Some 3,000 years ago, in what is today’s Sudan, someone buried a horse with great pomp. Now, scientists have discovered that the grave, an example of the human-animal relationship during this time, was much more sophisticated than expected.

The Tombos horse was discovered in 2011. Image credits: Schrader et al.

Tombos is an archaeological site in northern Sudan, close to the Nile. Tombos was an important granite quarry during the Pharaonic era, where, among others, researchers have found two mummies, Ushabti figurines, a boomerang, and painted Mycenaean terracotta.

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The tomb dates from 1050-728 B.C.E., from an age called the Third Intermediate Period — a period marked by decline and political instability. It was a fairly deep grave, dug more than five feet deep. The horse, which still had some chestnut-colored fur remaining, was buried in a funeral position with a burial shroud. This indicates that horses represented symbols of a larger social, political and economic movement, and that the horse gained symbolic meaning in the Nile Valley

“It was clear that the horse was an intentional burial, which was super fascinating,” said Michele Buzon, a professor of anthropology. “Remnants of fabric on the hooves indicate the presence of a burial shroud. Changes on the bones and iron pieces of a bridle suggest that the horse may have pulled a chariot. We hadn’t found anything like this in our previous excavations at Tombos. Animal remains are very rare at the site.”

Buzon and Stuart Tyson Smith, an anthropology professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, have been working at the site for 18 years. They say it took a while before they realized what they had actually found.

“Finding the horse was unexpected,” Schrader said. “Initially, we weren’t sure if it was modern or not. But as we slowly uncovered the remains, we began to find artifacts associated with the horse, such as the scarab, the shroud and the iron cheekpiece. At that point, we realized 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.”

They rallied Sandra Olsen, curator-in-charge at the Biodiversity Institute and Natural History Museum at the University of Kansas and a well-known ancient horse expert to analyze the health of the horse, confirming that it was a cared-for, important horse.

“The horse was treated well in life, seeing as how it lived to a mature age,” Schrader said. “It also was important to the people of ancient Tombos because it was buried – a rite that is usually reserved for humans. Furthermore, the fact that one of the earliest pieces of iron from Africa was found in association with the horse reiterates how special it was to the people. It is also important to assess the context of Tombos with regard to the horse – the horse is an important and rare find.”

Journal Reference: Symbolic equids and Kushite state formation: a horse burial at Tombos. Sarah A. Schrader et al.