By William Mullen
Tribune Staff Writer
May 23, 2000 By Nick Thorpe
|The Tell Hamoukar site. Click and Drag Photo to resize.|
An ancient city in Syria discovered by scientists from the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute shows evidence that the age of cities and civilization dawned even earlier than previously believed.
Digging into a huge mound known as Tell Hamoukar, past villages and towns that disappeared thousands of years ago, a joint Chicago/Syrian team was astonished to discover something even older underneath: a protective city wall and other evidence of a complex government dating back at least 6,000 years.
Previously, the only cities archeologists had found dating to 4000 B.C. were in Sumeria, between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in what is now Iraq. Those places, such as ancient Ur and Uruk, then were in their infancy, centers of newly emerging complex kingdoms being amalgamated from tribal clans.
That the discovery at Hamoukar dates from the same period, said the Oriental Institute's McGuire Gibson, suggests that the ideas behind cities may have predated the Sumerians.
He and his colleagues are presenting their findings this week in Copenhagen at the International Conference on the Archeology of the Ancient Near East.
"We need to reconsider our ideas about the beginnings of civilization, pushing the time further back," said Gibson, who was co-director of the dig in northeast Syria with Muhammad Maktash of the Syrian Directorate General of Antiquities.
Gil Stein, a Northwestern University archeologist specializing in the same region and time period, said he believes Hamoukar to be a major and important find.
"Traditionally, scholars had viewed southern Mesopotamia as the area where urbanized states first developed, before spreading to less advanced areas," he said. "Hamoukar fits perfectly into this pattern that has been suggested for northern Mesopotamia, north Syria and southeast Turkey ... the idea that large regional centers of complex societies emerged more or less independently of southern Mesopotamia."
Archeologists differentiate between cities and villages partially by size but more importantly by the way they function.
In prehistoric, pre-civilization times, people lived in villages led by a tribal chief, and each household was largely self-sufficient. If those in a family needed pottery or cloth, for example, they made it themselves, just as they grew all their own food.
In the earliest cities, people already worked along lines of specialized labor. Potters made pottery for everyone else, as weavers made and traded in cloth, and architects designed and built large public works and buildings. Cities also were the first states, governed by a complex hierarchy of religious and political rulers.
Thinking last August that they were embarking on a relatively minor dig at Hamoukar, Gibson said he and his colleagues were stunned to find all of those attributes in a stratum of the mound 6,000 years old.
Digging preliminary trenches and excavations into the mound at the lowest level, in a period dating from 3500 to 4000 B.C., the archeologists found several items that indicated they were looking at a full-blown city and not a village or town.
Among them were extensive pieces of pottery, including some fine, almost porcelain-like pieces as thin as the shells of ostrich eggs that could have been produced only by sophisticated, organized manufacture. They also uncovered an area containing huge, institutional-size cooking ovens.
"There are big, ovoid, domed ovens full of ash, bones and burned seeds," Gibson said. "This is not cooking just for a family. You are using these things to feed hundreds of people working around there, and also for feeding the poor. I assume the ovens are connected to a palace or a temple institution."
Because the dig last year was their first look at the site, the archeologists were able to open up only a very small portion of the mound.
Beginning this summer, they will broaden their excavations, hoping to find portions of religious temples and royal palaces that would confirm that the site is that of a previously unknown early civilization.
"In the [oven] ash, we're also finding stamp seals and seal impressions," Gibson said.
Such seals were precursors of the first written language that appeared in Mesopotamia around 3500 B.C. The stamp seals bore impressions that were like primitive hieroglyphics, pressed into small pieces of wet clay that, when dried, were tokens used as records for trade transactions.
Two distinct types of stamp seals are in the ruins, he said. One is a very primitive form -- clay chunks simply incised with lines -- probably used by commoners. The other, more elaborate seals in the shapes of animals like ibexes, bears, dogs, rabbits, fish and birds presumably were used in a more official capacity of people commanding some sort of authority. Some of the most ornate ones are of lion heads joined at the back and a pair of lions.
"Seals," Gibson said, "are prime evidence of some kind of system of accounting or responsibility. The accounting system is tied to some sort of administrative system. You have a hierarchy of authority, two or three levels of people in which somebody with authority is there to check on the work of subordinates."
The dig also recovered a number of bone figurines called "eye idols," simple stick figures with huge eyes, believed to have some religious significance. The largest, most intact item of this sort was found in the grave of a small child.
Most tantalizing, said Gibson, was the discovery of a portion of a wall 10 feet high and 13 feet wide that seems to be a very early city wall constructed for self-defense, suggesting a high degree of central control, planning and administration.
"If we find more of it in another cut next summer, I will declare it to be a city wall for certain," Gibson said. "Having it would suggest earlier growth of complexity of social organizations in this part of the world than we previously thought."
One of the differences between the Hamoukar site and early Sumerian cities like Ur and Uruk is that Hamoukar does not sit alongside a river. Rivers and the long-distance transportation they provided made things easier for developing civilizations.
Hamoukar, sitting on an arid plain, did, however, lie along an established caravan trade route that ran through the Tigris and Euphrates river regions west to the Mediterranean. Along with goods like pottery, precious stones and textiles, those trade routes carried the ideas from one tribal area to another that archeologists believe germinated into civilization.
If Hamoukar was developing into a city and a civilization at the same time as Sumerian people in places like Ur and Uruk were doing the same things, Gibson said, archeologists will have to consider if those ideas sprang from an even earlier culture.
A prime candidate, he said, is a little-known culture in the Tigris and Euphrates region dating to about 4500 B.C., known as the Ubaid Period. Archeologists already know their pottery traveled along trade routes all the way to Saudi Arabia, Iran and the Mediterranean.
"I suspect that in a few years we're going to be talking about the beginning of the state period in the Ubaid Period," Gibson said.
In the Near East, a "tell" is a manmade mound rising out of the usually flat countryside. They are formed by successive building and destruction of human settlements on the same site. In the case of Tell Hamoukar, a modern village of 750 people sits atop the mound, formed by farmers after a land reform decree in 1964 gave them title to nearby lands.
The largest population on the site, according to the Oriental Institute, came around 2400 B.C., when a city of 10,000 to 20,000 people covered about 500 acres--about as big as cities could grow in those years.
How big Hamoukar was in 4000 B.C. will be revealed with future excavations, Gibson said.
Archaeologists have discovered a precious golden dagger dated to about 3,000 BC in a Thracian tomb in the centre of Bulgaria.
|Click and Drag Photo to resize.|
Bozhidar Dimitrov, head of Bulgaria's National Museum, told Reuters news agency the discovery was "sensational". It is the latest in a string of finds in the area in recent years which has excited archaeologists and has provided more details of the skills of the still mysterious Thracian civilisation.
According to officials at the museum, the dagger is 16cm (6in) long and is sharp enough to shave with.
More than 500 other miniature gold items were found in the same tomb.
The detail on the dagger suggests that it was used for sacrificial purposes.
The Thracian civilisation thrived on the edge of the ancient Greek and Roman empires in what is now Bulgaria, Romania, northern Greece and Turkey, and is believed to have lasted up to 4,000 years.
The historian Herodotus described the Thracian as savage, bloodthirsty warriors and provided a description of the elaborate funeral procedures for their rulers.
Other finds in recent years include a gold mask, an ancient Thracian temple, a crown and thousands of items of jewellery.
The alloy used in the latest find suggests a far greater degree of sophistication in metal-working that was previously known for that period.
"This significant find confirmed that people in this region were familiar with what was then high technology in metal processing," Mr Dimitrov told Reuters.