Radical Death and Early State Formation in the Ancient Near East

Lead Research Organisation: University College London
Department Name: Institute of Archaeology


This project brings together several cutting edge archaeological research techniques to uncover the biological and social identities of individuals who were treated very differently in death, during the critical transition period preceding the formation of the world's earliest states. This unique opportunity has arisen through archaeological recovery of human remains from the site of Basur Höyük located in the Upper Tigris Valley, a region that has been very important in understanding the large-scale interactions of the first urban polities in Mesopotamia. Sitting astride several important trade routes, the cemetery uncovered at the site provides an insight into the Early Bronze Age period (3100-2800 BC), which follows the withdrawal of Uruk (Southern Mesopotamian) influence from the much larger region but comes before the consolidation of the first urban states at places like Lagash. The changing political and social organisation of this period is not well understood and due to modern conditions, very little is known about the Upper Tigris region. However, recent excavations have revealed a cemetery containing elite burials, evidence of human sacrifice, and a mass death pit; three very different burial contexts which provide the perfect template to examine the changing social roles defined through burial practice.

The introduction of human sacrifice to the region has been argued to reflect the changing function of burial rituals and shifts in social organisation that are firmly linked to the rise of early states and kingship. This project will detail the differences (or similirities) in access to resources, general health, and kin relationships between the burials in the three very different types of grave to outline the social context of these new burial rituals. The project brings together the analysis of bioarchaeological information on the human remains such as childhood health and lifetime stature, disease burden, and cause of death with the analysis of the spatial and social context of each burial. Stable isotope analysis will compare ratios of Carbon, Nitrogen, Strontium, and Oxygen in different individuals and between tissues representing childhood and adulthood in the same individual to address issues of access to resources (e.g. meat) place of origin, and lifetime mobility. An ancient DNA assay will be used to investigate population relationships and test for the presence of pathogen DNA in the death pit. Brought together with a comprehensive 3d reconstruction of each burial, this will form the a uniquely complete picture of a society that has adopted radical burial practices.

Planned Impact

This Project will have considerable impact beyond academia. The CO-I (BH) has a demonstrable track record of considerable public engagement and outreach work that will amplify impacts beyond key regional and national heritage and scientific partners. These are outlined below:

1. Policy Makers. The introduction of several new scientific techniques to archaeological research in the region is expected to both highlight the importance of the archaeology of southeastern Turkey within the Turkish Ministry of Culture and also to influence future policy decisions on appropriate research funding and project outcomes.

2. International Organisations. In highlighting the importance of this project, it is expected that several international organizations active in heritage preservation and conservation will take a renewed interest in developing sustainable archaeological practices in the region. The international nature of the research will cement ties between prominent US and UK institutions, between the UK and Turkey through such organizations as the British Academy Overseas Institute in Ankara (BIAA), and provide a template for future collaborations.

3. Commercial and Private Sector. As the main excavations are carried out in advance of construction, this project will allow commercial enterprise to see a demonstrable benefit from responsible corporate behaviour. Smaller local businesses in the region may also benefit form an increase in interest in the site. Currently, there are extensive plans to the Siirt Museum complex into an accessible multi-use site incorporating park space, public facilities such as sports equipment and picknicking areas, and commercial enterprises such as tea rooms and tourism-related shops.

4. Professional and Practitioner Groups. The excavations are active training for new generations of archaeologists, and this project will provide an example of an integrated bioarchaeological practice. This will apply to UK archaeologists and UK students who are integrated into the project through teaching and training activities including through lectures at University College London, training schemes at the Natural History Museum, and practical bioarchaeological fieldwork opportunities in western Turkey at Ege University. Further training and teaching opportunities will apply at the Center for Advanced Isotope Studies in Athens, GA. This project will also provide training for Turkish archaeologists and students in biomolecular archaeology and bioarchaeology, including sampling protocols and research design. This will include a significant number of ethnic minority Turkish students and archaeologists who have strong attachments to the region under study but are traditionally underrepresented in archaeology and in higher education as a whole.

5. Third sector. There is expected to be considerable benefit to third sector parties, particularly museums. The local museum (Batman Muzesi) will benefit from increased outreach components in terms of awareness and interest in collections currently held. The Siirt Museum planned for construction at the completion of the Ilisu Dam project will be dominated by material and activities related to the excavations at Basur Höyük. Training in archaeological sampling methods, research design and additional support in outreach and educational material and activities will be provided to these local museums.
Description The AHRC funded project kicked off with the publication of 5000-year old high status burials and associated cases of ritual human sacrifice, discovered at the site of Basur Höyük, in the leading international journal "Antiquity" in late June of 2018 (Hassett & Sag?lamtimur, 2018). These dramatic findings received wide attention in the press, both in Turkey and abroad, with English language coverage in Newsweek, CNN, the Daily Mail, Daily Sabah, Live Science, and other outlets, and Turkish language coverage in Milleyet, Haberturk, and many other daily news outlets:
Exploitation Route The findings add an important new dimension to the ancient history and cultural heritage of the Middle East, which will feed into a lively and well-publicised academic debate on the origins of states, as well as providing a focal point for the development of cultural heritage, museums, and tourism in a region of Turkey where there is active development of these sectors.
Sectors Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections,Other

