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Mass Graves, Tell Majnuna, Syria Volume 61 Number 1, January/February 2008
by Zach Zorich

5,800-Year-Old Mass Grave • Syria


(Courtesy Augusta M. McMahon, Tell Brak Project)

Horrifying acts of violence in the Middle East dominate today's news cycles, and the two 5,800-year-old mass graves that were excavated at Tell Majnuna this year may offer unique insights into how it all began. The site lies in the suburbs of the world's most ancient cities, Nagar, also known as Tell Brak, near Syria's border with Iraq and Turkey.

A team of excavators led by Joan Oates and Augusta McMahon of Cambridge University began work at the site this year uncovering about 12 square yards of the oldest known evidence of mass violence. "It's a very slow excavation," said Oates, "you have to record the position of all the bones and there are just piles of them." The remains of more than 79 people have been unearthed so far. The graves include "armloads" of long bones and clusters of skulls, while the hands and feet are absent, showing that the corpses had been left to decay for weeks or possibly months before they were buried.

Evidence of the massacre comes in part from the people who are missing from the grave. Elderly people, infants, and, with few exceptions, women were not buried there, only men of fighting age. Other than two skulls, very few bones show evidence of fatal wounds. Oates believes the age and gender of the dead are a clear indication of a massacre. Scattered through the upper layers of the grave were fragments of pottery and cattle bones, evidence that whoever buried these people celebrated the occasion with an elaborate feast.

The massacre at Tell Majnuna may have resulted from the first invasion of the north by city-states in southern Mesopotamia. The archaeological evidence from Tell Brak and another nearby ancient center known as Tell Hamoukar shows both cities were burned. Pottery from southern Mesopotamia replaced northern style pottery 200 to 300 years after the mass burials at Tell Majnuna. Even though we know how it turns out, the story isn't complete... "Tell Majnuna is just one aspect of what is going on," Oates said, "Until we know whether the grave belongs to friend or foe, we don't know what this mass burial actually means."

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© 2008 by the Archaeological Institute of America