6,500-Year-Old 'Noah' Skeleton Found in Museum Closet

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The University of Pennsylvania did have a skeleton in its closet -- and it was quite old.

Scientists at the Penn Museum (the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology) announced Tuesday they had found a 6,500-year-old skeleton in the museum basement.

The bones belonged to a once well-muscled, 5'9" man estimated to be at least 50 years old. His remains had been lying in a coffin-like box for 85 years with no identifying documents. Since he likely outlived a great flood that, millennia later would be a precursor to the Biblical story, some are referring to the skeleton as "Noah."

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"This summer, a project to digitize old records from a world-famous excavation brought that documentation, and the history of the skeleton, back to light," the Penn Museum said in a statement.

Records revealed the complete skeleton was unearthed at the site of Ur, an ancient city near modern-day Nasiriyah in southern Iraq, in 1929–30.

At that time, a joint Penn Museum/British Museum excavation team led by Sir Leonard Woolley excavated 48 graves in a floodplain, all dating to the Ubaid period. This was a culture characterized by large village settlements that originated on the alluvial plains of southern Mesopotamia around 5500 B.C. and lasted until roughly 4000 B.C.

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Of all the bones found, only one skeleton was in good enough condition to recover. Buried with arms at his sides and hands over his abdomen, with pottery vessels at the feet, the skeleton is 2,000 years older than the famous Mesopotamian "royal tombs" that Woolley found in the same Ur location.

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After Woolley discovered the Royal Cemetery, he kept digging. Around 40 feet down, he reached a layer of clean, water-lain silt. Digging further, Woolley found graves cut into the silt and eventually another silt layer. This "flood layer" was more than 10 feet deep.

Reaching below sea level, Woolley concluded that Ur had originally been a small island in a surrounding marsh. Then a great flood washed away the land.

The burial that produced the Penn museum skeleton was one of those cut into the deep silt. This indicates the man, as well as other people in Ur, had lived after the flood.

Archaeologists believe the disaster likely inspired stories of an epic flood which are the historic precursors of the biblical story written millennia later.

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As such, Penn researchers named the rediscovered skeleton "Noah."

Though, since the skeleton is much older than the Bible, "Utnapishtim" would have been more appropriate.

"He was named in the Gilgamesh epic as the man who survived the great flood," William Hafford, Ur Digitization Project Manager at Penn.

Hafford was able to reconstruct how the skeleton reached the museum. Woolley himself painstakingly removed the intact skeleton, covered it in wax, fastened it onto a piece of wood, and lifted it out with the surrounding dirt using a burlap sling.

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He shipped the remains to London for examination, and then on to Philadelphia. There, the skeleton rested in a wooden box with no catalog card, or identifying number, for 85 years -- one of 150,000 bone specimens in the museums possession.

Complete skeletons from the Ubaid period are extremely rare. According to archaeologists, the re-discovered skeleton may open up new research possibilities.

"Today's scientific techniques, unavailable in Woolley's time, may provide new information about diet, ancestral origins, trauma, stress, and diseases of this poorly understood population," the Penn museum said.

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