Ritual Sacrifices in Mesopotamia Culture

Human Ritual Sacrifices in Mesopotamia Culture
Human Ritual Sacrifices in Mesopotamia Culture


Mesopotamia is an ancient word; “Meso” means in the middle, and “potamos” means river. Mesopotamia is one of the historical regions of Western Asia. The Mesopotamia region is in the south of Anatolia and West of the Iranian Plateau within the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

The civilizations that flourished around these rivers were non-nomadic agricultural communities, so that’s why Mesopotamia was the Fertile Crescent’s (also known as the Cradle of Civilization) part in the north. It is an area in Mesopotamia that is famous as it came to light independently with many innovations.

Map of Fertile Crescent - Mesopotamia
Map of Fertile Crescent – Mesopotamia

The Mesopotamian civilization proliferated in 3100 BC when Sumerian Empire was founded to the fall of Babylon in 539 BC. Today, this historical region gets included in present-day Iraq, Kuwait, Turkey, and Syria.

Mesopotamia is known as one of the ancient cultures that practised Ritual Human Sacrifice. Let’s briefly discuss human sacrifice and how it took place in Mesopotamia.

Ritual Human Sacrifice

In the earliest civilizations, many rituals and sacrifices were vital for the people to follow. In Mesopotamia, human sacrifice was considered an act of killing humans, either one or more than one at the same time. This human sacrifice became part of their religious rituals to appease their Gods.

They believed that their gods were authoritative and owned the spirits of their ancestors, so they started sacrificing themselves to please them, like a retinue sacrifice (the highest court graciousness who would kill their servants after their head of state’s death in order to continue to oblige them in the afterlife).

Human ritual sacrifice dates back to prehistoric times in many human societies. Until the Iron Age, with the progress associated with religion which was the Axis period, the human sacrifice became less common in Africa, Europe, and Asia, and was viewed with savagery in classical ancient times. However, human ritual sacrifices continued for many centuries in some European colonies to varying degrees.

How Did Human Ritual Sacrifice Take Place in Mesopotamia?

In ancient Mesopotamia, human sacrifice was considered an ordinary practice that was to be followed by its residents. The Royal Cemetery of Ur is host some of the most magnificent series of tombs where we can see the evidence of how human sacrifice was practised there by the people.

General view of the Royal Cemetery at Ur, during excavations.
General view of the Royal Cemetery at Ur, during excavations.

It is said that the royal cemetery of Ur was the resting place for many authoritative rulers in Mesopotamia. In addition, to the residence of the buried head of state, the tombs were also home to bodies of servants like courtiers, bodyguards, musicians, maids, and grooms who committed suicide as a part of their entombment practices.

The servants of the tombs performed the retinue sacrifice. It was assumed that this sacrifice was caused by a poison that led to the death of the servants. Instead, a sharp instrument like a pike was jabbed into their heads.

Following the investigations on discovered skulls found from the Royal Cemetery of Ur, it has been found that masses of humans during that reign had to sacrifice their lives. One such theory suggests that those sacrificial killings were a ritual of fertility to the land. But why would so many people sacrifice their lives merely as a ritual?

To discover those mystical sacrifices, Archaeologists at the University of Pennsylvania conducted CT scans of the two skulls from the 4500-year-old Ur cemetery.

The recovery of nearly 2,000 burials confirmed the massive human sacrifice process. On or before the death of a king or queen, members of the court, warriors, guards, musicians, handmaidens, grooms, and others were beheaded. The corpses were neatly settled, with women in broad headscarves, and men armed with weapons at their sides.

Reconstructed Sumerian headgear necklaces found in the tomb of Puabi at the Royal Cemetery at Ur, housed at the British Museum
Reconstructed Sumerian headgear necklaces found in the tomb of Puabi at the Royal Cemetery at Ur, housed at the British Museum

An English archaeologist named C. Leonard Woolley conducted some excavations about this human sacrifice and how it took place in the Ur cemetery. In his research, he collaborated with the University of Pennsylvania and the British Museum. He concluded after the diggings that the people in the Royal Cemetery of Ur were first marched down into the burial compartments where they drank the poison and laid down there to die. Therefore, it became one of the most accepted theories about massive human self-immolation in Mesopotamia.

The remains of the humans were kept in the cemetery, and among them, only a few skulls were safeguarded, and those skulls were smashed into fragments as pancakes, not in death. This caused a lot of frustrations for archaeologists. And a new skull reconstruction project was planned. A new exhibition of the Ur cemetery artifacts was arranged at Penn’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

In the Ur cemetery exhibition, one of the famous specialists in the archaeology of Mesopotamia named Richard L. Zettler said that some researchers had taken CT scans of skull bones of a man and a woman from the Ur artifacts. From those CT scans, they attained the three-D imaginings of each fragment and resolute the place where the pieces were fitting.

A physical anthropologist researcher, Janet M. Monge at Pennsylvania, applied some of his forensic skills and arrived at the cause of the death. She said there were two round holes in the cranium part of the soldiers (both man and woman), each about an inch in diameter.

But to convince others, she gave the proper description of her research as evidence that there were some cracks there radiated from the holes. If only holes were drilled in a living person, they would have produced such a pattern of fractures along the lines of stress; as the broken bones of a long-dead person will be shattered like glass. Thus, Dr Monge suspected that the holes were made by a sharp instrument driven through their skulls, causing the immediate death of the people.

Other research discovered that the remains of the female bodies at the Royal Cemetery of Ur had been heated before their entombment. Those bodies were baked instead of burned. Moreover, their bodies were treated with mercury sulfide to delay their decomposition like the mummification process. This was done as they thought that the retinues’ bodies should be kept unburied during the widespread funerary ceremonies for the royal.

Human ritual sacrifices in ancient cultural times were quite common. Initially, people believed that self-immolation was practised with poison, taken by the servants in the Royal Cemetery of Ur. But, after much research and shreds of evidence by famous archaeologists and anthropologists, it came to light that the cause of death was not merely poison. It happened due to a sharp instrument that was driven into their skulls and resulted in masses of sacrifices.

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Ritual Sacrifices in Mesopotamia Culture - 3100 BC - Sources:

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