By KAREN COATES
Monday, December 12, 2016
Editor's Note: Originally published in the July/August 2005 issue
I’m following Belgian archaeologist Julie Van Den Bergh around Laos’ remote Xieng Khouang Province. We’re inspecting giant ancient vessels, which are scattered through rice paddies, forests, and hilltops at more than 60 sites across what is known as the Plain of Jars. Archaeologists think the jars were mortuary containers, perhaps 2,000 years old. But no one knows for sure their precise age, who built them, or why. They are swathed in mystery and surrounded by unexploded bombs.
Xieng Khouang Province is one of the most heavily bombed places on earth. Between 1964 and 1973, the United States dumped four billion pounds of bombs on the country in a “secret war” against Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese communists. Up to a third of them never exploded, and they litter the land today. While generally safe to tread upon, buried UXO (unexploded ordnance) can detonate when an erratic fuse is inadvertently triggered. The earth around here is dangerous to farmers plowing fields, children staking buffalo out to graze—and to archaeologists.
The jars are huge, up to nine feet tall, the largest weighing 14 tons. Most are carved of sandstone, others of granite, conglomerate, or calcified coral. Some are round, others angular, and a few have disks that appear to be lids. Tools and human remains found inside and around the jars suggest their use and manufacture spanned centuries. The bulk of material dates from 500 B.C. to A.D. 800, and additional carbon dates are expected this summer.
Archaeologists are certain the Plain of Jars is one of Southeast Asia’s most important archaeological sites—but it is one with more questions than answers.
French archaeologist Madeleine Colani pioneered research in Xieng Khouang in the 1930s. She found jars with cremated human remains and a nearby cave with burned bones and ash. Colani speculated the cave was a crematorium, the jars were mortuary vessels, and the fields were ancient cemeteries. Today, more than 2,000 jars have been identified across the province.
These archaeological treasures sit in one of the world’s poorest regions. That’s why Van Den Bergh, a UNESCO consultant from the Hong Kong–based Archaeological Assessments, is here. She hopes to turn the Plain of Jars into a UNESCO World Heritage site. The UNESCO-Lao Project to Safeguard the Plain of Jars aims not only to protect the vessels but to rehabilitate this remote province by clearing bombs, restoring agricultural lands, and promoting tourism.
A specialist in geoarchaeology with a decade of experience in Asia, Van Den Bergh has worked in Laos on six-week stints for four years now. In conjunction with the Lao government and a geographer from Bangkok, the project includes training Laotians to recover, record, and store archaeological material; create a precise map of the jar fields; and identify key areas for preservation and tourism development. The project also enlists local villagers to help with these tasks and involves the British-based Mines Advisory Group (MAG), a non-governmental organization hired to remove explosives from the most popular jar sites.
Some dub the Plain of Jars “the world’s most dangerous archaeological site,” and Van Den Bergh readily agrees. While archaeologists occasionally encounter UXO in war-torn countries and military testing grounds around the world, perhaps no archaeological site is as contaminated as the Plain of Jars. Two archaeologists conducted limited excavations in the 1990s without incident, “but that’s just luck,” Van Den Bergh says. “I’ve come home from surveying and thought, I’m happy to be getting into the car and coming home.”
My husband, Jerry, and I first visited Xieng Khouang in 1998. Back then, the capital, Phonsavan, was a Wild West sort of town with a main street of mud, on-again off-again water, and equally unreliable electricity. You could count on three fingers the tourists arriving each day. We stayed at a dimly lit guesthouse with a lobby full of bomb casings, mortar shells, grenades, and guns. Back then, we knew UXO still polluted the ground. But we didn’t know the jar sites remained riddled with bombs or that UXO continued to kill villagers every week in Xieng Khouang. And we didn’t know our guesthouse displayed four live bombs. (No worries now, MAG removed them.) When we arrive in Phonsavan this time, it’s still a dusty cow town, but the nights are ablaze with fluorescence, cheap restaurants and guest houses line the streets, and tourists from all over the world fill them.
