"Whomever, in the future, be it a queen who sits on the throne or a palace lady who is a concubine of the king, removes me from my tomb, or puts anybody else with me, and lays his hand upon my jewelry with evil intent or breaks open the seal of that tomb, above (earth), under the rays of the sun, let his spirit roam outside in thirst, below in the underworld, when libations of water are offered, he must not receive with the Anunnaki as a funerary offering any beer, wine or meal. May Ningishzida and the great door-keeper, Bitu, the great gods of the underworld, afflict his corpse and ghost with eternal restlessness!"
When great Queen Yaba' of Nimrud passed away, she left a curse to those who would dare disturb her final resting place. Despite her warning, excavations from 1988 to 1990 in the northwest palace of King Assurnasirpal II in the ancient city of Nimrud revealed the existence of hers, and a number of other royal tombs dating to the Neo-Assyrian period (ca. 900-600 BC). The tombs contained an abundance of gold and elite goods rivaling King Tut's, but the onset of the First Gulf War overshadowed their discovery and the queens were forgotten.
In 1997 palaeopathologist Michael Schultz from the Zentrum Anatomie at the Universität Göttingen spent ten days at the Iraqi Museum examining the skeletal remains of 17 individuals from burials in nine coffins and sarcophagi found in the royal queens' tombs. In some coffins, the remains were secondary mass burials containing commingled and fragmented bones. Coupled with poor preservation, the sample only included a few complete skeletons.
Despite this, Schultz discovered a range of all-too familiar pathological conditions including dental problems, colds, allergies, stiff joints, weakened bones, childhood illnesses, headaches, and possible neurological problems.
The Assyrians didn't have dentists to fill cavities and repair abscesses, or dental hygienists to scrape off plaque. But texts show the ashipu doctor used a plant to clean a patient's teeth. Other texts diagnose loose teeth, red gums, and bleeding. Cavities were believed to be caused by invisible worms eating the tooth; the word for cavity, tultu, translates to "tooth snake" or "well," designating the hole itself. But despite periodontal disease and a handful of abscesses and cavities, Schultz noted that overall dental health was good, as it should be for people dining at the Assyrian Royal Court.
Chronic inflammatory disease, (i.e. sinus problems such as colds or allergies) is a common condition that can be inferred by the presence of new bone growth in the sinus cavities. Our sinuses respond to stresses by producing annoying mucus. A variety of stimuli cause this, such as sudden change in temperature or humidity, irritating vapors or gases, environmental irritants causing allergic responses, bacterial and viral infections, or even dental problems. Sinus problems must have been common since ancient Assyrians often mention a heavy feeling in the head and nose as well as blockage in the nostrils. Unfortunately, there is nothing specific about the changes in the Nimrud bones to determine the exact cause of the infection.
Osteoarthritis, a degenerative disease resulting when the cartilage breaks down in joints, is the most common condition identified in skeletal remains. Mesopotamian texts mention stiffness, pain, swelling, impaired movement, and shrinking in the fingers, toes, feet, hips, elbows, knees, neck, and back and designate an offense to the god Shamash as the cause. Osteoarthritis occurs primarily in load-bearing joints and is an inherent part of the aging process, thus it is not surprising to find evidence of it on almost all of the adult skeletons from Nimrud.
A number of skulls from the Nimrud tombs showed evidence of meningeal inflammation on the interior of the cranium (meninges are membranes that line the skull and enclose the brain). This type of inflammatory reaction can be caused by a bacterial infection, (e.g., Meningitis or Encephalitis) or from headache disorders, both of which cause blood vessels around the brain to constrict and expand. Medical texts describe people having headaches as well as possible meningitis type symptoms such as pain, spasm, fever, hearing trouble, vision dimming, neurological abnormalities, depression, limb numbness, and the most severe -- a troubled heart.
To humanize these bones and "flesh them out" I offer a brief osteobiography of one individual, the skeleton identified by some as Queen Ataliya, wife of Sargon II (ruled 721-705 BC). She was buried in a stone sarcophagus in tomb II on top of another queen, often identified as Yaba'. Both have West Semitic names and are plausibly identified as Judeans, and might even have been members of the Judean royal family.
