Winding down the excavations.

Racing the sunrise to prepare the excavation area for photography.

At the end of each season, we take a series of final photographs which document the results of the digging. This picture shows the workmen, Dirk, and his team sweeping the trenches in Operation N in preparation for final photographs. We always take formal and publication photographs in the early morning or late afternoon when the light is good for seeing contrasting colors and textures. The mid-day light is too harsh and washes out all of the subtle differences that we need to capture.


Egyptian god Bes figurine found in tomb.

A small frit figurine of the god Bes, identified by Willis, came out of the grave from operation M. Only a fraction of an inch high, the figurine was pierced to be suspended on a fine thread. It was found in context with a number of other beads, probably constituting a rather rich necklace worn by the interred individual. Bes was originally an Egyptian god who was a protector of households and in particular women and childbirth. It is not surprising therefore to find that images of Bes turn out far afield from ancient Egypt. While none have been found at Ziyaret Tepe before, they are present within the reaches of the Neo-Assyrian empire. Bes is immediately recognizable by his squat figure, grotesque face, beard, and large belly, which on our small figurine is marked with a small indentation for the navel.

This photograph of the Bes figurine was taken before conservation, so it is hard to make out the god. Such items are common in Egypt in the first millennium BC and its discovery in southeastern Turkey points to the long distance contacts maintained across the ancient Near East.
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Update from the lab: lion.

Tina, our faunal analyst, reports that a find unique to Ziyaret Tepe was uncovered last week coming from the building, perhaps the residence of a wealthy person, that Kemalletin is excavating located in the lower town (Operation M). The ulna (lower forearm) of a lion (Panthera leo) was uncovered from inside a tannur (oven) in a room of the residence. It appears that the bone was modified into a tool, and although not evident from this photo, the bone is significantly polished. The shape of the original bone has been modified due to the intense polishing; however, it is unclear at this point what function the tool/ornament played. This discovery is quite exciting since it is rare to have lion bones uncovered from Late Assyrian contexts.

The lion was a symbol for royalty during the Assyrian Empire and one has to wonder what this bone represented in this context at Ziyaret Tepe. Many people are familiar with the Assyrian fascination with lions from the famous wall reliefs of King Ashurbanipal from the North Palace at Nineveh in northern Iraq. While we don’t have any carved limestone wall reliefs at Ziyaret Tepe, we do now have a lion!

Lion bone recovered in 2012 from Operation M.
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Cuneiform tablet discovered in Operation W.

In an earlier post, I explained that we reached the lower floor of the pebbled courtyard in Operation W, demonstrating that there was an earlier phase of the large mudbrick building we excavated there as Operation G/R in 2001-2010. This building was tentatively identified as a treasury associated with a temple to the goddess Ishtar at Ziyaret Tepe, which we have yet to locate, based on a cache of cuneiform texts discovered in 2002-2003 and published some years ago by Prof. Simo Parpola of the University of Helsinki. Most of those texts were economic in nature, although they also contained a very important letter from the end of the Assyrian empire.

In order to test whether other parts of the building show the same stratigraphic sequence, John laid out a trench over Room 10 of the Operation G/R which was a storage room filled with pithoi, and was one of two rooms which yielded cuneiform texts earlier. In 2003, we stopped the excavations at the floor level and, given that there was now the possibility of an earlier floor based on our 2012 sounding in Courtyard 11, we decided to reopen Room 10.

Having cleared away the soil down to the plastic sheeting that we use to cover the bottoms of our trenches before we backfill them, John proceeded to remove the upper floor and began excavation in the fill below. Within a few hours, a new cuneiform tablet – unfortunately broken into several pieces – was recovered from the new Operation W excavations.

Not exactly obvious. Three of the larger framents of the cuneiform tablet that will join together to form about half of the complete object. We often identify tablets by the special finely levigated clays that were used by the ancient scribes. Until cleaned, it is nearly impossible to make out the inscription. Here you can see some cuneiform wedges on the lower right hand fragment. We think there are about four lines of text on the tablet.

