A 3000-year-old skeleton reveals that horses were held to be noble and important animals in what is now Sudan.
The virtually complete skeleton – still with tufts of hair and fragments of a burial shroud attached – was found at Tombos, an archaeological site near the Nile in northern Sudan, and is described in a paper in the journal Antiquity.
The horse was originally discovered by a team led by archaeologist Sarah Schrader from Leiden University in The Netherlands in 2011, but careful analysis has only just been completed.
The first challenge, when the skeleton was detected 1.5 metres below ground, in the shaft of a pyramid grave, was to determine its age.
“Finding the horse was unexpected,” Schrader says.
“Initially, we weren’t sure if it was modern or not. But as we slowly uncovered the remains, we began to find artefacts associated with the horse, such as the scarab, the shroud and the iron cheek-piece.
“At that point, we realised how significant this find was. Of course, we became even more excited when the carbon-14 dates were assessed and confirmed how old the horse was.”
The carbon-14 results delivered a date for the horse bones of about 948 BCE, indicating that it had been laid to rest during a period of great upheaval.
Shortly before, the Egyptian culture known as the New Kingdom that had come to dominate the Sudan region began to fragment and collapse, and in its aftermath the Nubian Kingdom of Kush began to rise. Eventually the Kushites would become so powerful that they occupied all of Egypt and established themselves as the country’s twenty-fifth dynasty, ruling from 747 to 656 BCE.
Schrader and colleagues report that horse skeleton was found in a location that in some ways typifies the cultural change that was going on during its lifetime.
The fully mature and apparently healthy animal was buried – evidently carefully and respectfully, and with older heirloom ornaments – beneath a pyramid, which had a chapel in front of it.
“The pyramid,” the authors write, “would have served as a place-marker and iconic symbol of Egyptian ethnicity, elite identity and rebirth.”
Yet while the burial site dates to the New Kingdom, the corpse does not. The archaeologists concluded that the grave had originally contained human remains (many, in pieces, were found still buried), but was looted. The site then fell into disuse, only to be revived around 3000 BCE.
The horse was then placed in the grave, adorned in a shroud and still wearing an iron bridle, and the shaft resealed with massive granite beams – beneath which, gruesomely, the researchers found the remains of two juvenile humans.
Despite these precautions, however, the grave was once again breached at some point in the distant past. Schrader and colleagues speculate that this suggests the presence of a human corpse, subsequently removed. Whatever happened, and whatever was taken, the old horse of Tombos remained untouched.