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Cuneiform text discovered in the palace.

In a pit cutting into the earliest level of the Bronze Palace, Dirk and his team made an unexpected discovery – a complete, unbaked clay tablet with cuneifom writing. Here’s a photo of what it looked like when it came out of the ground. Not much to look at! There were two small fragments that were broken off during excavation; the tablet was damp and very fragile.

Cuneiform tablet immediately after excavation.
Cuneiform tablet immediately after excavation.

Under the expert attention of our project conservator, Lourdes Mesa Garcia (a private conservator from Madrid), the fragments were joined to the tablet and the entire artifact was cleaned using a needle, a tiny soft paint brush, and a very gentle air blower. We let the tablet dry for four days (yes, I’ve been holding out on you) before cleaning it to clarify the signs.

Look at the difference!

Tablet after restoration.
Tablet after restoration.

John has made a preliminary assessment and determined that the tablet is an accounting list of 25 textiles of several different types. There is a date on the tablet, but only giving the day and month. Sadly, no year is recorded. There are also two Assyrian personal names.

John MacGinnis, our project epigrapher, at work reading the tablet.
John MacGinnis, our project epigrapher, at work reading the tablet.

What is particularly important about this tablet is that it appears to be Middle Assyrian in date, meaning that it was written between (very roughly) 1300 – 1050 BC, several centuries before all the other tablets we have found. Assyriologists like John can date tablets according to their paleography (broadly, the study of ancient languages, including their written form)

In ancient Assyrian, just like other languages, the vocabulary, grammar, and shapes of the letters (here cuneiform wedges) change over time. Think of the differences in language and writing between Beowulf, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and a modern novel – all written in English. Over time, the written form of cuneiform changed and two of the cuneiform signs used in our tablet were used during the Middle Assyrian period, but are not found in Late Assyrian texts; their archaic form suggests the earlier date. This is the earliest written material we have from Ziyaret Tepe. We also know that the palaces in Assyrian cities were often involved in textile production and although we can’t say that this tablet proves this was the case at Assyrian Tushhan, it is one possible explanation for why such a tablet would have been stored in the palace archives.

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Fruitful explorations.

One of our on-going projects this year has been the recovery and analysis of paleobotanical samples: charred seeds, wood charcoal, and other plant remains recovered via flotation. When we reach a floor deposit, or a hearth with ashy remains, or a storage pit, we take a sample of the soil and separate out the earth from the organic remains by floating the samples in water. The earth dissolves, rocks, pottery and small artifacts sink, and what is left floating are charred seeds.

Suphi Kaya, a local worker with many years of flotation experience, processing soils samples for paleobotanical analysis.
Suphi Kaya, a local worker with many years of flotation experience, processing soils samples for paleobotanical analysis.

After the samples are dried, our specialists – Melissa Rosenzwieg and Lucas Proctor – examine the ancient plant remains present in the soil under a microscope and identify them by comparing them to a reference collection taken from known species. This is a time-consuming and tedious task, and Melissa and Lucas have been working hard all season to classify the plants used for food, animal fodder, fuel, and even the weeds that tell us about the diet, economy and environment of Ziyaret Tepe’s ancient inhabitants.

Melissa, a PhD student from Chicago, has been here previously and is primarily concerned with our Assyrian levels. Lucas is one of our new faces. He is a new PhD student at the University of Connecticut and was working in northern Iraq before coming to Turkey. Here they are consulting over a sample in our field laboratory.


Lucas’ task at Ziyaret Tepe was to analyze the paleobotanical remains from the Roman period buildings excavated in earlier seasons. He just finished the identification of the last sample this morning and now will undertake a statistical analysis of the counts before writing his final report. Overall, the Roman samples generated an array of botanic species that have not been found in the Assyrian samples, suggesting that the flora surrounding Ziyaret Tepe was in some ways quite different 1,000 years after the Assyrians left Tushan.  Lucas also told me that we have evidence for the Romans growing grapes and utilizing poppies.

Two Vitis vinifer (grape) seeds as seen through the microscope.
Vitis vinifer (grape) seed (front and back of same seed) as seen through the microscope. This seed comes from a Late Roman deposit in the lower town.

