Tell Sabi Abyad (Syria)
Leiden University and the Netherlands National Museum of Antiquities (Rijksmuseum van Oudheden) are jointly involved in the intensive archaeological exploration of Northern Syria, by means of field surveys and large-scale excavations at a number of archaeological sites in the Balikh basin: the Tell Sabi Abyad Archaeological Project.
- Peter Akkermans
- Leiden University
- Netherlands National Museum of Antiquities (RMO)
- Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO)
- Royal Netherlands Embassy in Syria
- Dutch Institute for Academic Studies in Damascus (NIASD)
- the Society Friends of Sabi Abyad (FOSA)
The research direction is in the hands of Prof. Dr Peter M.M.G. Akkermans. The work takes place with the support of the Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums of the Syrian Arab Republic in Damascus.
The extensive, multidisciplinary project aims to fill in the existing gaps in our knowledge and appreciation of ancient society in Syria both in late prehistory (ca. 7000-5300 BC) and in the Late Bronze Age (ca. 1300-1000 BC), and has proved to be very successful indeed. In the past years, the project has clearly demonstrated the extraordinary archaeological richness and importance of Northern Syria in the wider framework of Near Eastern cultural developments.
Tell Sabi Abyad has become one of the largest and most successful archaeological projects currently undertaken in the Near East in general and Syria in particular. Field work takes place each year for about 2,5 months from late April till early July. Each year the team consists of about 30 people: archaeologists, specialists in all kinds of fields and especially many students of archaeology from the Netherlands and abroad. In the field the team of researchers is assisted by more than 80 local workmen from the nearby village of Hammam et-Turkman.
Northern Syria: an archaeological paradise
The Jezirah is an endless expanse of steppe east of the Euphrates in the north of Syria. Within this zone, the small perennial river of the Balikh has created a basin which today has a rather barren appearance but which in antiquity was characterized by a highly diffuse river pattern, dividing the water over numerous channels allowing for a much more abundant vegetation and creating occasionally inaccessible and often marshy areas.
In a way, this valley was an oasis in the midst of the steppe, where people first chosed to settle down over 11,000 years ago. The project survey in the region has located hundreds of previously unknown archaeological sites, each testifying to the area’s long and turbulent history.
In view of the exciting perspectives, it comes as no surprise that an international team of archaeologists based at both Leiden University and the Netherlands National Museum of Antiquities (Rijksmuseum van Oudheden Leiden) has chosen to explore this archaeological goldmine in more detail.
This work has clearly demonstrated the extraordinary archaeological richness and importance of northern Syria in the wider framework of Near Eastern cultural development. Large-scale excavations have been carried out at the site of Tell Sabi Abyad, about thirty kilometres south of the Syro-Turkish border, which have resulted in the discovery of excellently preserved and many thousands-of-years-old monumental architecture, archives with hundreds of cuneiform texts, gold treasures, and burials with rich contents.
Tell Sabi Abyad – The Mound of the White Boy
The ruins of Tell Sabi Abyad (Arabic for: “Mound of the White Boy”) lie about five hundred kilometres northeast of Damascus, in the gently undulating plain of the Balikh river, a perennial of the Euphrates. The site actually consists of a group of four prehistoric mounds between 0.5 and 5 hectares in size, for reasons of convenience numbered Tells Sabi Abyad I to IV.
Extensive excavations have been carried out at three of these mounds: Tells Sabi Abyad I, II and III. The fourth mound has been surveyed only and is not available for excavation, since it is used as a cemetery for the inhabitants of the village of Hammam et‑Turkman and therefore almost completely covered by modern graves. These investigations showed that the sites were inhabited between roughly 7500 and 5500 BC, although they were not all always used contemporaneously: settlement continually shifted back and forward not only between but also within the four mounds in the course of generations and centuries.
In addition, the largest of the four mounds, Tell Sabi Abyad I, gave evidence of settlement in the Late Bronze Age. We came upon the well-preserved remains of a small yet heavily fortified Assyrian garrison town with extensive archives containing hundreds of cuneiform texts from the late 13th and twelfth centuries BC. At this time the site was the seat of Ili-pada – grand vizier and viceroy of Assyria, and one of the most powerful men of his days.
