Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Sumerian Burial Practices/Beliefs

This blog post is going to deal with the Sumerians, who are one of my favorite ancient cultures. Sumer was the birthplace of urban culture, writing and wheeled transport. They thrived well before the Egyptians and the Egyptians actually borrowed some of their culture and infused it with their own. From the Sumerians comes the first known written piece of Literature, The Epic of Gilgamesh. I have actually read The Epic of Gilgamesh and it's an amazing story with a great insight into Sumerian culture and beliefs. It actually contains a story that is extremely similar to the story of Noah's Ark. Which is strange because it was written before the bible. Just thoughts for the day.

The Sumerians had their own story to explain why we die. They blamed a man named Adapa, which literally means man. Adapa served as their primeval Adam. He earned the enmity of the gods by cursing the south wind when it overturned his fishing boat. He was afterwards summoned to explain why he cursed the south wind to An, the father of the gods. Adapa confessed and in turned gained An's favor for doing so. Due to his great pleasure in Adapa's confession, An offered him the bread and water of eternal life. Why wouldn't you take eternal life when it's handed to you? Well Adapa was misguided by Enki, the cunning god of water, and rejected An's offer. This sounds very similar to the biblical story of Adam and Eve where Eve is tricked by the snake into eating the forbidden apple. Anyways, Adapa chose 2 other gifts presented to him, oil and a robe. These gifts were actually bad, the oil was the kind used to dress the dead and the robe was a shroud. Thanks to Adapa's choice, all of humankind was condemned to live and die as mortals without eternal life. Just like Eve condemned humanity to mortality.

The Sumerian's had no heaven, but they did have a hell. The underworld's, known as the 'Land of No Return', location varied across texts. The underworld was the domain of the Ereshkigal, the dark sister of the love goddess, Inana. One of the first known locations of the underworld was Kur, which means the mountain. The Sumerian's had the concept that Kur was all that was foreign to the Mesopotamian plain-dwellers. The underworld is generally said to be underground, which makes a lot of sense. Some myths say that it was reached by crossing water, 'the man-devouring river' with the aid of a boatman. The boatman is equal to the Greek Charon, the ferryman of Hades, the Greek underworld. The underworld was said to resemble a city with 7 walls and 7 gates. This also makes me think of the circles of hell for some reason.

It is agreed that the underworld was an undesirable place to live eternally. The spirits there lived ghostly half-lives in darkness. A part of  the legend of Gilgamesh tells of how Gilgamesh summoned his best friend, Enkidu, back from the underworld to give an account on the fate of the deceased. He didn't have good  news to report. He said that the souls that don't have graves just wander eternally without rest, because they weren't actually laid to rest. The ones who didn't have children just wept for all eternity. The ones that died by fire didn't have an existence at all, their soul was destroyed in the fire with their body. However,  one good thing that Enkidu could report was that the stillborn children who were robbed out of life on Earth got to play in Ereshkigal's realm. "At a table of gold and silver, laden with butter" So basically everyone who died was guaranteed to be miserable unless you were born as a stillborn. Sounds like a great place to look forward to going to after death. :)

The spirits of the dead were constantly tormented by hunger and thirst. Their only form of subsistence depended on their living relatives good will. The living were expected to take care of them by making libations at their graves. The living family members would gather at the grave and leave food and pour water into the ground for them. This practice reminds me of the Day of the Dead where the family brings the deceased favorite food and drink to their grave on their ofrendas on November 2nd every year.

Funerary Customs

The Sumerians were not generally long-lived, with a life-expectancy of less than 40 years. They mainly buried their dead instead of cremating. Some were even buried in vaults underneath their homes. As many as 10+ bodies have been found in such tombs, known as 'family tombs'. This was a long-lasting tradition that even the upper class practiced. 

In 1989, Iraqi archaeologists discovered burial chambers in a tomb complex underneath the harem quarter of the palace of Assyrian Kings. This was for queens and princesses to be buried in, roughly eight and ninth century BCE. Two of the burial chambers contained more than 82 pounds of gold objects. That is a lot of gold in just those two chambers. On a side note, why would they want to bury the queens and princesses underneath the harem? That just seems like a weird place to bury female royalty, under the females their husbands cheated on them with. 

