Tell es-Sin

New findings on the Byzantine necropolis Tell es-Sin in Syria

New findings on the Byzantine necropolis Tell es-Sin in Syria

A study published in the journal Bioarchaeology of the Near East reveals the features of the population that was buried in the necropolis of Tell es-Sin in Syria, a Byzantine archaeological site dating from the 5th to 7th centuries AC. located in the left side of the Euphrates River. The principal researchers of the new anthropological study on Tell es-Sin -in the middle of a transit area for the ancient Byzantine forces and the Persian Sassanids- are Laura Martínez, from the Faculty of Biology of the University of Barcelona, and Ferran Estebaranz-Sánchez, from the Faculty of Biosciences of the Autonomous University of Barcelona.

Other participants are the researcher Juan Luis Montero-Fenollós, lecturer from the University of la Coruña and director of the excavation project in the site of Tell es-Sin, and other experts from Maison de l’Orient et de la Méditerranée (France), the Yarmouk University (Jordan) and the Mykolas Romeris University (Lithuania).

Tell es-Sin represents one of the most important necropolis from the Fertile Crescent to the Near East

Ancient Syria’s Hill of Teeth

The site of Tell es-Sin -from Arabic “Hill of Teeth”- covers an area of twenty-five hectares is divided into the acropolis, the lower town, and necropolis -which covers seven hecctares. It is in the south-eastern of the current city of Deir ez-Zor -frontier between Syria and Iraq- and it is considered a kastron, that is, a place with administrative and military functions. Both the size and urban structure of the site and its fortified nature suggest it would have been an ancient polis whose ancient name is still unknown.

Tell es-Sin represents one of the most important necropolis from the Fertile Crescent to the Near East, but authors say “it is still very much unknown”. The new study wants to focus on the knowledge of frontier populations in the Byzantine Empire during the 6th-7th centuries, a period in which necropolis and skeleton remains are not abundant.

A fortification in the middle of the military Near East

“Mesopotamia was a strategic defensive area regarding the entrances and invasions from the Persians and the Arabians. In this context, Tell es-Sin could have been affected by the territorial and military reorganization by the emperor Justinian, who promoted fortifications of lime populations in the middle of the 6th century”, notes Laura Martínez, lecturer at the Department of Evolutionary Biology, Ecology and Environmental Sciences at the Faculty of Biology, and first author of the study.

The first archaeological excavations of the Byzantine necropolis of Tell es-Sin date from 1978 and were led by Asad Mahmoud, general director of Antiquities and Museums in Deir ez-Zor at the moment. In 2005, the study of the first Syrian-Spanish archaeological mission -coordinated by the University of la Coruña- highlighted the relevance of the necropolis of Tell es-Sin, which was part of the Eastern limes Diocletianus together with Tell es-Kasra and Circesium (current Buseira). The experts identified a total of 170 hypogea in a necropolis that could have about one thousand tombs.
Tombs and Byzantine archaeology in Syrian territory

As Ferran Estebaranz-Sánchez notes, “samples from Tell es-Sin represent an heterogeneous and biased series of skeleton remains corresponding to tombs that were sacked during the years. This anthropological study wanted to provide information on the sex, age of death, height and other morphological variables of the excavated individuals in the site using traditional biometrics”.

The analysed sample -only a small part out of the total burials in Tell es-Sin -includes human remains from ten excavated hypogea in the Syrian-Spanish mission. A total of 71 individuals were analysed (at least, eighteen would correspond to men, and twelve to women).

According to the experts, they did not observe bias regarding sex or age in the studied remains, and they highlight the lack of children compared to other areas (they could have been buried in other niches in the entrance of the tomb). Likewise, there is at least between one and five individuals buried inside every niche (the average is three bodies per niche, including sub-adults and adults), according to the model of collective burial typical from ancient Syria.

Despite the fragmented state of the remains, the team could estimate the height of most individuals. “The average height we estimate considering the upper long bones is 174.5 for men and 159.1 for women. These figures are similar to those estimated with the diameter of the femur head: 176.1 cm for males and 164.5 for females”, notes Estebaranz Sánchez.

“In conclusion -he continues-, the estimated height for the Byzantine population in Tell es-Sin is similar to other contemporary Byzantine populations”.

