Horrible History: 3000-Year-Old Golden Bowl Hides Grisly Tale

In 1958, archaeologists were digging through the ruins of a burned Iron Age citadel called Hasanlu in northwestern Iran when they pulled a spectacular, albeit crushed, golden bowl from the layers of destruction. The 3,000-year-old bowl became an object of fascination once word got to the press. The next year, it graced the pages of Life magazine in a full-color spread alongside an article about the discoveries at Hasanlu.

But the story behind the prized find is less glossy. The bowl was uncovered just beyond the fingertips of a dead soldier and two of his comrades, who were crushed under bricks and burned building material around 800 B.C. Scholars have debated whether these three men were defenders of the citadel or enemy invaders running off with looted treasures. A new interpretation suggests the soldiers were no heroes.

Hasanlu is sometimes described as the Pompeii of the ancient Near East, because of its so-called “burn layer,” which contains more than 200 bodies preserved in ash and rubble, explained Michael Danti, an archaeologist at Boston University. The archaeological evidence provides a rather disturbing snapshot of the closing hours of the siege of the citadel.

Located on the shores of Lake Urmia, Hasanlu seems to have been first occupied about 8,000 years ago. But by the ninth or 10th century B.C., there was a bustling, fortified town at the site.

Within the town’s walls were houses, treasuries, horse stables, military arsenals and temples, many of which had towers or multiple stories. The mudbrick architecture likely resembled the adobe buildings of the American Southwest, but many roofs, floors and structural supports at Hasanlu consisted of timber and reed matting — all of which would have been tinder in a blaze, Danti said. Other central details about life at Hasanlu are less clear. Archaeologists don’t know the ethnicity of the people who lived there or what language they spoke.

“Despite the really rich material record, they didn’t really find any indigenous writing at all,” Danti said.

The burn layer at Hasanlu suggests a surprise attack destroyed the citadel. Archaeologists who excavated the site in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s found corpses that were beheaded and others that were missing hands. Danti said he has seen a fairly clear example of a person who was cut in half.

To read more about the grisly story of Hasanlu, please visit Discovery News.

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