Current Archaeological Discoveries - Mesopotamia

City Life, 2300 BC

November 24, 2000 - LA Times

An ancient tomb in Syria offers a peek into one of the earliest urban civilizations. The bejeweled remains of two women raise questions about presumed dominance of men.

Alice Petty had been digging at a small area of Umm el-Marra in Syria for a couple of weeks with little to show for it other than badly deteriorated mud bricks. Frustrated, she said recently, "I made a wish on a chicken bone to please, please, please let me find something, anything."

Two days later, the Johns Hopkins graduate student excavated two intact, large round pots--a rarity in a field in which most pottery is found only in the form of shards. As she kept digging, she found other unbroken pottery, animal bones, a silver amulet and, eventually, a human scapula, or breastbone.

When anthropologist Glenn Schwartz, the lead researcher on the dig, arrived to check on her progress, she said, "I remember looking up at him and looking around the room--at the silver, at the pots, at the scapula--and I thought, 'I can't believe this is happening. This is amazing,' I was having my own little Howard Carter moment." Carter, of course, opened the tomb of Tutankhamen in Egypt.

The tomb Petty and Schwartz discovered did not bear as many riches as Tut's, but it had survived intact for more than 4,300 years (making it from around the same period as Tut's tomb) with its contents undisturbed. This was a remarkable fact in itself, because the tomb was originally above ground on a hill and must have been visible from a long distance.

The tomb has excited archeologists because of the insights it may provide into one of the earliest civilizations known: a sprawling conglomerate of cities that came into existence at the same time that Sargon of Akkad was creating his early empire in Mesopotamia and the pharaohs were placing the finishing touches on their massive pyramids in Egypt.

"This is one of the earliest urban civilizations in the world," Schwartz said. By studying it and comparing it to Mesopotamia and Egypt, "we can learn more about the different ways urban societies developed, why they developed, when and how they did, and how they differed from each other. It's an important addition to our understanding of why cities, writing, states and social classes first developed."

The contents of the tomb represent a major puzzle for archeologists, however, because they do not mesh with current ideas about the role women played in such early societies. Early Syrian society was apparently male-dominated, with women having little function in its governance.

But the place of honor in the newly opened tomb is given to two young women. The top layer within the tomb shows traces of two coffins, each containing a woman in her 20s and a baby.

The women were the most richly ornamented of all the occupants of the tomb, with jewelry of gold, silver and lapis lazuli. One of the babies appeared to be wearing a bronze torque, or collar.

One of the women was also wearing a small lump of iron--perhaps a meteorite--on a pendant around her neck.

In the next layer down were the coffins of two adult males and the remains of another baby, placed at some distance from the men. Crowning the older man was a silver diadem decorated with a disc bearing a rosette motif, while the other man had a bronze dagger.

The third and lowest level held an adult male with a silver cup and silver pins. Because the most richly decorated occupants were female, the tomb is unlikely to be that of a king, Schwartz said. So who were they? "Princesses? Queens? Concubines? We just don't know yet," Schwartz said.

All the bodies were accompanied by scores of ceramic vessels, some of which contained animal bones that may have been part of funerary offerings. Outside the tomb to the south, against the tomb wall, was a jar containing the remains of a baby, a spouted jar and two skulls, horse-like but apparently neither horses nor donkeys. The ceramics in the tomb date to 2300 BC.

The artifacts are "spectacular," according to archeologist James Armstrong of Harvard University's Semitic Museum. Unfortunately, he added, it is difficult to place them in context because every other tomb that has been found in the region has been thoroughly looted.

The tomb is part of a major complex that Schwartz and archeologist Hans Curvers of the University of Amsterdam believe to be the city of Tuba, which was mentioned frequently in texts of the second and third millenniums BC. Situated about 200 miles northeast of Damascus, the 60-acre site sits astride a major east-west trade route that connected the Mediterranean coast with Upper Mesopotamia.

It also sits on the edge of a fertile agricultural area next to a steppe zone where it is too dry to farm. The city "controlled access between farmers and pastoral nomads," and many cities have become wealthy from such control, Schwartz said.

Tuba--if this city is Tuba--was established "very abruptly" about 2800 BC, Schwartz said. "It was walled from the beginning, and it was large from the beginning."

But until this tomb was found, he added, there was no sign of royalty or upper classes in the city. "It was very ordinary, the houses were small, the architecture was small scale, the artifacts were quite mundane. There was no evidence of wealthy people."

Tuba collapsed suddenly about 2000 BC. No one is sure why, but Yale archeologist Harvey Weiss believes it was the result of a long, harsh drought that wiped out many cities in the region.

