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1998 Excavation Season at Tell Kurdu, Turkey

By K. Aslihan Yener, Assistant Professor of Archaeology
The Oriental Institute
The University of Chicago

(This article originally appeared in The Oriental Institute News and Notes, No. 164, Spring 1999, and is made available electronically with the permission of the editor.)

A new initiative was put into motion for the Oriental Institute's Amuq Valley Regional Project, the excavation of one of the 237 sites in the plain, Tell Kurdu. This seventeen hectare Early and Middle Chalcolithic site is situated close to the eastern edge of the former Amuq lake (Lake Antioch-Amik Gölü) in the southernmost part of Turkey, the State of Hatay. Its immense size, location, and date (Amuq Phases C-E, sixth/fifth millennium bc) have important implications in understanding the rise of early complex societies and Anatolian developments during the Ubaid period, when there was considerable contact with Mesopotamia. Full-scale operations were resumed with a team of twenty-five, including students from the University of Chicago. From 22 August to 12 October 1998 the site director, Chris Edens, steered the field team admirably. The excavations are part of an overarching aim to reconstruct the palaeo-environment and landscape patterns of the region; the project began in 1995 with Tony Wilkinson's intensive geoarchaeological and archaeological surveys.

Figure 1. A site plan of Tell Kurdu showing locations of excavation units and geomagnetic survey areas

Ten trenches of various sizes were placed on the northern and southern sectors of Tell Kurdu, which consists of two mounds connected by a saddle. Abbas Alizadeh (in charge of Trenches 1, 6, and 9) exposed 225 square meters on the summit of the Southern Mound and unearthed a large multi-room building, made of pisé slabs, immediately below the plow zone (fig.2). Perhaps a public building, its long, narrow, grill-like storage rooms flank a rectilinear corridor and subsidiary rooms. A platform of alternating packed mud and reeds (constructed like a baklava) provided a large open space adjacent to the building in the west. A curious and difficult to understand architectural medium of undulating reed bedding laid horizontally like beams was found partly covering the base of the storage rooms (fig.3); the closest analogy is the floor of the public building at Tell Oueilli in southern Mesopotamia. Devices such as tokens, stamp seals, bailing tags, and other clay sealings with string impressions and notches suggest an administrative function for the building. Beautiful examples of painted ceramics(fig.4) and dark-faced burnished wares date the level to transitional Halaf-Ubaid (Amuq Phases D-E).

Jesse Casana mastered a difficult series of phases in Trench 2 and exposed 100 square meters on the eastern edge of Tell Kurdu. This trench, placed adjacent to Scott Branting's 1996 test pit, yielded a building with an array of pisé storage bins constructed like pigeonholes(fig.5). These storage units contextualize the kilos of burnt grain found in the test pit (see News & Notes No. 155 Fall 1997). An earlier phase, which was only partially exposed, yielded a large pisé tholos building (roughly 7 meters in diameter) with triangular internal buttresses. Normally tholoi are associated with the Halaf period; however, the pottery retrieved from the floor was consistent with Ubaid traditions (Amuq Phase E). An Ubaid-style figurine fragment with coffee-bean eyes matches a figurine found during the 1996 operations (fig.6).

Ben Diebold, Sarah Graff, Bakiye Yükmen, and Kubra Ensert excavated Trenches 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, and 10, exposing 335 square meters on the older Northern Mound, where an Ubaid cemetery had been reported by locals in previous years; older deposits with architecture were targeted. Several flexed burials were found in situ with grave goods(fig.7) cut into a complicated sequence of middens deposits in Trench 4, filled chock-a-block with discarded charred grain and burnt pisé lumps. Huge bones belonging to a catfish the size of a table!, baby elephant, lion, equid, and other wild fauna were dumped into the trash pits that are tentatively dated to Phase D. Missy Loyet and David Reese's preliminary analysis of the faunal remains suggest a three-way split of 30% each of domestic sheep/goat, pig, and cattle with the remaining 10% wild.

Trench 7 exposed multi-room architecture(fig.8) with a cremation burial placed sometime after the use of the building. Associated pottery resembles Halaf period (Amuq Phases C-D) pottery.

Prestige-laden commodities, such as metal artifacts, ores, and exotic stones, found at Kurdu in varying stages of manufacture, should offer clues as to the context of production (household, workshop, industrial), technological activities (e.g., stone tool and metal/ceramic [furnace] manufacture), and trade. The distribution of debris, such as bone, ceramics, and middens can provide information on the range and location of activities performed. Remote sensing utilizing a Magnetic Field Gradiometer under the direction of Lew Somers covered several large areas of both mounds. Having delineated burnt areas for possible identification of pyrotechnological installations, the results also had a value added aspect in identifying a large, possible tripartite building in the older Northern Mound. In addition to this feature, previous surface surveys had found vitrified wasters suggesting the location of ceramic kilns, which were also corroborated by the magnetometer when two large circular structures appeared as magnetic anomalies. Both subsurface features are targeted for excavation in 1999.

