Human Sacrifice in the Ancient Near East and Egypt
Human Sacrifice in the Ancient Near East and Egypt

Human Sacrifice in the Ancient Near East and Egypt

ANE TODAY – 202002 – Human Sacrifice in the Ancient Near East and Egypt

February 2020
Vol. 8, No. 2

Human Sacrifice in the Ancient Near East and Egypt
By Laerke Recht

Human sacrifice is a source of dark fascination and even wonder, but is it really all that special? It involves the carefully planned killing of fellow human beings, a thought process and an act that is not only foreign but anathema to normal humans. This deliberation – the fascination of which is echoed in our modern obsession with serial killers – is combined with what we might perceive as waste, or pointless violence. Why then did it occur in early Mesopotamia and Egypt?

Map marking sites mentioned.

Although it has occurred in many parts of the world throughout history, human sacrifice was never common. Nor is there a single explanation or reason that can be applied to all cases of human sacrifice (or for that matter, to all cases of animal sacrifice). A typical archaeological mantra is that ‘context is everything.’ For each instance of human sacrifice, we must investigate the social conditions, including for example status and identity, attitudes toward life, death, humans and other animals, and political ideologies and religious traditions.

These social conditions go a long way in understanding human sacrifice. In the ancient Near East and Egypt, human sacrifice was associated with elite tombs and funerary practices. One of the world’s most famous ancient sites is Ur, located in southern Iraq on the Euphrates River. A royal line of Sumerian kings and queens ruled there in the third millennium BCE, commissioned monumental buildings and temples, and towards the end of the millennium, created perhaps the most iconic type of Mesopotamian structure – the ziggurat.

But hundreds of years before this, around 2500 BCE, the Sumerians mourned and remembered their dead by building large mudbrick tombs. Sixteen such ‘Royal Tombs’ were found during excavations in the 1920s directed by Sir Leonard Woolley, among hundreds of more modest graves. These royal funeral proceedings were flamboyant and extravagant. The largest assemblages contained thousands of objects: gold, silver and bronze vessels, jewelry, seals, weapons, tools, gaming boards, musical instruments elaborately decorated, and a wealth of other exotic and prestige items, some of whose functions we still do not understand. Animals and humans were sacrificed to complete the assemblage.

Leonard Woolley’s reconstruction of the scene in tomb PG 789. After Leonard Woolley 1934, Ur Excavations Vol. II: The Royal Cemetery.

The Death Pit of tomb PG 1237.

Skull and head decorations of one of the ‘court ladies’ from PG 1237.

These sacrifices were deliberately ‘staged’ to reflect specific social roles. Cattle were placed in teams in front of vehicles, accompanied by soldiers with their helmets and weapons. ‘Court ladies’ in all their finery were arranged in neat rows, and musicians placed with their instruments still in hand. This carefully organized display prompted Woolley to suggest that the human victims had voluntarily gone to their death, collectively drinking poison from a centrally placed cauldron. But new research on some of the few preserved skulls has revealed a more sinister scenario of blunt force trauma as the cause of death. Although Ur is not the only site with evidence of human sacrifice in the Near East, it is by far the most evocative – other possible sites include Jericho in the Levant and Tell Umm el-Marra in Syria.

To the southwest, among the banks of the Nile, another line of rulers had started to emerge, the kings and queens of the First Dynasty of Egypt. Earlier signs of human sacrifice occurred already in the Predynastic period at Hierakonpolis and Adaima, but it is at the site of Abydos in the early third millennium BC that it became systematic and substantial. As in the Near East, the elite carried out human sacrifice as part of their funerary proceedings. At Abydos, the mortuary cult may have been performed at two types of buildings. The actual tomb of a king or queen was a large subterranean built structure surrounded by smaller burial or subsidiary chambers. Though plundered, it is still possible to determine that these chambers contained funerary offerings – including animals and humans.

First Dynasty tombs at Abydos. After Flinders Petrie 1900, The Royal Tombs of the First Dynasty: Part I.

The owners of the tombs were First Dynasty rulers. Related to the tombs, but at a distance of about 1.5 km from the cemetery are the so-called funerary enclosures. Their exact function is still a mystery, but one clue is that they were surrounded by chambers with offerings. Humans were found in some, but there are also recent finds of donkeys and even boat graves placed in neat rows. The practice spans most of the First Dynasty, a period of some 250 years. King Aha appears to have initiated the practice, with 36 subsidiary burials at his tomb, and six at his enclosure. His successor, Djer, substantially increased these numbers, with 326 subsidiary burials at the tombs, and 269 at the funerary enclosure.

Thus in both Egypt and Mesopotamia human sacrifice was closely associated with elite ostentatious display and mortuary rituals. The practice was relatively short-lived and tied to the emergence of states and a ruling elite focused on marking their authority in a manner that created a strong impact.

Seen in the context of these large and very rich funerary assemblages, the human victims are but one item among many. Each item found in the tombs represent something taken out of normal use and circulation. Most were extremely valuable, as were both the human and animal sacrifices. If the human victims performed the same role in death as in life, they would also have been highly skilled and trained workers. Humans may have been the most valuable part of the offerings. But if we see the assemblage as a whole as reflecting the life of the deceased (or at least the ideal life), then they are not so very out of place or extremely odd.

The human offerings would very likely have been visible at the time of the burial, possibly even moved to the tomb in procession-like manner. This surely has ideological and political implications, and must have been part of the strategy of the ruling elite. However, after the relatively short period when the tomb contents were exhibited, they were removed from human view in perpetuity. Ultimately, their long-term purpose was supernatural – whether for use in the afterlife by the deceased or for specific deities. They formed part of the religious life and beliefs of the ancient people living in these regions.

The human sacrifices of ancient Egypt and the Near East placed some of the elite’s most valuable items along side the deceased. This type of ‘retainer sacrifice’ was also practiced at Shang dynasty Anyang in China around 1200 BCE. Large cemetery complexes include the sacrifice of animals such as horses, elephants and dogs, and human sacrifices that are plausibly divided into persons close to the deceased (perhaps even family members), and those further removed. The latter were typically young men, probably prisoners of war, placed in symbolic positions in the tombs, usually in corners and entrances. Retainer sacrifice also occurred in Mesoamerica, but there it was only one type among many other kinds of human and animal sacrifice.

Not all human sacrifices fall into the category of mortuary practice or retainer sacrifice, where the emphasis is on the assemblage as a whole. In other instances, the killing itself plays a more central role, and the victims have a strong symbolic value in local cosmologies. For example, human sacrifice is well-attested in prehispanic Central and South America, from the many building or construction sacrifices found in the structures Aztec Teotihuacan, Toltec, Mayan and Aztec ‘skull racks,’ or the mass combined child and llama sacrifices in the Chimú culture of Peru.

The Moon Pyramid at Teotihuacan, Mexico. Human sacrifices were carried out at each new construction phase.

Tzompantli (skull rack) from Chichen Itza, Mexico.

Human sacrifice is not a simple category whose significance is universal. Each instance is culturally, socially and ideologically situated. It is a divisive topic that tends to be over or underemphasized, and easily become part of modern narratives with a specific agenda. It can also be a very sensitive issue, especially where close associations are felt with ancient groups carrying out sacrifice. Rhetoric that involves value judgments based on modern sentiments can therefore become a dangerous tool. This is one of the ways in which the past becomes entangled in the present and the future, and why it is so important to understand practices like human sacrifice in its local context.

Laerke Recht is Marie Skłodowska-Curie European Fellow at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research.

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