About 25% of the individuals presented cribra orbitalia and 8.5% of porotic hyperostosis, alterations in brain bones associated to anaemia or lack of iron or vitamins,  rickets, infection and other inflammatory conditions.

The prevalence of degenerative joint diseases was low, according to the study. Regarding dental samples, about 2.8% of teeth presented caries, lower figures compared to other contemporary byzantine sites in the area that could be related to a low sample analysed in Tell es-Sin.

Tell es-Sin: the end of a site with the arrival of Islam

The end of the site of Tell es-Sin -in the first quarter of the 7th century AC- coincided with the wars against the Persian Sassanids and Islamic Arabian tribes. Despite the conditions of the site of Tell es-Sin and the current situation -after the ISIS occupation- the discovery and excavation of graves that were not sacked is essential to study the knowledge of this population.

“This is why we are now analysing the buccal microstriations to infer the diet of the population and therefore complete the biocultural model of frontier populations with great ancient empires”, conclude Laura Martínez and Ferran Estebaranz Sánchez.

Article reference: 

Martínez, L. M.; Estebaranz-Sánchez, F.;  Khawam, R.; Anfruns, J.;  Alrousan, M.;  Pereira, P.; Pérez-Pérez, A.; Montero-Fenollós, J. L. “Human remains from Tell es-Sin, Syria, 2006-2007”Bioarchaeology of the Near East, April, 2020.

Press release from the University of Barcelona


Kemune palace Mittani Mitanni Empire

Archaeologists uncover palace of the Mittani Empire in the Duhok province of the Kurdistan Region/ Iraq

Archaeologists uncover palace of the Mittani Empire in the Duhok province of the Kurdistan Region/ Iraq

German-Kurdish research team came upon a surprising discovery as ruins emerge from the waters of the Tigris River

Kemune palace Mittani Mitanni Empire
Aerial view of Kemune Palace from the west. Copyright University of Tübingen, eScience Center, and Kurdistan Archaeology Organization

German and Kurdish archaeologists have uncovered a Bronze Age palace on the eastern bank of the Tigris River in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. As the international research team reports, the site of Kemune can be dated to the time of the Mittani Empire, which dominated large parts of northern Mesopotamia and Syria from the 15th to the 14th century BCE. The Mittani Empire is one of the least researched kingdoms of the Ancient Near East. The archaeologists now hope to obtain new information about the politics, economy, and history of the empire by studying cuneiform tablets discovered in the palace.

Last autumn, receding waters in the Mosul Dam reservoir unexpectedly brought to light remains of an ancient city. Archaeologists launched a spontaneous rescue excavation of the ruins exposed by the ebbing waters. It was headed by Dr. Hasan Ahmed Qasim (Duhok) and Dr. Ivana Puljiz (Tübingen), as a joint project between the University of Tübingen and the Kurdistan Archaeology Organization (KAO) in cooperation with the Duhok Directorate of Antiquities. Kurdish archaeologist Hasan Ahmed Qasim explains its significance: "The find is one of the most important archaeological discoveries in the region in recent decades and illustrates the success of the Kurdish-German cooperation." The project was largely financed by the KAO and its sponsor, Kurdisch businessman Hersh Isa Swar.

As Ivana Puljiz of the Tübingen Institute for Ancient Near Eastern Studies (IANES) reports, the site shows a carefully designed building with massive interior mud-brick walls up to two meters thick. She says some walls are more than two meters high and some of the rooms have plastered walls. "We have also found remains of wall paintings in bright shades of red and blue," Puljiz says. "In the second millennium BCE, murals were probably a typical feature of palaces in the Ancient Near East, but we rarely find them preserved. So discovering wall paintings in Kemune is an archaeological sensation.”

The palace ruins are preserved to a height of some seven meters. Two phases of usage are clearly visible, Puljiz says, indicating that the building was in use for a very long time. Inside the palace, the team identified several rooms and partially excavated eight of them. In some areas, they found large fired bricks which were used as floor slabs. Ten Mittani cuneiform clay tablets were discovered and are currently being translated and studied by the philologist Dr. Betina Faist (University of Heidelberg). One of the tablets indicates that Kemune was most probably the ancient city of Zakhiku, which is mentioned in one Ancient Near Eastern source as early as the Middle Bronze Age (ca. 1800 BC). This indicates the city must have existed for at least 400 years. Future text finds will hopefully show whether this identification is correct.

