Parthians in Nineveh: Burial Practices

BURIAL PRACTICES

Like other aspects of Parthian material culture, there are distinct differences between regions in burial practices.  There have been few Parthian burials reported from Iran.  This is probably due to the nature of burial, as simple cremation-type burials leave little for archaeology.  Further west the picture is more complicated.  The site of Shahr-I Qumis (northeast of Tehran) yielded evidence for multi-room funerary structures.  Human and animal bones were found together, leading the excavators to speculate on a cultural connection with the Scythians, who deposited horse bones with human burials.  As with other areas of the Parthian empire, too little is known about the relationship between material remains and religion (Hansman and Stronach 1970: 49).  Zoroastrian religious practices were probably not uniform over a wide area.

In Mesopotamia, there is no evidence for cremation.  Parthian burials here follow a Hellenistic pattern.  One season at Nineveh (Campbell-Thompson and Mallowan 1933) yielded five complete Parthian burials.  One is in a tripartite cylindrical coffin with a single band of cable decoration of a classical Parthian type. Two others were buried in re-used Neo-Assyrian larnax coffins.  The remainder were noted as “plain burials”  Eiland (1995: 67-70). Due to plundering and the techniques of excavation, much more evidence for burials, in the form of small finds, can be assembled. Many glass tear vials, ceramic vessels, and figurines were part of burial assemblages. Victorian period excavations of the northern area of the Palace of Assurbanipal found the richest burials. Gold earrings and buttons were represented, as well as sheet gold face masks, mouth-pieces, and ‘spectacles.’  They can be reliably dated by a gold coin of Tiberius (AD 16-21) and a gold sheet impression of a coin of Trajan (AD 115).  Perhaps a dozen such graves were recovered in the area (Curtis 1976: 53) but the finds are not well recorded. 

Not surprisingly, it is difficult to draw solid conclusions about the burials. Many of the wealthy burials owe more to ‘east Greek’ practice rather than an Iranian model, although it may be noted that as the latter cremated their dead the archaeological evidence would be difficult to detect. One may also note that poor nomads, away from cities,  could be buried in ways that would leave little for the archaeological record.

Copyright 2003

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DR. MURRAY EILAND

ARCHAEOLOGIST

UNIVERSITY OF DAMASCUS

Web Developer: Diana Tsirunova

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