Bronze Age and Mesopotamian-Era Syria and Southern Anatolia (Turkey)

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John Noble Wilford wrote in New York Times, “New discoveries in Turkey and northern Syria, two buried cities and intriguing clay tablets with cuneiform writing, are expanding the known horizons of early urban civilization and literacy well beyond the Sumerian city-states of southern Mesopotamia. Archeologists say the discoveries are among the most exciting in Mesopotamian studies in recent decades. They are confident that further excavations at the sites will provide answers to one of the most important questions in archeology: how and when did the phenomena of urban living and the first writing spread from their place of origin more than 5,000 years ago in the lower valley of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers far into adjacent regions” [Source: John Noble Wilford, New York Times, November 9, 1993]

The discoveries, Dr. Harvey Weiss, a Yale University archeologist, said, were further evidence for the sudden rise beginning around 2600 B. C. of cities in nearly all directions beyond the bounds of southern Mesopotamia and may help account for this expansion. Was this the consequence of trade among independent people or incipient colonialism and imperialism? If these burning questions in Mesopotamian archeology can be answered, scholars will still be left to ponder the bigger question of how state societies and urban civilization happened to begin then and there in the first place.

Stephanie Pappas wrote in Live Science: Evidence of human sacrifice is found the world over, but one discovery of a possible sacrifice site, reported in 2008 in the journal Antiquity, seems particularly bizarre. In an ancient building in what is now Syria, archaeologists uncovered a strange arrangement of human and animal bones. Three human skeletons lay side-by-side, headless. Judging by unusual skeletal injuries and overdeveloped attachment areas for ligaments and bones, the researchers identified one of the skeletons as a possible acrobat. The building was filled with dirt and abandoned after the headless bodies were left there, leading the researchers to suspect that the animals and entertainers were sacrifices, perhaps left after a natural disaster of some sort..[Source: Stephanie Pappas, Live Science, April 08, 2011]

Archaeological Work in Souhern Turkey and Northern Syria

John Noble Wilford wrote in New York Times, “Working in the Balikh River valley of southern Turkey, near the Syrian border, a team of American and Turkish archeologists found traces of a large city that apparently flourished in 2600 B.C. A single tablet with cuneiform inscriptions, the earliest known writing system, was found lying on the surface. Dr. Patricia Wattenmaker, an archeologist at the University of Virginia and director of the excavations, told the New York Times the discovery should overturn conventional thinking that confined the development of large urban centers of the period to southern Mesopotamia and dismissed the cultures to the north and west as mere backwaters. Further research, she said, could extend the known range of early literacy. [Source: John Noble Wilford, New York Times, November 9, 1993]

Excavations indicate that the site, known as Kazane Hoyuk, holds the remains of a city that spread over at least 250 acres, large for its time and place. One tentative hypothesis is that these are the ruins of Urshu, a northern city mentioned in some Sumerian texts. "Kazane's a huge place," said Dr. Glenn Schwartz, an archeologist at Johns Hopkins University who is familiar with the discovery, "and has to have been one of the most important political and economic centers of its region."

The other discovery that excited archeologists is the buried ruins of a smaller city of the third millennium B.C. at Tell Beidar in northern Syria. There European and Syrian archeologists have found a well-preserved temple, administrative buildings and a collection of as many as 70 clay tablets with Sumerian writing and Semitic names, as well as many other tablet fragments. And they have only begun to dig. "It's the most spectacular find this year in Syria," said Dr. Marc Lebeau, the leader of the discovery team, who is president of the European Center for Upper Mesopotamian Studies in Brussels. Dating of Tablets

Preliminary analysis places the time of the tablets and other artifacts at about 2400 B.C., during the Sumerian ascendancy in southern Mesopotamia and just before the rise of the Akkadian empire under Sargon the Great. The tablets that have been deciphered appear to be bureaucratic records of a robust economy, including lists of donkeys, oxen and sheep and the names of towns and villages.

