor 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," Schwartz said. "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."

Since the most richly decorated individuals are women, Schwartz said, it is 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, ca. 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."

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 the bodies and artifacts found in the tomb remain in safekeeping 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.

Schwartz and his team of Hopkins graduate students have been excavating in Syria for several years. "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 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."

'I was having my own little Howard Carter moment'

Last spring, Alice Petty, a Near Eastern Studies doctoral student, applied for a Dean's Teaching Fellowship for this fall semester. She wanted to create and teach a course called The Archaeology of Death. Little did she know that she was about to embark on an unforgettable journey, one in which she would unexpectedly became an expert in the subject.

Alice Petty

This past summer was the fourth time Petty had spent a season in Syria working on an archaeological excavation led by her mentor, Hopkins archaeologist Glenn Schwartz. In past seasons, Petty had found plenty of things: floors, walls, ovens and terra cotta figurines, the subject of her dissertation. But this July, Petty was part of Schwartz's team that uncovered an elite, possibly even royal, tomb that was filled with gold and silver treasures and dates back to the third millennium B.C.

In fact, it was Petty who discovered it.

"Each summer, all the professionals and graduate students that Dr. Schwartz assembles are in charge of supervising a small crew of workers in individual excavation areas within the larger site, the ancient city," Petty says. "This was my second season supervising the digging of one particular spot. I like to stick with one place; I guess I get emotionally attached. In my excavation area, I had a strange little feature, like a tiny room with shabby, highly degraded mud brick walls. It was Jacuzzi-shaped with a large flat rock at one end and, in fact, my workers and I got to calling it the 'hamam,' which is Arabic for bath."

About halfway through the season, Petty and her workers began removing some mud bricks, which were in pretty bad shape, and exposed stone foundations. It wasn't long after that, Petty says, that they uncovered the rims of two large round pots.

"We realized they were unbroken and intact, which indicates that these pots were sitting on something," she says. "That's when I knew I had a floor. I was so excited about those pots."

She called Schwartz over to her site, and they attempted to analyze what they had found by making a "test pit," done by digging a small hole into the ground with a pick and scooping up samples of earth. That sample netted an intact black jar, a type sometimes associated with Syrian tombs.

In the next few days, Petty and her workers began the painstaking, meticulous process of excavating the room.

"I'll never forget the day we realized that this little 'hamam' was a tomb," she says. "I was standing to the side of it, looking at some large animal bones partially buried beneath the wall. I had asked our zooarchaeologist, Jill Weber, if she would come and take a look at them and tell me what they were.

"Then, one of my workers called me over to show me a fine dark gray object he had discovered while digging inside the walls of the room. I knelt down beside him and gently began dusting the dirt away with a paintbrush. I've worked four seasons at Umm el-Marra, and I have never unearthed anything made of silver or gold, so I didn't realize what I was looking at. I thought maybe it was a dark gray piece of pottery. I tapped on it and then I thought, Oh my gosh, I think this might be silver. That was when Jill called out my name and said she had come to see if I had an equid burial. I remember asking, 'Jill, take a look at this and tell me if it's what I think it is,' and Jill's face just lit up. I felt this rush of excitement."

Weber looked at the bones and identified them as equid, of the horse family. This was a clue that they had found a tomb, because animal sacrifices were fairly typical in ancient Syrian elite burial practices.

Petty unearthed the silver object, which was revealing itself to be a lozenge-shaped object about the size of a man's hand. One of her workers, who was sitting beside her, had suddenly stopped digging and was excitedly brushing away dirt from what was shaping up to be a human scapula.

"When Dr. Schwartz arrived to check our progress, I remember looking up at him and looking around the room--at the silver, at the pots, at the scapula--and I thought, I can't believe this is happening; this is amazing," she says. "I was having my own little Howard Carter [the Englishman who discovered King Tutankhamen's tomb] moment."

Soon the little "haman" was descended upon by Schwartz's team of experts, who began the complicated process of digging up the layers and layers of skeletons, mapping out the rooms, making drawings and dating the bones and findings.

"It was an incredible experience," Petty says. "This stuff never happens to me. In fact, a couple of nights before we discovered the tomb, I made a wish on a chicken bone to please, please, please let me find something, anything. This was so beyond anything I could have wished for, because there was that one moment where it was just me down in that tomb when I suddenly realized what we had found. It was probably one of the most thrilling moments of my life."
--Leslie Rice

Now back at Homewood, Petty is currently teaching her course, The Archaeology of Death, and is working on her dissertation, which examines anthropomorphic terra cotta figurines, focusing in particular on ancient clay figurines of women.

Related Web sites:
Some past findings from Johns Hopkins-University of Amsterdam Umm el-Marra excavations: