Acrobat’s last tumble

A 4,300-year-old building in Syria reveals an unusual human sacrifice

Sometimes it’s just good fortune to find a headless acrobat’s skeleton sprawled on the floor near the remains of two other people, several mules and an array of valuable metal objects. That, at least, is the opinion of archaeologists who have identified just such a scene, apparently the result of a ritual sacrifice, at an ancient city in northeastern Syria.

LOST HIS HEAD Researchers working in a 4,300-year-old Mesopotamian building identified an acrobat’s lower body lying between the headless remains of two other individuals, all of whom were apparently ritually sacrificed. A. Soltysiak

ANCIENT FALL One of the ancient acrobat’s lower leg bones displays a bony spur, or protrusion, caused by a fall-related injury. A. Soltysiak

BUILT FOR FLIPS The acrobat’s left and right knees, shown from the rear (top) and the front (bottom), contain prominent attachment areas for ligaments that resist twisting and turning movements. A. Soltysiak

This discovery offers a unique view of the social world nearly 4,300 years ago at Nagar, a city that belonged to Mesopotamia’s Akkadian Empire, say Joan Oates of the University of Cambridge in England and her colleagues. Nagar’s remnants lie within layers of mud-brick construction known collectively as Tell Brak (SN: 2/9/08, p. 90). The earliest layers date to more than 6,000 years ago.

Evidence suggests that this Nagar sacrifice immediately followed a brief abandonment of the site because of some sort of natural disaster. Residents appeased their gods by surrendering valued individuals, animals and objects in a building formerly used for breeding and trading mules that pulled kings’ chariots and war wagons. Following the sacrifice, the structure was closed to further activity.

Acrobats apparently ranked high enough in Nagar’s social sphere to serve as sacrificial offerings, the researchers report in the June Antiquity. Cuneiform texts from Ebla, a nearby site from the same time period, refer to individuals from Nagar known as húb. Scholars have variously defined húb as a term for acrobats, jugglers or horsemen.

An analysis of the most complete human skeleton found in the Nagar structure supports a translation of húb as acrobats, Oates says. The specimen’s leg, foot and toe bones display signs of enlarged muscles and energetic activity associated with acrobatics, her team finds.

In further support of that hypothesis, cylinder seals found earlier at Nagar depict processions of spiky-haired acrobats bending over backwards. Ebla documents contain separate terms for dancers and singers, whom Oates regards as unlikely sources of the Nagar skeleton.

“The húb at Nagar were well-known, maybe even famous entertainers, so perhaps their fame was a reason for choosing one of them to sacrifice,” Oates says.

Their fame undoubtedly sprung from athletic prowess. The skeleton of undetermined sex studied by Oates’ group displays strongly developed attachment areas for ligaments and muscles.

Both forearms feature bony anchors for powerful muscles. Comparably large muscle attachments have been observed on either the right or left forearm of ancient spear throwers. The Nagar individual’s knees show wear caused by repeated rotation of the joint. An upper leg bone contains impressions made by a large hamstring muscle, which works like a spring when a person jumps with flexed knees.

Vigorous activity also produced a bony spur where the Achilles tendon attached to the right heel. Ligament imprints on the toes suggest that these digits were frequently flexed against a hard surface, forming pits on the bottoms of some toes.

A hard fall left evidence of a dislocated right leg joint and right ankle inflammation that eventually cleared up.

“These are the bones of someone who was physically active, using jumping and turning movements in a very disciplined way with feet pointed downwards during leaps,” Oates says.

Two other partial human skeletons found on the floor of the Nagar building also lack heads. One body may be that of a wagon driver, based on its placement near mule remains and its association with wagon-related artifacts. No clues have emerged to the background of the other person.

Finding these bodies with the bones of prized mules — probably bred from onagers and donkeys — along with bronze and silver items, supports a sacrificial scenario, Oates says. Artifacts placed in an adjacent temple courtyard were burned during a ceremony that marked the building’s closure following the ritual sacrifice, she speculates.

Northern Mesopotamian rulers may have emulated the grandiose sacrificial practices of southern Mesopotamian kings that began around 4,800 years ago, remarks archaeologist Guillermo Algaze of the University of California, San Diego. In one southern Mesopotamian city, a queen’s burial chamber includes the bodies of 54 royal retainers, six spear-wielding soldiers and drivers for two wagons, each accompanied by three oxen.

“The acrobat angle that Oates and her colleagues tease out of the Nagar data is entirely new, to my knowledge,” Algaze says.

Bruce Bower

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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