Most Mesopotamians (Sumerians) were buried in cemeteries. The bodies were laid on their backs in individual graves. The graves were sometimes reopened to place a second family member instead. Why did they do this? Who was generally the second family member? Maybe they placed the wife or husband with the first body. Alas, we do not have this information. 

Close up of the coffin decoration
Some of the graves contained the bodies of dogs. It was common for pets to be buried just like their owners, with the same care that is. Meat bones have been found placed near the mouths of dogs to be food for the afterlife. 

The poorer citizens were simply wrapped in reed matting while the wealthy were placed in wood or clay coffins. One of the clay coffins was discovered in Uruk by the English archaeologist W.K. Loftus in 1850 and is now property of the British Museum. The coffin was constructed by joining slabs of clay to form a slipper-like shape, then adding a finer clay skim and either impressing or incising the decoration. They would then cover the coffin with green glaze and fire it upright. It is thought that the hole in the front of the coffin was for the manufacturer to help with firing.  This is one of three complete coffins successively recovered. It is decorated with stamped figures of soldiers covered in a green glaze. The coffin dates back to the Parthain period when Uruk was thriving. The burial practices of the period were different in some regions. In the north, bodies were buried in stone-lined graves. In the south, bodies were placed in coffins similar to this. 

Clay 'slipper-like' coffin

It has been recorded that the priests sometimes overcharged the citizens for burial. They apparently demanded an outrageous sum of 7 measures of beer and 420 loaves of bread. The ruler of Lagash noticed their overcharging practices and limited them to a much more reasonable price of 3 measures of beer and 80 loaves of bread. (roughly twenty-fourth century BCE)

Royal Tombs of Ur

The grave goods found in tombs were generally modest and personal. For example, jewelry or simple household items. A few members of the royal elite decided they wanted elaborate goods in their grave.

In 1922 the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania sponsored an expedition to Ur. The expedition was led by British archaeologist Leonard Woolley. Woolley spent 12 seasons digging in Ur. He discovered a burial site outside the city walls next to a main temple area. The site was actually used a garbage dump before its first burial in roughly 2500 BCE. Weird that they decided to turn a landfill into a cemetery. He spent 6 years digging at this site and found 1,850 separate graves that were used in a 500 year period. Most of the graves were simple graves, the corpse was wrapped in reed matting, suggesting poorer status, and placed in a plain rectangular pit. A few graves held some more elaborate items such as vessels of imported alabaster and soapstone, mirrors, razors of copper, and personal accessories of gold, silver and lapis lazuli. 

Some extremely elaborate tombs were found, about 16 of them. They were found tightly clustered in the middle of the cemetery. Woolley named them the 'Royal Tombs'. The chambers were made of brick or stone with vaults or domes, which are the earliest known in architectural history. The Sumerians seem to be the first in many things in history. The tombs were constructed at the bottom of deep pits that were accessed through ramps built out of dirt. After the body was placed in the tomb the pits were covered. It is also possible for funerary chapels to be built above the tomb. The Sumerians building chapels above tombs reminds me of the Egyptians building temples for the living to make offerings to the dead at their tombs. Interesting how closely related these two cultures are really. 

The objects found in the tombs helped to identify only 3 of the occupants, King Meskalamdug, King Akalamdug, and Queen Puabi. The Kings' names do not appear on the Sumerian King List so historians believe that the tombs were from before the first dynasty of Ur, The 1st dynasty being the first group of Kings to claim over-lordship of all of Sumer. If they were from before the first dynasty then they were most likely just simple city-state governors. The idea of them being just city-state rulers makes the wealth of the goods found shocking. 