Van Den Bergh drives us half an hour outside town, over a bone-rattling road, to a wooden house where MAG bases its operations. There, we meet Stuart Broome, the jovial ex-military man from Australia who heads the clearance team. The staff, about two dozen strong, are celebrating. Beer is flowing, music is thumping. A week ahead of schedule, they’ve just finished clearing Jar Sites 1, 2, and 3, the most popular tourist stops, each within a 45-minute drive of Phonsavan. Visitors now can safely explore those sites, provided they stick within MAG’s red-and-white concrete markers.
“Tourists come unaware of how dangerous Xieng Khouang is,” Van Den Bergh says. The jars have attracted travelers as long as Laos has, but many recent visitors never knew they were crossing contaminated land. Some local guides mistakenly told their guests all was safe and clear long before it was. Here, the ordnance problem isn’t visible, as it is in neighboring Cambodia, where land mines have left thousands of amputees. If UXO blows, “it’ll just kill you,” Broome says. No limbs lost, no person left. Nothing to illustrate the danger.
There is no reliable tally of UXO victims, but experts hear of at least one a week. They admit that’s probably low. Broome tells us of 11 accidents the week before we meet, “that we know of.” There were four two weeks before that, “that we know of.” But later we learn of eight more, for a total of 12. “That we know of” is an oft-used qualifier here.
MAG’s clearance records are staggering: Since work started in July 2004, the team has successfully removed and destroyed 127 pieces of UXO, cleared six acres, visually searched 55 acres, and found 31,814 pieces of scrap metal. And that’s just Site 1.
Finding explosives—using a variety of metal detectors covering 15-inch to seven-foot swathes—is a scrupulous task. Workers move back and forth, up and down a grid of red-rope lanes, detectors in hand. Each signal is marked with a red chip, and each chip is investigated by a technician with a shovel. They always dig down and toward the source, starting half a foot back. “We don’t dig on top,” Broome explains, “because that could cause UXO to blow.” UXO that is safe to move is stored until each Friday, when MAG detonates the entire week’s cache.
“It’s really similar, archaeology and bomb disposal,” Van Den Bergh wryly explains. When MAG clears a site, all the scrap metal is plopped in a bucket. Broome is first to peek at the findings, and Van Den Bergh’s quick to follow. Both are curious about the bucket, because its contents can tell a story about the site, either through bomb fragments or metal artifacts.
Broome and I examine the bucket one morning: a projectile fragment, cartridge cases, barbed wire, cans. I pick up a piece. “It’s a cartridge case from a recoilless rifle,” he says. He ogles an aluminum bit. “I think it’s part of a rocket motor.” It was all found in the parking lot at Site 3.
One bright Saturday, Van Den Bergh leads us through Site 1, pointing to hundreds of jars, scattered over parched grasslands and rolling hills just outside of town. A few cows graze through the area. Western tourists trundle downhill, ignoring the MAG markers; Laotian kids scramble uphill, doing the same. It will take time for people to learn.
We walk from jar to jar, each in small clusters. Van Den Bergh only has permission to survey on site. “All our excavations are connected to the MAG excavations,” she explains. “We don’t have permission to excavate for research.” She suspects the ground below our feet is rife with archaeological information—perhaps tools, burial urns, bones, or charcoal that could more precisely pin a date or offer conclusions on the historical background of the site. But Van Den Bergh is here solely to help prepare the sites for nomination for World Heritage status—taking inventory, mapping the jars, and creating a database. Working with MAG provided a bonus, the chance to see below the surface. “While they dig, we collect the information,” she says.
In fact, the jars have not been studied much. “Archaeologically, Laos is almost terra incognita,” writes Thongsa Sayavongkhamdy, the country’s only certified archaeologist and one of few to have excavated the jars. He, like Van Den Bergh, relies heavily on Colani, who documented her findings in two massive volumes titled The Megaliths of Upper Laos. Seventy years later, they remain the primary source on the jars.
