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Sacrifices in the Sumerian Culture


Lillian Helstad

Plan of the City of Ur showing the principal cites excavated

(Woolley, 124)

The Sumerians were one of the first cultures to arise in Mesopotamia, which is what is now known as the Middle East. More specifically, the region between where the mouths of the Tigris and Euphrates on the Persian Gulf.

Leonard Woolley excavated a cemetery at Ur; dated 3500 BCE. He found tombs of local kings that were not recorded in the Sumerian king-lists. King-lists are written lists of kings who reigned for long periods of time. Woolley started in 1927 to dig in the Royal Cemetery at Ur and startled the world by bringing to light funeral practices that were strange, and which the texts of Sumer had not talked about.

Because no one has mentioned these rites in Sumerian texts, some scholars would not believe that they were burials of real kings. These scholars insisted that the burials were for temporary festival monarchs; these rites are common to the myths of many lands, and reflect the worship of fertility gods who die each winter an are reborn in the spring. However, the discoveries of several tombs of the Third Dynasty of Ur, where many bodies of attendants were found close to their master, have shown that these graves were of actual rulers or "gods".

Woolley and his crew found sixteen royal graves and the number of victims varied from a half a dozen to between seventy and eighty. The King were found at a lower level than his attendants, who were buried in chambers grouped around the main tomb fully equipped with arms and jewelry.

Stairways leading to tomb chambers

(Woolley, 144)

What one can see in this photograph is the entrance to the tomb chamber where many people were sacrificed about five thousand years ago. The king with its attendants, many or few depending upon the novelty of the king, was laid in the tomb, and the door was sealed. Sacrifices were then made in the little court before the entrance, which would then be filled in with dirt until only the top parts of the wall would show above the ground.

Filling up the tomb took time and was done in steps, which were pretty universal for all the ceremonies at Ur. The king would be buried at the bottom of the chamber in a square room created by bricks in the center of the tomb. Other chambers would spread out from this major one, with attendants of the king being buried in them. Clay would then be brought and trampled hard to make a floor where more offerings would be spread. Bodies of other human victims would then again be sacrificed, earth covering these and then another floor was made and more offerings made. In some of the books I have read, they say that the order of the sacrifices was made in the order of importance. The layering of humans went on until the top of the walls of the chamber was reached. A chief sacrifice was made at the end of the ceremony (usually the Queen) whose body was laid in a coffin in the top layer of the tomb. Usually, a chapel of some sort would be erected on top of the tomb camber that would signify the place. (Woolley Sumerians, 35) We do it the same way today when we place the gravestone on top of the soil where we bury our loved ones.


Limestone statuette of a woman from a soldier’s grave in the Royal Cemetery

(Woolley, 86)

This statuette was found in a poor grave in Ur, containing only minimum tomb furniture, by the British archeologist Woolley. In every grave there were always a cup or bowl of clay or gold, depending on the nobility of the grave, a weapon next to the male body and a dagger or spear-blade. One of the curious features of the cemetery as a whole was the lack of religious symbolism.

Notice that the female figure carved in white limestone is standing rigidly in the typical Sumarian pose with her hands folded in front of her breast as if in prayer. (Votive figure) It does not seem like the figure is one of a goddess or noble sort because she does not look lavish at all; in fact, I would not say she even looks that beautiful either. (statement coming from a totally different century)

This female figure was found by a man’s body; in fact, this was the only human statue found at Ur, which makes me a little curious why only one man out of thousands of them buried in cemeteries had a female counterpart accompanying him to the grave. I have looked in several books trying to find a reason for this, but have not yet come up with any; therefore, I came to the conclusion that the reason for this unique figure had to be out of sentimental reasons.

Ceremonial dagger


Looking at this remarkable ceremonial dagger it is hard to believe it was made about 4000 years ago. The blade was made of gold, its shaft of blue lapis lazuli decorated with gold. The dagger does not look like any of the other Sumerian art; therefore, it is hard to believe it was made there. It actually looks more like Islamic art with its fine decorations; in fact an expert once took it to be Arab work of the thirteenth century CE. (Woolley Excavations, 60)

The dagger was found lying on the waist of a body in a sloping trench in the cemetery; dagger were not an unusual in burial, although they were usually coppers. Although it is easy to believe that the dagger was used as a tool in the sacrificial ritual, several indications tells us that that was not the case. The attitude of the bodies lying side by side, wrapped in matting was invariable. "The back straight or very slightly curved, the legs more or less flexed and knee and hands brought up in front of the breast almost to the level of the mouth" which seem to me to be the same position as a person sleeping. There seems to have been no violence done to the victims in the death-pits, but rather they drank of the drug provided in the clay cups found next to hem, and then went quietly to sleep. (Woolley Excavations, 55)

Spouted vessel of gold from the Royal Cemetery at Ur

(Kramer, 161)

The cup and spouted vessel are made of gold, and were found in the Royal Cemetery at Ur. All the human victims in these mass graves had died from poisonous liquid served in cups or vessels similar to these. In less lavish cemeteries, the cups could be made of clay, but the ritual is the same all over.

