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EXCAVATIONS AT TELL ES-SWEYHAT IN SYRIA 1989 AND 1991

By Thomas A. Holland, Publications Coordinator and Research Associate,
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. 134, Summer 1992, and is made available electronically with the permission of the editor.)


Tell es-Sweyhat is located on the east bank of the Euphrates river in northern Syria, about 90 miles east of Aleppo and 75 miles northwest of Raqqa, the modern administrative center for this area of the Syrian Jazira. The site (figure 1) is situated approximately one mile east of Lake Assad, which was formed by the completion of the Tabqa (eth-Thawra) dam during the 1970s. Sweyhat was founded in the center of the broad river terrace, which is encircled by an escarpment over 500 meters high encroaching on the Euphrates to the north (site of the new Tishreen Dam project) and which gently curves eastward around the Sweyhat plain for some 15 miles.

Although the 1989 season (sponsored by The University Museum, The University of Pennsylvania) was brief, lasting only one month, four soundings were made. Operations I and 2 were excavated on the main mound just east of the Area IV complex of rooms, which were built up against the inner face of the town wall (grid square F6, figure 1). Operations 3 and 4 were excavated in two areas of the outer town, southeast and west of the main mound in grid squares K11 and F3 (figure 1).

Operations I and 2, (see aerial photograph and sketch plan, figures 2 and 3), revealed a 3 meter wide pebble-paved street constructed in a north-south direction and situated parallel to the east face of the large Area IV buildings. The street in these two operations also parallels, at a 14 meter distance, the large 2.50 meter wide mudbrick town wall, against which the Area IV rooms were constructed to the west of the street. It is likely that the street curves gently in a northeast direction further to the north in the same direction as that portion of the town wall shown in Area XA, against which room 15 is constructed. That the street was parallel to the town wall in this area of the excavation may indicate that it paralleled the rest of the town wall and thus served as an inner ring road, but proof of this will have to await further excavation. The third millennium B.C. deposits collected from the street included sherds, flint tools, and animal bones.

Operations 3 and 4 (figure 1) in the lower town were situated in two of the areas where the density of surface material collected at the beginning of the 1989 season was very high. Upon excavation, very little architecture was evident apart from some fragmentary mudbrick walls with stone foundations, but this was due mostly to the smallness of the operations. The expansion of the Operation 4 square in 1991 (see below) showed extensive architectural remains contemporary with the occupation on the main mound. Also, the remains of another pebble-paved street in Operation 3 confirms town planning in the outer town as well as in the main walled inner town.

One of the more interesting finds from the pebble-paved street in Operation I was a wall fragment of a terracotta house model (figure 4). The architectural motifs depicted on our fragment, particularly the engaged spiral columns, are a feature incorporated on facades of major buildings in greater north Syria/Mesopotamia during the 3rd-2nd millennium B.C., particularly those at Tell Leilan (compare the columns along the north facade of the Leilan Building Level 11 temple and the complete house model in Ebla to Damascus: Art and Archaeology of Ancient Syria, edited by H. Weiss, 1985, figures 45 and 101). The fragment of a dove perched on the protruding ends of two joining roof beams processing of extending outside the house wall is identical in decoration to a completely preserved model supposedly from Salamiyya, near Hama in Syria. The presence of two sets of roof beams both at the top and the bottom of the two engaged spiral columns suggests that our fragment is the second storey of a model house similar in design to the Hama model. The Sweyhat model has an additional decorative feature, which consists of an incised complete tree motif on the right side of the columns and the remains of another one on the left side. The Hama model, unstratified, and other examples from the Early Dynastic Ishtar Temple at Ashur in Mesopotamia and also from 14th-13th centuries B.C. contexts in Syria, have made the dating of this type of model difficult. Present evidence from Sweyhat indicates that our house model belongs to the Akkadian period or slightly later during the end of the 3rd millennium B.C. Other evidence, both textual and glyptic, suggests that these types of house models were used as votive offerings in temples.

