New eyes look at an old mystery.

As readers are starting to appreciate, many discoveries at Ziyaret Tepe are not made immediately in the field, but only after long and careful study of finds made by specialists in the laboratory. This is true at all archaeological projects. Back in 2007 and 2008, we recovered two cremation burials in the Bronze Palace, the large Late Assyrian building on the high mound excavated by Dirk. The palace, you may remember dates to the 9th through 7th centuries BC. A total of five cremation burials have been recovered from under the courtyard pavement. This is a highly unusual, and frankly un-Assyrian, means of burial and we have wondered since their discovery who was buried here.

Part of the answer has come from the work of one of our newest team members, Dr. Sandra Lösch. Sandra has a lot of experience identifying human remains. She is the Head of the Physical Anthropology section of the Institute of Forensic Medicine at Bern University in Switzerland. Between her lab work at the Institute, conferences and many field projects, Sandra was able to fly in especially to look at the occupants of two of our cremation burials, N-070 and N-249.


Unlike a normal inhumation or crime scene, the intense heat of the cremation has reduced the human bones to very small fragments, making Sandra’s work challenging indeed. Here she is at work in her lab, looking for clues as to the sex and age of our bodies. In this case, we weren’t even sure how many occupants each cremation held.

Sandra was able to determine that N-070 and N-249 each held one occupant. The former was an older male, aged between 30 and 50 years. The latter was an adult female aged between 30 and 45 years old when she died. One indiator of human age at death, human teeth, could not be used because the heat of the cremations – in excess of 800 degrees Celcius – had destroyed the crowns of the teeth! Instead, Sandra was able to utilize the fusion of sutures in the skull and bony growths on the vertebrae to provide a rough estimate of age. Here’s a vertebrae from the male buried in N-070. I’ve highlighted the bony growth, a paleopathology that is normally not present and one that can affect mobility and was probably quite painful for this individual.


Sex was determined by a number of indicators. Differences in the shape of the pelvis, overall robusticity, and even the weight of the preserved bones can be used to provide a guide for determining sex. Of course, we have to be careful with cremations since the bones shrink quite a bit when heated, but as an experienced physical anthropologist, Sandra has a wealth of comparative material from which to draw.

Now, as for the names, ranks, and the answer to the question of why these two individuals were buried in this fashion under the courtyard of an Assyrian palace, we need to keep digging into the rich archives in our depot and to continue our detailed analysis for more answers.

Unfortunately Sandra is leaving tomorrow for a conference in Rio. We wish her safe travels and hope she can return during our 2014 study season to continue this line of forensic investigation on the other skeletons recovered at Ziyaret Tepe.


About matney

Dr. Matney is Professor of Archaeology in the Department of Anthropology and Classical Studies at the University of Akron. He is the Director of the Ziyaret Tepe Archaeological Expedition.
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