In ancient times, the palace stood on an elevated terrace above the valley, only 20 meters from what was then the eastern bank of the Tigris River. In the Mittani period, a monumental terrace wall of mud-bricks was built against the palace’s western front to stabilize the sloping terrain. Overlooking the Tigris Valley, the palace must have been an impressive sight.

Archaeological surveys carried out by the Collaborative Research Center “ResourceCultures” (SFB 1070) under the direction of Dr. Paola Sconzo (University of Tübingen) in the vicinity of the palace indicate that a larger city adjoined it to the north. "We discovered the site of Kemune already in 2010 when the dam had low water levels; even at that time we found a Mittani cuneiform tablet and saw remains of wall paintings in red and blue,” says Hasan Ahmed Qasim, “But we couldn’t excavate here until now.” The area was flooded following the construction of the Mosul Dam in the mid-1980s. But a lack of rain and water released to ease dry conditions in southern Iraq meant that the water level dropped so far in the summer and autumn of last year that archaeologists could excavate the site for the first time.

"The Mittani Empire is one of the least researched empires of the Ancient Near East," explains Puljiz. “Information on palaces of the Mittani Period is so far only available from Tell Brak in Syria and from the cities of Nuzi and Alalakh, both located on the periphery of the empire. Even the capital of the Mittani Empire has not been identified beyond doubt.” The discovery of a Mittani palace in Kemune is therefore of great importance for archaeology.

The Mittani Empire

The Mittani Empire covered an area reaching from the eastern Mediterranean coast to the east of present-day northern Iraq from the 15th century to the middle of the 14th century BCE. Its heart was in what is now northeastern Syria, where its capital Washukanni was probably located. Akkadian cuneiform texts from the site of Tell el-Amarna in present-day Egypt show that the Mittani kings interacted as equals with the Egyptian pharaohs and the kings of Hatti and Babylonia. For example, it is known that the Mittani king Tushratta gave his daughter’s hand in marriage to Pharaoh Amenophis III. Mittani lost its political significance around 1350 BCE. Its territories came under the control of the neighboring empires of the Hittites and Assyrians. The Mittani culture is known for its typical painted ceramics. The vessels are characterized by carefully-executed light painting on a dark background. Their conspicuous appearance enables archaeologists to date the sites where fragments of such vessels are found to the time of the Mittani Empire.

 

Press release from the University of Tübingen


From hunting to herding in the Early Neolithic settlement of Aşıklı Höyük

Switch from hunting to herding recorded in ancient pee

Urine salts reveal timing and scale of neolithic revolution at Turkish site

Study authors Jay Quade (left) and Jordan Abell (right) looking for optimal samples at the site of an ancient Turkish settlement where salts left behind by animal and human urine give clues about the development of livestock herding. Credit: Güneş Duru

The transition from hunting and gathering to farming and herding is considered a crucial turning point in the history of humanity. Scholars think the intensive food production that came along with the Neolithic Revolution, starting around 10,000 B.C., allowed cities to grow, led to technological innovation and, eventually, enabled life as we know it today.

It has been difficult to work out the details of how and when this took place. But a new study published in Science Advances begins to resolve the scale and pace of change during the first phases of animal domestication at an ancient site in Turkey. To reconstruct this history, the authors turned to an unusual source: urine salts left behind by humans and animals.

Whereas dung is commonly used in all sorts of studies, “this is the first time, to our knowledge, that people have picked up on salts in archaeological materials, and used them in a way to look at the development of animal management,” says lead author Jordan Abell, a graduate student at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

The team used the urine salts to calculate the density of humans and animals at the site over time, estimating that around 10,000 years ago, the density of people and animals occupying the settlement jumped from near zero to approximately one person or animal for every 10 square meters. The results suggest that domestication may have been more rapid than previously expected. They also support the idea that the Neolithic Revolution didn’t have just one birthplace in the Fertile Crescent of the Mideast, but rather occurred across several locations simultaneously.