During 1990, due to the ever-rising costs of fieldwork in the Near East, Richard Zettler and I requested joint sponsorship for the 1991 excavations. The directors of The Oriental Institute and The University Museum kindly agreed to our request for joint sponsorship and provided generous financial support and backup resources, for which we are very grateful, and which made possible the two-month 1991 season. We also are extremely appreciative for the financial support we received from private donors associated with both institutions.

The 1991 season, conducted during October and November, was staffed by ten full-time and four part-time members from the USA and Britain. Richard Zettler and I again served as co-directors and represented the expedition's co-sponsor institutions. The site supervisors were Jennifer Arzt, an Oriental Institute graduate, Timothy Adams, Adam Ford, Emma Murray, and Sally Randell, all graduates of the Institute of Archaeology, London University. John Ellsworth, a part-time artist at The Oriental Institute, worked as the draughtsman for all object and pottery drawings. Matthew Waters and Michael Danti, both graduate students at the University Museum, were responsible for the archaeobotanical samples and the surveying of the trenches. Tony Wilkinson, Oriental Institute Research Associate, joined the team as a part-time member and continued his survey of the Sweyhat plain for one month (October). Donna Strahan, Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, and Mark Fenn, Conservation Analytical Laboratory, Smithsonian Institution, were also part-time members and worked as conservators during the final month of the season (November). John Robertson, Department of History, Central Michigan University, joined us for two weeks in November and assisted with both excavations on the tell and with the study of the finds. We are very grateful for all the assistance we received from the staff.

The objectives of the 1991 season were threefold: first, to obtain greater information concerning the architectural planning and dating of the different phases of occupation at the site, particularly in Area IV of the main mound (figures 2 and 3); second, to assess the relationship between the outer and inner towns; and third, to relate changes in the pattern of archaeological settlement to the physical landscape, man-induced landscape features, land use systems, and the regional environment. The first of these objectives was initiated by extending the 1989 Operation 1 up the slope of the mound by 10 meters to the east of the street, by beginning three more Operations, 6, 7, and 8, along the east and south sides of the rooms found in the previous Area IV excavations, and by opening a new trench designated Operation 5, on the south slope of the main mound north of Area 1. The second objective was met by greatly enlarging Operation 4, begun in 1989, in the western sector of the outer town; during the second half of the season it became necessary to open another area, Operation 9, north of Operation 4, to supplement information from that area. The work of the third goal was primarily undertaken by Tony Wilkinson, who carried out extensive fieldwork by covering an area approximately 5 km in an arc around Sweyhat on foot.

Operation I (figure 3), situated up-slope to the east of the Area IV rooms excavated in the 1970s, provided us with at least four later building phases on top of the original third millennium town. In a room belonging to the first of these phases that abutted the street were found two large circular oven-like structures (figures 2 and 3) which were possibly used for some kind of grain storage, although no remains of such were found within them. A closely associated phase in another room to the east contained a complete figurine of a human male with an elaborately decorated headdress and beard. This is a remarkable find in northern Syria (figure 5) as most figurines previously found are in female form, which are usually associated with offerings or other expressions denoting the idea of fertility.

