Several dozens of burials have been uncovered in the dunnu at Tell Sabi Abyad, including both adults and children of various ages. So far, the sample comprises some 31 inhumations and 9 cremations, with a total of 48 individuals. Most graves were simple, shallow pits, although there were also a number of more elaborate tombs, built of mud bricks along the sides of the pit and with bricks covering the corpse.
Several burials contained a ram’s skull and other animal bone, which must have been interred in the flesh and which were perhaps the remains of a funeral meal.
In one case, a large pit had been dug first, and then from this pit the actual burial chamber was undercut to the side. When the corpse had been placed inside the grave, it was closed with upended mud-bricks and the pit was refilled (see below).
Mud bricks closed the entrance of the grave.
The skeletal remains, once the bricks were removed. The dead is lying on the back, with the knees raised - a typical Middle Assyrian position.
Next to the head of the deceased was a ram's skull - a feature found in many Late Bronze Age burials at Tell Sabi Abyad. Interestingly, on the chest (to the right) we see a faience cylinder seal!
A modern enrolling of the faience cylinder seal, in typical Middle Assyrian style. Originally the seal was no doubt attached to a necklace.
Another type of grave consisted of children buried in large jars. One jar even contained two child skeletons (see below). The rate of child mortality was considerable, with almost one third of the children dying within in their first year.
Two children buried in one large jar (left); child burial in a mud-brick tomb, with pottery vessels as grave gifts (right)
The dead were lying either in a crouching posture on their side or in an extended position on their back, usually with raised knees. Single graves were predominant, although double inhumations occurred occasionally as well. One mass grave contained five individuals buried at the same time. The bodies seemed to have been thrown into the pit unceremoniously; perhaps they were the victims of an execution or a disease.
A typical Middle Assyrian burial, with the deceased lying on the back and the knees raised.
The grave shown above - belonging to a heavily built woman – was sunk into the debris of a dilapidated building. The woman was lying on her left side, the head facing the wall and legs raised. She was probably buried in full state, in view of the personal ornaments we found on the skeleton: a gold earring, a colourful necklace and bronze rings on the fingers. The woman also wore bronze rings on both her big toes.
The following discovery was striking: originally a second person must have been lying next to her. The evidence for this is very slight but nevertheless convincing: a human mandible, a number of cervical vertebrae and various other bones that were partly lying next to the female skeleton and partly on top of it. A few ornaments, too, should be ascribed to this mysterious other person, such as a cylinder seal, a gold ring and a stone pendant.
Why is this second person’s skeleton so very poorly preserved? The explanation must be as follows: Both persons were buried in the ruins of a completely broken-down building, with considerable debris layers on the floor. Around 1195 BC the building was completely renovated, however. New walls were raised and new floors laid. It is very likely that during the renovation and the clearing away of the debris the grave was partly disturbed accidentally.
In one of the child graves a small stone pendant was found, which is without doubt prehistoric and which was reused as a personal ornament in Assyrian times.
A typical cremation burial, with two pottery vessels. The jar to the left, with a small bowl serving as a lid, contained the charred remains of the dead. A very characteristic find in these cremations: a ram's skull and other animal bone, probably the remains of a funeral meal.
Roughly one fourth of the graves were cremations, with the burnt skeletal remains usually placed inside an urn and then interred into a pit.
Dating these cremations is not always that easy. Most were sunk into the ruins of the Assyrian fortress and seem to belong to the late 12th or perhaps the 11th century BC. However, there were also a number of earlier cremations, from the late 13th and early 12th century BC.
One grave provided solid proof that the urn was originally covered with a cloth tied with cord and carrying a clay sealing with a cylinder-seal impression. This vessel contained the burnt remains of two young adults – a man and a woman, both between 20 and 30 years old. It also contained a large collection of necklaces, rings, pendants, earrings, gem settings and other jewellery made of gold, bronze, iron, stone and bone.
In one case the burnt bones and other content were not placed in a vessel but buried in a shallow, square pit straightaway. The pit was filled in with ashes and burnt wood (undoubtedly from the funeral pyre), and also contained many hundreds of ornaments of all kinds. There were more than 1200 beads made of colourful stones, faience and gold (originally part of a number of necklaces), as well as a faience scarab, bone hair ornaments, and parts of gold and bronze rings, bracelets, pins, earrings and pendants, one of them in the shape of an animal. There was also a considerable quantity of broken and incomplete pottery in the pit. Both the ornaments and the ceramics were damaged by the funerary fire and partly molten and deformed. The finds allow a reconstruction of the cremation ritual: somewhere on the tell a large funeral pyre was constructed, on which the deceased was placed, probably dressed and adorned with ornaments. Pottery, too, was placed on the pyre or, perhaps, ritually broken. Then the pyre was lit, no doubt in the presence of those who stood in some kind of relation to the deceased. After the corpse had been burnt, the remains were gathered and buried in a pit that had been specially dug for this purpose.
The cremations are
remarkable finds, as they do not fit the ordinary Assyrian views about life and death. To put it simply, burning the dead was an abhorrence to the Assyrians. Are we perhaps here dealing with a custom that should be ascribed to people from a wholly different ethnical background?