By Rauf MUNCHAYEV, Corresponding Member of RAS, Director of the RAS Institute of Archeology; and Nikolai MERPERT, Dr. Sc. (Hist.), chief researcher of the same Institute
A team of Russian archeologists working abroad has merited a State Prize in science and engineering for major accomplishments in studying one of the cradles of human civilization...
Our archeologists were working in the Tigris/Euphrates interfluve which ancient Hellenes called Mesopotamia, an area that has long been drawing attention from historians and all people with an interest in human culture. This vivid interest is quite natural, for Mesopotamia has made a signal contribution to human civilization. It innovated in such crucial areas as a productive economy, housing construction and industries; in a settled mode of life, written language and transportation (by inventing the wheel). The very first cities and states arose in that land, Mesopotamia.
Archeological studies there were started in the 1840s when the French and the British discovered luxurious palaces that belonged to the potentates of the late Assyrian kingdom of the llth to 7th centuries B.C. The world was amazed at the finds: huge stone bulls with human features, battle and hunting scenes, those of court ceremonies and cult rituals representing an ancient art quite unknown before. All that was a solid stratum of the humanity's historical and cultural development, a stratum taking shape many centuries before the Greeko-Roman civilization, a traditional starting point for human progress.
But even an earlier stratum of Mesopotamian history was recovered in the 1860s-one dealing with a mysterious and fantastic people, the Sumerians (latter half of the 4th-3th millennium B.C.). Chronologically, this ancient civilization is contemporary with that of Egypt, while the earlier period of Sumer, that of Uruk, dates back at least to the latter half of the fourth millennium B.C., which fact enables us to consider it contemporaneous with the Ancient Kingdom, the first polity in Egypt, and in part even antedating it.
Then and there, in the 1860s, ancient cuneiform scripts were found in the archives of palaces and temples. And thus scientists gained an opportunity to compare two kinds of sources, the written and the archeological ones.
What is viewed as "the first discovery of Mesopotamia" embraces a period up to 1914, i.e. the year of the outbreak of the First World War. With the resumption of explorations in the late 1920s experts turned their sights to even older monuments. Their study in the 1940s-1950s made it possible to visualize specific stages in the Interfluve's development between the eighth and fourth millennia B.C. It became obvious that this territory, its northern regions in particular, was yet another fountainhead of ancient civilization where land cultivation and animal husbandry were practiced on a wide scale. This is known as "the second discovery of Mesopotamia".
Russian archeologists and historians have always shown much interest in archeological finds in the Interfluve, and they have made a significant contribution to the evaluation and historical interpretation of this material. Suffice if we recall the classical works of M. Nikolsky and B. Turayev, the lights of Russian science. But due to a confluence of circumstances our archeologists did not take part in the field work either in the nineteenth nor in the first half of the twentieth century. They found themselves in the role of passive onlookers watching active rivalry
first between scientists from France and Britain, and then, from the late 19th century on, among their counterparts from America, Germany, Italy, Denmark, Japan and other countries. Loath to straddle the fence, our people were anxious to send their own field parties to the Middle East and its heart, Mesopotamia.
This opportunity came in 1966, as a delegation of the USSR Academy of Sciences (now the Russian Academy) under Academician Boris Piotrovsky was visiting Iraq on the occasion of an official ceremony held there to open the National Archeological Museum. Our delegation used this occasion for substantive talks with the Iraqi side which then invited Russian scientists to carry out field work in that country. The next year a research team of the Archeology.
Institute of the USSR Academy of Sciences went to Iraq for practical negotiations in selecting specific objects for long-term work. Making a tour of Iraq, our scientists familiarized themselves with archeological monuments in the southern and northern parts of that country, including certain districts of Iraqi Kurdistan and also Middle Mesopotamia. Their final choice was a group of habitation levels (tells)
under the coverall name of Yarymtepe, situated about 100 km west of the town of Mosula in a valley yet not explored in practical terms, next to the borders of Syria and Turkey.
This territory, which is at a crossroads to northern Syria, eastern Mediterranean and Mesopotamia's heartland, is of exceptional historic significance. A wealth of archeo-logical monuments there (dating to the 8th-9th millennia B.C.) attests to a vigorous cultural and historical process unfolding in this region back in hoary antiquity. And so as of 1969 our field expedition became a real thing.
