The Japan Times
October 30, 2000

Iraqi archaeologists uncover ancient Sumerian 'city of graves'

UMM AL-AJARIB, Iraq (AP) Iraqi archaeologists are striving to bring to light what they describe as Mesopotamia's largest "city of graves," where the Sumerians buried their dead nearly 5,000 years ago. The scientists are stunned by the size of the cemetery and say much more work needs to be done to determine what role it played in ancient times.

"We have never excavated anything like it before. It is unprecedented," says Fadhil Abdulwahid, a Baghdad University archaeologist.

Remote and desolate, the site was long the target of grave robbers who the scientists say pilfered gold ornaments, cylinder seals made of precious stones and statuettes. Ancient Iraqis usually buried their dead with their most valued possessions.

Chief archaeologist Donny Youkhanna could not say how many artifacts were stolen nor estimate their significance, "but the damage is certainly big." When he started excavations with 40 diggers last year he brought along armed guards.

Previously, he said, few dared to approach the ancient mound due to the large number of scorpions that lived among the graves, which prompted the locals to name it Umm al-Ajarib or "Mother of Scorpions." Shells, bowls, beads and handsome earthenware and statues dot small lanes in the cemetery, situated 400 km south of Baghdad.

"It is the largest graveyard of Sumer. Nowhere in ancient Iraq have we come across so many graves," Youkhanna said.

Until now, experts had designated a cemetery at Eridu in southern Iraq as the largest Sumerian burial ground. There, scientists uncovered 1,000 graves in an area of about 1 sq. km.

Umm al-Ajarib is many times larger. The whole site is about 5 sq. km, with the cemetery occupying the largest portion, and Youkhanna said it may hold hundreds of thousands of graves. A better estimate will be available once the diggers remove debris and count the graves in a square they have targeted.

The Sumerian civilization appeared in southern Mesopotamia as early as the 5th millennium B.C. By 3000 B.C., Sumer had developed considerable power based on irrigated agriculture, fine arts and a special writing system known as cuneiform, probably the earliest ever in man's history.

The burials at Umm al-Ajarib are chiefly in coffins of brick laid in bitumen as mortar. The graves are regularly arranged, like cemetery lots, with streets and lanes.

William Hayes Ward was the first Western traveler to visit the site in 1886. Little work had been done at the site since Ward noted that Umm al-Ajarib must have been a sacred burial ground for the Sumerians in the same manner the present-day holy city of Najaf is to Muslim Shiites.

"The Sumerians looked after the dead," says archaeologist Marwan al-Adhami. "Funerary rituals were of great significance because they believed if the dead were not buried properly their souls will return and haunt the living relatives."

When a Sumerian monarch conquered a city, the first thing he would do was to "open the graves and release the souls" to chase away any enemy soldiers who escaped the sword, al-Adhami said.

Umm al-Ajarib is now arid land covered with sand dunes, a featureless expanse of sand with no vegetation and shrubs. In antiquity, however, it was part of a territory comprising gardens, palm groves and rich fields of barley and wheat, Youkhanna said.

Youkhanna's main task is to prove the city's sanctity. He has already dug up a small part of a tripartite temple with walls rising up to 3 meters.

Like similar Sumerian sanctuaries, the temple is built of sun-dried bricks. A clay tablet provides a list of quantities of food rations wheat, barley, dates and oil given to temple servants, but supplies no names or figures.

Artifacts gathered from the temple so far, though significant, do not shed enough light. Among them is a stone vessel with an inscription in cuneiform, magnificent ivory cylinder seals, goblets, conical bowls and spouted jars.

POTSHERDS AND CYLINDER SEALS — The 5,000-year-old Sumerian cemetery at Umm al-Ajarib, long known but only recently excavated, contains hundreds of thousands of brick-lined graves in neat rows, with a variety of burial goods. AP PHOTO