Ancient Assyrians buried their dead with turtles

The reptiles may have represented eternal life, served as symbolic protectors

Euphrates soft-shell turtle

TURTLE POWER  Euphrates soft-shell turtles (Rafetus euphraticus), which still inhabit Mesopotamia today, may have been part of ancient Assyrian burial rituals.

R. Berthon et al/Antiquity 2016

Ancient Assyrians sent their dead to the afterlife with fearsome companions: turtles. Excavations of a burial pit in southeastern Turkey revealed skeletons of a woman and a child, plus 21 turtles, a team led by archaeologist Rémi Berthon of France’s National Museum of Natural History reports in the February Antiquity.

The burial is part of an Assyrian site called Kavuşan Höyük that dates to between 700 and 300 B.C. The turtle bonanza included shells from one spur-thighed tortoise (Testudo graeca) and three Middle Eastern terrapins (Mauremys caspica), plus bones from 17 Euphrates soft-shelled turtles (Rafetus euphraticus). Butchering marks on the R. euphraticus bones indicate that the turtles may have been eaten in a funerary feast, Berthon and his colleagues write.

Back then, turtles were not a regular meal in Mesopotamia. Turtle bones, however, were thought to ward off evil. The abundance of R. euphraticus turtles, a notoriously aggressive species, in this burial pit suggests the deceased had high social status.

To ancient Assyrians, these ferocious reptiles probably represented eternal life and served as psychopomps — mythical guides to the afterlife, the team writes. 

Editor’s Note: This story was updated on 4/15/16 to note that turtles were a rare part of the Mesopotamian diet. 

Assyrian burial pit
TURTLE TOMB Ancient Assyrians converted a food storage silo to a burial pit (shown) to inter a woman and a child with an array of turtle bones from three species, including shoulder bones (circled in red) from Euphrates soft-shell turtles. R. Berthon et al/Antiquity 2016

Helen Thompson is the multimedia editor. She has undergraduate degrees in biology and English from Trinity University and a master’s degree in science writing from Johns Hopkins University.

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