So that's that: Russian scientists began their explorations in Mesopotamia with a lag of more than a hundred years after their Western colleagues. In fact, we undertook this work lacking adequate experience in excavations in the locality; we had scant knowledge of the materials involved in this undertaking. And so on and so forth. We had to learn by doing. But little by little we gained experience, and made a thorough study of numerous collections and bibliographies on the archeology of the Middle East. And we formed our own school on the archeology of the Interfluve.
Overall, our expedition spent fourteen seasons in Iraq (in 1969-1980, 1984 and 1985), carrying out a mammoth amount of work, both in scale and in scope. Our data shed light on the consecutive stages in northern Mesopotamia's development from the 8th to the 4th millennia B.C. Our work has received recognition worldwide. But here we would rather not go into this chapter-we have already told that to our readers.(*)
Digging in Iraq, we soon saw that our work should be carried over to contiguous territories, northwestern Syria above all, the extension of the Sinjar Valley where we were excavating. The Iran-Iraq war that broke out in 1980 and continued for eight years made the field parties phase out their work, ours among them.
* See: N. Merpert, R. Munchayev, "The Second Discovery of Mesopotamia", Science in the USSR, No. 2, 1983.- Ed.
A reasonable way out for us was to keep up our work in adjacent districts of Syria, Hasake province in particular, by agreement with that country's General Directorate of Antiquities and Museums. And so in 1988 we launched full-scale excavation works there, in the country's northwest. Our district borders on the Habur river valley (the Habur is a left tributary of the Euphrates, and the whole region is known as the Habur Triangle); this land abounds in historical monuments, chiefly multilayer habitation levels (tells) of the fourth to second millennia B.C.
For our field work we chose two sites-Tell Hazna I and Tell Hazna II, 25 kilometers northwest of the town of Hasake. They lay near the villages of Hazna and Alyavi, on the bank of a seasonal stream called vadi Hanzir, flowing into the Jag-Jag, one of the Habur's tributaries.
The second sites Tell Hazna II, concealed the earliest habitation levels (deposits). It was a large mound 150 meters in diameter and 9 meters high. Stripping its surface and digging up a stepped trench, we could identify strata dating to the end of the seventh and early third millennium B.C. Of special interest to us was the level of a land-cultivating settlement of the late 7th and early 4th millennium B.C. That layer was more than three meters deep. The artifacts recovered there belong to what is called the Tell Sotto culture which our expedition had first spotted in northwestern Iraq. This is the earliest land-farming culture in valleys of the great rivers Tigris and Euphrates; it encompassed, according to our findings, a large part of northern Mesopotamia. At Tell Hazna II we hit upon a big clay vessel in which a baby's body was buried. Among the finds found within was also a lovely necklace of multicolor stone beads.
Just above this stratum at Tell Hazan II we unearthed a necropolis of the late fourth millennium B.C. The bodies interred there were laid in contorted postures on reed mats, with ornate clay vessels beside.
But it was at Tell Hazna I, situated 1 km north of Tell Hazna II, that our expedition did most of its work. Tell Hazna I was a pretty large mound; its diameter was 200 meters, height-17 meters, and the depth of habitation deposits-16.5 meters. In places we dug down to its very foundation. What we found there was this: the lower four layers were the relics of settlements dating to the fifth-fourth millennia B.C. Yet the principal part of deposits, 12 meters thick, was found to belong to the epoch of early dynasties in Mesopotamia, dating to the first half of the third millennium B.C. That period saw important social and cultural changes-active urbanization for one. Strings of major settlements sprung up, together with architectural complexes of palaces and temples. For this reason our expedition has concentrated on studying the cultural layer of that time.
At first we thought it to be a regular densely built up settlement of the third millennium B.C. Yet stripping the mound over a large area that covered almost the entire southern slope of the tell, we saw it was not so-there were no homes in that town. We examined more than 200 structures-or rather what remained of them-and found no indications that those were residential houses. In some cases we could identify them as temples or public edifices. Most of these structures were interconnected to make single architectural complexes erected on platforms or terraces built for the purpose.
