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HAMOUKAR - EARLY CITY IN NORTHEASTERN SYRIA

By McGuire Gibson, Professor of Archaeology
The Oriental Institute, and the
Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations
The University of Chicago

(This article originally appeared in The Oriental Institute News and Notes, No. 166, Summer 2000, and is made available electronically with the permission of the editor.)


INTRODUCTION

A man was mowing the lawn the other day in Damascus. You don't think of lawn mowing there, especially if your experience of the country has been in the summer, fall, or winter when everything is dry and brown. But right now, in early spring (April 2000), there is green in much of the country. For a while it seemed that this would be the third year of drought in Syria, but there has been rain off and on, especially over the last two weeks. The pattern is not uniform. As you go along the roads, you notice that the fields on one side are much greener, with wheat and barley at four to six inches in height. On the other side, the fields are spotty, reaching only two inches of height at most, and then again will come a green area.

I was in Syria in late March in order to begin the process of building a mudbrick house on the site of Hamoukar, a new focus of research for the Oriental Institute. I arrived with a plan that had been drawn up by John Sanders from ideas I had sketched out. My ideas came partly from an old plan that was created for Nippur by Carl Haines but had not been carried out. I also had in mind the Nippur house that was built by Jim Knudstad, with some changes that would reflect the different environmental conditions in northeastern Syria. John was thinking, also, of Assyrian palace plans, and the house we have decided to build has something of Sargon and Ashurbanipal in it, and they were people who knew about rain and cold, as well as the heat of summer.

When you work in the Syrian Jezira, the upper Khabur river basin, you are very soon made aware of the critical role of rain. The history of occupation in this area, as shown best by the research of the Oriental Institute's Tony Wilkinson, is an episodic one. Centuries of settlement based on rain-fed agriculture have been followed by centuries of abandonment, with the area given over to nomadic pastoralism. The Khabur River, with its several branches, is not a major water course, and during most of the year is represented by dry wadis. But most of the important sites lie alongside those branches, which could supply water enough to support large towns.

To the north, within easy visual distance, is the southwestern-most ridge of the Taurus/Zagros Mountains. On clear days you can see more distant and higher ridges in Turkey and Iraq, with snow covering them for much of the year. Rain and snow, falling in those mountains, feed the Euphrates and its tributaries the Balikh and Khabur, as well as the Tigris and its tributaries. The snow, melting in the spring, is the source for the irrigation in Syria and Iraq, but since there is still very little flow irrigation in the Khabur basin, the mountain runoff has not been as immediately important there. The rain in Turkey does recharge the groundwater of northern Syria. With economic development in both countries, however, the groundwater level is dropping very fast. Syrian villages, which used to draw water from wells dug down 20 m, now must drill artesian wells reaching as deep as 200 m. Irrigation for cotton, a major cash crop in the area, is lowering the level even of artesian water.

SYRIAN-AMERICAN EXPEDITION TO TELL HAMOUKAR

When we began the first season of excavation at Hamoukar (September - November 1999), we wondered how the site got its water. This tell, which is a very big one by Syrian standards, does not sit on a branch of the Khabur, but between two rather modest wadis. Located about five miles from the Iraqi border, just west of a major border crossing point called Yarubiyah, ancient Hamoukar lay on a major traffic artery from Nineveh to Aleppo. That position must have had a great deal to do with its size and function at various times in the past.

The site was noticed by a number of archaeologists in the 1920s and 1930s, and some proposed that it might be Washshukanni, the still-unlocated capital of the Mitanni empire (c. 1500 bc). If the people who proposed that identification had examined the pot sherds on the surface of the tell, they would not have made it. There is no evidence of an occupation of Hamoukar at the time of the Mitannians.

Over the years, several excavators have been interested in Hamoukar because it does have plenty of evidence for the Uruk period (c. 3200 bc), the time when the first cities were developed in southern Iraq and colonies were established in Syria. Remains of the Uruk period have been excavated at Tell Brak, to the south of Hamoukar, and at a number of other sites in Syria, especially along the Euphrates.