Topographical maps of Tell Kurdu were generated with the Total Station by Paul Zimmerman (fig.1), who gave us some very good explanations of what had happened to Tell Kurdu since 1938. Aside from a chunk taken off the east side of the mound by bulldozers to enlarge cotton fields, roughly two meters had been leveled off the top of the mound. Even worse, the cadastral point had been shifted over as well, making it difficult to locate Braidwood's trenches I-III. With the problems at Kurdu partly solved, topographic maps were made of the endangered sites, neighboring Tell `Imar and Tell Dhahab near Judaidah. Tell `Imar, located 2 kilometers south of the excavations, now measures 24 hectares and appears to have been occupied at the same time as the later phases of Tell Kurdu, during Amuq Phase E. Wilkinson reports that although the route of the ancient Afrin River has not been demonstrated for this period, the most likely course would have been between Tells Kurdu and `Imar; therefore these two sites may have overlapped for a short span on opposite sides of the Afrin River. Kurdu and `Imar, with an aggregate area of about 30 hectares, formed a large urban center and were on both sides of a major east-west route that followed the southern edge of the plain. Both `Imar and Dhahab are targeted for excavation in the years to come.

A separate team consisting of Tim Harrison, Jan Verstraete, Tony Wilkinson, Shin Ishiyama, Hatice Pamir, Simrit Dhesi, and Tülin Arslanoglu continued the geoarchaeological and archaeological survey of the Amuq Valley but took in some of the foothills this time. Yener took every opportunity possible to play hookey and investigate the copper/gold mines in the Amanus Mountains. The results were fabulous and the mountains are targeted for new archaeometallurgy surveys in the future. The preliminary survey work will be reported separately.

The Amuq represents an area where students, faculty, and colleagues of the Oriental Institute will be able to investigate a diversity of sites and undertake a variety of multi-project initiatives. New hypotheses regarding early plant and animal domestication, urbanization, technological innovation, power relations, and empire building await to be tested in this densely populated valley. To this end the Oriental Institute is building a dighouse headquarters with laboratories, dormitories, and other excavation facilities in collaboration with the local Mustafa Kemal University in Antakya.

Figure 9. The 1998 Amuq Valley Regional Project Team


The 1998 season of the Amuq Valley Regional Project was conducted under the auspices of the Turkish Ministry of Culture, Directorate General of Monuments and Museums. In Ankara we have been greatly assisted by the Acting General Director of Monuments and Museums, Kenan Yurttagül. The Ministry was represented by Mehmet Erdem from the Antalya Museum. The 1998 excavation team consisted of Aslihan Yener, Chris Edens, Abbas Alizadeh, Jesse Casana, Benjamin Diebold, Bakiye Yükmen, and Kubra Ensert. Peggy Sanders, Brenda Craddock, and Tülin Arslanoglu executed the illustrations and Paul Zimmerman the topographical survey. Heidi Ekstrom, Missy Loyet, and David Reese were responsible for the palaeobotany and faunal analyses. Tania Collas and Cap Sease were the site conservators. The excavation was funded by the National Geographic Society, Oriental Institute, and the Kress Foundation, as well as numerous private donors such as Karen Rubinson, Erica Schmidt Kuiper, and Jeffery Short. We are particularly grateful to both the Oriental Institute and its members - especially Mr. and Mrs. Albert F. Haas - who contributed financially to the success of the project. Special thanks go to Malcolm H. Wiener and the Institute of Aegean Prehistory for their continuing support of the project. Former University of Chicago graduate Brigitte Watkins greatly aided in organizing an Amuq funding campaign and I thank her sincerely. Research assistants Simrit Dhesi and Jesse Casana substantially added to our ability in Chicago to process finds from the sites. We thank the Antakya Archaeological Museum director and staff members Hüseyin Dinçer, Faruk Kilinç, Murat Süslü, and Asli Tütüncü. Special acknowledgment and thanks go the Mustafa Kemal University and its Rector (President) Professor Haluk Ipek, Provost Miktat Doganlar, and Dean Berna Alpagut for their continued help and guidance.

K. Aslihan Yener is Associate Professor in the Oriental Institute and the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago. Before coming to Chicago she worked at the Smithsonian Institution. Her work is featured in publications including the journal Science and the Chicago Tribune.

Revised: April 28, 2011

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