October 28: When archaeologist Donny Youkhanna started excavating an ancient mound in the Umm al-Ajarib cemetery, located 400 km of Iraq’s capital Baghdad, he had no idea what he was going to unearth. He dug up a huge graveyard belonging to the ancient civilization of Sumer, which flourished in Iraq nearly 5000 years ago, says an Associated Press report which appeared in The Times of India.
The largeness of the site has stunned scientists and archaeologists, prompting them to call it ‘the city of graves’. They claim never to have excavated anything like the site before.
The Umm al-Ajarib site is about five square km. It is located in arid land of sand dunes and a featureless expanse of land. But 500 years ago, it must have looked very different. After all, it too was part of the fertile Sumerian region of gardens, palm groves and fields of barley and wheat.
The cemetery occupies the largest portion, with shells, bowls, beads, handsome earthernware and statues dotting small lanes in it. These objects were placed in the graves because, like other ancient civilizations, ancient Iraqis too buried their dead with their most valued possessions. This was in keeping with their belief in life after death.
“The Sumerians looked after the dead. Funerary rites were of great significance because they believed if the dead were not buried properly their souls will return and haunt the living relatives,” says an archaeologist. He adds that the first thing a Sumerian monarch did upon conquering a city was to “open the graves and release the souls” to chase away any enemy soldiers who escaped the sword.
While a better estimate will be available only when the diggers remove debris and count the graves in a square they have targeted, Youkhanna says it may hold hundreds of thousands of graves.
This makes Umm al-Ajarib many times larger than the one square km graveyard at Eridu in Southern Iraq. The graveyard, comprising of 1,000 graves, was thought by archaeologists, to be the largest Sumerian burial ground until now.
Umm al-Ajarib literally means “Mother of Scorpions”, and is named after the large number of scorpions that lived among the graves. The scorpions were the main reason why the ancient mound was unapproachable to people for a long time.
Its remote and desolate location has also made the site the target of grave robbers who stole gold ornaments, cylinder seals made of precious stones and statuettes, and other valuable items. That is why Youkhanna took along with him armed guards at the time of excavations.
The burials at Umm al-Ajarib are chiefly in coffins of brick. The graves are regularly arranged, like cemetery lots, with streets and lanes.
The Sumerian civilization appeared in southern Mesopotamia ( as Iraq was known in ancient times ) as early as the 5th millennium B.C. By 3000 B.C. Sumer was a powerful kingdom based on irrigated agriculture, fine arts and a special writing system known as cuneiform. The farmers of Sumer lived on the fertile soil of the Euphrates valley and used the river water to irrigate their crops. Ur was Sumer’s most famous city, dating from 4000 B.C.
It appears that Umm al-Ajarib too might have been a very important site. Youkhanna has already dug up a small part of a tripartite temple with huge walls and made of sun-dried bricks. A clay tablet providing a list of food rations – wheat, barley, dates and oil – given to servants, suggests an organized administration. Prosperity is suggested by findings of magnificent ivory cylinders, seals, goblets, conical bowls and spouted jars.