The Plain of Jars seems to coincide with the Khorat Plateau in Thailand and the North Cachar Hills of India, where jar burials have also been found. These were transformative times, some 2,000 years ago, of agricultural advancement, metal manufacturing, religious expansion, widening Asian trade routes, and the societal precursors to urbanization. Colani speculated the Plain of Jars lay at an important intersection of trade routes that stretched, perhaps, from India to Vietnam.
She found beads and bronze and iron tools. The cave she discovered on Site 1 has blackened walls and two chimney openings that signaled to her that bodies had been cremated here before placement inside the jars.
Japanese archaeologist Eiji Nitta excavated some of the jars in 1994, and Thongsa followed a couple of years later. Both found burial pits containing human bones among the jars, and both concluded the sites were used for secondary burials. Van Den Bergh wonders about the archaeological discoveries over time: Colani found burned bones; Thongsa and Nitta found unburned. Did they stem from different periods? Were they halfhearted cremations? It seems the deceased was either buried or put in a stone jar for defleshing. Then the bones were either cremated or placed directly into an urn and buried. But questions nag her. Nitta found an urn with human bones and teeth beneath a jar at Site 1. It looked to him like tenth-century pottery from the Khmer Empire, and he concluded the stone jar directly above this urn could be no older than that. If so, that would make the jar 1,000 years younger than previously thought. Van Den Bergh doesn’t dispute this date but thinks the jar sites were occupied and used over many centuries.
Nitta, who returned to Japan, has sent his reports to Van Den Bergh—but she has not been able to reach him since. She has spoken with Thongsa several times, but he now studies in Australia and their work at the jars has yet to coincide. (He declined to be interviewed for this article.) Furthermore, many of Colani’s artifacts have disappeared from Laos over the years. So Van Den Bergh plugs along with what she has.
She questions villagers, hoping they’ll know something about the jars. But they always return to the same legend of an ancient king named Khun Cheung, an epic battle against an evil enemy, and a grand victory celebrated with copious quantities of alcohol some 1,500 years ago. The jars, they say, stored tons of lao lao, a hammering rice whiskey still enjoyed today.
Van Den Bergh doesn’t discount this theory. Like any good Belgian, she likes her beer. When people die in Belgium, “it always involves lots of drinking,” she says. “So I can understand lots and lots of lao lao on a grave site.” (Though she doubts the jars were fermenters.)
As we continue touring Site 1, she points toward a zigzag of war-era trenches, to the bottoms of bomb craters where villagers dig for scrap metal, to a cavity in the hillside once used as a tank position.
She points to broken jars, a cause of consternation. They’ve been bombed and looted. Cows rub them, tourists climb them, trees straddle them. Villagers fashion the jars into water troughs or knife sharpeners. “Between the war, cattle, people, and trees, we are losing a lot,” she says. The weaker the jars get, the quicker they topple.
So she has a few plans. A bamboo fence will enclose some of the jars to deter cows, but she doesn’t want an overly restrictive situation. After all, part of the charm is that people can walk freely among the jars. But the cows must go, and so must some of the trees. “People come up here and picnic,” she says. “It’s just not acceptable.... We don’t want people to stay on site. We just want them to visit.”
In fact, Van Den Bergh wants more visitors. About 9,000 traveled to Site 1 last year from all over the world, but only a third of those reached Site 2, and fewer yet Site 3, which lies farther outside town. Van Den Bergh hopes tourism can spur the local agrarian economy, which affords most people less than a dollar each day. Site 1 is run by the government, but at other sites surrounding villages get half of the 7,000-kip (70-cent) entrance fees. Van Den Bergh hopes new jar sites will open soon, though “they’re not safe, of course.” They haven’t been cleared of UXO. Funding for MAG’s role in the project ended with clearance for Sites 1, 2 and 3.