Before burial, Ataliya's body was roasted (or possibly smoked) for a number of hours at between 150-250 degrees C and then wrapped in a shroud. She presumably died around the age of 35. It is not known why the body was roasted, perhaps for preservation purposes, to prepare her for long-distance transport, or as a caution against spreading a disease she may have had.
Queen Ataliya had, by far, the most health problems of any of the people in the tombs, at least among the most complete skeletons. Her dental health was notably poor. She had inflamed gums, an abscess, plaque and a cavity on her first premolar, and she also seems to have suffered a long-term and severe illness as a child, shown by the linear enamel hypoplasia on her teeth.
Ataliya also had inflammation on the interior of both frontal sinuses and though she died young by modern standards, there were already signs of mild arthritis in her shoulders, hips, knees, and ankle joints as well as in numerous vertebrae. She had suffered a broken toe and pulled a leg muscle sometime during life as well.
In Ataliya's spine there may be evidence of early stage Scheuermann's disease, diagnosed by pathological changes on a number of her vertebrae. In this disorder the upper spine curves, forming a hunchback. The cause of Scheuermann's disease cannot be determined on a skeleton, however it is common in those who impose great stress on their lower spine such as elite athletes. It is doubtful Ataliya was an elite athlete or that, as a queen, she carried out laborious tasks that caused immense stress on her body. The symptoms, however, can also be attributed to an underlying infection, osteoporosis, or cancerous disease weakening the bone structure.
The frontal bone, parietals, and occiptal bone of Ataliya's skull all display evidence of thickening. The inner surfaces showed evidence of chronic inflammation caused by reactions in the meninges so severe that the swelling blood vessels changed the interior of her skull. This was likely quite painful, so it is not surprising that a number of stone amulets inscribed with spells against head pain were found among the grave goods in Tomb II.
While it is not known which of the two queens in the sarcophagus these belonged to, Farouk Al-Rawi who published the translations thought they might relate to meningitis or migraines and belonged to Ataliya. This is absolutely correct: Ataliya suffered greatly from a chronic and recurring head disorder likely causing immense pain, so it is highly probable the amulets protected her head from being struck by an unknown supernatural assailant -- be it a god or ghost.
Reading this, you may think "Poor Ataliya! Hobbling around hunchbacked with agonizing headaches and constantly blowing her nose!" It's not quite that bad. Over the course of a lifetime our bones take on scars from all we've been through. It is unlikely she suffered from everything at once, even if it appears that way when the scars are looked at together in the skeletal record. It is worth noting that she survived her ailments long enough for remnants to imprint on her bones.
To put it into a more personal and modern context, I could easily be a Neo-Assyrian Queen! I don't mean in a previous life I lived in Nimrud and ruled over the domestic quarters impaling and punishing disobedient servants as my husband impaled and punished disobedient nations. But throughout my life I have suffered ailments just like Ataliya. I get periodic migraines and had chickenpox as a child. In the spring, the pollen wreaks havoc on my allergies and the frigid Canadian winters give me chronic colds. I don't know anyone who hasn't had a cavity or two, and I pulled many muscles and broke a toe as a teenager playing soccer, as well as another toe when a stone pillar was dropped on my foot during my first excavation. Lastly, after a recent sports injury I found I'm losing cartilage in my hip -- in my early thirties, arthritis is already moving into my bones. Despite my list of Ataliya-like ailments, if you chat with me at the ASOR conference you'd never think I was decrepit.
Our bones tell the stories of our trials and tribulations through life and as archaeologists, historians, and scholars, it is our job to tell the stories of those left behind in tombs like the Queens in Nimrud. Maybe we should all pray to the Mesopotamian goddess of medicine and healing, Gula, and hope when our bones are found by future osteologists, they don't think "those poor 21st century people!" And Ataliya, I hope Marduk has calmed your headaches so you can eternally rest in peace.
Tracy L. Spurrier is a doctoral student in Near Eastern Archaeology at the University of Toronto.