Connecting the Dots

At the ancient settlement of Aşıklı Höyük in central Turkey, archaeological evidence suggests that humans began domesticating sheep and goats around 8450 BC. These practices evolved over the next 1,000 years, until the society became heavily dependent on the beasts for food and other materials.

Students working on the western Section of Aşıklı Höyük, where the evidence was found. Credit: Güneş Duru

As it happened, co-authors Susan Mentzer from the University of Tübingen and Jay Quade from the University of Arizona, where Abell worked on this project as an undergraduate, had previously documented some unusually high levels of salts around Aşıklı Höyük, and were perplexed by what they meant. Using this data and others, the new study supports the idea that the salts likely came from the urine of humans, sheep and goats. The study uses the abundance of the salts over time to track the growth of the community and its animals over a period of 1,000 years.

A Rapid Transition

Working with Turkish archaeologists, including Istanbul University’s Mihriban Özbaşaran, who heads the Aşıklı Höyük dig, the team collected 113 samples from all across the site — from trash piles to bricks and hearths, and from different time periods — to look at patterns in the sodium, nitrate and chlorine salt levels.

They found that, overall, the urine salts at Aşıklı Höyük increased in abundance over time. The natural layers before the settlement was built contained very low levels of salts. The oldest layers with evidence of human habitation, spanning 10,400 to 10,000 years ago, saw slight increases but remained relatively low in the urine salts. Then the salts spike during a period from 10,000 to 9,700 years ago; the amount of salts in this layer is about 1,000 times higher than in the preceding ones, indicating a rapid increase in the number of occupants (both human and animal). After that, the concentrations decrease slightly.

Abell says these trends line up with previous hypotheses based on other evidence from the site — that the settlement transitioned first from mostly hunting sheep and goats to corralling just a few, then changed to larger-scale management, and then finally shifted to keeping animals in corrals on the periphery of the site as their numbers grew. And although the timing is close to what the study authors expected, the sharp change around 10,000 years ago “may be new evidence for a more rapid transition” toward domestication, says Abell.

Using the salt concentrations, the team estimated the number and density of people plus sheep and goats at Aşıklı Höyük, after accounting for other factors that might have influenced the salt levels. They calculated that around 10,000 years ago, the density of people and animals occupying the settlement jumped from near zero to approximately one person or animal for every 10 square meters. By comparison, modern-day semi-intensive feedlots have densities of about one sheep for every 5 square meters.

Although it is not currently possible to distinguish between human and livestock urine salts, the urine salt analysis method can still provide a helpful estimate of sheep and goat abundance. Over the 1,000 year period, the team calculated that an average of 1,790 people and animals lived and peed on the settlement every day. In each time period, the estimated inhabitants were much higher than the number of people that archaeologists think the settlement’s buildings would have housed. This indicates that the urine salt concentrations can indeed reflect the relative amounts of domesticated animals over time.

Aşıklı Höyük Turkey Neolithic Revolution
View from the rooftops of reconstructed Aşıklı Höyük houses from the 8th and 9th century BC. Credit: Güneş Duru

The researchers plan to further refine their methods and calculations in the future, and hope to find a way to differentiate between human and animal urine salts. They think the methodology could be applied in other arid areas, and could be especially helpful at sites where other physical evidence, such as bones, is lacking.

A Broader Revolution

The study’s results also help shed light on the geographic spread of the Neolithic Revolution. It was once thought that farming and herding originated in the Fertile Crescent, which spans parts of modern-day Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian Territories, then spread outward from there. But mounting evidence, including today’s study, indicates that domestication and the transition to Neolithic lifestyles took place concurrently over a broad and diffuse swath of the region.

Anthropologist and co-author Mary Stiner from the University of Arizona said that the new method could help to clarify the larger picture of humanity’s relationship to animals during this transitional period. “We might find similar trends in other archaeological sites of the period in the Middle East,” she said, “but it is also possible that only a handful of long-lasting communities were forums for the evolving human-caprine relationships in any given region of the Middle East.”

Güneş Duru and Melis Uzdurum from Istanbul University were also authors on the paper.

