Başur Höyük excavation reveals evidence of human sacrifice in Bronze Age Mesopotamia

Excavations led by Dr. Haluk Sağlamtimur of Ege University at the site of Başur Höyük have revealed complex burial practices in the Upper Tigris region during the transition to the third millennium BC.


Recent bioarchaeological analysis has uncovered evidence of elaborate retainer burial, as well as a separate mass death pit. Osteological analysis and study of the grave goods has identified some of the dead as human sacrifices.

Human sacrifice is thought to be one of the ways that complex civilizations consolidated their power, and the practice is well-attested at the famous Royal Cemetery of Ur. The discoveries at Başur Höyük, which are 500 years older and 500 miles further north, represent an exciting opportunity for researchers to further understand the rise of hierarchical centralised societies, and the role of retainer burials in these processes.

A new Arts and Humanities Research Council UK funded project, led by Prof. David Wengrow and Dr. Brenna Hassett of University College London, will continue to investigate both the bioarchaeology of these new discoveries and the role such practices play in the formation of early states.



An excavation of Başur Höyük uncovered a large, coffin-like stone tomb that contained multiple burials, with an unprecedented number of high-status grave goods for the period and region. In three graves were found the remains of at least 11 people, male and female, ranging from age 11 to young adults. Several people were buried outside the tomb with elaborate ornaments and grave goods.

Brenna says, “The burials are remarkable because of the youth of the individuals, the number that were buried and the large wealth of objects that were buried with them. Women and children in Mesopotamia were occasionally buried with grave goods, but they were normally personal belongings. There are various pieces of evidence which suggest that these young people did not die accidentally or naturally – rather they were sacrificed.”

Human sacrifice in the ancient Near East

The ancient Near East was made up of the region that now includes modern-day Iraq, as well as parts of Turkey, Iran, Syria and Kuwait. Its history begins from about 4,000 BCE. Much of this area formed Mesopotamia, a collection of cultures bonded by their writing systems and gods. Many early human societies like this one used human sacrifices as a tool as they got bigger and more complex.

Brenna says, “Previously, the most well-known example of human sacrifice from this area is the monumental discovery of the Royal Cemetery of Ur, where hundreds of burials were identified as sacrifices. It has been suggested that practicing human sacrifice was one of the ways that complex civilizations like the one that rose up in Mesopotamia consolidated their power. This discovery moves the investigation 500 years earlier and more than 500 miles to the north.”

How do we know this was human sacrifice?

Two children were buried lying in the tomb, with eight other young people buried at their feet. They appear to have been carefully positioned, and adorned with valuable goods and elaborate decoration in a deliberate display of social value.

Although researchers are unable to confirm exactly how these people died, at least two of the retainers from the outside of the tomb show evidence of sharp force trauma including stabbing and cutting wounds, suggesting unnatural deaths.

In particular, one of the young adult males suffered trauma to his hip and head, and seems to have suffered a violent end, perhaps being stabbed in the hip and skull by a sharp point. The head wounds are similar to the reconstructions of skull trauma seen in the sacrificial burials at the Royal Cemetery of Ur.

Brenna says, ‘It is unlikely that these children and young people were killed in a massacre or conflict. The careful positioning of the bodies and the evidence of violent death suggest that these burials fit the same pattern of human sacrifice seen at other sites in the region.



NovoScriptorium: Now, let’s have a look at some extracts from the relative publication


Abstract Human sacrifice has long been associated with the rise of hierarchical centralised societies. Recent excavation of a large cist tomb at third-millennium BC Başur Höyük, in Turkey, shows that state formation in Mesopotamia was accompanied by a fundamental change in the value of human life within local ritual economy. Osteological analysis and study of the grave goods have identified some of the dead as human sacrifices. This was indeed a retainer burial, reflecting the emergence of stratified society at a time of instability and crisis.