I first stepped onto Hamoukar in April 1999. I had rented a car in Damascus to go to the eastern part of Syria to look at possible sites to dig. After stopping at Raqqa, on the Euphrates, and being shown a number of very interesting sites, I went on to Deir az-Zor. There, I was shown a couple of sites, but nothing as interesting as those I had already seen. I then drove on to Hassekeh, the provincial capital for the Upper Khabur area. The local director of the Antiquities Service, Abdul Messieh Bagdo, joined me, and we examined another five or six sites, all of which were possible candidates for excavation. I asked him if we could also go to Hamoukar, although I had been told that the site was not going to be given to anyone at this time. I was being shown sites that were in danger because of development projects or illegal digging, and these would have priority.

It was clear, even from a distance, that Hamoukar was a large site, several times larger than anything I had yet seen on the trip. We drove onto the tell and walked up to the top, which has a small modern cemetery. Looking around, I could see that a large part of the southern and eastern slopes were occupied by modern mudbrick houses. But even before I had a chance to look at the pottery on the surface of the mound, rain began to pour down. We ducked under the porch of a nearby house and waited for a bit, but it soon became obvious that this was going to be a serious rain. I thought we should get the car off the tell fast, before we became stuck.

After I got back to Chicago, I wrote a letter to Prof. Dr. Sultan Muhesen, Director General of Antiquities and Museums, with a list of the sites, in order of preference. At the end of the letter, I added a line to point out that Hamoukar was the most endangered mound I had seen, due to the large settlement already covering a large part of it, with a paved road and shops. Whichever site we were given, we would be forming a joint Syrian-American expedition, with personnel and other resources. Assuming that we would be given the first or second choice on my list, I began planning for work on a relatively modest scale. I was greatly surprised when I received Dr. Muhesen's letter informing me that we were being given permission for Hamoukar. I then had to rethink my entire approach to the work.

I arrived in Syria in late August and flew up to Qamishli on a Syrian Airways Tupolev jet in an hour and twenty minutes. The same trip by road would have taken at least ten hours. From Qamishli, I went by taxi to Hassekeh where I was met by my co-director, Muhammad Maktash (Director of the Raqqa Museum). After consulting with the local Antiquities officials, who had already been looking into possible housing for the expedition, Muhammad and I hired another taxi to take us to Hamoukar for a couple of days. There was no place large enough for the expedition in Hamoukar village, but there appeared to be one or two houses in Yarubiyah, eight kilometers to the east. This town, most often referred to by local people by its old name, Tell Kochek, is the border outpost mentioned earlier. We found a brand new house, not quite finished, and rented it. Although a bit small, it would do. I flew back to Damascus to meet the rest of the staff while Muhammad returned to Raqqa to buy equipment to furnish the house.

Clemens Reichel and Jason Ur flew in a few days earlier than the rest, so I took them on a day trip to Beirut, where they had never been. It is easy to go to Beirut (Americans can get visas at the border or the airport), and the road trip takes only three hours, even with a customs check. To watch a city remake itself after fifteen years of war is fascinating. Blasted buildings stand next to brand new ones, and the entire downtown is a large open space, where hundreds of destroyed buildings have been removed and used to create two new peninsulas in the Mediterranean. Archaeological sites, dug after the clearance, are open for now, but some are already under new high rises. People are busily chatting on cell phones, using ATM machines, spending hours in Internet cafes, and dressing in the latest European styles. Even after a long civil war, Beirut is still on to the latest craze.

Two days later, I sent Clemens and Jason in a rented minibus with lots of baggage and equipment for the long ride to Yarubiyah. A couple of days later, the rest of the crew flew with me to Qamishli to find a house full of furniture and even a cook in place. Muhammad Maktash had done a great job in getting us established.

