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The tomb with 8 human sacrifices at the entrance and 2 skeletal remains within.

A Matter of Honor? Evidence of Brutal Child Sacrifice Surfaces in Ancient Mesopotamia

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The 5,000-year-old bodies of a 12-year-old a boy and girl surrounded by “hundreds of bronze spearheads and eight human sacrifices” were unearthed at Basur Höyük in southeastern Turkey (Mesopotamia,) in 2014. A report published last week in the journal Antiquity said “ Six of the human sacrifice victims ranged in age from 11 to 20 years old” and they had all been “deposited in a single event.”

Brenna Hasset, a post-doctoral researcher of archaeology at the Natural History Museum in London and Haluk Sağlamtimur, an archaeology professor at Ege University in Izmir, Turkey told reporters at Live Science that the bodies were “furnished with an unprecedented number of high-status grave goods for the period and the region.”

The excavation site at Basur Höyük, Turkey. (Başur Höyük Research Project)

The excavation site at Basur Höyük, Turkey. (Başur Höyük Research Project)

Quite a Sacrifice

Hasset also told reporters that "from the careful dressing and positioning of the bodies outside the door to the main chamber, it seems all eight would have been ‘retainer sacrifices." Hold on a second! Is it just me? But the gentle term ‘retainer sacrifice’ rings of an archaeological term for people who were brutally murdered to serve their masters, in the afterlife. And a bit of proving reveals that this is exactly what’s going on.

Before writing an article it is my duty to read as much material as possible relating to any given story. In this case, I am astounded at the hordes of writers who say ‘retainer sacrifice’ then move on without giving this phrase a second thought. I find this almost disrespectful. I mean we are talking about human sacrifice like its ‘the norm’, without giving readers an insight into what in my opinion makes ‘retainer sacrifice’ a particularly brutal way to go.

Retainer Sacrifice in Mesopotamia

‘Retainer sacrifice’ was practiced often within the royal tombs of ancient Mesopotamia and it is an archaeological myth that ‘devoted people' happily sipped a vial of poison and passed over peacefully. According to a 2009 New York Times article, archaeologists at the University of Pennsylvania conducted CT scans of two skulls from the 4,500-year-old royal cemetery at Ur, in modern-day Iraq, which were excavated in the 1920s. The results revealed the extent of the “grisly human sacrifices associated with elite burials in ancient Mesopotamia.”

Bronze spearheads were found in the recently examined tomb of the 12-year-old children. (Image: Basur Höyük Research Project, Antiquity)

The research project was led by Janet M. Monge, a physical anthropologist at Penn, who found “Two round holes in the soldier’s cranium and one in the woman’s, each about an inch in diameter… with cracks radiating from the holes.” Dr. Monge said in an interview that “the pattern of fractures along stress lines were made in a living person.” Monge concluded that as part of “royal mortuary ritual, handmaidens and grooms, courtiers, guards and musicians were not dosed with poison to meet death serenely” but they were put to death by having “a sharp instrument, such as a pike, driven into their heads.”

Brutal death was customary in Mesopotamia. Naram Sin victory stele, Louvre. (Public Domain)

Brutal death was customary in Mesopotamia. Naram Sin victory stele, Louvre. (Public Domain)

It’s all about Honor!

All over the ancient world, the act of sacrificing oneself was intricately linked with concepts of “honor.” A highly ritualized aspect of Samurai life and death in feudal Japan was a self-sacrifice ritual called seppuku (or harakiri.) According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, this was undertaken to “restore their honor and to show solidarity with a recently deceased lord.” 

Warriors began by eating their favorite meals, dressed in their best robes, then wrote and recited a death poem. Ultimately they "plunged a short sword into the left side of his abdomen, draw the blade laterally across to the right, and then turn it upward.” Finally, the samurai was decapitated. Trying to rationalize this act, Dr. Monge said “It’s almost like mass murder and hard for us to understand.” And like the Samurais in Japan Dr. Monge thinks that to have devoted one’s life to being a sacrificial victim, is about honor: “these were positions of great honor, and you lived well in the court, so it was a trade-off.”

Still from 1962 film Harakiri. (CC BY 2.0)

Still from 1962 film Harakiri. (CC BY 2.0)

Hold on right there Dr. Monge. A 2016 Live Science article described how fighting cattle are raised on specialized ranches and breeders determine which bulls will fight in battles, in which Spanish matadors will eventually plunge their swords between the bull's shoulders. They too, are also brought up really well compared to the ‘herd!’ It’s 2018 and the entire concept of sacrifice, whether self, human or animal, is barbaric.

But maybe I am being too quick! Maybe ‘self-sacrifice’ is nature’s way of regulating the number of idiots that populate the human gene pool? For it is a fact, that any parent that can willingly give up their child for riches in the here and now, or in a perceived afterlife, are really going to hold the pack back! What a grotesque weakness in materialism!

Top image: The tomb with 8 human sacrifices at the entrance and 2 skeletal remains within. Source: Ba ̧sur Höyük Research Project, Antiquity

By Ashley Cowie



What makes the difference between sacrifice ans slaughter to a meat eater?

I agree bad, isn't it. I read that the first child was for the gods, e.g. sacrificed to bring good health to the children that followed. A lot of cultures seem to do this, it seems common practice.
We now have a completely different value system. They might have thought this part if the cycles of life, not that we would accept sacrificing children today, but this said, some cultures sacrificing themselves for a cause, they believe they will go to heaven. Maybe they had similar thoughts.
BTW did you have any thoughts on the facing stone idea? If you want to write up let me know and I@ll do some illustrations to support. Oh by the way, I've worked out how they could have bored out these stone vases, it not that difficult, turn them with aggregate in, same way rock tumblers work.

ashley cowie's picture


Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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