 

Press release from the Earth Institute at the Columbia University, by Sarah Fecht

 

Urine salts provide evidence of Early Neolithic animal management

Urine salts elucidate Early Neolithic animal management at Aşıklı Höyük, Turkey

A close examination of midden soil layers at the early Neolithic site of Aşıklı Höyük in Turkey reveals that they are highly enriched in sodium, chlorine, and nitrate salts commonly found in human and goat and sheep urine, offering a distinct signal for following the management of those animals through the history of the site. The findings, along with an enriched nitrogen signal in the soil, suggest a new way for archaeologists to study the evolution of animal management at this critical point in human history, at similarly dry, thickly stratified sites that may not contain other domestication evidence such as animal bones or dung, or the presence of corrals or other animal enclosures. Jordan Abell and colleagues used several techniques to identify these soluble urine salts and to distinguish them from natural geological salt deposition at Aşıklı Höyük. The researchers found a 5-10 times increase in these salts between about 10,400 BP to 10,000 BP, and a 10-1000 times increase between 10,400 and 9,700 BP, demonstrating increasing reliance upon and eventual domestication of sheep and goats over this time. Based on these salt concentrations, Abell et al. estimate that about 1,790 humans and animals lived and urinated on the site per day for roughly 1,000 years of occupation. High soluble nitrogen levels in the trash heaps of the site are similar to those seen in modern feedlots, the researchers note.

Press release from the American Association for the Advancement of Science


desert kites U2 spy plane Iraq Near East

Declassified U2 spy plane images reveal bygone Middle Eastern archaeological features

Declassified U2 spy plane images reveal bygone Middle Eastern archaeological features

Researchers from Penn and Harvard are the first to make archaeological use of U2 spy plane imagery, and have created a tool that allows other researchers to identify and access the Cold War-era photos

desert kites U2 spy plane Iraq Near East
FIGURE 12. Chains of desert kites as visible in U2 imagery from mission 1554, January 30, 1960 (Roll 14L, Frame 1783). Web map version at https://arcg.is/0jreeP.

In the 1950s and early '60s, with the Cold War at its peak, the United States flew U2 spy planes across Europe, the Middle East, and central eastern Asia, taking images of interesting military targets. Though the missions typically connected Point A to Point B, say an air field and an important city, in many cases the camera kept recording between those spots, capturing thousands of photos of the desert, steppes, fields, and villages below.

Such a collection can represent a goldmine for landscape archaeologists like Emily Hammer of the University of Pennsylvania and Jason Ur of Harvard University. But for decades, all film and documents from these missions--code-named CHESS by the U.S. government--remained classified. And even when they became public in 1997, they weren't indexed or scanned.

Until now, the majority of this kind of historical aerial documentation came from the CORONA spy satellite program, which the U.S. ran between 1959 and 1972. But only the highest-resolution CORONA images, taken during the program's final five years, are useful for most archaeological purposes. The U2 photos are earlier and a higher resolution than even the best CORONA images, offering the chance to see historical features undecipherable by CORONA or already gone by the time of those missions.

Knowing the potential insight offered by the U2 images, Hammer and Ur began sifting through the materials. By analyzing thousands of high- and low-resolution frames, they discovered many historical and archeological features, including prehistoric hunting traps, 3,000-year-old irrigation canals, and 60-year-old marsh villages no longer visible today. The work, which they published in the journal Advances in Archaeological Practice, represents the first archaeological use of U2 spy plane imagery--and a new and exciting window into history.

"The photos provide a fascinating look at the Middle East several decades ago, showing, for example, historical Aleppo long before the massive destruction wrought in the ongoing civil war," says Hammer, an assistant professor in Penn's Near Eastern languages and civilizations department. "Plus, the work and the accompanying online resources will allow other researchers to identify and access U2 photos for the first time."

Hammer and Ur have both conducted research in the Middle East for decades, in Turkey, Azerbaijan, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. They've also both used CORONA spy satellite imagery extensively. However, many of those image sets didn't date back as far as Hammer wished they would. "We knew that U2 spy planes must have taken thousands of images across large parts of the Middle East, but there was no easy way to access or reproduce the film negatives," she says.

A chance encounter with Lin Xu, a researcher who had retrieved U2 images of his hometown in China, led Hammer and Ur to press on. "Seeing the amazing quality of those archival photos," Hammer says, "we knew that it would be worth the detective work it would take to build a systematic index of them."