There was also a single grain of rye from his samples, the first we’ve seen of rye at Ziyaret Tepe. What to make of a single piece of rye? Well, we have to wait for the analysis before drawing any conclusions, but our picture of Roman life here has already improved.

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Making good progress.

We’ll, we’re two weeks into the digging and making good progress in four excavation areas.

On the citadel mound, Dirk Wicke has been continuing to excavate the earliest levels of the Bronze Palace. As you might recall from earlier posts, the Bronze Palace is a monumental mudbrick building on the eastern edge of the citadel. We had previously established that the building had three major building phases during the nearly three centuries in which it was in use (c. 882 BC to 611 BC). Because it is deeply buried under later rennovations, the earliest phase of the palace has been the least explored. This season, Dirk has removed a section of the second phase building over an area of about 10m by 10m (30 feet by 30 feet) and has exposed more of the earliest building level, which we believe to be 9th century BC in date. In a few places, Dirk and his team have reached the very bottom of the Late Assyrian palace and, below the foundations, have found a cobbled floor and parts of two walls that belong to an even earlier large building dating to the Middle Assyrian period (very roughly 1300-1050 BC here). We know that around 882 BC, the late Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II claimed to have completely rennovated an abandoned palace built by an earlier ruler at Tushhan. We hoping for more evidence to help us securely date these earliest levels below the Bronze Palace.

Mary Shepperson cleaning a grave cut into the city wall in Operation Y.
Mary Shepperson cleaning a grave cut into the city wall in Operation Y.

In the lower town, we have three operations running simultaneously. Mary Shepperson, a recent PhD from University College London, has returned to the project after several years away. It is great to have Mary back on site (and congrats, Dr. Shepperson!). Her excavation area is Operation Y located in the southwestern corner of the lower town. This is probably our most ambitious trench given it’s size (10m by 20m) and that we have less than five weeks of actual digging time. In Operation Y, our past geophysical surveys suggested that the city wall makes a sharp jog here and for years I have thought that there was a large building with rooms arranged around four open courtyards tucked into the jog in the city wall. Mary is now looking for physical proof of that building. She has found the city wall as well as a few later graves – you can see her excavating one above. Mary is close to the depth where we expect to find the tops of the walls of my hypothetical building. Fingers crossed.

John MacGinnis is overseeing the excavations in Operation W where he is looking at the earliest levels of a large mudbrick building that was excavated in the lower town from 2001-2010. Like with Dirk’s project, John is hoping to find traces not only of the earliest Late Assyrian building phases, but to see if there were even earlier building levels. You can see his excavation area below.

John and his crew in Operation W. You can see the mudbrick walls and a pit which once housed a large storage jar (since removed).
John and his crew in Operation W. You can see the mudbrick walls and part of a large storage jar. This vessel is called a pithos and some examples are 2m tall (6 feet) tall.

Finally, Kemalettin is making great progess on the private housing located adjacent to the city gate in Operation K, as I reported earlier. He extended his trench to the east and now has three clearly defined rooms. I’ll get you more details soon.

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A visit to the source of the Tigris.

About 90km north of Diyarbakir there is a place in the Taurus Mountains where the Dibni Su, one of the two main sources of the Tigris River, comes flowing out of a large cave. The Dibni Su actually originates much deeper in the mountains, but the ancient Assyrians thought this to be the source of the Tigris and it is a dramatic landscape that had great significance to them. The modern name of the place is Birkleyn Gorge.

Tigris_Tunnel_44 We know that the Assyrians marked this spot as significant since there still exist four small rock inscriptions made by the Assyrian kings Tiglath-pileser I (1114-1076 BC) and Shalmaneser III (858-824 BC): three in the lower cave from which the Dibni flows, and one in an upper cave a few hundred feet so higher up in the mountains. We have textual and other representational art that tells us that the kings presided over commemorative events that happened here three thousand years ago. This was an area far from the Assyrian frontier and one has to imagine that this was an arduous journey for the Assyrian king and his court to make, deep into territory outside of their military control.

If you look at the above photograph you will see two black spray-painted graffiti on the far left (a modern form of rock inscriptions, I guess). The Dibni Su flows out of the cave in this photograph and in places within the cave is well over one’s head in depth. The photograph below shows the area with the two black graffiti in greater detail and you can see that just above the spray paint, and a bit to the right of a circular broken area on the rock face, is a figure of the Assyrian king Tiglath-pileser I. To the king’s left is a cuneiform inscription, barely legible on the uneven surface. He is seen in profile, with a flat topped hat and flowing robes.


