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Author Topic: 4600-Year-Old Sumerian Skulls From Iraq To Get CT Scan  (Read 155 times)
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« on: April 15, 2007, 01:20:21 AM »

4600-year-old skulls from Iraq to get CT scan
RON TODT - The Associated Press

PHILADELPHIA - A pair of 4,600-year-old skulls from Iraq will be given a CT scan that promises to reveal the faces of two of the dozens of sacrificial victims found decades ago in the remains of an ancient Sumerian city.

   The procedure will be done Sunday at the Hospital of the University of Pennsyvania on the skulls of a young woman adorned with gold ornaments and a man wearing a copper helmet, both found in the southern Iraq city of Ur in the 1920s and 1930s.

   Archaeologists from the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology excavating the Royal Tombs of Ur found a "Great Death Pit" with the bodies of 74 sacrificial victims. Smaller tombs contained other bodies, believed to be those of royal retainers.

   The woman's skull was found in the large pit while the man's was from a smaller death pit attached to a royal grave. He is presumed to be one of six soldiers who stood at the entrance of the pit.

   Anthropology graduate student Aubrey Baadsgaard, who is doing her dissertation on Sumerian dress and adornment, said the scans will allow development of a three-dimensional image to show what the people looked like and evaluate how well the remains will stand up to scientific tests.

   Janet Monge, acting curator  in charge of the museum's physical anthropology collections, said the scan of the woman's skull should give an idea of how the elaborate headdresses found with the bodies were worn.

   "Although they've got other headdresses, they don't have them on heads, so they're not exactly sure how they were worn," Monge said.

   Baadsgaard said she hopes to recover DNA from the skulls. She also wants to draw enamel from the teeth to compare it with remains found in the Indus Valley civilization in India, a trading partner of the Sumerians, to see if the sacrificial victims came from that area.

   "Some people have speculated that these victims were actually from the Indus valley or some other location, and that's why they were sacrificed , they were non-local people and, because they didn't have the same links to the area, could be more easily sacrificed," she said.

   Baadsgaard also wants to see whether the remains may have been heated before burial, an early form of mummification done elsewhere in Mesopotamoa to keep bodies preserved for funeral processions.

   If so, the victims were likely killed before being taken to the burial site, casting doubt on the theory of the excavating archaeologists that they were given poison to drink in the tomb, she said.


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« Reply #1 on: April 18, 2007, 08:31:12 AM »

Death and the maidens

Penn researchers tackle Mesopotamian mystery.

By Tom Avril, Inquirer Staff Writer

   Dozens of maidens, wearing headdresses of gold and lapis lazuli, walked down into a tomb in Mesopotamia 4,600 years ago. Each raised a cup to her lips, drank some poison, and lay down to die, hoping to join a king or other royal figure in the afterlife.

Aubrey Baadsgaard says the ancient victims may not have walked into the Mesopotamian tomb and sacrificed and drank poison. She hopes CAT scans of two skulls yesterday will back up her doubts.

   It is an enduring tale from one of archaeology's most famous excavations, pieced together in the late 1920s after the discovery of several such "death pits" full of jewel-encrusted skeletons with clay cups at their sides.

   Yesterday, Aubrey Baadsgaard set out to prove the story wrong.

   Like some members of the team that dug up the remains nearly 80 years ago, she works at the University of Pennsylvania. But unlike them, she has access to the tools of modern science.

   At 7 a.m., the skull from sacrificial maiden number 53 left its home at Penn's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

   Baadsgaard and other Penn scholars drove it across the street to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, where it would receive a CAT scan - the first of several tests to determine who the young woman was, how she died and why.

   Such scans are all the rage among museums with an Egyptian mummy or two. Tutankhamun's remains have undergone the procedure, as has an anonymous Ptolemaic mummy at Philadelphia's Academy of Natural Sciences.

   But yesterday's scan of the Mesopotamian maiden is part of a massive effort at Penn, funded by $250,000 from the National Science Foundation.

   Researchers are taking high-resolution, three-dimensional images of the university's entire historic collection of human and primate remains - roughly 10,000 skulls in all, some with other bones still attached. The images can then be sent around the world for study while the skulls remain safely on a shelf.