I assumed that this first season would be pretty uneventful, a lot of preliminary steps and a shaking-out operation. We needed to get used to the area, to the local digging conditions, to the local workmen, and to one another. Some of the staff had not been on a dig with me. An exception was John Sanders, whom I pried away from his computers at the Oriental Institute to use his skills as an archaeological architect. John and I have worked together since 1972. Peggy Sanders, a superb artist, was able to join us for the end of the season to draw objects. I also induced Judith Franke to leave her position as Director of the Dickson Mounds Museum to come dig, once more, in the Near East. She and I had last worked together at Nippur in 1973. Tony Wilkinson came to join us for a few days, taking a break from another fieldwork commitment in Syria. Clemens and Jason both had previous field experience in Syria and Turkey, but Brigitte Watkins and Carrie Hritz were going to be in Syria for the first time.

CONTOUR MAP AND SURFACE SURVEY

We began work by doing a contour map of the site. John Sanders and Carrie Hritz did this in about ten very full days. This map was the basis for the work done by Jason Ur, who was in charge of the surface collection. The picking up and recording of sherds on the surface can give a very good preliminary idea of the size and shape of settlement at a site through time. Unless digging proves otherwise, the Uruk settlement is not as big as other scholars have thought, being only about 13 hectares (c. 32 acres). The site was at its biggest in the third millennium, reaching 102 hectares, or more than 250 acres. It was then abandoned, with people dispersing to form small villages around the site. During the Neo-Assyrian period, c. 800 bc, there was a small village on the mound, and another in the Seleucid period, c. 200 bc. Finally, during the early Islamic period (c. 700 ad), the last ancient occupants built on the top of the mound.

The surface sherds indicated some particularly interesting places for digging; for instance, there is certainly an area of pottery production on the eastern edge of the site, with stacks of bowls fused by over-firing. But probably the most important result of the surface collection was the confirmation of a very large, low settlement to the south of the main tell. Tony Wilkinson had spotted, on an aerial photograph, some light areas among the fields in that direction and suggested we investigate them. Jason's search among the fields showed that these lighter areas were, in fact, cultural remains, datable by sherds to the early fourth millennium. If the entire area is one site, it is a very large one, more than 250 hectares (500 acres, plus). That size would make it a major city and we cannot believe that a city existed at this early period. I assume that what we have here is a relatively small village or a set of villages that shifted position over several hundred years. We will not know for certain until we put in some pits next season.

GEOMORPHOLOGICAL TRENCHES

The satellite photographs also led to another operation. More than 100 m out from the mound, on the northern and eastern sides (see map on page 7), there is visible on the photographs a dark, curving line that one would be tempted to identify as a city wall. When you are on the site, however, you can see nothing that rises as a city wall would. In fact, there is the opposite effect - a long, curving, dip in the middle of the fields. We hired a backhoe to cut a series of trenches (Area D) from the edge of the mound out across that dip. Tony Wilkinson came to the site for two days to examine, sample, and record the vertical faces of the trenches. His preliminary conclusions are that we may have a city wall and a moat right up against the tell. In the area beyond, there are some bits of evidence of pottery firing but no houses. And the dip reflects an ancient ditch or wadi that carried water during the third millennium bc. Right after Tony left, we paid the operator of the machine to fill in the holes so that the farmers could continue to work their fields.

EXCAVATIONS

Our excavations in the first season were restricted to three trenches, A, B, and C. Area A was a step trench, 60 m long by 3 m wide, run from south to north down the face of the mound. Area B was located farther to the south, in a place where surface sherds were mainly Uruk in type. Area C was in the middle of a group of thirteen abandoned houses at the northeastern corner of the site. (Those abandoned houses represent a story of straying sheep, murder, revenge, law suits, monetary judgments, governor's decrees, and demolition … but that's a long story for another time.)

