FUNERARY AND BURIAL PRACTICES
   In the prehistoric periods, a great variety of burial practices existed side by side: inhumation of the whole skeleton, partial inhumation and possible secondary burial after exposure of the body, and cremation. Bodies could furthermore be buried singly or in groups, in a common plot or cemetery, or beneath the floor of habitations. Cemeteries are believed to reveal a special claim that a particular group of people could make of a territory and its resources. The more or less equal treatment of the mortal remains may reveal an egalitarian social system, while the burial of children in special plots may point to elite formation.
   Bodies in earthen or stone graves could be accompanied by sets of tools, such as flint knives, or personal ornaments, such as beads. Traces of red color are also frequently found on bones, indicating some color symbolism. In the Ubaid period, the graves at Eridu contained rich grave gifts, such as exquisite miniature pottery sets, anthropomorphic clay figurines, joints of meat, and jewelry. Some people had been buried with a dog that was given a bone. In historical times, the variety of burial practices declined. Inhumation of the whole skeleton became the norm for Mesopotamia. Intramural burials continued to be popular, but populous cities also had cemeteries outside the city walls, such as at Ur. In early periods, people were placed flat on the back, with their hands folded across the chest; later a flexed position, with knees drawn up, became more common. Clay and terra-cotta coffins contained the mortal remains. The most controversial graves were discovered by Sir Leonard Woolley at Ur. They date from the Early Dynastic period and contained high-ranking, possibly royal personages, surrounded by fabulous gold and inlaid funerary gifts. The chariotsand the oxen used to transport the dead were also kept in the stone-constructed burial chambers. The presence of a number of other skeletons, predominantly female, holding musical instruments and golden goblets, was interpreted by Woolley as evidence for ritual sacrifice or collective suicide. It has since been suggested that these bodies were manipulated after death and that they are to be considered secondary burials; the association of their bodies to the main personages was probably a matter of prestige or of some other significance that eludes us. Few other royal graves are known; the hypogeum tombs at Ur did not contain any remains. Assyrian monarchs were buried at Assur. In 1987–1990, Iraqi archaeologists found four vaulted, undisturbed tombs within the palace of Kalhu that contained the bodies of two Assyrian queens and a sarcophagus packed with the remains of at least six people, including children. The grave goods, weighing some 50 pounds, comprised precious stones and finely worked gold jewelry.
   Cuneiform texts refer to funerary rites and beliefs. The dead were thought of as dwelling in the underworld, a gloomy and overcrowded place. Those whose remains were left unburied, and had had no rites performed for their souls, were doomed to haunt the living as ghosts. Nomadswere also held in contempt by the urban population because they had no grave cults. Of particular importance were libations of water, which the eldest male of a household poured out for the ancestral spirits on the family altar. The myth “Inanna’s Descent into the Underworld” makes it clear that mourning ceremonies were expected, which involved the temporary disfigurement by ashes and the donning of mourning clothes. Inanna’s lover Dumuzi is banished to the underworld for failing to behave in the proper way.
   The Mesopotamians did not have eschatological beliefs of a Last Judgment, nor did they expect to enjoy some form of eternal life as did the Egyptians. They did not expend vast sums on their tombs, nor did they practice embalming. Their best expectation was to have peace of mind after a customary burial and to have raised enough offspring to bring libations to stave off the thirst of death. See alsoARCHITECTURE; RELIGION.

Historical Dictionary of Mesopotamia. . 2012.

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