Presence of a Strong Culture in Northern Mesopotamia (Southern Turkey)

Dr. Weissvisited Tell Beidar and told the New York Times that it and Kazane Hoyuk "prove everything we've been saying about northern Mesopotamia for many years," namely that the cuneiform archive discovered in 1974 at Ebla, also in Syria, was not an anomaly but strong evidence of the widespread expansion of Sumerian urban civilization, beginning as early as 2600 B.C. [Source: John Noble Wilford, New York Times, November 9, 1993]

Tell Umm el-Marra

If Ebla, near the city of Aleppo, revealed the civilization's western progression, excavations by Dr. Weiss at Tell Leilan, begun in 1979, produced the first strong evidence of its northern reach. Tell Leilan, identified as the ancient walled city of Shubat Enlil that experienced sudden growth in 2500, lies on the fertile plains of Syria near the borders of Turkey and Iraq. Nearby is the European dig site of Tell Beidar. Farther north is Kazane Hoyuk, at least twice as large as Tell Beidar and the same size as Tell Leilan or larger. Other scholars had previously failed to recognize this expansion phenomenon mainly because the most thorough excavations had until recently been confined to the Sumerian heartland in the lower Tigris and Euphrates valley. "People used to think of ancient Mesopotamia as small and restricted, but not any longer," said Dr. Elizabeth Stone, an archeologist at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

Since early writing was associated with official record-keeping related to the collection and distribution of grain and goods and since Kazane Hoyuk was a city on known trade routes, Dr. Michalowski said: "I will stick my neck out and say it had to be a literate society. Other tablets may be found there. I've always thought Ebla was only a symptom of a much more widespread literacy in this period."

Mesopotamian-Era Cultures in Southern Turkey

Wilford wrote in New York Times “Dr. Wattenmaker was driving on the road south of the modern Turkish city of Urfa when she saw a prominent mound in the fields near an irrigation canal. In her initial survey last year, pottery shards were found scattered over the ground. Some were as much as 7,000 years old. Others were at least 4,500 years old and in the Sumerian style. This and other evidence gathered this year indicated that the site had been occupied almost continuously since 5000 B.C., and so should provide evidence of the transition from a simple farming society to an urban culture. It grew to be a large city about 2600 B.C. and was abandoned for an unknown reason around 1800 B.C. Wattenmaker’s research team included archeologists from the Universities of Chicago and Virginia, Istanbul University and the Urfa Museum. [Source: John Noble Wilford, New York Times, November 9, 1993]

A worker found the baked clay tablet lying on the surface. It is 22 inches by 22, and encrusted in dirt. Cleaning away some of the dirt, archeologists saw the wedge-shaped cuneiform inscriptions typical of early writing, which was first developed by Mesopotamians about 5,000 years ago. Scholars are especially cautious in their assessment of the tablet because it was a "stray find." It was picked up on the ground, out of context with archeological ruins and in an area that had been disturbed by construction of the canal. Still, they said it appeared to be genuine and from the third millennium B.C.

"It's a tease," said Dr. Piotr Michalowski, a specialist in Sumerian and Babylonian languages at the University of Michigan, who is examining photographs of the tablet inscriptions. "It doesn't tell you much. It is not a connected narrative of any sort, just signs and not very good ones. Somebody might have been practicing writing, and wasn't good at it." Speculation of Literacy

Although archeologists said they could not yet determine the ancient name of this city, Dr. Michalowski said there was a "good degree of probability" that it was Urshu, which Sumerian inscriptions of 2100 B.C. refer to as a city in the highlands of Ebla; that would put it at some distance to the northwest. The site of Urshu has never been identified. But confirmation of this surmise will have to await the discovery of more and better tablets.

Preliminary study of the tablets at Tell Beidar, Dr. Lebeau said, showed that they are approximately the same age as the Ebla archive, probably a century or two later than the Kazane Hoyuk fluorescence, and that they provide a clear link between this ancient city, Ebla in the west and southern Mesopotamia. These are the first tablets of this period to be found in northern Syria, and archeologists expect to find more as they dig deeper at the site. The discovery team included archeologists from Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain and Syria.


