On March 30th, 2016 we learned about

Ancient Assyrian tomb turns out to be full of turtles

Food storage facilities are generally not a good place to keep dead bodies. They’re also not usually seen as especially sacred locations, even if you’re particularly excited about the grain or cereal that was kept there. So when the bodies of an ancient Assyrian woman, a child, and over 21 turtles were found in a food silo from 2500 years ago, it was certainly puzzling. Why were these people buried there, and why were so many turtles brought to the grave site?

Silos were not cemeteries

The burial site is located along the Tigris river in southeastern Turkey, where it is slated to soon be flooded under the water of a reservoir. Researchers believe that the ancient Assyrian settlements were fairly stable, having been inhabited in one form or another from 3000 BCE to 1400 CE. On the one hand, this helps explain the presence of a long-term piece of infrastructure like grain silos, but it doesn’t explain the unusual nature of using such a location as a grave. While many cultures from the ancient Near East believed that a person needed to be properly buried and mourned shortly after their death, it doesn’t seem like the silo was selected out of any kind of time-sensitivity, or lack of other options. Especially when you factor in all the turtles.

Eternal rest with many reptiles

There were three different types of turtle in the silo, including 17 Euphrates soft-shelled turtles (Rafetus euphraticus), three Middle Eastern terrapins (Mauremys caspica) and one spur-thighed tortoise(Testudo graeca). While the various reptiles were native to the area, they were clearly brought in for some kind of ritual associated with the deceased deaths. Turtles weren’t a standard component of Assyrian diets (then or now), but they all bear marks of butchering, such as severed limbs and sliced carapaces, appropriate for removing meat. Researchers believe that to go to this much trouble, and use such a large structure, indicates that the woman and child were of high status, and considered deserving of this elaborate burial.

While turtles weren’t normally eaten, they did have some symbolic significance. When not biting at fishermen’s nets, turtles were thought of as guides in the afterlife. They also make appearances in ancient myths, being formed out of clay to assist gods in their adventures. As such, archaeologists have found fragments of tortoise shells in human graves, but they usually appeared to have been trinkets or talismans meant to ward off evil. The turtles that seem to have been part of a special feast indicates that this woman and child were considered very special, or were just likely to need all the help they could get in the next world.

Source: Funeral Feast? Butchered Turtles in Ancient Grave Hint at Ritual by Megan Gannon, Live Science

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