The Mysterious Turkish Tombs That Quickly Dissolve Bodies

” ‘In the midst of life we are in death,’ said one; it is more true that in the midst of death we are in life. Life is the only reality; what men call death is but a shadow.” —George MacDonald

In A Nutshell

A site from the fourth century BC that sits between Troy and Pergamon, Assos in Turkey has suffered from botched excavations, extended neglect, and people carting away remnants of the ruins for personal use. Nevertheless, Assos is well-known for its flesh-eating tombs that cause bodies to decompose completely in just 40 days rather than the normal 50–200 years that occurs elsewhere. Baffled scientists are studying the stone used in the Assos sarcophagi to determine if it contains a special property that will solve this unusual mystery.

The Whole Bushel

Assos in Turkey has suffered from botched excavations, extended neglect, and people carting away remnants of the ruins for personal use. In the late 1800s, written accounts of the first dig reveal that the archaeological team, many of whom were amateurs, dug too quickly and damaged some of the site. In addition, Francis Bacon, an architect who was second in command of the excavation, complained about all the different people, including those in government, who simply took what they wanted from the site without regard to preserving its history.

“It makes one’s blood boil to think how this grand old city has been devastated within the last 50 years! The Turkish government has been carting away cut stones, and every little village in the neighborhood comes here for building material,” said Bacon. “The gypsy smiths steal all the iron clamps as fast as we expose them, and next year a new magazine [storeroom] will be built here at the port all of ancient blocks. In 10 years it won’t be much use coming here to see Greek ruins; better go to Athens!”

In the 1980s, a new Turkish team not only excavated the site, they attempted to reconstruct some of the ruins. However, instead of using exceptionally durable andesite like the ancient builders did, this Turkish team substituted concrete blocks in areas where the original stones were missing. The concrete crumbled more in just 20 years than the ancient stones did in 2,500 years. The rest of the reconstructions were botched, too.

Nevertheless, Assos has a feature that has intrigued scientists for a long time. The city is known for its flesh-eating tombs that cause bodies to decompose completely in just 40 days instead of the normal 50–200 years needed elsewhere. In fact, it’s believed that the word “sarcophagusA” derives from the Greek sarkophagos, which literally means “flesh-eating stone.”

Some scientists believe that the tombs contain a large amount of aluminum to accelerate decomposition of the bodies. Their theory is that the ancient inhabitants of Assos discovered that aluminum would burn skin, so they placed aluminum inside the sarcophagi to make the bodies decompose more quickly. Other researchers are studying andesite, the type of stone used in the Assos sarcophagi, to see if it contains a special property that hastens decomposition. In the ancient world, these sarcophagi were highly valued and were traded as far away as Egypt and Rome.

Show Me The Proof

Featured photo credit: Ingo Mehling
Archaeology: New Hope for a Forgotten City
Hurriyet Daily News: ‘Meat eater’ tombs in Assos display the taste for flesh
Ancient Origins: Unravelling the mystery of the flesh-eating sarcophagi of Assos

  • OldBoris

    They’re not Turkish tombs, then, but Greek tombs. Remember that the Turks only definitively moved into what is now Turkey in the Middle Ages, and that they only pushed the remaining Greeks out of Anatolia in the last century. The Turks won’t loot their own heritage sites as easily, but they’ll loot any piece of European heritage that they can lay their hands on.

    • Ken O

      Your comment was more interesting than the article. Thanks for the Wikipedia loop I’m about to get stuck in.

      • OldBoris

        Godspeed, brave Ken.