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Iron Age skeletons found buried with turtles

Excavations at a site in southeastern Turkey has revealed the more than 2,500-year-old remains of a woman and a child who were buried with several previously slaughtered and butchered turtles.

Iron Age skeletons found buried with turtles
This image shows the skeletons with the turtle remains 
[Credit: Kavusan Hoyuk Archaeological Project]
Most of the turtles belonged to the Euphrates softshell species, known for their aggression.

The unique burial was found at Kavuşan Höyük, a multi-period mound site on the southern bank of the Tigris River, some six miles from the modern town of Bismil in Turkey.

Dated to the late Iron Age, which is known locally as the post-Assyrian period, the pit revealed the skeletons of a 6-7-year-old child and a woman aged between 45 and 55 years.

Lying face down, the infant, whose sex wasn't identified, had the left leg bent at the knee and the right leg fully extended. The right arm lay under the body, while the left was stretched above the shoulder, as if protecting the face.

"A broken iron fibula grave good that was placed next to the skull may indicate that the child was a girl," Rémi Berthon, archaeozoologist at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, France, Güriz Kozbe, professor of archaeology at the Batman University, Turkey, and colleagues wrote in the latest issue of Antiquity.

Directly beneath the child, was the female skeleton, lying on her back in a semi-flexed position. No evidence of trauma related to a violent death was found in both skeletons.

Since ancient DNA analyses were not performed, the researchers have no information on the relationship between the adult women and the child.

“We know that the child and the woman were buried in a short time range because the woman’s skeleton, found just below the child, has not been disturbed when the child’s body was placed into the grave,” Berthon told Discovery News.

All around the edge of the pit, the archaeologists found numerous remains of turtles. Two carapaces and some scattered skeletal elements were also found in the middle of the grave.

Iron Age skeletons found buried with turtles
Euphrates soft-shelled turtle (Rafetus euphraticus) basking on the 
shore of the Tigris River [Credit: S. Turga]
One of the centrally deposited shells belonged to a spur-thighed tortoise (Testudo graeca), 17 remains were of Euphrates soft-shelled turtles (Rafetus euphraticus) and three belonged to Middle Eastern terrapins (Mauremys caspica).

“Although the Middle Eastern terrapin is very common in eastern Turkey, this is the first evidence of its use as a grave good. Finding Euphrates soft-shelled turtles in a burial is unprecedented as well,” Berthon said.

Characterized by an olive-green leathery skin that covers the carapace, the Euphrates softshell turtles are primarily known as having a carnivorous diet, although they also feed on plants and vegetables.

“They are also scavengers and have frequently been observed feeding on the drifting carcasses of various mammals, which can be as large as a horse,” the researchers wrote.

The Euphrates soft-shelled turtles that were placed in the grave were clearly butchered.

“Some anatomical parts are missing, suggesting they were taken away, probably for consumption in the frame of a funerary feasting,” Berthon said.

The tortoise and terrapins, meanwhile, were seemingly neither butchered nor consumed during the funerary rites.

“Only their empty carapaces were used as grave goods,” the researchers noted.

Chelonians had a strong symbolic value in the ancient Near East and were strongly connected with afterlife.

“We call them psychopomp animals, responsible for escorting newly deceased souls to the afterlife, Berthon said. “The ritual evidenced in the burial probably attests to the peculiar social status of the deceased."

According to the researchers, the discovery of Euphrates soft-shell turtles in a burial shows that the connection between turtle/tortoise and afterlife in the ancient Near East is valid for all the chelonian species.

Found only in the Euphrates and Tigris rivers and their tributaries in Iran, Turkey, Syria, and Iraq, the Euphrates soft-shell turtle is now listed as endangered by the the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

“We are glad to show that this species is also involved in the cultural heritage of Turkey,” Berthon said.

Author: Rossella Lorenzi | Source: Discovery News [February 25, 2016]

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