Van Den Bergh’s is a shoestring operation, evident as soon as we enter her office. It sits on the second floor of a wooden building, a rustic work room with a back half stocked with shelves and metal trunks. Her face brightens as she reveals her treasures, collected from various sites, packed in plastic bags and acid-free paper: pottery sherds, a stone adze, a bugle (presumably French or Chinese, left in a war-era trench), a small Buddha, six metal knives, and tools made of flaky white stone.
Then she beckons to the back, smiling: “Our pride and joy!” There, wrapped gingerly in Ace bandages and foam, packed in wooden crates, are two urns found in a Site 1 trench dug during UXO clearance. They’re about two feet tall, brown, and coated in resin, and they look like bombs—which is what Van Den Bergh was told when she took one to the hospital for x-rays. They also resemble the urn Nitta found with bones. Van Den Bergh’s pots are stuffed with soil, too fragile to empty, but the x-rays revealed a possible bone fragment inside. Someday, she’ll figure a way to get at the contents.
But she doesn’t have the money right now. UNESCO is paying $275,000 for the project, but that includes overhead and fund-raising costs. Only about half that amount reaches Van Den Bergh in the field.
A few years back, project members started going village to village asking, Do you have jars? If so, they could attract tourists and money. Van Den Bergh still crisscrosses the province, greeting villagers and sitting for hours on wooden floors in homes on stilts. She is accompanied by government officials, and the meetings require exhaustive explanations: what the jars mean to archaeology, why tourists are interested, how tourism might help villagers. The jars are valuable relics, she explains, and UNESCO hopes to protect them as World Heritage—a status afforded to few.
Villagers usually don’t think much of the jars—they’re just rocks in the backyard. But once they get the idea that the jars are really important, they start talking about “new” jars. They had always been there, but no one realized they mattered.
We attend one of these meetings, in Na Xaytong village, an hour’s drive from Phonsavan. Chan Mootee, an elder, says the villagers here attribute healing qualities to the jars, and they pour jar water over the heads of ill children. Many years ago, he says, village monks rolled a jar to the temple for use as a water basin. But many people quickly grew sick, so the monks returned the jar to its original site.
When all the stories have been told, we gather for a feast of cabbage soup, boiled chicken, green-papaya salad, and a tray of fried innards in congealed duck blood—which we forgo. But what comes next, no one can avoid: the lao lao. Round and round the room it goes, several sherry glasses of firewater offered in an ancient tradition of hospitality and celebration.
That meeting is a prelude to a long hike to a survey site near a Hmong village called Ban Phakeo—a place with many jars but little in the way of tourism development. It’s a half-hour trudge downhill until the trail crosses a rickety bamboo bridge and makes a sharp upward turn. We see miles of blue-green mountains in hot haze. “I’m not tired,” Van Den Bergh pants, after another 90 minutes hiking through the sweltering jungle. “I’m just dead.”
Ban Phakeo is a collection of wooden homes, most with earthen floors, thatch roofs, and cluster-bomb casings for planters and feed troughs. The one-room schoolhouse has a bell made from bomb scrap, and the walls are decked with posters showing kids proper behavior around UXO: Don’t stake your buffalo to the ground; tie it to a tree instead. Never touch UXO. Tell an adult if you see something suspicious.
Farther uphill, another half an hour away, there are nearly 400 jars toppled in the forest, covered in mosaics of green and white lichens. The team quickly gets to business, stretching a tape measure from jar to jar, numbering, measuring, and photographing details. We spend two days among these ancient vessels, and the team works diligently amid scrub brush and trees, avoiding thoughts of UXO. Nothing here has been cleared.
It’s amazing, these jars sitting in the woods, on a windy hill. I catch Van Den Bergh in a moment of reflection, and she offers a pensive sigh. “They’re beautiful, aren’t they?” It is, really, the only imaginable comment. The beauty of these magnificent jars is indisputable; their value to archaeology is certain. These things are known. But for now, little else about the jars is.
