Dr. David Usieto Cabrera

Project title: Human Sacrifice in the Ancient Near East

Supervisors: Prof. Dr. Alexander Pruß, Prof. Dr. Detlef Gronenborn

Dissertation project:

My research proposes an in-depth and transversal study of a heterogeneous practice often found in the archaeological record of the Ancient Near East: human sacrifice. Sacrifice presents a departure from standard mortuary treatment and fulfills a different social and ideological role only identifiable through the archaeological record and “performed” in three different spatial contexts: underneath architectural structures (Foundation or Construction Sacrifice), in or in the surroundings of sacred landscapes (Symbolic/Dramatic Sacrifice), and in royal/elite burials (Retainer Sacrifice).

Although I aim to study archaeologically, the concept of human sacrificial practices in the ancient Near East, from the scattered prehistoric evidence to the intensification on the Bronze Age, my focus is on the 3rd and 2nd millennium BC. The reason behind it, has to do with an increase of such evidence in the 3rd millennium BC, or at the emergence of early states where such practice intensified due to the Systemic Stress of Early Urbanization.

Sacrifice is one of the most common manifestations of human religious behavior, yet archaeology has only recently begun to devote significant attention to the practice. The originality of my project raises from the study of human sacrificial practices in the ancient Near East systematically, for the first time and the concepts that surround such ritual practice. Aligned with this and based on the archaeological evidence I am also focusing on the concepts behind the bodies of the individuals involved under one basic question: Is there any difference on the treatment of the bodies between the sacrificer (with proper burials) and the human offering/victim? If so, what was the idea or perception of the body behind it? Were they dehumanized? Could this ritual be witnessed by a large audience, or was it reserved for only a small number of people? But, how can we develop those ideas archaeologically? We need to bear in mind, that there are no textual sources coming from the ancient Near East or direct reliable depictions of human sacrifice that deal with such concepts specifically, hence we need to be based on the archaeological record, for which a varied arsenal of methods is available to study sacrifice through the corpses/dead bodies of the victims and other deceased involved, as well as contexts and other paraphernalia involved.

Finally, it all evokes the following question: how can we move from the intangible to the tangible, or in other words, patterns in human behavior reflected on the archaeological record in both individuals and contexts provided? The focus here concentrates on two main features: Signs of a violent cause of death in bodies or their disposal and signs of a sacred/religious/royal context. These are very general criteria which must be placed in the broader context, but that can be done once new approaches have been established. Recent discoveries (i.e. Umm el-Marra, Başur Höyük, etc.) have also helped the study of this practice archaeologically and illustrate how we may continue to learn more about the practice and the enormous potential in future excavations as well as re-interpretations in many archaeological sites and contexts (i.e. Arabian Peninsula). This last point is precisely what I aim to do: as rituals tend to be repetitive, I aim to identify recurrent patterns of behavior that stand out from the norm and can be interpreted as sacrificial.

The work was published as Usieto Cabrera, D., Ad aeternum: an archeological analysis surrounding human sacrifice in the Ancient Near East, 2023.