Area A. The step trench, supervised by Clemens Reichel and Brigitte Watkins, was located on the steep northern slope of the mound in an area that appeared unusually smooth and clean. We didn't realize it at the time, but we were cutting through the village's "ski slope," a place where the kids slide down the muddy surface in winter, riding big pieces of cardboard, metal sheets, large metal serving trays, and anything else that will serve. Judging by the same kind of bare strips running down other tells, this sport is pretty widespread in the region.

The reason for doing a step trench is that you can get a very good idea of all of the occupations in a tell without having to make a very deep, vertical shaft through it. The problem with a vertical shaft is that it gets smaller and smaller as you go down because you have to keep leaving the edges undug in order to make a stairway to get in and out. Thus, a pit that starts out at the top as 10 ≈ 10 m will be only 3 ≈ 3 m when you get 7 m down. On a tell like Hamoukar, 18 m high, such a pit would give you less than half the history of the site. A step trench, cutting down in progressive stages along the edge of the mound, can give you a much more representative sample of the occupations. Usually there is a meter or so of disturbed soil washed down from above, with a mixed group of sherds, but the greatest part of each step will be undisturbed deposit.

In our step trench, the bottom of each step was about 4 to 5 m below the next one above. We did not reach the bottom of the slope, although we were fairly close to the track that runs along the edge of the mound. We will probably have to put in one or two more steps to reach virgin soil. The deepest level we have reached has evidence of an occupation dating to the early fourth millennium. These layers are cut by a huge trench, perhaps a moat of a later time, but our exposure is too narrow to tell for sure. Up the slope in the next step we encountered some house walls, all of mudbrick, running up to the bottom of a huge mudbrick wall measuring at least 4 m in width and 4 in height. It would be tempting to call this a city wall, but we need to expand the exposure to make certain. The pottery associated with this wall, termed local Late Chalcolithic in Syria, is datable to some time in the mid-fourth millennium bc. Above the level of the big wall we exposed three building levels that could be dated to the late Uruk period, some time around 3200 bc. The pottery here is mainly Uruk in type, with beveled rim bowls and other items that are native to southern Iraq. Certainly, at this time there was a southern Mesopotamian presence at Hamoukar.

Above the late Uruk houses we found several layers of mudbrick buildings datable by the pottery to the third millennium bc. The successive buildings have pavements of baked bricks and the latest one also has thick plasters of clay finished off with a lime plaster. This series of buildings looks to me to be more than just private houses.

In the earliest levels, as in the Uruk and third millennium layers, we found ancient wells, completely filled in.

Directly on top of the uppermost third millennium building was constructed a building of the early Islamic period (c. 700 ad). The next period of occupation is the present-day village, and its cemetery, the nearest grave of which lies no more than 10 m from the north end of the step trench.

Area C. Among the abandoned houses at the northeastern corner of the site, we sank a 2 ≈ 2 m pit designed to assess the occupational history of this low part of the mound. Carrie Hritz was in charge of this operation. Just below the surface, she encountered a mudbrick wall that could be dated to about the eighth century, as was already indicated by surface sherds. About a meter lower, the southeast corner of the pit almost exactly coincided with the corner of a mudbrick building that had a buttress which was decorated by two small niches. To the north, the buttress ended in a doorway, leading toward the east. The door jamb, the buttress, the corner, and the southern wall were all coated with a white lime plaster. The niched buttress indicates that this building was not a private house but was most probably a temple. Sherds gave a date in the late third millennium, the equivalent of the Akkadian period, when the kings of Akkad in southern Mesopotamia expanded their empire into this region. I should add that the pottery is not southern Mesopotamian, but local, with types well known from other sites such as Tell Brak which was certainly occupied by the Akkadians. With its potential for elucidating a critical period of Mesopotamian history, it is obvious that this area is a prime candidate for an expanded exposure next season.

Area B. We chose as an area for broader expansion a place where Uruk sherds were abundant on the surface. Judith Franke and Abdul Salama supervised this operation, opening a series of 5 m squares running from east to west. The easternmost square turned out to be a puzzle, with masses of red clay and very few objects, even sherds. We finally concluded that we were in a solid mudbrick platform or wall that we cannot date securely as yet.

