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City Life, 2300 BC

An ancient tomb in Syria offers a peek into one of the earliest urban civilizations. The bejeweled remains of two women raise questions about presumed dominance of men.


Alice Petty had been digging at a small area of Umm el-Marra in Syria for a couple of weeks with little to show for it other than badly deteriorated mud bricks. Frustrated, she said recently, "I made a wish on a chicken bone to please, please, please let me find something, anything."

Two days later, the Johns Hopkins graduate student excavated two intact, large round pots--a rarity in a field in which most pottery is found only in the form of shards. As she kept digging, she found other unbroken pottery, animal bones, a silver amulet and, eventually, a human scapula, or breastbone.

When anthropologist Glenn Schwartz, the lead researcher on the dig, arrived to check on her progress, she said, "I remember looking up at him and looking around the room--at the silver, at the pots, at the scapula--and I thought, 'I can't believe this is happening. This is amazing,' I was having my own little Howard Carter moment." Carter, of course, opened the tomb of Tutankhamen in Egypt.

The tomb Petty and Schwartz discovered did not bear as many riches as Tut's, but it had survived intact for more than 4,300 years (making it from around the same period as Tut's tomb) with its contents undisturbed. This was a remarkable fact in itself, because the tomb was originally above ground on a hill and must have been visible from a long distance.

The tomb has excited archeologists because of the insights it may provide into one of the earliest civilizations known: a sprawling conglomerate of cities that came into existence at the same time that Sargon of Akkad was creating his early empire in Mesopotamia and the pharaohs were placing the finishing touches on their massive pyramids in Egypt.

"This is one of the earliest urban civilizations in the world," Schwartz said. By studying it and comparing it to Mesopotamia and Egypt, "we can learn more about the different ways urban societies developed, why they developed, when and how they did, and how they differed from each other. It's an important addition to our understanding of why cities, writing, states and social classes first developed."

The contents of the tomb represent a major puzzle for archeologists, however, because they do not mesh with current ideas about the role women played in such early societies. Early Syrian society was apparently male-dominated, with women having little function in its governance.

But the place of honor in the newly opened tomb is given to two young women. The top layer within the tomb shows traces of two coffins, each containing a woman in her 20s and a baby.

The women were the most richly ornamented of all the occupants of the tomb, with jewelry of gold, silver and lapis lazuli. One of the babies appeared to be wearing a bronze torque, or collar.

One of the women was also wearing a small lump of iron--perhaps a meteorite--on a pendant around her neck.

In the next layer down were the coffins of two adult males and the remains of another baby, placed at some distance from the men. Crowning the older man was a silver diadem decorated with a disc bearing a rosette motif, while the other man had a bronze dagger.

The third and lowest level held an adult male with a silver cup and silver pins.

Because the most richly decorated occupants were female, the tomb is unlikely to be that of a king, Schwartz said. So who were they? "Princesses? Queens? Concubines? We just don't know yet," Schwartz said.

All the bodies were accompanied by scores of ceramic vessels, some of which contained animal bones that may have been part of funerary offerings. Outside the tomb to the south, against the tomb wall, was a jar containing the remains of a baby, a spouted jar and two skulls, horse-like but apparently neither horses nor donkeys. The ceramics in the tomb date to 2300 BC.

The artifacts are "spectacular," according to archeologist James Armstrong of Harvard University's Semitic Museum. Unfortunately, he added, it is difficult to place them in context because every other tomb that has been found in the region has been thoroughly looted.

The tomb is part of a major complex that Schwartz and archeologist Hans Curvers of the University of Amsterdam believe to be the city of Tuba, which was mentioned frequently in texts of the second and third millenniums BC. Situated about 200 miles northeast of Damascus, the 60-acre site sits astride a major east-west trade route that connected the Mediterranean coast with Upper Mesopotamia.

It also sits on the edge of a fertile agricultural area next to a steppe zone where it is too dry to farm. The city "controlled access between farmers and pastoral nomads," and many cities have become wealthy from such control, Schwartz said.

Tuba--if this city is Tuba--was established "very abruptly" about 2800 BC, Schwartz said. "It was walled from the beginning, and it was large from the beginning."

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