The tablet is covered in loose dirt and is still damp and we are waiting for it to dry out before Lourdes can reassemble the tablet and clean it. Once it has been repaired and consolidated, John will make an exact transcription of the text and begin the process of translation. With luck, we should be able to at least describe the contents in broad terms before the end of the season.

We have only two more digging days left in Operation W (after a three day holiday starting tomorrow and marking the end of Ramadan), so there is still a chance that more cuneiform tablets might be found above the lower floor of Room 10.


Rich Assyrian grave found beneath the floor in Operation M.

The excavation of the large building in Operation M took a very interesting and exciting turn on Wednesday when Kemalettin discovered a burial under the earlier of two floors in the large building in Operation M. The burial, officially labelled M-134, was parallel to the western wall of the room.

Excavation of burial M-134 is just starting in the center foreground of this picture. You can see that the grave soil, dark brown in color, contrasts with the rest of the trench.
Kemalettin gently excavating around one of the two ceramic vessels found in M-134.

 A single body, identified by Tina as a male, at least in his 40s if we can judge by the fusion of the sutures in his skull and the wear on his teeth. The primary means we have of aging skeletons is by the patterns of tooth eruptions in younger individuals, the fusion of the epiphyses of long bones and the sutures of the skulls. For older adults, we rely on less precise measures, such as the wear on teeth and the ends of ribs. Given that the cusps of the molars of our body were worn nearly flat, it wouldn’t surprise me if he turns out to be in his 50s. He was quite tall with very robust bones. All of these are preliminary field observations; the skeleton awaits study.

The skeleton during the process of cleaning. The bones are in good condition and clearly articulated. The face-down orientation is unusual.

Buried with the body were a number of small finds, of which we are still taking initial photographs and notes. Included in the grave were two ceramic vessels, one in each hand, which contained dozens of beads, a bronze fibula, and a frit cylinder seal. He had a long, white stone pendant and what appears to be an iron pendant or possibly a blade or tool around his neck. He had a bronze ornament near his right elbow. The grave contained quite a few stone beads, including a banded black and white stone, as well as carnelian, that were probably part of the decoration of his clothing. Also found loose in the grave were a second cylinder seal, this one with bronze caps, and a stone pendant.

Stone pendant ZT42154, shown here prior to cleaning and conservation, was found under the chest of the skeleton. This pendant is scratched and was found adjacent to an iron object, possibly a blade. It may have served as a whetstone, but that is purely speculative at this point. A full investigation into the grave goods has begun.

One very curious element of burial M-134 is the positioning of the body. This man was buried with his body streched out, but face down, with the grave goods underneath him. This is highly unusual for an Assyrian burial; it’s hard to come up with many parallels right now. We’re not sure of the significance of the body position, but it is clear that this was an individual of some importance, given the wealth of material which accompanied him. The skeleton was articulated so it is clear that the deposition of the body in this manner was deliberate.

Details to follow as we process the grave goods and further investigate this surprising discovery.

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No grave in Operation W.

The last few days have been a whirlwind of activity at the dig as all of the excavation units are now down to the floor levels and we are uncovering the important primary contexts. We have made some really interesting finds and I’ll be putting up a number of posts in the next day or so to catch everyone up on the action.

You’ll recall that Operation W was a small sounding to learn whether or not an unusual stone feature interrupting a mosaic pavement that we excavated back in 2004 was a grave. We had suspected that it might be a grave based on its size and the observation that Assyrian burials are often found beneath the floors of buildings. In the case of the Bronze Palace, the cremation burials we found earlier were beneath a courtyard pavement, so it made sense that there might be a grave beneath the mosaic.


John and his workmen cleaning the mosaic floor in the lower town building. This mosaic was first discovered in 2004. We reburied it that season and, as you can see, it has remained in good condition despite being located in an active agricultural field.


John carefully lifted the stones, putting wooden shoring around the cut to ensure that the mosaic itself would not be harmed. He then excavated the soil beneath, which was harder and more compact than is typical of a grave. After about 20cm he found another cobbled floor which represents an earlier phase of the Late Assyrian building.