During our bayram holidays, we made the long drive from Bismil north across the last vestiges of the northern Tigris River valley and into the mountains to see the inscriptions. It was quite an adventure. The lower cave (seen in the photographs above) requires a bit of shallow wading and navigating some steep slopes to find. The upper cave in the Birkleyn Gorge can only be accessed by a trail crossing a narrow rocky ledge at one point and requiring a scramble over boulders with uneven footing well-worn by visitors. The inscription at the upper cave sits at the entrance. Here Willis is pointing to part of a cuneiform inscription (it is the word “Assur”) and you can see the cuneiform wedges quite clearly (again beneath a modern graffiti). The figures of the king in all four inscriptions are small, maybe three feet tall.


It was quite an interesting trip and a nice break from work at the dighouse. The next day I heard a bit of (cheerful) grumbling about aching legs from the climb and a few calls to revisit the cool caves and icy waters of the Dibni Su as we returned to hot and dusty Bismil and to work on site at the end of bayram.

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Everyday life (and death) at Assyrian Tushhan.

It was certainly a busy week for us and there is plenty to report from the field. The end of Ramadan in Turkey is marked by a long bayram holiday that just started, so after a shortened working day yesterday, our local workers, government representative, and house staff left for their homes and families to celebrate. We will be working at the dighouse during the holiday which ends on Saturday. This is a perfect time to catch up on my blog entries and tell you about some of the interesting finds we’ve made.

One of our most important goals for this season is the excavation of Assyrian private houses in the lower town. Archaeologists are just as interested in the lives of everyday people as we are about the “great events” of history, palaces and kings and this season we are reopening excavations in Operation K, an area we first excavated nearly a decade ago, where Kemalettin found the remains of a modest house built adjacent to the interior of the southern city wall. One focus of this new study is an intensive study of the ancient plant and animal remains preserved within the house which tell us about the diet, economy, and environment in which the Assyrians lived.

Kemalettin started work in a 5m by 10m area (roughly 15 feet by 30 feet), in a trench immediately adjacent to the original Operation K excavations. His trench is located in a field that was recently plowed, so the top 25 or 30cm (10-12 inches) of the soil were completely jumbled up and our workers quickly removed this layer. Immediately below, Kemalettin and his team found an area of paved cobbles with part of a ceramic drain in the northern part of the trench. The whole area was badly disturbed by modern plowing, so it is difficult to say much about this pavement other than it was perhaps a courtyard or a street and, given what we have learned elsewhere on the site, may be of Late Roman date. We found part of a Roman period roof tile, but very little in the way of clearly Roman period materials.

Kemalettin (standing, left) explaining the day's work to his team.
Kemalettin (standing, left) explaining the day’s work to his team.

More importantly, Kemalettin was also able to find the tops of the mudbrick walls that form the extension of the plan of the Assyrian house we excavated earlier. This is very exciting since it means that we will have plenty of time to explore the house even with a shortened digging season.

Grave found in Operation K. Bulent Genc, a doctoral student from Marmara University is drawing the grave before we remove the bones for study. Bulent is new to the team this year. He is a student of Kemalettin's and is writing his dissertation on the complex relationship between the Assyrians and another powerful state, Urartu, located in eastern Turkey near Lake Van.
Grave found in Operation K. Bulent Genc, a doctoral student from Marmara University is drawing the grave before we remove the bones for study. Bulent is new to the team this year. He is a student of Kemalettin’s and is writing his dissertation on the complex relationship between the Assyrians and another powerful state, Urartu, located in eastern Turkey near Lake Van.

We found a grave to the south of the OpK house, outside of the house itself but adjacent to the wall, which appears to be Assyrian in date. One of the questions that we hope to answer this year is where the non-elite Assyrians at Tushhan buried their dead. There is no external graveyard for the site (although some of you will remember Operation S where we explored an area south of Ziyaret Tepe where local farmers said they found a possible burial site or graveyard, but where we were unable to locate any cultural remains). At the end of this week, Kemalletin found two additional burials, both inside of the house and immediately below the floor so we now know that at least some of the dead at ancient Tushhan were buried inside their houses. I’ll share some details in later blog post.


