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Skeletons and Sarcophagi: Was This Newly Discovered Tomb Made for a Family of Elite Ancient Assyrians?

Though the Islamic State group (Daesh) recently plundered and wrecked a few ancient Assyrian cities, fighters recently successfully defended Erbil in Iraq, known long ago as Arbela. In that city, construction workers uncovered a tomb containing two skeletons in three ceramic sarcophagi and another eight skeletons scattered nearby.

The Assyrians were one of the major civilizations to rule Mesopotamia in ancient times. A succession of regimes, the Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians, Kassites, Mitanni, the Assyrians, and the Persians took turns at ruling all or part of Mesopotamia—the land between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates centered in modern Iraq.

The tomb recently discovered in Erbil, an important city to the ancients, may have been for some elite people of the neo-Assyrian civilization of the 9th to 7th centuries BC, says a story about the discovery on Live Science. The Assyrians ruled from their home cities near the Persian Gulf and east into Anatolia and west and south into Egypt.

The Assyrian tomb recently discovered in Erbil, Iraq. (Goran M. Amin)

Similar tombs have been found in Erbil and other cities of the Assyrians, including Nimrud, Dishad Marf Zamua told Live Science. He is a specialist in Assyrian archaeology and an instructor at Erbil’s Salahuddin University.

“During the Assyrian period, these tombs had been built for the elite and rich people. Sometimes the tombs have been opened several times, when they wanted to bury new dead members of the family,” he is quoted as saying.

A view of the Assyrian tomb and part of the ceramic sarcophagi found within it. (Goran M. Amin)

The neo-Assyrian’s home base was in Syria and Iraq between the Great Zab and Lesser Zab rivers at the foothills of the Zagros Mountains. Erbil was home to the main temple of Ishtar, the love, fertility, and war goddess of the Assyrians and earlier regimes.

This relief shows an Assyrian goddess, possibly Ishtar or her sister Ereshkigal. (Public Domain)

Dishad Marf Zamua said Assyrian kings would pray in Ishtar’s temple before attacking to the east in Elam and Zagros. In the 7th century BC, Assyrian queens rested in the temple while pregnant, and priestesses breast-fed newborn princes, he said.

The tomb that the construction workers found just a few weeks ago was made of baked bricks.

The Directorate of Antiquities in Erbil has taken over the excavation, said Goran M. Amin, director of the survey department. The team hasn’t even had time yet to write up an article for a scholarly journal to present their findings to the world of archaeology.

Apart from the human remains, the archaeologists found more than 40 intact jars of varying sizes and shapes, Live Science reports.

Marf Zamua said recent Islamic State plundering and wrecking of antiquities and architecture in Nineveh, Khorsabad, and Nimrud have made archaeology there difficult. “Therefore, Arbela and its surrounding area will be the best option for specialists in the Assyrian archaeology to learn more about the archaeology of Assyria and the Zagros foothills as well,” he told Live Science.

An intact jar found in the Assyrian tomb at Erbil, Iraq. (CNN Turk)

The Assyrian International News Agency has a website that explains the history of these successful people who ruled a large region from about 2400 BC. While their empire ended about 600 BC, they still live in the region and have emigrated to other places too.

Assyrian troops return after victory. (Public Domain)

The Assyrian site says about the year 1918 to the present:

“In this century, Assyrians have suffered massive genocide, have lost control of their ancestral lands, and are in a struggle for survival. The Assyrian nation today stands at a crossroad. One third of [it] is in a diaspora, while the remaining two-thirds lives perilously in its native lands. These are some of the dangers facing the Assyrians:

Denominationalism and fragmentation, Islamic fundamentalism, Arabization, Cultural immersion and absorption into Arab societies, Mass emigration to the West, and absorption into Western societies.”

The same site states that Assyrians lived in their homelands for 6,600 years, but since the Turks committed genocide against them in World War 1, claiming 750,000 lives, they began moving west. Now, there are more in western lands than there are in their native territory. And the exodus has been accelerating.

This cylinder seal rolled across wet clay to make the imprint depicts a mythological scene: A goddess cheers as Assur attacks a monster. The name Assyrian may have been taken from Assur. (Public Domain)