Research aims and results
The project comprises two long-term and wide-ranging research themes:
- Material Culture, Subsistence Strategies and Social Transformation in Late Neolithic Syria, ca. 7000-5300 BC
- On the Frontier of Assyria: Empire and the Material Expression of Sociopolitical Affiliation in a Late Bronze Age Border Zone, ca. 1300-1000 BC
Both the Late Neolithic and the Late Bronze Age represent eras of momentous change in the organization of settlement and the structure of socio-economic relationships, and are of crucial importance in our understanding of both the development of early villages and the formation of large territorial states. However, despite their widely recognized importance, both periods are still listed among the least known in the Near East in general and in Syria in particular. By means of a regional and thematic approach, based on extensive survey and excavation in the Balikh valley of northern Syria, the projects aim to fill in the gaps in our understanding which currently occur at virtually every level of investigation.
The large-scale excavations have revealed a long and continuous sequence of Neolithic settlement, dated to between 7500 and 5500 BC. The earliest occupations are characterized by small villages dominated by rectangular, multi-roomed houses, their interiors often white-plastered, made either of pisé or clay slabs up to 1.2 m long. Doors are usually no more than small and low portholes.
Hearths, fire pits and white-plastered storage basins were sometimes inside the buildings but more often in the yards around them. Remarkable are the artificial terraces or platforms measuring approximately 7 by 6 m and 1 m high. Some of these platforms served as a foundation for architecture but others were used in their own right. Tell Sabi Abyad has yielded the earliest pottery of Syria, dated at ca. 6900-6800 BC, consisting of mineral-tempered, sometimes painted wares.
Around 6700 BC pottery was turned in a plant-tempered mass product, with simple hole-mouth shapes lacking virtually any decoration. Important change took place around 6200 BC, involving new types of architecture, including extensive storehouses and small circular buildings (tholoi); the further development of pottery in many complex and often decorated shapes and wares; the introduction of small transverse arrowheads and short-tanged points; the abundant occurrence of clay spindle whorls, suggestive of changes in textile manufacture; and the introduction of seals and sealings as indicators of property and the organization of controlled storage.
The best information comes from the ‘’Burnt Village’’, destroyed by a violent fire ca. 6000 BC. Rich inventories were recovered from the burnt buildings, including pottery, stone vessels, flint and obsidian implements, ground-stone tools, figurines, personal ornaments, and hundreds of clay sealings with stamp-seal impressions. The heart of the village consisted of a series of regular rectangular structures, interpreted as granaries and storehouses. They were usually divided into three wings, each of which consisted of fifteen or more very small cubicles, each only between 3 and 5 m². There is evidence that various kinds of activities were carried out on the roofs, including rituals associated with fire and death. The storehouses were surrounded by white-plastered circular structures up to 4 m in diameter. Most tholoi were used briefly, then replaced.
In the early sixth millennium (Halaf period), a single rectangular building of monumental appearance, about 18 by 10 m, stood prominently on the summit of the mound, with a large stone-walled terrace next to it and tholoi low on the slope. It had a stepped entrance and white-plastered façade with niches and benches on stone foundations, and possibly an upper story. The building with its 20 small rooms probably served as the community’s communal granary or storehouse. Although covering 5 ha and thus being one of the largest prehistoric sites in the Baliḫ valley, Tell Sabi Abyad never was the large settlement that it seemed to have been at first sight . Both the segmented nature of the community and the constant shift in the area of occupation, leaving large parts of the site unused, suggest that the individual Neolithic occupations were usually small, on the order of 0.5-1 ha, with the number of inhabitants restricted to a few dozen rather than a few hundred.
Recently an extensive Neolithic necropole has been found at Tell Sabi Abyad, dated between 6200 and 6000 BC. Dozens of both adult and child burials have been uncovered so far, and more graves are expected in future seasons of field work. The graveyard is an unique find for the period of our concern, and offers ample opportunities for further research.