Answering a few questions from off-line.

I was asked via email how many field seasons we have done at Ziyaret Tepe and why the Turkish government is building a dam that will destroy so many ancient sites. Both are good questions so I thought I would share the answers here on the blog.

It is hard to believe, but this is our 17th field season at Ziyaret Tepe. The first year of the project, 1997, was devoted to making a topographic map of the site and completing an intensive surface survey. This means that we systematically collected and recorded surface materials (mostly pottery sherds, of course) over the entire 32 hectares of our site. We didn’t collect every sherd, but rather we took a carefully controlled sample that allowed us to estimate the size of Ziyaret Tepe, the periods during which it was occupied, and how the site grew and diminished in size over several thousand years of people living here. We then completed two seasons of geophysical survey and excavation started in 2000. We have excavated every year since the,  except 2005 which was a study season at the dig house.

A blast from the past! The 1997 surface survey team. I'm not sure who is on the far left, but Eric Rupley who was a grad student at Michigan is in the foreground and Guillermo Algaze is in the background. On the far right is Mustafa Kilical, our driver during the early seasons.
A blast from the past! The 1997 surface survey team. I’m not sure who is on the far left, but Eric Rupley who was a grad student at Michigan is in the foreground and Guillermo Algaze is in the background. On the far right is Mustafa Kilical, our driver during the early seasons. We are laying out a 10m x 10m grid square to collect a sample of surface materials.

The dam being built at Ilisu is primarily going to provide hydroelectric power for the region. Additionally, the water from the reservoirs will be used for irrigation. Since we started work here, crops requiring irrigation have been introduced on a large scale: cotton, tobacco, and now corn. The Turkish government has been sponsoring a number of archaeological projects in the region since the late 1990’s in order to record as much of the ancient heritage of the region as possible before the completion of the dam.

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New eyes look at an old mystery.

As readers are starting to appreciate, many discoveries at Ziyaret Tepe are not made immediately in the field, but only after long and careful study of finds made by specialists in the laboratory. This is true at all archaeological projects. Back in 2007 and 2008, we recovered two cremation burials in the Bronze Palace, the large Late Assyrian building on the high mound excavated by Dirk. The palace, you may remember dates to the 9th through 7th centuries BC. A total of five cremation burials have been recovered from under the courtyard pavement. This is a highly unusual, and frankly un-Assyrian, means of burial and we have wondered since their discovery who was buried here.

Part of the answer has come from the work of one of our newest team members, Dr. Sandra Lösch. Sandra has a lot of experience identifying human remains. She is the Head of the Physical Anthropology section of the Institute of Forensic Medicine at Bern University in Switzerland. Between her lab work at the Institute, conferences and many field projects, Sandra was able to fly in especially to look at the occupants of two of our cremation burials, N-070 and N-249.


Unlike a normal inhumation or crime scene, the intense heat of the cremation has reduced the human bones to very small fragments, making Sandra’s work challenging indeed. Here she is at work in her lab, looking for clues as to the sex and age of our bodies. In this case, we weren’t even sure how many occupants each cremation held.

Sandra was able to determine that N-070 and N-249 each held one occupant. The former was an older male, aged between 30 and 50 years. The latter was an adult female aged between 30 and 45 years old when she died. One indiator of human age at death, human teeth, could not be used because the heat of the cremations – in excess of 800 degrees Celcius – had destroyed the crowns of the teeth! Instead, Sandra was able to utilize the fusion of sutures in the skull and bony growths on the vertebrae to provide a rough estimate of age. Here’s a vertebrae from the male buried in N-070. I’ve highlighted the bony growth, a paleopathology that is normally not present and one that can affect mobility and was probably quite painful for this individual.


Sex was determined by a number of indicators. Differences in the shape of the pelvis, overall robusticity, and even the weight of the preserved bones can be used to provide a guide for determining sex. Of course, we have to be careful with cremations since the bones shrink quite a bit when heated, but as an experienced physical anthropologist, Sandra has a wealth of comparative material from which to draw.

Now, as for the names, ranks, and the answer to the question of why these two individuals were buried in this fashion under the courtyard of an Assyrian palace, we need to keep digging into the rich archives in our depot and to continue our detailed analysis for more answers.

