History

Iron Age Skeletons Found Buried With Turtles

A woman and child were buried more than 2,500 years ago with several previously slaughtered and butchered 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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

Euphrates soft-shelled turtle (Rafetus euphraticus) basking on the shore of the Tigris River. | courtesy of S. Turga

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.

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"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."

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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.

This image shows the skeletons with the turtle remains.

Egypt will likely offer promising finds in 2016. King Tutankhamun's tomb will be under the spotlight as

recent investigation

suggests the western and northern walls of the 3,300-year-old burial may hide two secret chambers. According to Egypt's Minister of Antiquity Mamdouh al-Damaty there is a 90 percent chance the tomb of King Tut contains such chambers. Damaty made the announcement last November at the end of a radar-based investigation. The non-invasive search followed a claim by Nicholas Reeves, a British Egyptologist at the University of Arizona, who first speculated the existence of the chambers, arguing that one contains the remains, and possibly the intact grave goods, from queen Nefertiti. She was the wife of the "heretic" monotheistic pharaoh Akhenaten, Tutankhamun's father. Will archaeologists try to access the hidden chambers? Their attempt may lead to what Damaty called "one of the most important finds of the century."

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The noninvasive technologies applied to King Tut's tomb will be widely used this year in another ambitious project. Called Scan Pyramid, the investigation is carried out by a team from Cairo University's Faculty of Engineering and the Paris-based organization Heritage, Innovation and Preservation under the authority of the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities. The project aims to scan the largest pyramids of Egypt in order to detect the presence of any unknown internal structures and cavities. The technique could lead to a better understanding of the pyramids' structure and how they were built. The project uses a mix of technologies such as infrared thermography, muon radiography, and 3D reconstruction to look at the inside of four pyramids, which are more than 4,500 years old. They include Khufu, or Cheops, Khafre or Chephren at Giza, the Bent pyramid and the Red pyramid at Dahshur. One

particularly remarkable anomaly

has been already detected on the eastern side of the Great Pyramid, also known as Khufu or Cheops, at the ground level. Much more is to come -- the first results are expected in the first months of the year.

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Last year a study made an

extraordinary and controversial claim

: Stonehenge was basically a second-hand monument from Wales. It would have stood there hundreds of years before it was dismantled and transported to Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire. The research indicates that two quarries in the Preseli Hills of Pembrokeshire, in southwest Wales, are the source of Stonehenge's bluestones. Carbon dating revealed such stones were dug out at least 500 years before Stonehenge was built -- suggesting they were first used in a local monument that was later dismantled and dragged off to England. "Stonehenge was a Welsh monument from its very beginning. If we can find the original monument in Wales from which it was built, we will finally be able to solve the mystery," Mike Parker Pearson, director of the project and professor of British later prehistory at University College London said. Researchers have been using geophysical surveys, trial excavations and aerial photographic analysis to identify the ruins of a lost, dismantled monument. The results of such research promise to make the headlines this year. "We think we have the most likely spot. We may find something big in 2016," Kate Welham, of Bournemouth University, said.

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In early December,

the Colombian government announced

they had found the holy grail of treasure shipwrecks -- an 18th-century Spanish galleon that went down off the country's coast with a treasure of gold, coins and precious stones now valued between $4 billion and $17 billion. The multibillion-dollar ship, called the San Jose, was found off the island of Baru, near Cartagena. The vessel was part of Spain's only royal convoy to bring colonial coins and bullion home to King Philip V during the War of Spanish Succession from 1701 to 1714. The San Jose was trying to outrun a fleet of British warships off the island of Baru on June 8, 1708, when an explosion sent it to the bottom of the Caribbean Sea. She was reportedly carrying 600 people, chests of emeralds and tons of silver, gold and platinum. The shipwreck has been at a center of a decades-long search that also involved a legal battle with the Seattle-based Sea Search Armada, or SSA, a commercial salvage company that claims it first discovered the wreck's location in 1981. Moreover, Peru has argued that any treasure recovered from the San Jose should be considered a Peruvian national patrimony. As more legal fights will likely occur, new expeditions to the wreck in 2016 are expected to recover the much disputed treasure of gold and emeralds.

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One of the most promising discoveries last year was

an oval-shaped structure

unearthed in the Tuscan town of Volterra. Archaeologists believe it represents the most important Roman amphitheater finding over the last century. The foundations of the colosseum, which is oval-shaped like the much larger arena in the heart of Rome, might date back to the 1st century A.D. Amphitheaters like these were used during Roman times to feature events including gladiator combats and wild animal fights. The archaeologists estimate the structure, which mostly lies at a depth of 20 to 32 feet, measured some 262 by 196 feet. Only a small part of it has been unearthed during a small dig survey. New finds are expected this year as a full-scale dig is launched.

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