Johns Hopkins University
Spring/Summer 2007
Vol. 4, No. 2


Informal Workers, Unite

> Multiple Tombs Point to Existence of Royal Cemetery

Movies, Language, and Makeup

Dark Energy Turns out to be Old News

Promising Student Research Funded Through Olton Award

Fish Shed Light on How We Move


adjust type size + -

Multiple Tombs Point to Existence of Royal Cemetery

Glenn Schwartz: On site in Umm el-Marra, a northern city in Syria.

Nearly six years ago, Krieger School researchers wowed the archaeological world with the discovery of an ancient, untouched Syrian tomb. Now there’s more—much more, in fact.

The tomb, which was filled with human and animal remains, gold and silver treasures, and unbroken artifacts dating back to the third millennium B.C., is actually one of at least eight located near each other in Umm el-Marra, according to Glenn Schwartz, Whiting Professor of Archaeology in the Department of Near Eastern Studies. That northern Syrian city is believed to be the site of ancient Tuba, one of Syria’s first cities and the capital of a small kingdom, Schwartz says.

The newly discovered tombs contain signs of the ritual sacrifice of humans and animals, including the skeletons of infants and decapitated donkeys, as well as puppy bones. “Given these discoveries, it’s likely that the tomb complex is a royal cemetery,” he says.

“Animal sacrifices were certainly a big part of this culture in that offerings of sheep and other animals are given to the gods to eat and also given to deceased royal ancestors,” Schwartz says. He and his team have dubbed this site the Acropolis Center mortuary complex.

The tombs are located about 35 miles east of the site of Aleppo, the main city and dominant center in the region dating at least as far back as 2000 B.C., Schwartz says. Though the tomb complex is much less showy than the famous one from the same period at Ur in Mesopotamia, which is now Iraq, the Umm el-Marra complex is the only known one in Syria from this time period.

Schwartz and his Hopkins team identified and excavated the new tombs, together with colleagues from the University of Amsterdam, in the summers of 2002, 2004, and 2006, with funding from the National Science Foundation, the National Geographic Society, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Dellheim Foundation of Baltimore, and the Krieger School’s Department of Near Eastern Studies. Given differences in ceramic objects found in the tombs, Schwartz and his team have concluded that they were built sequentially over three centuries, from about 2500 to about 2200 B.C. The tombs were built next to each other, with the complex expanding horizontally. Since they found no more than eight skeletons per tomb, the archaeologists hypothesize that these are tombs of different families or dynasties.

“The tombs were built on the highest and most central part of the city and thus would have been visible from everywhere else and would have dominated the local landscape,” Schwartz says.

There is still much to be explored and analyzed before the archaeologists fully understand the tomb complex and all it can teach them about rulership and ritual in early urban Syria, Schwartz notes.

“We hope to excavate below the tombs already identified to investigate the origins of the mortuary complex,” he says. “It is to be hoped that the new evidence from Umm el-Marra will assist in expanding our understanding of Syria’s first complex societies, closely connected to Mesopotamia and yet with their own distinctive character and identity.”