URL https://www.newsweek.com/ancient-mesopotamia-child-sacrifice-turkey-archaeology-1000934
Description Ege University 
Organisation Ege University
Country Turkey 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Dr Haluk Saglamtimur, the Director of the excavations from which all our data derives, is to be included as co-author on all publications, and consulted on all aspects of the project, including local outreach and education projects in Turkey.
Collaborator Contribution As the director of the Ilisu Dam funded excavations at the site of Basur Höyük in Siirt province and member of the Board of Directors of Batman Museum I, Dr Haluk Saglamtimur, will be the principal point of contact for this collaboration with David Wengrow, Brenna Hassett, and Suzanne Pilaar Birch and form part of the project advisory panel. Dr Hassett will be supported as a visiting researcher through the Department of Archaeology at Ege University in the ongoing bioarchaeological research of the human skeletal remains from Basur Höyük. Full export permissions have been obtained for material to be analysed abroad (CAIS, Athens, USA; NHM, London, UK) through Batman Museum and the Turkish Ministry of Culture. Research support will include arranging appropriate storage conditions for material for the duration of the project and laboratory access during research visits. Additionally, all necessary provision for research visas during the planned research visits will be facilitated, including accommodation at the Ege University Guest House.
Impact Outputs throughout the project.
Start Year 2018
Description Natural History Museum, London 
Organisation Natural History Museum
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution Specific events to engage the wider public will include the annual 'Science Uncovered' event at the Natural History Museum where BH is a Scientific Associate and several annual 'Nature Live' talks to diverse groups of NHM visitors. Visitors to the Natural History Museum will be invited to learn more about research into 'Big Questions' like the beginning of states, and how UK funded research is answering these.
Collaborator Contribution Ancient DNA analysis, Natural History Museum: This phase of the project is critical to identifying the biosocial identity of the occupants of Basur Höyük. Next generation sequencing of DNA from skeletal remains from the elite burials, retainer sacrifice, and mass death pit offers an unprecedented opportunity to examine the biological relationships between different segments of society subjected to radical death practices. It will also address underlying issues of population origin, a subject of considerable interest given the regions strong links to both Transcaucasian and Southern Mesopotamian culture. Finally, it may provide the opportunity to identify specific disease agents, particularly within the mass death pit, that might provide considerable insight into population density, cultural connections, and trade networks. Initial consultation with the NHM aDNA Lab, a highly experienced and well- regarded international research facility, has led to implementation of a graduated sampling strategy that maximizes the potential for results by reflexively considering the success of an initial ten samples. An initial pilot study of aDNA preservation at Natural History Museum London, led by Dr Selina Brace (SB) and Professor Ian Barnes (IB), will assess collagen preservation on 10 skeletal samples of the petrous part of the skull taken from a selection of individuals from the mass burial and cist graves. This project will be run independently through the aDNA Lab at the NHM, with the opportunity for greater collaboration in future. If sufficient collagen is present, then full ancient DNA analysis will be carried out in the NHM's dedicated aDNA facility beginning in Year 1; and the assessment of population origin from aDNA completed in Year 2.
Impact Outputs to be expected over duration of the project.
Start Year 2018
Description University of Georgia 
Organisation University of Georgia
Country United States 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Prof. Pilaar Birch, from the Department of Anthropology and Department of Geography will be included as co-author in relevant publications.
Collaborator Contribution Stable Isotope Analysis, University of Georgia Athens: International Co-I Suzanne Pilaar Birch will perform several bimolecular analyses critical to understanding the biosocial identities of the dead at the Center for Applied Isotope Studies (CAIS), University of Georgia Athens. Suzanne Pilaar Birch (SPB) will lead the assessment of stable isotopic ratios (d87/86Sr, d13C, d15N, and d18O in skeletal material from all three burial contexts at the Center for Applied Isotope Studies at the University of Georgia in Year 1 of the project. The identification of these stable isotpe ratios will elucidate the relative access to meat and plant based foods (d13C and d15N) as well as population mobility and origin (Sr and d18O). As an international Co- PI she will contribute to the ongoing interpretation of access to dietary resources and lifetime mobility with the emerging results of the bioarchaeological analysis.
Impact Outputs expected over duration of the project.
Start Year 2018
Description ASOR Conference Paper 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Dr Pillar Birch presented her research on the stable isotopes at Basur Höyük in an invited contribution to a special session at the 2019 American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) Annual Meeting titled 'Stable Isotope Insights into Radical Death and Early State Formation in the Ancient Near East: Preliminary Results from Basur Höyük, Siirt, Turkey'.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
Description Anthropology Open Day: Training Course in Conservation and Processing of Ancient Human Remains from Archaeological Sites 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact The Radical death project welcomes Öznur Özmen Batihan, Muhammed Dolmus, Pinar Dolmus and Gençay Öztürk to the Anthropology Team. These four Ege University graduate students have been selected to take part in intensive training in the conservation and processing of archaeological human remains, with special attention to issues such as storage and DNA preservation. This is a critical skill that is currently not part of the curriculum at either undergraduate or graduate level, and will offer the best chance of preserving the remains for future research. In order to cement this training, the graduate students will take an active part in an 'Anthropology Open Day', leading a workshop on finds processing as part of a larger seminar on the research potential of physical anthropology (not currently offered at degree level). This is scheduled for the beginning of Autumn term 2019, and will provide continuity in curation skills needed to maintain this important resource as well as an interest in archaeological science and conservation.

