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Image: Başur Höyük Research Project

Evidence of ancient human sacrifice uncovered in Turkey

The remains of at least 11 people, both male and female, ranging from age 11 to young adults, have been uncovered in an excavation of three graves at Başur Höyük.

The Natural History Museum’s Dr Brenna Hassett led a team of physical anthropologists to the site at Başur Höyük in the Upper Tigris region of south-eastern Turkey, to investigate a large, coffin-like stone tomb holding the remains of multiple individuals buried between 3100 and 2800 BC.

Several people had also been buried outside of the tomb and lay surrounded by elaborate ornaments and grave goods, suggesting this was a ‘retainer’, or grave attendant, burial.

Lead author Dr Brenna Hassett says, 'The burials are remarkable because of the youth of the individuals, the number that were buried and the large wealth of objects that were buried with them. There are various pieces of evidence which suggest that these young people did not die accidentally or naturally - rather they were sacrificed.'

Excavations led by Dr Haluk Sağlamtimur of Ege University, had revealed a remarkable Bronze Age cemetery with an unprecedented number of high-status grave goods for the period and the region, including the world’s earliest known gaming pieces and large hordes of bronze spearheads.

Evidence of early human sacrifice

The nature of the burials, the condition of the bones and the identities of the dead are important factors in uncovering what happened at Başur Höyük.

Upon investigation, the team discovered the remains of two children buried lying in the tomb, with eight other young people buried at their feet, in a separate external chamber. They appear to have been carefully positioned and adorned with valuable goods and elaborate decoration in a deliberate display of social value.

The team were able to determine the age of the bodies at the time of death from examinations on their dental remains. Although researchers are unable to confirm exactly how these people died, at least two of the retainers from the outside of the tomb show evidence of sharp force trauma including stabbing and cutting wounds, suggesting unnatural deaths.

Dr Hassett says, 'It is unlikely that these children and young people were killed in a massacre or conflict. The careful positioning of the bodies and the evidence of violent death suggest that these burials fit the same pattern of human sacrifice seen at other sites in the region.’

The site of Başur Höyük dates back to 500 years before the famous Royal Cemetery of Ur, a luxurious series of tombs that form the resting place of powerful rulers in Mesopotamia.

Why were they sacrificed?

Ancient human sacrifice is usually associated with hierarchical centralised societies, and has accompanied early state-formation processes throughout the world. Many early human societies used human sacrifices as a tool to achieve various spiritual, political, martial or economic goals as they evolved into bigger and more complex civilisations.

Dr Hassett believes this particular sacrifice was a retainer burial reflecting the emergence of a hierarchal society at a time of instability and crisis. ‘We see human sacrifice occurring in a number of societies, throughout time and across the globe, as human societies form larger and more stratified societies,’ Hassett says. ‘The finds at Başur Höyük, which sits on the edge of the society that gave rise to the first states in Mesopotamia, give us a unique chance to understand the role human sacrifice plays in the formation of early states.’

Başur Höyük sits on an important crossroads between metalworking cultures and the region known as Mesopotamia, often thought of as the cradle of western civilisation, inhabited by modern-day Iraq, as well as parts of Turkey, Iran, Syria and Kuwait.

Commenting on the significance of this study, Hassett says, 'Previously, the most well-known example of human sacrifice from this area is the monumental discovery of the Royal Cemetery of Ur in Mesopotamia proper, where hundreds of burials were identified as sacrifices.  This discovery moves the investigation of human sacrifice in the region 500 years earlier and more than 500 miles to the north, and we can now begin to wonder how it was introduced.’

In addition, excavations have revealed a further series of mysterious burials from the site, including a mass death pit containing at least fifty individuals buried simultaneously.

Moving forward, a new Arts and Humanities Research Council project led by Dr Hassett, in her new role at UCL, along with Prof David Wengrow (UCL Institute of Archaeology) will bring together an international team including Natural History Museum DNA scientists Prof Ian Barnes and Dr Selina Brace, Dr Suzanne Pilaar Birch of the University of Georgia at Athens, and Dr Haluk Sağlamtimur of Ege University. The collaboration will use modern molecular and bioarchaeological techniques to investigate these deaths, and uncover how they affected the very beginnings of civilisation as we know it.

The research is published by Antiquity June 28, 2018. The article can be accessed via this link, which should be included in any copy.

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