It wasn't an easy process. Ahead of time, they had to select the film rolls they wanted moved from the National Archives' storage center in Kansas to the aerial film section in Maryland. Once there, the researchers unspooled hundreds of feet of film over a light table to identify pertinent frames, then photographed the negatives in pieces using a 100-millimeter macro lens. Later, they stitched together and adjusted each frame, before geo-referencing the photos using GIS software to match up images with coordinates of real-world places.

Despite the tedium of some of the individual tasks, the process excited Hammer. "As you turn the spool of a film roll following the path of the U2 plane, you may not know exactly what you'll see in unfamiliar places, so there's often a sense of exploration and discovery," she says. "Other times, the pilots were flying over regions I knew by heart from travel and study, and I would almost hold my breath, hoping that the plane had veered just a little to the right or left."

The hours of work paid off, revealing many important archaeological features, including prehistoric hunting traps called desert kites in eastern Jordan, an Assyrian canal system in northern Iraq, and marshes in southern Iraq, case studies the researchers highlighted in their paper.

Desert kites, stone-wall structures that date back 5,000 to 8,000 years, were used to trap gazelle and other similar animals. The dry desert of eastern Jordan preserved many of them, but agricultural expansion in western Jordan dismantled or destroyed many more. The satellite images bring them back to life, showcasing a web of diamond-shaped enclosures with what look like long kite tails, offering the best view, to date, of these important hunting tools.

canal system Assyrians Iraq U2 spy plane Middle East
FIGURE 16. Ancient canals in northern Iraq: (a) U2 photograph of the subterranean canal above the Assyrian capital city of Nimrud (Mission 1554 Frame 398, January 29, 1960); (b) U2 photograph of Assyrian canals, tunnels, and sites at Negub (Mission 8648 Frame 853, October 30, 1959); (c) canals and site on the right bank of the Upper Zab River (Mission 1554 Frame 402, January 20, 1960). Web map version at https://arcg.is/uDb94; (d) DigitalGlobe image showing the growth of the modern town of Khabat over the features in 16c (June 2, 2016).

The second feature, the canal system in northern Iraq, provides insight into how an early empire maintained its power and governed, Hammer explains. "The Assyrians built the first large, long-lasting, multi-cultural empire of the ancient world, so many people are interested in how they organized territory, controlled people, built their huge cities, and managed the land," she says. "The irrigation system fed the royal capitals, made agricultural surplus production possible, and provided water to villages."

Finally, the U2 images of southern Iraq present the layout, size, and environmental position of Marsh Arab communities in the late 1950s and early 1960s, many of which disappeared after massive hydroelectric dams in Turkey, Syria, and Iraq impounded the rivers, and especially after the government of Saddam Hussein deliberately drained the marshes. Before that, "people lived a unique lifestyle there for thousands of years, herding water buffalo, building houses and all manner of things out of reeds, living on floating islands of reeds, planting date palms, and fishing," Hammer says. "Now we can study the spatial organization, demography, and lifestyles of these communities."

Though the three archaeological features represent different historical time scales, going back thousands of years or just decades, they all demonstrate how humans are changing the natural landscape, often in ways visible only from a 70,000-foot view.

Aerial images like those from the U2 spy missions allow archaeologists like Hammer and Ur to travel back in time. "The activities of ancient human communities frequently left large-scale traces on the landscape," Hammer says. "You can't see these patterns when you're standing on top of them, but just like stepping back from the blobs of paint on an Impressionist painting reveals the full picture, aerial and satellite imagery allow the patterns to emerge."

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Emily Hammer is an assistant professor in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations in the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania. She is also in the Anthropology and Art and Archaeology of the Mediterranean World graduate groups and is part of the Price Lab for Digital Humanities.

Jason Ur is a professor of anthropology in the Department of Anthropology at Harvard University and director of its Center for Geographic Analysis.

 

Press release from University of Pennsylvania

Pictures and captions from the paper Near Eastern Landscapes and Declassified U2 Aerial Imagery, by Emily Hammer and Jason Ur, Advances in Archaeological Practice, published online: 12 March 2019; 2019 © Society for American Archaeology. The article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution licence CC BY 4.0.