Arslantepe, a remote site near the town of Malatya and the source of the Euphrates River in southeastern Turkey, is regarded as one of the world’s oldest large towns. It was first settled around 4,250 B.C.. Among the firsts found found there the first known palace, the first known sword (cast from an alloy of copper and arsenic) and the first toothed locks opened with a key (similar to locks still used in parts of Africa and the Middle East). There are also tombs with evidence of what seems to be human sacrifice.

The palace at Arslantepe contains some of the world’s oldest and best preserved ancient wall paintings. They were made on plastered walls and consist of stylized representations of humans and animals. An ancient painters palette consisting of a flat stone with hollowed-out depressions for paint was found here. The evidence for human sacrifice is grave for a man in his 30s of 40s who was buried with three girls and boy in their teens who showed signs of being treated violently.

When Arslantepe was first settled in 4250 B.C., the social system seemed to be fairly egalitarian in that all the dwellings dated to this period seemed pretty much the same. In 4000 B.C. a fairly large temple was built. It also seemed to play a role in storing grain and distributing food. Thousand of storage jar and some measuring tools have been found inside. Later the first locks were used to lock storage rooms containing grain. As society developed, labor became more specialized and stratified with an elite class that ruled over the others. The first palace was built around 2500 B.C.


Urkesh and Al Rawda in Syria

Urkesh was a fabled oasis kingdom in present-day Syria mentioned in the Bible and in ancient Egyptian tablets. So many tales sprung about Urkesh that archaeologists began to wonder if it really existed. It was the home of the Hurrians, who were contemporaries of the Sumerians and mentioned in the Old Testament as the Horites and in a clay tablet belonging to the Egyptian pharaoh Amenemhet IV.

Urkesh was found in 1995 in northeastern Syria near the border of Turkey after a goat artifact inscribed with the name "Urkesh" in a lost language was found at the site. Urkesh was at its peak around 2400 B.C. It controlled an important copper trading route in what is now northeastern Syria. Archaeologists working there have found a building they believe is a royal palace. They also found animal figurines and copper daggers and spearheads and cuneiform tablets that identified rulers.

Al Rawda is an ancient city — occupied between 2400 and 2100 B.C. — in what is now central Syria whose entire layout was revealed without doing any excavation work using geomagnetic imaging, which measures the Earth’s magnetic force. Al Rawda’s flat topography and lack of modern buildings made it the ideal subject for this kind of imaging, The result is quite stunning in its details, The images show the locations of buildings, streets and alley laid out in a circular pattern within a circular defensive wall. The city was home to several thousand residents who grazed livestock, raised grapes and beans, and worshipped that city’s religious complex.

Tell Umm el-Marra

Tell Umm el-Marra was a small Bronze Age city in the Jabbul Plain of northen Syria. Founded around 2800 B.C., it may be Tuba, a city mentioned in texts from Ebla. Tell Umm el-Marra’s location between the Euphrates and agricultural area around Aleppo suggest it may have been a regional trade center.

The mound at Tell Umm el-Marra is about nine meters high and covers an area of 20 hectares. Tombs contain evidence of animal and possibly human sacrifice. Excavations of a burial site called Tomb 1, dated to 2300 B.C., revealed the bones of two young women and two infants along with pottery and various ornaments in an upper layer of the tomb and the skeleton of two adult males and an infant buried in a middle layer of the same tomb. Beneath the skeletons of the two adult males were found the older remains of another adult.

The fact that people buried there were buried with valuable objects suggests they were members of the upper classes. In adjacent chambers are the remains headless bodies of equines (likely donkeys) and two sets of the puppies believed to be animal sacrifices. Swartz, who is the main archaeologist at the site, has theorized that the maybe the women and infants mentioned above were human sacrifices for the buried men.

Among the objects that were found were a gold pendant with rows of circles interspersed with lines; silver bracelets; gold and silver pins; a bronze torque (neck ornaments); bronze daggers; silver headbands; clay cylinders with unknown writing; silver vessels similar to those found in Ur; and scores of ceramic vessels. More valuable items tended to be found in graves of women rather then men.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons except Tell Umm el-Marra from Harvard University

Text Sources: National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Nature, Scientific American. Live Science, Discover magazine, Discovery News, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, BBC, The Guardian, Reuters, AP, AFP, and various books and other publications.

Last updated June 2024

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