Left: trench with the stone feature intact. Right: after removal of the feature.

The photograph above shows before (left) and after (right) pictures of the sounding beneath the stones. As you can see, we have taken care not to damage the mosaic. In fact, when we were done, John replaced the large stones exactly in their original position.

Here you can clearly see the lower pavement beneath the cobbled surface. So, while there was no grave, we learned that this part of the building did have a substantial earlier occupational phase. This is important and has led us to open up another area of the same building to see if we find evidence of a similar earlier phase there. For now, we have to conclude that the larger stones represented a simple rough repair in the finer mosaic floor of the Late Assyrian building.

Here you can see the lower pavement clearly. Also note the wooden boards used to keep the pebble mosaic intact.

We’re famous!

Well, at least one of our artifacts is famous. I just got word that the latest edition of Archaeology magazine just came out and a cuneiform text discovered a few years ago and recently published by John was chosen as the featured Artifact for the September/October edition . You can see the write-up on the Archaeological Institute of America website. The tablet documents a previously unknown language in the form of a list of women’s names found by Dirk and his student, Dominique Wiebe, in the Bronze Palace.

Archaeology magazine is one of the most popular journals for general archaeology readers in the US with a large circulation and an excellent summary of the latest discoveries in archaeology across the globe. As an aside, we have a chapter of the AIA housed at the University of Akron and offer an free lecture series each year. This year, among other interesting speakers, we are pleased to have Dr. Brian Rose coming to Akron on March 14, 2013 to talk about the recent excavation of monumental tombs at Troy in western Turkey. You’re all invited to attend. If you join the Akron AIA chapter, you get a subscription to Archaeology magazine as part of your membership benefits.

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Stratigraphy in Operation V.

Work is progressing steadily in Operation V. The photograph below was taken just at daybreak this morning, when the light is still gentle enough to get a decent exposure. What you see here is our normal excavation square, 10 meters on a side (the red and white scale bar in the back is 2m (6 feet) long. There’s a lot going on in this photograph, but it takes archaeological training to know what you’re seeing.

Photograph of the Operation V excavations from the north, looking south. There are two stratigraphic phases seen here.

I’ve annotated the photograph here so I can describe what we have discovered so far in terms of architecture and other features.

Our current interpretation.

We have two phases of occupation. We think they are both Assyrian in date, although we need to finish excavating to know for sure. The earlier building phase is below the later and is represented by the mosaic floor that you can see in the foreground, outlined in purple. On either side, the courtyard is flanked by very poorly preserved mudbrick walls, shown here in red. As you can see, on the right side of the mosaic floor there is a place where the mosaic makes a jog. We know from experience that this represents a doorway from the courtyard into another room, unexcavated, to the right of our current trench. The mosaic has been damaged by two later pits, the green circles, which cut into the mosaic.

About halfway across the trench, you see a low rise where we have not yet excavated to the earlier floor. This higher level is also a floor, stratified above the mosaic, that may represent a later use of the same room, or another building altogether. On top of this floor is a tannur, or bread oven, highlighted in yellow. In fact there are two tannurs, but the other one is impossible to see in this photograph. There are a few later stone features, including a door socket, sitting atop the earlier (red highlighted) walls which also belong to the later floor.

You see that we are less than a meter below the surface, so preservation is not very good. You can also observe that these two occupational layers are right on top of one another. There is very little depth to the deposit. That said, we can’t yet tell how much time elapsed between the lower and upper building phases; it could be a matter of a few years, or decades, or even centuries.

The tannur is also instructive. Those of you who read earlier postings will recall that I talk about the discovery of a pithos (large storage jar) whose rim was torn off but was otherwise appeared intact. Well, as we continued to excavate, we discovered that this was not a pithos at all! Rather, whoever built the tannur seen above incorporated the rim sherds of a discarded pithos into the oven walls. Ancient recycling! Our initial idea that these were storage jars appears wrong; one learns to revise interpretations as new data are uncovered.

When I left them a few hours ago, John and his team were busy sampling and excavating the later earthen floor and removing the last traces of that phase. Stay tuned.