In addition to the prehistoric settlement, the site gave evidence of extensive occupation in the Late Bronze Age (Middle Assyrian) period, ca. 1225-1120 BC. A Late Bronze Age fortified administrative centre or dunnu was installed atop the Neolithic tell. The dunnu, dated ca. 1225-1120 BC, covered roughly 1 ha in total and had in its centre a walled stronghold (60 by 60 m), surrounded by an impressive dry moat.
Five major building phases are distinguished, the lowest of which belongs to the Mitanni period while the others are all Middle Assyrian. In the heart of the installation was a massive square tower (20 by 23 m) adjacent to what seems to have been a palace, a tripartite edifice with a central reception room flanked on its long sides by smaller chambers including baths and toilets. Around the tower and palace there were administrative units, houses, storage buildings, pottery kilns and workshops of all kinds, including those of a potter, brewer, and baker. The settlement yielded a remarkable array of in-situ artefacts including pottery, grinding tools, bone implements, weapons, jewellery, seals and sealings, and over 400 cuneiform tablets.
The texts, evincing a not infrequent mixture of state and private interests, prove that the site was the seat of the regional Assyrian administration, as well as a garrison station, custom post and rural estate. Moreover, they show that from its foundation early in the reign of Tukulti-Ninurta I the dunnu was maintained by a number of high-ranking officials affiliated with the Assyrian royal house and each bearing the titles of ‘grand vizier’ and ‘king of Ḫanigalbat’: Assur-iddin, Sulmanu-musabsi and, finally, Ili-pada. The death of Ili-pada around 1180 BC seems to have ushered in important changes in the layout and organization of the fortress in the first place, followed by its devastation by a violent conflagration. Shortly afterwards, there were attempts to partially renovate and reconstruct the rural estate, and the occurrence of cuneiform texts reveals the continuing presence of both Assyrian functionaries and a centralized system of administration and control until the end of the 12th century, albeit at a much lower level and on a much smaller scale than before.
At present, the project combines the skills and efforts of many archaeologists and professional researchers in other disciplines, such as palaeobotany, palaeozoology, philology, chemistry and isotope analyses. Research takes place in cooperation with universities and laboratories in Leiden, Amsterdam, Groningen, Cardiff, Berlin and Paris. Also many hundreds of students have taken part in the field work in recent years, from universities in the Netherlands, Syria, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Great-Britain, USA, Italy, France, Spain, Czech Republic, Poland, Canada, Australia, Japan, Sweden and Algeria. Students are not only involved in the field work but also in the subsequent processing, analysis and publication of the outcomes of the project.
The results of the investigations have been widely published in international journals and in several monographs. The project research has resulted in a number of PhD dissertations, that dealt with material culture, settlement organisation, prehistoric social structure and archaeozoology. Several dissertations are currently underway.
The project also aims to contribute to an increase of the public awareness of the extremely rich cultural history of Syria, by means of lectures, articles in magazines and newspapers, radio and television programmes. Also, the project participated prominently in several major international exhibitions in the Netherlands, Syria, Italy, France, Switzerland, Canada, and the United States. Finds recovered during excavation at Tell Sabi Abyad are currently on display in the National Museum Damascus and in the National Museum Raqqa. The archaeological site of Tell Sabi Abyad is open to visitors and free guided tours are offered when the team is actually working there. The project maintains an extensive website: http://www.sabi-abyad.nl.
Further reading and information
For additional information on the project and the results of the yearly seasons of excavation, see: http://www.sabi-abyad.nl. This website also provides an exhaustive bibliography concerning the project. Attention is also drawn to the website maintained by the Foundation of Friends of Sabi Abyad (FOSA) at: http://www.fosa.nl. For a synthetic overview of the archaeology of Syria, see Peter M.M.G. Akkermans & Glenn M. Schwartz, The Archaeology of Syria – From Complex Hunter-Gatherers to Early Urban Societies, Cambridge University Press 2003 .