Operation 6 is located between Operation 2 and the unexcavated portion room 9 and the rooms (numbers 16 and 17) known to exist to the south of room 9 (figure 3). Room 9 was found to abut onto the west side of the street in Operation 2 and, although not fully defined in 1991, the east wall of room 17 probably also adjoins the street. The eight complete rooms now excavated, except for room 1, between the town wall and the street (rooms 2 to 6, 9, 16, and 17) form the central unit of a large well-designed house, rectangular in shape, which measures 10 meters in width and 13.50 meters in length. That these rooms originally formed only a central unit for other connecting both to the south and north is evident from the presence of a number of doors leading to other rooms or courtyards beyond the central unit. Room 9 has two doors in its northern wall; the westernmost one leads into room 8, not fully excavated, which may be a courtyard on the evidence of a freestanding arch and workbenches found in the 1970s; the easternmost door leads most likely into another room abutting the street in Operation 1, but this area remains unexcavated. Although blocked in antiquity, a doorway existed in the Southwestern corner of room 6 that originally led either to another courtyard or room to the south; the baulk separating Operations 6 and 8 did not allow us to excavate the door in 1991 and the excavations opposite the door in Operation 8 did not reach the earlier third millennium levels. Another door may exist in the south wall of room 17, but the lower levels in the southern end of this room also were not excavated. It should be noted that both of the northern doorways in room 9 were blocked, up and plastered over, the same as the doorway in room 6. This implies that the adjoining house units, both to the south and north, were possibly converted to uses other than living or working quarters, became the property of other owners, or were simply blocked off because they had become too expensive to maintain. The second suggestion seems the most likely as everyday use pottery containers and stone grinders and mortars were found in situ in rooms I and 8, particularly on the excavated portion of the workbench in room 8. The rooms to the south of Operation 6, except room 10, within the area of Operation 8 were not excavated to third millennium levels and therefore their relationship to the adjoining central house unit to the north is at present unclear.

Operation 7, further to the south in Area IV, revealed additional information about the main town wall in addition to providing the first evidence concerning one of the city gates. The town wall was not clearly defined in the upper levels of the sounding in room 12 made during the 1970s, but the 1991 excavations in Operation 7 overlapped this room and showed that the mudbricks of the town wall were not laid further south than the stone paving at the southern end of the room (figure 3). The aerial photograph (figure 2) shows a substantial rectangular-shaped stone pier to the of east of the stone paving and massive stone foundations of a large wall 3 meters to the south and opposite the pier. The suspected gateway and the section of the town wall through which it was placed are not excavated, but present evidence indicates that the street is positioned in a straight line from the inner town leading west to a sharp saddle-shaped depression in the fortification ramparts of the outer town in the northwestern corner of grid square G2 (figure 1) and that it is at least 3 meters wide -- the same width as the inner ring-road, with which the paved street into the town probably joins. Wilkinson's preliminary land use studies suggest that at least one hollow way (see T.J. Wilkinson's article, p. 17) leads from this area of the outer rampart to the southwest to join up with another Bronze Age settlement at Tell Juaf, located in the Euphrates valley flood plain; thereby providing another piece of evidence for a gateway in the outer defensive wall.

Operation 5 (grid squares H7 and P, figure 1) is located slightly to the northeast of the Area I excavations which were undertaken on the southern slope of the mound during the1970s. Only one half of the trench was excavated down to Early Bronze Age levels. Excavations were halted two weeks before the conclusion of the season because the upper portions of two adjoining mudbrick house walls, that had eroded and fallen, were discovered to have remains of painted wall plaster. Our two conservators worked for ten days to conserve and lift the thin fragments to a depth of only 15.20 centimeters before the season ended. The conservators' report of the plaster includes the following description:

The fragments are painted with maroon red and black, and the unpainted background provides a white color, in what appear to be repeating patterns (possibly representing some sort of border) and figures (though none was complete enough to be identified). The colored areas retain quite a bit of richly colored pigment, though it is very friable. It appears to have been applied with a binder, rather than in a true fresco technique, though none of the binder seems to have survived.

A close parallel for this type of wall painting comes from Tell Munbaqa, another Bronze Age site about 15 kilometers to the south of Sweyhat. The small, incomplete, wall painting found at Munbaqa depicts two stylized human figures with upraised arms, large and thickly painted circles for eyes, and clothing which is kilt-like; the figures are surrounded by a rectangular-shaped border with elaborate geometric designs. The depth of the painted walls in Operation 5 at Sweyhat is not yet known nor is it certain that the wall painting continues around all the walls of one or more rooms. Plaster was visible and intact on the inner faces of the walls at the level excavation had to cease. The northern end of the trench was carefully sealed with layers of plastic sheeting, stones, and earth at the end of the season to prevent further decay from winter rains. Before excavation did cease, a portion of a Bronze Age figurine also was found in Operation 5. It was a human female figurine; the upper torso and head were preserved and it was decorated with an elaborate headdress and two applied necklaces. The upper torso was unusually broad at the shoulders and wafer-like in thickness; the remains of the arms and hands were folded onto the breast area (figure 6).