Introduction The Early Bronze Age cemetery of Başur Höyük, in the province of Siirt in Turkey, holds a series of unique burials. These provide evidence of large-scale social and political changes in the crucial interval between the contraction of the first Mesopotamian interregional networks and the formation of early states in south-west Asia. Excavation of the cemetery in 2014 uncovered a large stone-cist tomb that contained multiple burials. These had been deposited in a single event, and furnished with an unprecedented number of high-status grave goods for the period and the region. Accompanying this remarkable deposit was the interment of several individuals immediately outside the tomb to the east, buried with elaborate personal ornaments and grave goods. The burial has remarkable similarities to the ‘sacrifice’ interment at the contemporaneous site of Arslantepe (Frangipane 2006), to the north, and functions as evidence of a new urban culture, with distinct local characteristics, filling the vacuum left by the previous Uruk-period occupation. It may also have parallels in the elaborate sacrificial burials of the Royal Cemetery at Ur, some 500 years later (Woolley 1934; Baadsgaard et al. 2011).

The discovery of sacrificial burials attending a ‘royal’ burial in a cist tomb at Early
Bronze Age Arslantepe in Anatolia (Frangipane 2006; Erdal 2012) has dramatically
broadened the known range of social responses to the political upheaval of the early
third millennium BC. Following the longstanding interpretation of human sacrifice at
the Royal Cemetery of Ur just a few hundred years later (Woolley 1934), this raises
new questions about the role of human sacrifice in processes of early state formation
(Sürenhagen 2002; Croucher 2012). Power over the physical bodies of a population to
the point of death has been associated with the hierarchical social structures that
accompanied early state-formation processes across the globe (Watts et al. 2016).
There is, however, considerable variation in the practice. Sacrifice can be employed
variously to achieve spiritual, ritual, political, martial or even economic ends (see
Bremmer 2007; Turchin 2016), and the role of human sacrifice in ancient Near
Eastern burial practices remains unclear (Porter & Schwartz 2012).

Başur Höyük in the world of Mesopotamia, Anatolia and the Caucasus The mound sits adjacent to the Başur River, an offshoot of the Tigris. It commands a key intersection of riverine and overland trading routes that cross from the Zagros Mountains over to Anatolia, the Caucasus and Mesopotamia. A number of sites along the Upper Tigris River were excavated as part of the Ilisu Baraji rescue archaeology operation in advance of dam construction, and the analysis of the human remains from the Early Bronze Age (EBA 1 period) cemetery began in 2015. Başur Höyük is notable for the quantity of southern Mesopotamian cultural material dating to the fourth millennium BC. The presence of a complete suite of Uruk-style ceramics (Sağlamtimur & Kalkan 2015), including the ubiquitous bevel-rimmed bowls, indicate that it was home to one of the ‘Uruk colonies’, as originally described by Algaze (1993). The 16 stone cist tombs excavated thus far were cut into backfilled, Uruk-period rectangular structures that abutted the large city wall along the southeastern limit of the mound. They are dated to approximately 3100–2800 cal BC through the presence of Nineveh V ceramics and closely overlapping radiocarbon dates from organic material within the tombs (Saǧlamtimur 2017).

Burial contexts 15 and 17 The largest tomb so far uncovered in the Early Bronze Age cemetery contains two separate burial contexts: an inner chamber within a stone-slab-sided tomb (grave 15), and an external portico immediately adjacent to, and at the same level as, the stone structure (grave 17).

The human remains within the tomb were badly degraded, but at least one individual
was identified from the three separate clusters of human remains identified.

Exterior area (portico): context 17 Seven skeletons were identified during excavation of the external burial context termed ‘grave 17’ during excavation, but the minimum number of individuals calculated from several different tooth types clearly indicated that no fewer than eight individuals were interred. The overlapping burial position of the skeletons resulted in considerable intermingling, to the extent that the dentition of skeleton 37 had to be reconstructed through reference to excavation photos. The individuals were all either adolescents or in early adulthood (between the ages of 10 and 20), meaning that many of the isolated elements could be matched to individual skeletons by comparing stages of dental development, fusion of the hand and foot phalanges, and fusion of the pelvis and long bone epiphyses. In some cases it was possible to reconstruct individual bones by matching broken ends of the isolated elements to those associated with particular individual skeletons.