The way these people died bloodlessly and willingly makes me think of the mass suicide in San Diego on March 26, 1997, thirty-nine men and women were found dead in a private house near San Diego. The Sumerians believed the only reason for them to be on this earth were to serve the gods, and therefore they would sacrifice themselves and follow their god/king when he died. (or left this place, because the king would not really die, he was immortal) The reason for the mass suicide in San Diego was because they believed they were going to meet a UFO hiding behind the Hale-Bobb comet.

The members of the cult died from a dose of a fatal mixture of vodka, and poisoned applesauce or pudding provided in a cup similar in shape to the ones that the Sumerians used. The people in San Diego also in addition to the liquid, they used plastic bags to suffocate themselves and help them in the process of sacrificing themselves to the comet. They were found neatly lying on cots or mattresses with their arms at their sides, need I say they looked like they were sleeping just as the Sumerians did?

Fluted cup from the Royal Cemetery at Ur

(Kramer, 161)

Queen’s harp


The harp or lyre was one of the most common features in the royal graves. The one you see here is one of the ones that survived and not stolen from all the tomb-robbers that were so common. There were found no less than four lyres in the royal cemetery at Ur. This particular lyre is shaped like a boat with a head of an animal at one end. The wooden beam that points upward is decorated with a ring of gold, the strings are fastened on it with golden nails and the sounding box is edged with pattern in gold which makes it look like it was a lyre belonging in a royal and not a common tomb.

The most common decoration on a harp is the head of an animal, which also the harp I chose to show has. I am not certain which animal that are depicted here, but the most common ones are the bull and the cow.


Procession of Musicians. Bismaisa Vase


I’m not certain exactly where this vase was found, but the style is certainly Sumerian. The figures on the vase are carved in the typical Sumerian style, frontal, rigid and the figures unrecognizable. The participants in the procession seem to be enjoying themselves and marching in a row while playing instruments. The reason why I included this image in the collection of images of sacrifices or relating to them, is because the way the burial ritual is described is as a joyful procession of musicians along with the rest of the attendants of the king; in fact, the image on this vase could have been of a burial ceremony.

Thought the burials were never exactly alike, in no case had it been a simple matter of throwing back the earth onto a heap of bodies. A prolonged ceremony had clearly taken place as a part of an elaborate ritual. The musicians with their harps, soldiers fully armed, and the court ladies dressed in lavish clothing and beautiful headdresses would follow their royal master into his grave. The procession would probably look more like a Grammy award celebration than a burial ceremony.



These exquisite necklaces were found against the end of the royal tomb the remains of nine "court ladies" wearing gala headdresses and remarkable necklaces like the one you can see here. It is possible that the Queen, in common with the rest of the great ensemble was herself a victim, and had died from the contents of a gold cup that was found near her hand. The custom of wives accompanying their husbands into the next world is ancient and almost universal. (Davies, 29)

The golden leafs on the necklace at the top probably symbolizes fertility, which is usually what one hope to gain when someone is sacrificed. In this case, fertility of the land is not the reason for the sacrifice of the woman wearing it. This leads one to wonder why the women were wearing such jewelry when sacrificed. The Sumerians believed that by scarifying oneself one could follow the king into the next world or afterlife; therefore; the ceremony was highly celebrated. One has to not forget that in the Sumerian culture, the people were created to serve the gods.


Goat in tree


This statue was found together with another statue of same sort; both made of gold, lapis lazuli, and white shell. They were slightly different in size, but otherwise looked the same. The goat stands erect on its backer legs in front of a tree or bush, with its golden head peers between the branches of the tree. (Woolley Excavations, 74) The tree is most likely the "tree of life" which give food and everlasting life. The scene reminds me of the biblical story of the ram caught in the thicket, but it is a little hard to see that there have been any connection between them since this one was made over a century before Abraham was born. Although, the Christians could have been in Mesopotamia and got the idea from them.

The statue was found in a corner of the Royal Cemetery at Ur. The King and his attendants were found deeper down in the "death pit" than this animal. Generally the upper soil of the cemeteries have been robbed, therefore the archaeologists were lucky to find this statue. Animals were usually the last ones to be scarified in the ritual and were probably a sacrifice to the gods. Animals have played an important role in many religious practices all around the world. For example, the Greeks would sacrifice a bull during bullfighting where the bull became the monster. The Greeks were notorious for conquering other people and the bull in the fight represented the conquered people and therefore by killing the bull it would show the superiority of the toreador and the Greek people. The bull also represents power of life in many cultures, whose blood would fertilize the earth.


Ceram, C.W. Gods, Graves, & Scholars. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1967.

Clark, Grahame. Prehistoric Societies. New York: Alfred A. Knopf Inc., 1965.

Davies, Nigel. Human Sacrifice: In History & Today. New York: William Morrow and Company Inc., 1981.

Kramer, Samuel Noah. The Sumerians: their history, culture, and character. Chicago: Chicago Press, 1963.

Tierney, Patrick. The Highest Altar: The Story of Human Sacrifice. England: Viking Penguin, 1989.

Woolley, Leonard. Excavations at Ur. New York: Crowell Company, 1965.

Woolley, Leonard. History of Mankind. United States: UNESCO, 1963

Woolley, Leonard. The Sumerians. London: Oxford University Press,1965.

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