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New eyes look at an old mystery.

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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.


By 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.

3 replies on “New eyes look at an old mystery.”

Were the burials intentional cremations? If so, how did they get the fires that hot? Why did they cremate? I was talking about bone identification on Friday – I will show my students the blog tomorrow. How nice of you to time this so aptly. Thanks!

Hi Liz,

Thanks for the questions. The cremations were very deliberate, indeed. The cremations took place in specially built pits cut into the palace courtyard. They were subsequently sealed by a baked brick pavementm(after the burial was finished and the fires extinguished) so they were, in effect, hidden under the courtyard floor. The heat generated was far in excess of what was needed to burn a human body. It is not clear why the cremation pits generated such a hot fire. They were cut into a solid mudbrick platform and lined with a clay or mud plaster, which must have created excellent conditions for reaching extremely high temperatures. Our study of the material from the cremations is coming along very well and we hope to publish an entire volume of the final excavation series on these features. There are plenty of questions still unanswered on this topic.


Dear Doctor Matney,

After reading this article, two questions popped into my mind:

1) What kind of accelerates were in existence at this time (say – fuel oil or somesuch) that would have caused the burn to go that hot (surely there is a chemist who has all of this off the top of their head) – does your research give an indicator of if something was doused on these two individuals before being set alight?

2) From a cognitive standpoint: when one burns bodies at over 800 C. and then builds a courtyard over them, aren’t meant to be found – it sounds like a ritual hiding of sorts (the same way as say – a kid destroys his mother’s lamp that he thinks is ugly, then hides the pieces under the carpet)…does the historical record indicate anything about these two individuals, whether they were looked on as being particularly evil for their disfigurement or some other “bad” connotation? I know this question sounds all sorts of dramatic (it’s not meant to) but were they essentially attempting to erase them from history, so to speak…in the same manner one chisels the faces off of rival Pharaoh’s in Egypt once the ruler’s predecessor has gone?

I am LOVING your blog. Please keep the posts coming!!!

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