Farther upslope, we exposed a group of houses with unimpressive mudbrick walls. But the objects and sherds from these houses were extraordinarily numerous. Ash was everywhere, making it difficult to distinguish undisturbed layers of ashy debris on beaten earth floors from ashes in intrusive pits. There were clearly huge, ragged pits as well as narrow, neater pits cutting down into the buildings from levels that have eroded away. These pits had in them Uruk sherds as well as locally made items. The ashy debris from the houses themselves had no Uruk material at all. The Uruk pits must relate to a level that is eroded away or exists at the very top of the slope, which we have not yet excavated. Within the houses, that can be dated to the mid-fourth millennium by the local Late Chalcolithic pottery, we have determined the source of the ashes. In one room, there are the remains of four, and possibly five, successively used ovens. These ovens are built of mudbricks, which have become partially fired through use. The shape of the ovens is something like an igloo, ovoid in plan and with a domed mudbrick roof. The ovens were used for a variety of cooking activities, probably for bread baking and beer making, as well as for the cooking of meats. In the debris within and around the ovens, we have recovered many animal bones as well as an abundance of charred grains, including wheat, barley, and oats. Dr. Amr al-Azm, a professor at the University of Damascus and a member of our team, is studying the plant remains and will be able to give us more detailed information on them in the near future.

Besides ovens, we also discovered two ancient wells in Area B. Like the ancient wells exposed in the step trench, the two wells here answer the question of how the ancient inhabitants got their water. Like the modern villagers, the ancient people dug down to the water table wherever they needed water. The modern villagers report that, until the water level began to drop over the last few years, the water in their wells was "sweet."

The pottery found in the Area B houses is dominated by large cooking pots, called casseroles by archaeologists working in this part of Syria. But there are also a variety of smaller vessels and even very fine wares, usually in the same shapes as the larger vessels. The ability of the local potters was extraordinary; some of the fine wares are as thin as the shell of an ostrich egg.

In the houses, we found fragments of bone figurines that have been termed "eye idols," because of their huge eyes (and absence of other features of the head). The most complete example was recovered from a baby grave. Figurines of this type, which may in fact have been representatives of people, not deities, were discovered at Tell Brak in the 1930s and have been used as a marker for the mid-fourth millennium.

Most important as artifacts that inform us about the nature of the society that created the cooking establishment at Area B are the more than eighty stamp seals, fifteen seal impressions, and many beads found there. Most of the finds were from one pit, probably a grave. Here were found thousands of beads of bone, faience, shell, and stone, some of such a small size that I assume they were meant to be sewn onto clothing in patterns, rather than being worn as jewelry. The stamp seals are mostly of bone, carved into the shapes of animals, with incised lines or figurative scenes on the bases. One of our larger seals is in the form of a leopard, with its spots indicated by tiny dowels sunk into drilled holes. On its lower surface is a row of horned animals. There is an equally well-made seal in the form of a horned animal (with horns broken off), with horned animals in file, once again. But the larger seals are much less common than other, smaller seals in the shapes of animals. The most common shape of the smaller seals is that of a lion, but we also have a pair of lions, lion heads joined at the back, ibexes, bears, dogs, rabbits, fish, and birds. There is also a major type in the form of a rectangle with grooves on one face and incised hatchings on the stamping surface. Very similar bone artifacts found at Tell Brak in the 1930s were called amulets. At Hamoukar, we termed them stamp seals because we have found in the houses lumps of clay and bitumen with the impressions of scenes with animals, very similar to those we have on the larger stamp seals.