Unfortunately Sandra is leaving tomorrow for a conference in Rio. We wish her safe travels and hope she can return during our 2014 study season to continue this line of forensic investigation on the other skeletons recovered at Ziyaret Tepe.


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The Ziyaret Tepe Archaeological Expedition is Back for 2013!

It’s late July and some of you have been wondering if the Ziyaret Tepe project was ever going to come on-line! We had a few delays in getting our excavation permit this year – it is a complex process and changes in the Ministry of Culture and Tourism over the winter meant that our usual start date in early July was pushed back nearly three weeks, but the good news is that the team has made it to the field and we are starting work. This is our last excavation season and we have a great deal we want to accomplish. I hope you have time to follow along.

The first few team members arrived last Friday evening in Diyarbakir, hurried down to the schoolhouse in Bismil that is our base of operations again this year, and started setting up the camp. Over the weekend, while we transformed the schoolhouse into a dighouse, our numbers swelled to over a dozen archaeologists. There are some familiar names and faces, and a few new ones. I’ll introduce them to you over the coming weeks.

On Monday morning, we were joined by our government representative for the year, Ms. Esme Bedirhanoglu, an archaeologist who works at the Diyarbakir Museum. Esme hanim will be helping us navigate the local bureaucracy and overseeing our progress. On Monday, we also registered our work force of 48 local laborers for social security and tax purposes, and went on a shopping spree to make sure Necmi had enough food to feed our hungry team. In the evening we negotiated with local land owners for the rental of two parcels where we want to work, planned out our first day’s work, and got the equipment ready to go. A long, productive Monday.

Alarm clocks rang at 3:30am this morning and by four o’clock the breakfast table was buzzing with excitement for the first digging day. (Mind you, that 4am buzz quiets down pretty quickly as the season works it’s way into a routine). Tractors, shovels, wheelbarrows, canvas for shades, surveying equipment, and nearly sixty people ascended the high mound on Tuesday morning to start work. Hard to believe we landed in Diyarbakir less than four days ago!


On the high mound, the workmen spent the day cleaning out Operation AN, which was filled with a good thistle crop after heavy spring rains. Readers of our previous blogs will remember that this is the area of the Bronze Palace, where Dr. Dirk Wicke from Mainz University has been working for a number of seasons.


We have three excavations planned in the lower town this summer, which I will tell you much more about in a later post. Here the workmen are just breaking ground in Operation Y, directed by Dr. Mary Shepperson of University College London. The lower town is not currently being used for crops, as you can see, although many of the fields surrounding the site have a healthy crop of corn, which makes a change from previous years. Very few of the agricultural fields are still being planted in cotton, and a few were planted in wheat (already harvested), a traditional crop grown in this region for many millennia. Below the surface here in Operation Y, we think that there is a large mudbrick building of Late Assyrian date (c. 9th – 7th centuries BC) of a type typically called an “arsenal”. More on that later. As you can see Mary has quite a bit of digging over a 10m x 20m area before we get down to architectural remains.

By the way, the new header and these photographs were taken by our new photographer for the 2013 season, Ian J. Cohn. You’ll meet him later as well.

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Ziyaret Tepe work in the news.

David Connolly of the British Archaeological Jobs Resource just published a nice write-up of our work on his Past Horizons website. Check it out, and send the link to anyone who may be interested. Thanks, David, we appreciate the support!

How can I support your work?

The Ziyaret Tepe Autumn Challenge

After such a successful 2012 field season, our thoughts are already on the future and our final digging season in 2013. During the months of October and November, we have a special fundraising event through an organization call the Big Give in which all your donations are doubled in value!

Our objectives for the 2013 excavation season include:

new investigations on the palace mound

probing a major building complex inside the city wall

excavation of an area of commoner housing

exploration of the lower levels of the administrative archive room

continued electrical resistivity survey

This is your opportunity to help support this work. Furthermore, thanks to a generous commitment from the UK, any donation made in October and November will be matched: give now and the value of your donation will be doubled! The work at Ziyaret Tepe is uncovering unique information on the ancient Assyrian empire which can be recovered in no other way. And this is the last chance! Please click HERE if you would like to help us in exploring this unique heritage.