Some excavations made at a site in southeastern Turkey have recently revealed Iron-Age skeletal remains buried with a number of turtles.

Found in the ancient burial site at Kavuşan Höyük, located on the southern bank of the Tigris River, were the more than 2,500-year-old skeletons of a woman and child, alongside several previously butchered turtles. Most of the turtles were part of the Euphrates soft-shelled species, which is known for aggressive behavior.

French archeozoologist Rémi Berthon, Turkish archeologist Güriz Kozbe and their colleagues reported their findings in the journal Antiquity.

The skeletons were of a woman between ages 45 and 55, and a child between 6 and 7. The pit was dated to the late Iron Age, also known as the post-Assyrian era.

The child, whose sex was unidentified, was lying face down. Beneath the infant was the woman, who was lying on her back semi-flexed.

The scientists saw no indication of trauma related to a violent murder or death, but also could not determine the relationship between the two since they did not undertake ancient DNA testing.

In an interview with Discovery News, Berthon explains that the remains were buried within a short time span.

At the end of the pit were several turtle remains, along with two carapaces and a number of skeletal elements scattered in the mid-part of the grave. One of the shells were of a Testudo graeca or spur-thighed tortoise, 17 of Euphrates soft-shelled turtles and three of Middle Eastern terrapins.

These animal discoveries demonstrate some firsts in ancient burials, such as the Middle Eastern terrapin seen for the first time as a grave good. “Finding Euphrates soft-shelled turtles in a burial is unprecedented as well,” says Berthon.

The Euphrates soft-shelled turtles, while also feeding on vegetables and plants, maintain a primarily carnivorous diet. They scavenge and feed on carcasses of mammals as big as horses, the authors note.

The soft-shelled turtles were speculated to be butchered in the context of funerary rites, with the animals retaining such strong symbolic position in the Near East during ancient times. They were part of the reptilian order chelonians, believed to escort the souls of the dead to the afterlife.

Berthon says the remains of Euphrates soft-shelled turtles – now listed endangered – in a burial shows the role of the species in Turkish heritage. The discovery strengthens the turtle-afterlife link being valid for all chelonian species, the researchers add.

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