October 9, 2000|
VOL. 30, NO. 6
JHU Team FInds Ancient Tomb
Mysterious skeletons ornamented in gold and silver
By Leslie Rice
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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."
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