We have not, as yet, recovered a piece of clay with an impression made by any smaller seals with simple incision or cross-hatching, but we still call them seals because we have one type that includes both the figurative scene and the incised hatching. This type, in the form of a duck with its head turned over its back, occurs in three sizes. The smallest one has only hatching, but the other two both have scenes of animals. If the two larger items were used as seals, the smaller one should have been as well. The difference between the stamp surfaces, with figurative scenes on the larger two and incised lines on the smallest, must lie not in a difference of function but in the users. We would propose that the larger, more elaborate seals with figurative scenes were held only by the few people who had greater authority, while the smaller incised seals were used by many more people who were sealing as members of a large group with less authority. The difference would be something like the signature of the Director of Customs, used only by him, as compared to rubber stamps that say "US Customs," which can be used by hundreds of employees of that bureau.

Those last lines imply a degree of complexity at ancient Hamoukar that might seem remarkable because it is so early (fourth millennium). But seals, especially when found to have been used on clay or bitumen stoppers or as door-locks, are prime evidence of some kind of system of accounting or responsibility. They need not point to a bureaucracy, but could be the marks of ownership or responsibility over specific goods or duties performed. They may in fact imply a level of complexity that we would relate to state formation.

All the evidence from Area B points to the making of food on a scale that is far more than that needed for household consumption. It is on an institutional or industrial scale that one usually associates with a state. The possible existence of a city wall at the same time as the cooking establishment at Area B makes us think that this part of Syria had developed early kingdoms before the coming of the Uruk people. That is an important suggestion because, in general, it is normally proposed that civilization and the earliest states developed at about 3500 bc in southern Iraq, specifically in ancient Sumer. It is also usually proposed that this southern core area drew upon a less developed periphery in neighboring regions. It has been recognized for some years that Mesopotamian colonies were established in Syria, but the exact dating of the first establishments and their relationship to the local people is still being debated.

It has been suggested that after the contact with the Uruk people, local Syrian and Turkish kingdoms were stimulated into development. But now, our evidence and the evidence from a few other sites in Syria and Turkey seems to show that more complex societies were evolving not just in southern Iraq, but simultaneously in a number of areas. A few scholars, working in Turkey and Syria, are beginning to suggest that maybe civilization began not in southern Mesopotamia, but in their area. Before we start revising our textbooks, however, we should remember that there was an even earlier contact with people who had come from southern Mesopotamia. During the Ubaid period, c. 4500 bc, southern pottery and other artifacts reached as far west as the Mediterranean and at least as far south as Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. In some places, not just objects, but entire buildings were, in a sense, transplanted. At Tepe Gawra in northern Iraq there is a group of buildings that is clearly "at home" in Sumer. I would suggest that we need to reconsider our ideas about the beginnings of civilization, pushing them farther back, from the Uruk period into the Ubaid. This would mean that the development of kingdoms (early states) occurred before writing was invented and before the appearance of several other criteria that we think of as marking "civilization." Regardless of the level of development in the Ubaid period, the movement of people and objects from the south of Mesopotamia to the neighboring areas set up vital linkages between people hundreds of miles distant from one another. It was these linkages that made possible the transmission of ideas and people that underlay the joint development of complex societies.

This set of important issues can be addressed very effectively at Tell Hamoukar. At Nippur and other major sites, where the early city levels are meters below later remains, we cannot touch upon such questions without years of preliminary digging away of the debris of later periods. Here, with the fourth millennium and Uruk levels lying right under the surface on part of the mound, and third millennium material, which may relate to the Akkadian conquest of eastern Syria, in evidence at the surface in many parts of the site, our work at Hamoukar promises to be extremely rewarding. I cannot hope that in every season we will find the wealth of objects that we recovered this year, but the site does seem to be an unusually productive one.

Maybe you will be able to visit us in future, taking tea in the shaded porches of our new dig house, for which the bricks are being made as you read this. We will be back digging at Hamoukar in the fall, and you will be hearing about our work soon after.


McGuire Gibson is Professor of Archaeology at the Oriental Institute. He currently directs the Institute's Nippur expedition and excavations in Hamoukar.

Revised: April 28, 2011

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