Iraqi archeologists have discovered two royal tombs of the ancient Assyrians containing gold crowns, bracelets and earrings--jewelry so intricately crafted that it belies the brutish historical image of an empire that dominated the Middle East from 883 to 612 BC.
At a much-excavated palace site at Nimrud, known as Calah in the Bible, an Iraqi team last April found 125 pounds of gold treasures in a tomb containing a sarcophagus, a stone burial receptacle, with the remains of two women.
“This is the single richest royal tomb ever excavated” in that part of the world, said David Stronach, professor of Near Eastern archeology at UC Berkeley.
“In terms of new knowledge of the culture of the late Assyrian period, it’s absolutely invaluable,” said Stronach, one of the few Western specialists with firsthand information.
A second tomb with about 50 pounds of gold was found in July, raising hopes that further digging under the palace site may uncover a king’s final resting place.
The jewelry from the April discovery “can definitely be dated to the second half of the 8th Century BC,” Stronach said. “It is possible that one of the women was a queen or daughter of Sargon II,” a renowned king whose troops went as far as Egypt to extend Assyrian rule.
“There was something like 50 pairs of earrings of great originality and exquisite design,” Stronach said.
The California archeologist, now back in Berkeley, was heading an excavation north of Nimrud at another famous Assyrian stronghold, Ninevah, when he was given a chance last summer to see the finds and visit the site uncovered by Iraqi archeologist Muzahim Mahmud Hussein.
Stronach said he was taken aback by “the sheer quantity of gold material that was buried with only two individuals. If they wore even a fraction of what was interred with them, they would have found it very difficult to move.”
Few details of the discovery or photographs have been available until recently.
The Times last week was provided photographs of the tomb and some of its jewelry, now housed in the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, by John Carter, an Australian Seventh-day Adventist minister based in Thousand Oaks.
Last September, Carter was traveling through Iraq during a trip to Middle Eastern archeological sites when he paid a visit in Baghdad to Iraq’s director of antiquities, Harun Muayed Said.
“Have you heard about the discovery of the great treasure at Nimrud?” the official asked him.
Carter and his party had not, so they were allowed to make short videotapes of the first tomb excavated and its golden yield at the museum.
“They were complaining that no Western reporters were covering the story,” Carter said.
The archeologist and the antiquities director “were both positive that this showed the wonderful culture of the Assyrian, " Carter said.
The jewelry uncovered in April “is quintessentially Assyrian in style,” Stronach said.
“It was either made by Assyrian craftsmen themselves or by foreign craftsmen who were working to explicit Assyrian designs,” he said.
The Assyrians, described in the Bible as oppressors of the Israelites, spread out from the fertile valley of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to conquer other people and control key trade routes. About 850 BC, King Ashurnasirpal II made Nimrud, on the banks of the Tigris, his capital.
Preliminary indications were that the tomb found in July was a queen’s, perhaps the wife of Ashurnasirpal, Stronach said.
Ancient inscriptions uncovered long ago told of Ashurnasirpal having rebel chiefs impaled on stakes, chopped up or skinned alive. A black obelisk from Nimrud depicts an Israeli king, Jehu, bowing before an Assyrian king and offering tribute in silver, gold and tin.
The Assyrian empire crumbled in 612 BC against the combined armies of the Babylonians and other neighbors. But, as Stronach noted, the Assyrian hegemony lasted about 270 years--"a duration which compares very favorably with other empires of the ancient world.”
Nimrud was first seen as a promising archeological site nearly 150 years ago when a British expedition uncovered statues of huge, winged bull-men placed at the palace entrances.
In the early 1950s, British archeologist Max Mallowan, occasionally accompanied by his author-wife Agatha Christie, thoroughly reexcavated the palace site and did find one tomb near the recent discoveries, but it was emptied of its contents, presumably by grave robbers in antiquity.
During conservation work last year at Nimrud, Iraqi archeologist Muzahim and his team came across a tomb located under the private quarters of the palace.
“It yielded almost 400 small gold objects, which appeared to survive an early rifling of the tomb,” Stronach said.
Granted permission to extend the search, Muzahim’s team in April found a tomb totally intact with its entrance bricked up.
“Muzahim then removed the bricks and found himself in a small antechamber,” Stronach said. “There, a large stone tablet told the name of the principal lady interred and described the affliction that would beset whoever disturbed her tomb--namely, ‘sleeplessness’ or insomnia.”
Undaunted, the Iraqis then found the sarcophagus and the cache of gold.
“This was the tomb of two queens. It may be that if a monarch’s tomb is ever found, it would be still richer in gold objects,” Stronach noted.