Leiden archaeologist discovers unique ancient horse grave in Sudan
A unique archeological find near Tombos in Northern Sudan. Archaeologist Sarah Schrader from Leiden University, working with a team of international researchers, has discovered a grave of a ritually buried horse that is over 3000 years old. Both the grave and the skeleton are in perfect condition. The grave sheds new light on the social importance of this noble animal in ancient times.
Sarah Schrader and her colleagues were actually conducting research on a collection of human graves at the archaeological site of Tombos. However, to their amazement they excavated a tomb containing a horse skeleton. ‘We were amazed to find this excellently preserved horse that had clearly been buried intentionally. No other animal graves were found in the area, so we knew straight away that it had to be something special,’ Schrader commented.
The horse was buried under a typical pyramid structure with space for more graves. Such tombs are normally intended for human interments. Analysis shows that the horse skeleton is over 3,000 years old (1000 to 900 BC). It is extremely well preserved: no parts of the skeleton are missing and the bones are lying in almost exactly the correct anatomical position. Even parts of the horse’s coat have been preserved. Schrader also discovered a number of burial attributes: a scarab, an iron bit and remnants of some fabric, probably a burial shroud. The remains of the iron bit are one of the oldest fragments of iron ever to be found in Africa.
According to Schrader, there are several reasons why the horse grave is such a significant find. First of all, it is rare for the skeleton of a horse to be so well preserved. But, besides that, it is the method of burial that is so remarkable. The archaeological site at Tombos was originally established in around 1450 BC as an Egyptian administrative centre. After the fall of the New Kingdom of Egypt, it became part of the Nubian Kingdom. This empire grew strongly both in size and prestige from around 1000 BC. ‘The fact that this horse was buried intentionally in a human grave and was accompanied by expensive, ritual burial gifts says a lot about the value that this early Nubian community attached to the animal,’ she explained.
Ritual and symbolic value
‘There are other known examples of Nubian kings and queens who had their horses buried with expensive burial attributes, but this grave is at least 150 years older.’ Schrader remarked. This shows that horses had a symbolic and possibly even emotional significance in the Nubian Kingdom that goes beyond simply functional use of the horse. ’I think it’s very special to see that people in this ancient culture cared about their animals as we do today, and that they gave them the same kind of burial as they gave people. The fact that they buried a valuable piece of ironwork with this particular animal also says a lot about how much they valued the horse,’ she says.