Operations 4 and 9 in the western part of the outer town (grid square F3, figure 1) revealed stone foundations of a least one multi-roomed house as well as industrial workshops, which are datable to the same Early Bronze Age occupation as that in the earlier phase of the inner town. Extensive modern plowing and erosion have, unfortunately, destroyed nearly all traces of the mudbrick superstructures which rested upon the substantial stone-built foundations. However, a number of complete or nearly complete pottery vessels and figurines were found in situ so that a comparison can eventually be made between the life styles of the inner and outer towns. Operation 9 offered some evidence of industrial activity in that a number of stone covered drainage channels were associated with fairly large plastered basins; a great number of stone mortars and other stone tools were also found there.

This area was possibly used for a food processing industry since the remains of pickled capers, for example, were found among the plant remains in an Area IV room excavated in the 1970s. Also, the lower intact portion of a pottery jar was found in Operation 9 which originally contained some kind of metal tool or vessel, but despite the conservators' best efforts to consolidate the remains, the object had completely disintegrated and was unidentifiable; it may have been a cup or dipper-like object used to remove material stored in the jar. A great deal of metal working was practiced in the inner town since crucibles, bronze tongs, and metal slag were found in the Area IV rooms during previous excavations. During the 1991 season, one half of a two-sided, domed-shaped, finely worked, steatite mould for casting metal jewelry (figure 7) was found in Operation 6; it may have been made by cutting in half a stone macehead. Other evidence for major metal working included a bronze cosmetic spatula and various bronze pins for attaching items of clothing. Operation 5 also contained a limestone mould for making bronze spears or dagger blades.

The field work conducted by Tony Wilkinson included geomorphologic studies, air photographic examination, off-site survey, collection of field scatters of sherds, investigation of a tomb on the cliffs of the west bank of the Euphrates river, and various on-site work.

A study of the finds, architecture, and survey of the Sweyhat plain associated with the 1989 and 1991 seasons is at present underway and we hope to have a full preliminary report available in an Oriental Institute series volume in 1993. In the meantime, in order to examine more thoroughly the many complicated issues involved in the study of a large Early Bronze Age town and its hinterland, The Oriental Institute and The University Museum are planning to conduct individual field seasons at Sweyhat every other year so that each institution can concentrate more fully on separate research projects. The next season will be undertaken in the autumn of 1992 by The Oriental Institute to study the pottery, stone objects, and other finds excavated during the previous two seasons, to excavate the wall painting in Operation 5, and to continue the general field survey in the Sweyhat plain and beyond. The University Museum will continue with other research goals in 1993 when excavations will be concentrated in the large outer town of the site and in an extension of Operation I upslope to determine the sequence of occupation overlying the initial third millennium B.C. town. Oriental Institute work will again resume in 1994, primarily in the inner walled town, to investigate town planning, architecture, and related issues.


Thomas Andrews Holland began his formal training in archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology, University of London (1964-67), during which time he gained field experience in Jordan at the sites of Jerusalem and Petra. From 1968 to 1975, he worked as an assistant for Dame Kathleen Kenyon and attended Magdalen College, University of Oxford, where he received his doctoral degree (1975). After Kenyon's untimely death, he completed the final publications of the Jericho excavations. He obtained further archaeological field experience in the 1970s working on Neolithic sites at Umm Dabaghiyah in Iraq and Tell Abu Hureyra in Syria. He directed excavations at his own site, Tell es-Sweyhat, for three seasons (1973-75) and worked as assistant director thereafter at Tell Brak in Syria (1976, 1978, and 1980). After completing his work on the Jericho publications, he moved from Cambridge, England to Chicago in 1984 and began his job as Publications Coordinator at The Oriental Institute. His excavations at Tell es-Sweyhat were renewed in 1989 and another season was conducted during 1991.

Revised: February 7, 2007

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