THE HAMOUKAR EXPEDITION
HAMOUKAR - EARLY CITY IN
By McGuire Gibson, Professor of Archaeology
The Oriental Institute, and the
Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations
(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.)
A man was mowing the lawn the other day in
Map of Syria, locating Hamoukar
I was in
1 HM 90. Stamp seal from Area B. Tell Hamoukar, 1999
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
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
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
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
Fish-shaped (1 HM 61) stamp seal. Tell Hamoukar, 1999
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
I first stepped onto Hamoukar in April 1999. I had rented a car in
Double lion-shaped (1 HM 32) stamp seal. Tell Hamoukar, 1999
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.
1 HM 92. Double lion-headed stamp seal. Tell Hamoukar, 1999
After I got back to
I arrived in
Clemens Reichel and Jason Ur flew in a few days earlier than the rest, so I took them on a day trip to
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
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.
Contour map showing location of areas excavated. Tell Hamoukar, 1999.
Settlement changes indicated by surface collection
of pottery. Tell Hamoukar, 1999
Late Chalcolithic / Uruk (4000-3000 BC)
Ninevite 5 (c. 2700 BC)
Mid-late Third Millennium (2500-2000 BC)
Iron Age / Assyrian (c. 800 BC)
Seleucid (c. 200 BC)
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.
Preliminary regional survey. Tell Hamoukar, 1999
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.
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 step trench: view from top of mound,
looking North. Hamoukar, 1999.
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.
Area A step trench: view from below,
looking South. Hamoukar, 1999.
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
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
Niched facade. Area C. Tell Hamoukar, 1999
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.
Excavations in Area B. Tell Hamoukar, 1999
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
Eye idols. Tell Hamoukar, 1999.
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
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.
Duck-shaped stamp seals. Tell Hamoukar, 1999.
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.
1 HM 3. Ancient seal impression. On left, animal with head turned back and long tail; on right, a tree. Tell Hamoukar, 1999.
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.
1 HM 89. (a) Leopard-shaped stamp seal with (b) three horned-animals on bottom surface. Tell Hamoukar, 1999.
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
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
This set of important issues can be addressed very effectively at Tell Hamoukar. At
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
Copyright © 2000 Oriental Institute,