Standard of Ur
Many of the Sumerians best-known art has been located at this site. The Standard of Ur was found here in the corner of a tomb above the right shoulder of a body. Woolley suggest that it was carried on a pole like a flag representing Ur. Another theory was that it could possibly be the sound box of a musical instrument. Personally, knowing that the Egyptian standards were carried on poles to represent their nomes, I believe that Woolley is closer to the truth than the other musical theory. The present form of the Standard of Ur is only the best guess as to what it looked like. The standard was found with many of its components disintegrated and destroyed, this is a restoration. The main panels on the 'front' and 'back' are known as War and Peace. War shows an early depiction of a Sumerian army while Peace shows animals, fish and other goods brought in a procession to a banquet. (more info can be found here British Museum - The Standard of Ur)

The Helmet of Meskalamdug was also found here. It is called a lyre. It has simulated ears and hair on it to make it more realistic. It is made from electrum, an alloy of gold and silver. Additional information can be found here, Penn Museum - LyreI don't want to spend too much time on it right now. 
Helmet, or Lyre, of Meskalamdug
Queen Puabi was found wearing a golden headdress in her tomb. It is a wreath of gold breech leaves. The corpse was also adorned with gold and lapis amulets, beads of gold, silver, carnelian and lapis. Penn Museum - Puabi's Headdress

Queen Puabi's Golden Headdress

The graves found at the cemetery at Ur also contained evidence of the dead's power and prestige. Some of them were filled with not just the corpse but the bones of others. In a tomb, next to Puabi's, an unidentified man was found, thought to be her husband by historians. The weird and slightly disturbing part is that between these two tombs, 137 corpses were found laid-out in serried ranks outside chambers. Also found with bullock cars, used to carry grave goods, the animals that pulled them, drivers, grooms, and ceremonial guards. Most of the bodies were females dressed in court finery, which suggests they were ladies in waiting to the royal couple. The victims appear to have died by their own hands, evidence was found to support this. Cups have been commonly found next to bodies such as these are thought to have contained poison. Don't drink the Sumerian Kool-Aid. However, in a tomb there has been bodies of soldiers and females that died due to a fatal blow to the head.

No literary references to this practice have been found except in one version of Gilgamesh where it speaks of the hero going to his grave with his retainers.

It is scholarly opinion today that the large-scale killing was only practiced for a short time in Early Sumerian history.

The Sumerians held many interesting burial practices and it becomes clearer what the Egyptians 'borrowed' and transformed into their own customs. I really wish we had more surviving information on Sumerians because I want to know why they did some their burial practices. We know how they buried people but we don't have the reasons why they did what they did and it's so heartbreaking that we don't. I enjoyed learning more about the Sumerians, sorry about the length and lack of pictures in the beginning. Thanks for reading!


Woolf, Greg. Ancient Civilizations The Illustrated Guide to Belief, Mythology, and Art. Thunder Bay Press. 2005. 


  1. Quite an excellent post. The length was enjoyable in the sense that you covered the defining traits of this culture fully. Truly, a culture with a variety of ever changing burial practices, one can only imagine what the world today would think of the Sumerians if their culture was still present. Of course, their burial practices still exist in some form today throughout the world, so one can say they successfully passed on their burial traditions at the very least. Sadly, history has often forgotten segments of the past we would truly have wanted to hang onto.

    Regarding your puzzlement in regards to why would the wives and unwed daughters of the kings be buried beneath the harem quarters of the palace, I believe I have a theory. Throughout many cultures, the harem area with a royal palace was often regards as the women's quarters, a sense of female identity existed within, as the women that stayed within exerted considerable influence over the king and princes. For some cultures, the wives and princesses stayed there as well, as it was even accepted as normal for there to be mistresses, especially in cultures where the king had many wives. So, when it came to selecting a tomb location for a beloved wife or daughter, what better place than beneath where they may have lived, learned the arts and crafts taught to them, and where they exerted great influence? I base this all from the knowledge I have gleamed from the various cultures that have spread throughout history.

  2. We at Sisto Funeral Home. Inc have loved this blog series. It is very interesting to learn about burial practices of ancient cultures and how they compare to practices today.