Ancient Assyrians buried their dead with turtles in Turkey

Turtle skeletons were found alongside human ones in the Kavusan Hoyuk burial.
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SUN 20 JAN 2019 04:00 PM.

Ancient Assyrians buried their dead with turtles in Turkey:

Turtle skeletons were found alongside human ones in the Kavusan Hoyuk burial.
Turtle skeletons were found alongside human ones in the Kavusan Hoyuk burial.

In an ancient settlement on the banks of the Tigris River in Turkey, archaeologist have made a strange discovery: 17 butchered soft shelled turtles in the grave of a woman and child.

These river turtles were not a typical Mesopotamian menu offering 2500 years back, but the researchers think that, in this case, the animals may have been eaten in a funeral ritual before being buried with the dead.

The grave was found at an ancient mound site called Kavuşan Höyük, near the modern town of Bismil in south eastern Turkey.

The archaeological records suggests the site was occupied for a very long time —from the late 3rd millennium B.C. to the 14th century A.D.—but now, it’s about to disappear.

Once the controversial Ilisu Dam project is finished, Kavuşan Höyük and several other historic sites like Hasankeyfwill be flooded with a new reservoir.

Ahead of this hydroelectric project, salvage excavation’s took place along the banks of the Tigris to save and study the archaeological materials that are soon to be underwater. At Kavuşan Höyük, digging took place from 2001 to 2009.

In the 2008 season, archaeologist’s discovered 3 ancient silos that had been dug into a mud floor dating back to the post Assyrian period, around the 6th century B.C.

These silos would have originally been used for grain or cereal storage, but one of them was repurposed for a grave.

At the bottom of it, excavators discovered a woman and a child, buried directly on top of each other. Surrounding them were the carapaces (shells) and other skeleton remains of 17 Euphrates soft shelled turtles (Rafetus euphraticus).

The top and bottom of a turtle shell (known as the carapace and plastron) from the burial at Kavusan Hoyuk.
The top and bottom of a turtle shell (known as the carapace and plastron) from the burial at Kavusan Hoyuk.

“It was really something unexpected,” said Remi Berthon, a zooarchaeologist at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, who was tasked with studying the animal remains.

Turtle shells —and, more commonly, tortoise shell’s —have been discovered in graves in the Near East before. But finding Euphrates soft shelled turtles, and so many of them, was a surprise.

What’s more, Berthon saw clear evidence that the turtles had been butchered. The cut marks on the bones suggest the turtles were placed on their backs and were cut open for the meat inside; their limbs were cut off as well, the researchers stated.

Berthon said he has not tasted soft shelled turtle meat himself, and he’d probably be in trouble with conservationists if he did: The Euphrates soft shelled turtle is listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Despite its precarious status, the species was not held in much regard locally. Though ethnographic sources suggest the turtles are sometimes sold at fish markets, the animals have no economic function in the region today.

The Euphrates soft-shelled turtle (Rafetus euphraticus) is still alive, but endangered, today. Here are a few basking on the shore of the Tigris River.
The Euphrates soft-shelled turtle (Rafetus euphraticus) is still alive, but endangered, today. Here are a few basking on the shore of the Tigris River.

“I think that fishermen are not really happy with this species because they think they are too aggressive and destroy the fishing nets,” Berthon stated.

There is a proof from other archaeological sites that turtles and tortoises may have been seen as guides to the afterlife in some cultures. For example, the shells and skull of green sea turtles were often found on graves at the Ra’s al Hamra 5 cemetery, in Oman, which dates back to the 4th millennium B.C.

“We knew already that, in the Near East, the turtles and tortoise have a special role that is usually linked with life after death,” Berthon explained. What’s surprising here, he said, is that these special powers may have been applied to soft shelled turtles, an overlooked animal today.

As there are no marks of trauma or injuries, it is not clear how the two people buried with the turtles died. But the strange burial —and the evidences for a possible funeral feast —might also indicate that these two had high social status or symbolic status.


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Jessica Saraceni has been a part of Histecho Since 2018, drawn to the site for its quirky character and through Articles about the Mysteries of earth and human behavior. previously, she was an assistant editor and Research fellow at Archaeology magazine, where she gained an appreciation for the field work. A master's degree in biogeochemistry and environmental science from the Center for Archaeological Research, the University of Texas at San Antonio. She enjoys all forms of exercise; reading works by her favorite author, Haruki Murakami; and playing with her sons.