Last spring, we began a new programme of finds-processing based training with a selected group of Ege University graduate students. Supported by a BIAA grant, the students learned how to process, preserve, and curate human remains. This project was designed to ensure that the skill set needed to preserve the research potential of the human remains from Basur was firmly embedded within the Prehistory Department at Ege, and within the archaeological practice that graduates of the department will develop in their careers. In order to emphasize the importance of integrating anthropological research best practice into archaeological research planning, the students were asked to present on different aspects of the skills they had learned at a special workshop, held in October of this year.

The workshop was a resounding success. It was extremely well attended by both students and research staff, and offered a rare chance to receive hands-on training in physical anthropological methods. Öznur Özmen Batihan presented the importance of excavation technique and planning around anthropological research questions, explaining the 3d excavation recording techniques from Basur and demonstrating the damage to bones that improper tool use can cause. Pinar Dolmus showed how critical finds processing is to the research process, showing attendees examples of bones that are best to sample for DNA, explaining cleaning techniques that are better for biomolecular sampling, and using a DinoLite digital video microscope to show some of the evidence for past lives that can come to light during this process. Muhammed Dolmus had the difficult task of sharing with the audience the characteristics of bone that are easily identified, even by non-specialists. He made it clear that even without extensive training, archaeologists could be aware that subtle changes in morphology could indicate differences between males, females, and age groups. The students each gave outstanding talks, and the workshop was actually so successful it will be repeated in the spring due to demand.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
Description Panel Debate: "Reconciling material culture and genetic data in prehistory" 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact "Reconciling material culture and genetic data in prehistory: a panel debate" with Prof. David Wengrow, Prof. Stephen Shennan, Dr. Brenna Hassett, Dr. Ulrike Sommer (UCL Institute of Archaeology), Prof. Ian Barnes (Natural History Museum), Dr. Tom Booth (Crick Institute).
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
Description Theoretical Archaeology Group (TAG) Expert Panel on 'Archaeology, Ancestry, and Human Genomics' 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Participants:
David Wengrow (Prof, Archaeology UCL)
Brenna Hassett (Dr, Bio-archaeology, UCL)
Martin Furholt (Prof, Archaeology, University of Oslo)
Alexandra Ion (Dr. Archaeological Science, 'Francisc I.Rainer' of the
Romanian Academy)
Natasha Reynolds (Dr., Prehistory, University of Bordeaux)
Rachel Pope (Dr, Archaeology, University of Liverpool)
Kenneth Brophy (Dr, Archaeology, University of Glasgow)
Pontus Skoglund (Prof. of Genetics, Francis Crick Institute)
Thomas Booth (Dr., Francis Crick Institute)
Mark Thomas (Prof. of Evolutionary Genetics, UCL)
Selina Brace (Dr., Genetics, Natural History Museum)
Susanne Hakenbeck (Prof. of Medieval Archaeology, University of Cambridge)

The incorporation of ancient DNA into the archaeological toolkit has been widely hailed as a "scientific revolution" in the understanding of the human past. It is also widely recognised that applying genomics to prehistory involves complexities at every level of interpretation, and has on many occasions become the basis for questionable (and often widely publicised) claims about past cultural identities. This panel creates a space where issues of method and theory can be openly debated by archaeologists, geneticists, and others interested in questions of population history and ancestry, including how scientific findings are presented and narrated to the wider public. A particular focus will be on the relationship between population histories inferred from genetic data and groupings based on material culture, especially the prehistoric entities once referred to as 'culture areas,' 'archaeological horizons' or 'interaction spheres'. Should the archaeological discourse of biological relatedness, through genomics, present its findings in relation to these much older cultural classifications (also potentially breathing new life into their established narratives of population groupings and dispersals)? Or does the intersection between archaeology and human genomics require entirely new ways of conceptualising the relationship between demographic and cultural histories?
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019