The Wall Dwellers of Al-Shatrah

The Wall Dwellers of Al-Shatrah

Shatrat al-Muntafiq, Iraq (1886): The German archeologist Heinrich Struv was known for his bravado and daring. Contemporaries often claimed he was willing to travel anywhere and under any conditions in his quest to unearth the traces of the human past. In 1886, Struv and his team were carrying out excavations near Shatrat al-Muntafiq when they uncovered various ruins of unknown origin. Initial blasting revealed towering stone walls measuring over 12 meters in height. Small, organic holes were hollowed into the surface, an odd detail suggesting at first glance either erosion or chemical corrosion of the stone. After investigating this anomaly, however, it was discovered that the small recesses had been chiseled by hand and were filled with desiccated human bodies. Struv was ecstatic, believing he had uncovered proof that Egyptian practices of embalming and mummification were widespread throughout the deeper Middle East. He immediately wired Berlin via telegraph informing the scientific community of his findings.  

The archeological team made camp near the walls and settled in for the night. Documentary evidence proves contradictory on what occurred next, although various members of the team claimed that during the night they heard the sound of footsteps in the dirt outside their tents. Struv feared a raid on the camp by desert Bedouins and ordered his men to load their rifles and fire upon the assailants. Accounts differ, but all agreed that the team managed to fell some of the raiders with gunshot while the other attackers retreated into the night. In the morning, the patch of earth around the campsite was spotted with footprints ambling in zig-zagging directions. Yet Struv’s men found no bodies in the immediate vicinity. Instead, they discovered fragments of fossilized skull and bone scattered around the campsite. More peculiar, upon returning to the crevices in the excavated wall, Struv discovered the bodies were missing, with every burrow emptied of its content.

In his report filed with the German Archaeological Society, Struv insisted that raiders had made off with the mummified corpses during the night before he had a chance to photograph them. Experts remained skeptical. In the following month, no reports of remains being sold to competing archeological expeditions or curators in the area were filed, leaving Struv’s story in doubt. Struv retired shortly after the Shatrat al-Muntafiq expedition with a full pension and state honors. He remained an under-secretary of the German Archeological Society until his death. In his memoires, the Shatrat al-Muntafiq expedition was noticeably passed over in silence.