Team members

Meet our new colleagues from Warsaw.

We have a number of new team members this season bringing fresh perspectives, skills, and experiences to the Ziyaret Tepe project. From previous posts, you know that ours is a very diverse project and, over the years, scholars from over two dozen countries have participated in surveys, excavations, and analyses conducted in the field annually since 1997.

We are very fortunate this summer to have a group of ceramics experts joining us from the Institute of Archaeology at the University of Warsaw, led by Dr. Anna Wodzińska. Anna’s specialization is in Egyptian archaeology and she has worked for many seasons on the pottery of Giza. This season, she has been working to learn Assyrian pottery with our senior ceramicist, Azer Keskin, a long-time Ziyaret team member and Ph.D. candidate at the State University of New York in Binghamton. Anna has brought a team of her students from Warsaw to help with the large backlog of pottery that needs to be processed: Agnieszka Poniewierska, and Barbara Jakubowska are Master’s students at the University of Warsaw. Natalia Kadzidłowska is completing her Bachelor’s degree there. Their job is quite daunting, namely to describe, draw, and process as much of our stored ceramic material as possible.

Zuhal, Anna, Aga, Natalia, and Basia during an excursion off site. It is rare to see them away from their desks!

Their work with the pottery sherds – by far our most common artifacts – allows us to interpret the date, function, and development of the buildings, fortifications, pits, graves, and other contexts that are excavated by the field crew. This work demands a great attention to detail and is as tiring as any at the site. Anna and her students fill out standardized paper forms for each group (“batch”) of pottery recovered from the excavations. They code the fabric (= the characteristics of the clay from which the pottery is made), decoration, and shape (or “form”) of each of the pottery sherds, entering the data into our integrated central computer database. We can then analyze the spatial and temporal distribution of different pottery types as part of our broader interpretive project.

Although such work is not glamorous, it is the backbone of all archaeological interpretation. Anna and her team have made impressive progress and as they gain familiarity with the Late Assyrian pottery, they have been working more quickly and efficiently each week. On a good day, they can process between three and five tomato crates of pottery. (Note: our standard unit of measure for quantities of pottery is the wooden crates used to move vegetables to market). Each crate holds plastic bags containing anywhere from a few dozen large pottery sherds to hundreds of smaller fragments.  There are about 900 tomato crates of pottery from previous seasons in the depot at the moment, some fully analyzed, others awaiting attention.

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Interesting developments in the “barracks” (Operation V).

Continued excavation by John, Kristina, and Charlie in Operation V has brought to light some interesting details regarding the building we thought might represent an Assyrian barracks or storeroom. The mudbrick walls are quite close to the surface and badly preserved, as I noted in a previous post “Some Early Finds”. We have now defined the pebbled floor and the lines of the walls surrounding it.

To the south, in the interior of the southernmost of the two large buildings, we found the tops to two large storage jars immediately below the plow zone. These vessels are called pithoi (singular, pithos) and some from Ziyaret Tepe are nearly 2m (6 feet) tall. They are a well known Assyrian type. The Operation V pithoi appear to be standing on a floor, or set into the floor or possibly into a mudbrick bench. The tops of the vessels are badly damaged, almost certainly by the modern plows which can penetrate up to 35-40cm in depth. The rest of the vessel bodies, as far as we have excavated, seem to be intact.

Halit Celebi, one of our local workmen, cleans the broken top of the first of two pithoi discovered in Operation V. The tops of these huge ceramic vessels have been ripped off by the plows used to till the wheat fields in modern times.

This suggests that the Operation V buildings were used for storage and when the building was abandoned, the huge storage jars were left behind. What were they storing in the pithoi? That’s a great question and we will only know through continued digging. With luck we should be able to answer that question sometime in the not-too-distant future once we get to the floor of the building and the bottom of the jars.

The Ziyaret Tepe project archives includes thousands of digital images like this one of Operation V, viewed from the south. A pithos is in the center of the trench. We use daily record photographs like this one to document our progress; these images serve as an important visual reminder of what was recovered each day.