Then, inexplicably, Tuba rebounded about 200 years later and flourished until about 1300 BC, when it finally died. Widespread destruction and evidence of burning suggest that invaders may have sacked the city before it was abandoned.

The tomb itself is part of a larger complex. Walls extend from the tomb in almost every direction and indicate the presence of other structures that the team has not had time to investigate. Schwartz speculates that it could be part of either a palace structure or a larger, more elaborate cemetery.

All the bodies and artifacts collected from the tomb remain in safekeeping in Syria. In the meantime, the tomb has been re-covered with soil and hidden until the Johns Hopkins team can return to it in a year or two.

3,000-year-old remains discovered near Tehran

August 4, 2000 - AFP - Tehran

Iranian archeologists have found the remains of a 3,000-year-old civilization in the mountains near Tehran, the state news agency IRNA reported Monday.

"Human skeletons together with earthenware pots were found in a number of individual graves," said Mohammad Mortezai, an official of the Iranian Archeology Organization.

The site was first spotted last week by a group of hikers near Boumehen, northeast of Tehran, IRNA said.

The find comes one week after the discovery of a cemetery, also some 3,000-years-old, by a road crew in southern Iran.

Iran is rich in historic monuments, a major source of tourism.

Air-Conditioning Found At 'Oldest City In The World'

June 30, 2000 - Sightings

Archaeologists believe they have uncovered the world's oldest city in a remote part of Syria. Dating back to 6,000BC, the discovery is 2,500 years older than any known site and will prompt a dramatic reappraisal of ancient history.

The huge settlement, called Hamoukar, is located between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, an area known throughout ancient history as northern Mesopotamia. The city spread over 750 acres and is believed to have been home to up to 25,000 people.

Discoveries so far include living quarters, stone gods, and jewellery. One of the most astonishing finds has been of double-walled living quarters to encourage air flow, suggesting the inhabitants had designed their own air-conditioning system to combat summer temperatures of more than 40C.

Dr Mouhammed Maktash, director of the Syrian-American joint excavation and head of antiquities at the regional museum at Raqqa, said: "There is no question this is the most exciting find I have come across. Of course you can find older individual pieces but there is a big difference between a small village and a city.

"From the beginning we knew that Hamoukar was very old but when we excavated we found things we have never seen before. We have Islamic material, Hellenistic and sixth millennium BC. We have everything here."

The excavators, from Syria and the University of Chicago, have also uncovered porcelain figurines of lions, leopards, bears and horses, together with pottery and 7,000 beads.

The discoveries will prompt a re-think of how mankind developed in the "cradle of civilisation" between the two great Middle Eastern rivers, the Euphrates and the Tigris. It was here that Babylon and Mesopotamia were established and the oldest known civilisation, the Sumerians, were identified to have lived around 3500BC. But Hamoukar is thought to have been constructed between 6000BC and 4000BC.

At his office at the Museum of Raqqa, 300 miles north-east of the Syrian capital Damascus, Dr Maktash said the discovery would challenge conventional notions of the development of civilisation. "Hamoukar is at least 1,000 years older than Sumeria," he said. "But we don't know who the people were who lived at Hamoukar. If they were here first the big question is: where did the Sumerian civilisation come from - from nothing? It's possible they came from Hamoukar. This will change many things in our understanding of history."

McGuire Gibson, professor of Chicago University's Oriental Institute, said: "We need to reconsider our ideas about the beginnings of civilisation, pushing the time further back. This would mean that the development of kingdoms or early states occurred before writing was invented."

For Dr Maktash, the most remarkable find at is of double-walled living quarters, with a 2in gap between the two walls. "This may have been a means of getting air moved around to keep everything cool. They had air-conditioning systems over 6,000 years ago."

The name too is shrouded in mystery. In Kurdish, Hamoukar means the "man with no ears", or the deaf man, though there is a similar Sumerian word which is thought to refer to an economic or business centre.

Hamoukar is situated in what the Syrians call the gezira, or island, between the Euphrates and the Tigris. It is just a few miles from Tell Brak, a site dating back to the late fourth millennium BC and uncovered before the Second World War by Max Mallowan, the husband of Agatha Christie. Raqqa, where Dr Maktash is based, was once summer residence of Haroun al-Rashid, the caliph celebrated in The Thousand and One Nights.

Syria is a relatively recent destination for archaeologists. While excavations have taken place periodically during the past 150 years, it was the Gulf War and the isolation of Iraq which led to an explosion of interest. With Iraq effectively off limits, and many of its sites damaged, archaeologists have turned to its neighbour. The excavation at Hamoukar, just a few miles from the Iraqi border, shows how amazing the results of this new interest may be.