One of the central complexes lay on the lower platform around a massive multistory tower (ziggurat); most of that tower is gone, except for the lower part, eight meters tall. Built of mudbrick (each standard brick measures 30x25x7 cm), it rests on a socle, one-meter thick and dug into the ground. More massive bricks were used to built it. Above the regular plaster, the walls of the tower were overlaid with green coating. On the northern and southern sides there were doorways linked by stone pavement that extended well beyond the tower
grounds, up to the next platform in the north. Within the tower a system of three pit chambers was dug up, in alignment with a single vertical axis. Land cultivation tools- corn-graters and sickle blades-were found on the floor of the underground chambers; these articles were obviously of symbolic nature there.
Another significant discovery-two sacrificial crypts. The first symbolized the ziggurat's foundation and contained the remains of three ungulate (hoofed) animals interred under the socle on special brickwork. The other immolation crypt, epitomizing the end of the tower's construction, was built in a slit window up on the southern wall. Our pick there included three silicon sickles and a stone seal with a lion's image and that of a hoofed animal thrown on its back (such scenes are characteristic of northern Mesopotamia's monuments of the early 3rd millennium B.C.).
Adjoining the ziggurat tower was a massive green-plaster wall with semipilasters and niches in between; this is a salient feature of the temple architecture of the ancient Interfluve. Likewise built of mudbrick, it has preserved to a height of 5.5 meters.
East and west of these structures we opened remains of just as massive erections, some of them as tall as 8.3 meters. All of them are arranged in a single arc, which means that the whole monument was oval in shape. Some of the structures were used as huge public granaries, while others as temples. We designated them symbolically as the Lower Temple of Tell Hazna I.
On the next, higher platform we uncovered a complex of likewise massive erections, among them those of the ziggurat shape; this
complex was bounded by a five-meter-high wall with semipilasters. This is what we have called the Upper Temple of Hazna I.
Yet another group of like structures must have been located at the hilltop, i.e. on the highest platform. So far we have made a few digs there and found remains of large rectangular premises with painted walls.
In point of fact, the tradition of putting up temples on man-made elevated terraces had deep roots in southern Mesopotamia: some of them date back to the fourth millennium B.C., a period well-nigh contemporaneous with Tell Haz-na's temple complexes. There is much in common between the first temples of Mesopotamia and kindred structures of our monument, both in the layout and in details. Yet the Mesopotamian ones are poorly preserved, not above 1 meter in height, while analogous structures at Tell Hazna have in some cases retained their original height (up to 8 m).
Obviously, Tell Hazna was a religious cult center, as attested by major temple complexes and other, smaller structures, some of them quite small (1x1 m), filled with cinders. Buried on the bottom of one of them we found the remains of two children, and in the ashes above-more than 50 clay figurines of animals: rams, hogs, sheep, dogs. In the sanctuary room north of the tower we unearthed what looked like a table made of clay which must have been used for immolations. We could also identify courts in front of the altar premises of the Lower Temple where people congregated for their prayers.
We can tell in a nutshell about other finds as well: large vessels for
grain and water, ornate goblets, pots and vases not at all meant as household utensils. Supports for portable hearths represent a fairly large group of ceramic articles. Such artifacts are typical of other temples and related structures.
The anthropomorphic and zoo-morphic plastic art finds at Tell Hazna I and elsewhere were certainly intended for ritual purposes. Hundreds of like articles were recovered at Hazna I. Just as numerous were stone and obsidian (glassy rock) tools designated for the cult of land farming. Those were above all sickle blades (with more than 500 identified). As said above, the blades of three such sickles were detected in the ritual crypt built in the wall of the Lower Temple's ziggurat. We regard these articles as symbols of the land-farming cult. The same role must have been assigned to corn-graters, pestles and mortars.
All this goes to show that Tell Hazna I was a religious cult center. The latest archeological studies carried out there compel us to rethink the old notions about the role of the Syrian region in what concerned the Mesopotamian civilization, its formative and initial stages. Syria was thought to be a province on the outskirts of the ancient East, a land shining with the "reflected light" of the cultural attainments of "classical Mesopotamia". But this view is wrong: as we see, it was a land of original and advanced ancient cultures which developed quite in step with all of the Interfluve. And it would be not much to say that Russian archeologists have made an appreciable contribution in unlocking the enigmas of the past and finding the truth.
The work of the expedition became possible due to financial support from RGNF (Project No. 99.01.00043a). We also owe our thanks to the company Aeroflot International Airlines for cut- rate tickets each year to flights from Moscow to Damask and back.
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