Nine Skeletons Discovered in a 3,600-year-old Tomb Could Be the Canaanite Elite of Megiddo

The discovery of a Middle Bronze Age tomb in the ancient Canaanite city of Megiddo provides a fascinating glimpse at what life was like for the rich and powerful before Thutmose’s army overthrew its leaders in the in the early 15th century BC. Researchers are especially looking forward to learning about the origins of the ruling class at the time.

Megiddo is most famous for at least three major battles on its soil: in the 15th century BC when Thutmose III fought against a huge coalition of Canaanites led by the head of Megiddo and the city of Kadesh, in 609 BC when Pharaoh Necho II fought King Josiah of the Kingdom of Judah, and when Allied troops faced the Ottoman army there in 1918.

‘The Battle of Megiddo, 609 BC.’ ( CC BY SA 3.0 )

Archaeologists have been attempting to unlock the secrets of Megiddo, the city ancient Greeks referred to as Armageddon, for over a century. Excavations have revealed numerous monumental buildings such as palaces, temples, and old city walls, as well as an array of artifacts from the Bronze and Iron Ages (approximately 3300-586 BC).

National Geographic reports archaeologists have recently stumbled upon a new feature of interest – a rich, untouched 3,600-year-old tomb. The discovery was made when cracks were noted near the surface of Bronze Age palaces identified in the 1930s. Dirt seemed to be spilling into an unknown chamber below. When the team began to explore the interesting feature in 2016, archaeologists unearthed a corridor leading to a burial chamber.

Megiddo, or Tel Megiddo, is the site of an ancient city in northern Israel’s Jezreel Valley. ( CC BY SA 2.0 )

When they looked inside, the researchers were delighted to find the undisturbed remains of a woman in her mid-30s, a man who died sometime between the ages of 40-60, and a child aged eight to 10 years old. All three were laid to rest with well-crafted gold, silver, and bronze jewelry such as necklaces, a diadem, rings, brooches, bracelets, anklets, and pins.

The tomb was dug for elite Middle Bronze Age members of Megiddo’s society. Israel Finkelstein told National Geographic how the researchers came to this conclusion, “We are speaking of an elite family burial because of the monumentality of the structure, the rich finds and because of the fact that the burial is located in close proximity to the royal palace.”

The gold jewelry that adorned the adult male burial includes (from top) a diadem, a bracelet, and a torque necklace. ( PETER LANYI, THE ISRAEL MUSEUM, JERUSALEM )

But the rich grave does not just attest to the wealth of the family inside; it also indicates that Megiddo was a cosmopolitan and wealthy site during the Middle Bronze Age. Ceramic vessels from Cyprus and stone jars which may have Egyptian origins promote the idea of trade between Megiddo and these locations.

A model of what Megiddo may have looked like in 1457 BC. (1978 photo). ( Public Domain )

When the tomb was explored further, it was found that the bodies of other people had been pushed back deeper into the burial chamber. Melissa Cradic, an expert on ancient funerary rituals in the area and team member on the dig, told National Geographic there were two burial phases in the tomb. Six people were buried around the same time, then their bones were jumbled into the back of the tomb when three more were interred at the front of the burial chamber.

It seems that there was a link between the nine individuals buried within – as indicated by the continuation in the types of jewelry worn by everyone in the tomb and the fact that they were all placed in the same chamber. Physical analysis of the bones also suggests that there may have been a genetic link between the people buried in the two phases and several of the people in the tomb may have suffered from a possible genetic bone or blood disorder.

Two of the three members of the more elite family burial depicted as archaeologists discovered them.

Nonetheless, Cradic says the man, woman, and child who were laid to rest last probably held a more important role in their society than their predecessors, “However, the final three were probably of special importance based on the high quantity and exceptional richness of their grave goods. As well as the fact that their bodies were not disturbed after burial.”

But one of the most exciting aspects of the discovery is yet to be revealed – a DNA analysis is currently being conducted to try to see if there are any possible connections between the elite, or possibly royal, burial found near the palace with people buried in more common graves at the site.

The reason researchers want to explore this aspect is due to the suggestion in ancient documents that Megiddo’s elite may have Hurrian origins, not Canaanite ones, following Egypt’s conquest over the city. Specifically, diplomatic letters show that a ruler of Megiddo in the 14th century BC had the Hurrian name Birydia – which may mean Hurrians had some control over Canaanite city states in that period.

Letter from Biridiya of Megiddo, to the king of Egypt. The text speaks of harvesting by corvee workers in the city of Nuribta. (Rama/ CC BY SA 2.0 )

Finkelstein is hopeful new insights will be revealed through the DNA analysis, as he told National Geographic, “These studies have the potential to revolutionize what we know about the population of Canaan before the rise of the world of the Bible.”

Top Image: Archaeologists were stunned to discover the tomb—replete with burial offerings and human remains—undisturbed for some 3,600 years. Source: ROBERT S. HOMSHER

By Alicia McDermott

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