People thrived in ancient Mesopotamia from 5000 BCE onward with many different civilizations and states taking control of the region over the years. It has been the recent archaeological studies of the city of Ur, a thriving city in Mesopotamia in 2100 BCE, have led to new information on how human sacrifices were performed in the ancient city. While it has long been understood that the Mesopotamians practiced retainer sacrifice, it was the method that was not quite clear.
Retainer sacrifices refer to sacrifices made when a member of royalty or the social elite dies. Members of their staff including servants, soldiers, courtiers, musicians and grooms were all expected to journey into the afterlife with their master or mistress. In the past, it was believed that those people who were subjected to retainer sacrifice were simply poisoned and left to die in the royal cemetery. The belief was that these sacrifices were not only done to the honor of the deceased but also in order that the deceased might have people to serve them in the afterlife.
Archaeologists at the University of Pennsylvania examined two skulls that were found in 4,500-year-old royal cemetery at Ur. The royal cemetery features 16 grand tombs and hundreds of bodies that show evidence of human sacrifice. The bodies were decorated in elaborate garb of the period with women adorned with glittering golden headdresses and soldiers laid with their weapons at their sides. The belief in poisoning came largely from the way the bodies were lain. With many of the skulls and bones crushed from the hundreds of years of earth piling upon the bodies there was no way to examine the remains.
However, they were able to perform CT scans on skull fragments from two of the bodies. One male and one female were examined and it was upon close inspection of the bones that the true means of sacrifice were discovered. A sharp pike was driven into the skulls of both victims. The death was far from painless and if not done correctly it would not be quick either. There was also evidence that the bodies were put through a primitive mummification process of being baked and treated with mercury in order to keep the bodies preserved during long funeral rituals.