The burials in the external part of the large cist tomb comprised mixed male and female adolescents alongside two almost adult males. Although the burials were commingled to some extent due to having been deposited one on top of the other in the grave, it seems evident that the two late teenage or young adult males (skeletons 36 and 37) were buried last as these lay on top of the other interments. The cranium of skeleton 36 is highly fragmented, with evidence of taphonomic damage in the form of linear, right-angled fractures and a clear difference in colour between the inner table of the skull and the external surface. On the left parietal, however, approximately 30mm posterior to the frontal suture, and 6mm lateral of the midline, a chip or gouge has created a circular defect 10mm in diameter with inwardly bevelled edges that penetrated the diploe but left the inner table intact. The edges of this defect extend towards the posterior or back of the skull where the bone is fully perforated.

Associated with this is a straight-line fracture that is obscured by a subsequent taphonomic break, but that appears to have been made in relatively plastic, i.e. living, bone. A second skull fragment with a similar puncture impact evidenced on the far edge suggests that a pointed implement was driven down and back into the skull. Skeleton 36 also shows a more perplexing perimortem trauma, with a clearly defined groove, 2.87mm wide, incised by a bladed or sharply pointed implement, running for 33mm along the superior surface of the right femoral head. The injury is angled from the front of the body to the back, with a small flake of bone at the posterior edge indicating that it was also made in relatively plastic bone. Cuts of this type are more commonly associated with dismemberment practices, as the femoral head is normally partially contained within the acetabulum of the pelvis, but the individual was fully articulated when buried. The right pelvis survives only in fragments, and while the damage may have been the result of a stabbing attack to the hip region, it is not possible to account for the position of the weapon or the body when the wound would have been inflicted.


Discussion The fragmentation of the remains prevents a forensic reconstruction of perimortem trauma in the vast majority of the skeletal material. Even where preservation is good, it is often difficult to identify evidence of violent death in forensic or archaeological skeletal material. Killing blows are frequently aimed at soft tissue, and many forms of violent death leave no trace on the human skeleton (Walker 2001). This makes the perimortem trauma identified on the skeletons from the large cist all the more unusual, and allows us to be confident in asserting that some of the individuals did not die a natural death. In particular, skeleton 36, the late teenage or young adult male with cranial and hip trauma, seems to have been a casualty of violent conflict. The penetrating wounds to the head of this individual bear marked similarities with the reconstructions of skull trauma observed in the sacrificial burials at the Royal Cemetery of Ur (Baadsgaard et al. 2011).

Future work will clarify the wider range of burial practices at the site, but for the moment we have a very clear and contained example of a retainer burial. The large cist tomb hosts a specific part of the community—two children inside the tomb and eight young people buried at their feet—with a thin barrier of stone separating them. They were carefully positioned by the community who buried them, and adorned with valuable goods and elaborate decoration in a deliberate display of social value. The key argument against identifying this burial as human sacrifice lies in the difficulty of ascertaining the cause of death from fragmentary skeletal remains. The penetrating wound to the skull of skeleton 36 is, however, almost exactly akin to those described on the skulls found at the later Royal Cemetery of Ur. It is still possible to posit a scenario wherein all those buried in and around the large cist tomb, both internal and external, were killed in some violent incident unrelated to human sacrifice; the presence of a second wound to the hip would seem to indicate on the part of skeleton 36 that death did not come simply through a blow to the head.

It is unlikely that a massacre could have carried off two high-status children (and possibly the fragmentary adult), as well as a mixed-sex group of roughly the same age, and their two well-dressed older male companions or retainers. The expensive and elaborate burial treatment suggests that the community who buried them was not struggling to cope with the deaths of a substantial portion of their teenage population. The cist grave, the careful positioning of the external burials in relation to those inside the chamber and the evidence of violent death all indicate that these burials fit the same pattern of human sacrifice seen at Arslantepe and Ur, but at a scale intermediate between the two.

(Source: “Radical ‘royals’? Burial practices at Başur Höyük and the emergence of early states in Mesopotamia”, by Brenna Hassett and Haluk Sağlamtimur)


Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Philaretus Homerides

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