   "We want to create a virtual museum," said Janet Monge, the Penn museum's acting curator of physical anthropology.

   Baadsgaard's project, which includes the maiden and a helmeted soldier also scanned yesterday, is both scholarship and detective work.

   The graduate student and her adviser, Penn professor Richard Zettler, believe the maiden and her 73 companions in the pit - most of them women - were indeed part of a mass sacrifice. But there has never been direct evidence of poisoning in the pit, and cups have been found in other tombs with no suggestion of sacrifice. Rather, Baadsgaard and Zettler suspect that the women were killed above ground, mummified in some primitive fashion, then carried down into the tomb. It is unclear whether the women were willing participants.

   The scientists also hope to flesh out a theory by a University of Wisconsin scholar that the victims were not native to the area, but were brought from hundreds of miles away in what is today Pakistan.

   It is tricky work. Both skulls were flattened during their long-ago burial and are caked with ancient dirt. But with a CAT scan - which uses X-rays to create three-dimensional pictures, one wafer-thin slice at a time - the two heads began to reveal their secrets.

First came the maiden

   Hospital technologist Scott Steingall pushed a button, and her skull moved slowly into the white, doughnut-shaped scanning device. An image appeared on the screen.

   The woman's golden headdress and other jewelry obscured some of the bone fragments, as the radiation did not penetrate the metal. But Baadsgaard quickly spotted one thing she was after: the teeth.

   She and Monge looked for a tooth that could be removed easily without damaging the artifact, with two goals in mind:

   Some genetic material may be left in the tooth's inner chamber that once held fleshy pulp. If so, her DNA can be tested.

   In addition, the tooth would be sent to Wisconsin, where scientists hope to discern the woman's diet by studying levels of various strontium isotopes in her enamel. If she and the other maidens did not eat Mesopotamian foods, that would support the theory that they were brought from far away.

   Monge spotted one molar with a shallow root hole, which meant it might easily be extracted once she drills into the mass of hardened earth and bone.

   "Basically, this person had periodontal disease," Monge said. "That'll help us out."

   They also looked for another bone fragment that could be removed and analyzed for signs of heating, a form of mummification thought to have been used in other burials from the period. That would suggest the person was killed and subjected to a drying process for preservation - and only then carried into the pit.

   Finding a cause of death will be tough. The bones are not likely to retain evidence of poison. And the original excavators did not save the cups, so they can't be tested for toxic residue.

   The skull may show evidence of a fatal blow. But the gold obscuring the woman's skull will make it difficult to construct a 3-D model.

   Still, it was clearly a thrill for Baadsgaard, who got the itch to study archaeology after seeing Native American artifacts as a child in Utah.

   She watched as the soldier's skull took its turn on the scanner. That image was even better. Though he wore the remains of a copper-alloy helmet, the metal had largely become mineralized and did not shield the underlying bone fragments.

   "Can you see the bone under the . . . " Baadsgaard began, then gasped. "Wow, you can. That's amazing."

   If she gets approval from a museum committee, Baadsgaard will proceed with the next round of tests this year.

   Penn has scanned 2,000 of its human skulls so far. At first, the hospital's radiology department charged the anthropologists about $100 per scan. Once it saw the value of the project, the department lowered the price to less than one-tenth that, charging only for the staff time.

   Yesterday was the first such scan for the hospital's Steingall, who is used to live patients.

   "It's like watching the Discovery Channel in person," he said.

   Steingall was mystified by the notion of courtiers following their kings and queens to the grave.

   "So if you were with the king, you went with him?" he asked.

   "They presumably thought there was an afterlife, and you were joining the king," explained the University of Michigan's Tom Schoenemann, who codirects the scanning project with Monge.

   The tombs were an international sensation when discovered. At first Leonard Woolley, head of the joint expedition by Penn and the British Museum, took pains to keep the find under wraps.

   When he reported back to his collaborators in Philadelphia, he sent them a telegram in Latin to keep the message secret.

   The finds were split among Penn, the British Museum, and the fledgling nation of Iraq, giving scholars a wealth of clues about the area known as the cradle of civilization.

   But 80 years later, it seems, the full story of the sacrificial victims remains to be told.


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