Sunday, November 01, 2009

Ah, the good old days of divine monarchy and mass murder!

From the New York Times, an article on happier days at Ur:

A new examination of skulls from the royal cemetery at Ur, discovered in Iraq almost a century ago, appears to support a more grisly interpretation than before of human sacrifices associated with elite burials in ancient Mesopotamia, archaeologists say.

Palace attendants, as part of royal mortuary ritual, were not dosed with poison to meet a rather serene death. Instead, a sharp instrument, a pike perhaps, was driven into their heads.

Archaeologists at the University of Pennsylvania reached that conclusion after conducting the first CT scans of two skulls from the 4,500-year-old cemetery. The cemetery, with 16 tombs grand in construction and rich in gold and jewels, was discovered in the 1920s. A sensation in 20th century archaeology, it revealed the splendor at the height of the Mesopotamian civilization.

The recovery of about 2,000 burials attested to the practice of human sacrifice on a large scale. At or even before the demise of a king or queen, members of the court — handmaidens, warriors and others — were put to death. Their bodies were usually arranged neatly, the women in elaborate headdress, the warriors with weapons at their side.

C. Leonard Woolley, the English archaeologist who directed the excavations, a collaboration between Penn and the British Museum, eventually decided that the attendants had been marched down into burial chambers, where they drank poison and lay down to die. That became the conventional story....

The researchers, led by Janet M. Monge, a physical anthropologist at Penn, applied forensic skills to arrive at the probable cause of death in both cases.

There were two round holes in the soldier’s cranium and one in the woman’s, each about an inch in diameter. But the most convincing evidence, Dr. Monge said in an interview, were cracks radiating from the holes. Only if the holes were made in a living person would they have produced such a pattern of fractures along stress lines. The more brittle bones of a person long dead would shatter like glass, she explained.

Dr. Monge surmised that the holes were made by a sharp instrument and that death “by blunt-force trauma was almost immediate.”...

But what did this "process" smell like?

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