Dating back about 4,600 years, the Great Death Pit at the ancient city of Ur, in modern-day Iraq, contains the remains of 68 women and six men, many of which appear to have been sacrificed.
Charles Leonard Woolley, who had done extensive archaeological work in Italy, Nubia and Carchemish, was chosen to lead a joint team of archaeologists from the British Museum and the Pennsylvania Museum, to explore the environs around the great ziggurat at Ur. Woolley's greatest discovery at Ur was the so-called 'Royal Cemetery', which he began to excavate in 1926. Work on the site would continue for the next twelve years (no further excavations have been done at the site since then).
The cemetery was originally dug outside the walls of the city of Ur, and were built over by the walls of Nebuchadnezzar's larger city about 2,000 years later. Some 1,840 burials were found, dating to between 2600 BC and 2000 BC. They ranged from simple burials (with a body rolled in a mat) to elaborate burials in domed tombs reached by descending ramps. Sixteen of the early burials Woolley called 'Royal Graves' because of the rich grave-goods, the presence of burial chambers, and the bodies of the attendants who had apparently been sacrificed.
Private grave 1237 (PG1237) included 6 men and 68 women. The men, near the tomb’s entrance, had weapons so they could guard the tomb against grave-robbers. Most of the women were in four rows across the northwest corner of the death pit. The women were dressed in scarlet. They wore ornamental headdresses and were adorned with jewelry of silver and gold, lapis lazuli and carnelian. Six women lay near two lyres and a harp, near the southeast wall. Most of the women had cups or shells containing cosmetic pigments. Body 61, in the upper right corner, was more elaborately attired than the others and she had a silver tumbler next to her mouth.
Half of the women (but none of the men) had cups or jars, as if at a banquet.
One of the women was found still clutching a coiled ribbon for her headband, as if she had been late for the ceremonies and was too hurried (or frightened) to put it on.
Perhaps the attendants voluntarily took poison and were buried while unconscious or dead.
The neat arrangement of bodies convinced Woolley the attendants in the tombs had not been killed, but had willingly gone to their deaths. He suggested that in so doing they were assured "a less nebulous and miserable existence” than ordinary men and women. The soldiers had weapons of gold and silver and the insignia of their rank. The women had golden headdresses and were heavily bejeweled. In life they would have looked like royalty, but the soldiers were commoners and the women were servants. In sacrificing themselves, they were hoping for a better life for all eternity.
A study was recently done at the UPenn Museum on the skulls of a woman and a soldier. Both skulls show signs of premortum fractures that were caused by a blunt instrument.
This was deemed to be the cause of death, not poisoning. The two theories, death by poison and death by blunt force trauma, are not incompatible. It suggests that the participants whose dosage of poison had not proved to be fatal were given a coup de grâceto to spare them prolonged suffering and to insure they wouldn't be buried while still alive and conscious.
Another possibility is the attendants drank a strong sedative, rather than poison, and then were clubbed to death after they were unconscious. This, however, seems to be a needlessly crude and messy alternative, and not befitting the dignity of the occasion. It would also mean the injury would be evident on all of the skulls. It remains for further scienitific testing to prove the exact manner of death for the majority of the participants.
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