Karen Coates is author of Cambodia Now: Life in the Wake of War. See more of her work at www.redcoates.net.
By SAMIR S. PATEL
Thursday, December 01, 2016
The two hours of the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, might be the most heavily documented and studied in history. There are eight official investigations, from a Naval Court of Inquiry to a Joint Congressional Committee, reams of records, and enough books, oral histories, documentaries, and feature films to fill a library. Yet there are still things that can be learned about the morning when 350 Japanese warplanes killed 2,403 Americans, wounded another 1,104, and sank or severely damaged 21 ships in a coordinated attack on military sites around Oahu, Hawaii.
A number of factors have obscured details—big and small—from that day. For example, the surprise of the attack complicated eyewitness accounts. Secrecy shrouded the active war effort on both sides. And, in the aftermath, the United States rushed to rebuild its naval power in the Pacific with the greatest maritime salvage project in history, which returned all but three of the damaged ships to service. This effort begins to explain why there are few archaeological sites directly tied to December 7.
In 2016, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management completed the first database of submerged cultural resources in the main Hawaiian Islands. Of 2,114 entries, just five come from the attack: two battleships in the harbor, two Japanese submarines in deep water, and a lone American seaplane. All were spared salvage—and in some cases discovery—for decades by some combination of depth, damage, and respect for the dead.
For the United States, Pearl Harbor stands alongside Yorktown, Gettysburg, Little Bighorn, and other iconic battlefields as a crucible of American identity. But it is different in both its freshness in memory and its inaccessibility, since most of the surviving remnants lie underwater, within active military installations, or both. It was 40 years before the underwater sites became the subject of archaeological inquiry. “We’re gaining a much more detailed understanding of the battlefield and all of its nuances,” says James Delgado, director of maritime heritage for NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, who has been directly involved in several of the archaeological projects at Pearl Harbor. “Seventy-five years on, the view is far more comprehensive and three-dimensional, not just in terms of the major events, but also individual experiences.”
Today there are very few survivors of the attack, and fewer each year. The sites discussed here will soon be the only primary sources about an event that changed the course of the twentieth century. They are being studied not out of historical curiosity, but to ensure their stewardship for the future.
By JARRETT A. LOBELL
Tuesday, January 13, 2015
In the middle of Rome’s trendiest neighborhood, surrounded by sushi restaurants and nightclubs with names like Rodeo Steakhouse and Love Story, sits the ancient world’s biggest garbage dump—a 150-foot-tall mountain of discarded Roman amphoras, the shipping drums of the ancient world. It takes about 20 minutes to walk around Monte Testaccio, from the Latin testa and Italian cocci, both meaning “potsherd.” But despite its size—almost a mile in circumference—it’s easy to walk by and not really notice unless you are headed for some excellent pizza at Velavevodetto, a restaurant literally stuck into the mountain’s side. Most local residents don’t know what’s underneath the grass, dust, and scattering of trees. Monte Testaccio looks like a big hill, and in Rome people are accustomed to hills.
Although a garbage dump may lack the attraction of the Forum or Colosseum, I have come to Rome to meet the team excavating Monte Testaccio and to learn how scholars are using its evidence to understand the ancient Roman economy. As the modern global economy depends on light sweet crude, so too the ancient Romans depended on oil—olive oil. And for more than 250 years, from at least the first century A.D., an enormous number of amphoras filled with olive oil came by ship from the Roman provinces into the city itself, where they were unloaded, emptied, and then taken to Monte Testaccio and thrown away. In the absence of written records or literature on the subject, studying these amphoras is the best way to answer some of the most vexing questions concerning the Roman economy—How did it operate? How much control did the emperor exert over it? Which sectors were supported by the state and which operated in a free market environment or in the private sector?
“So, professor, just how many amphoras are there?” I ask José Remesal of the University of Barcelona, co-director of the Monte Testaccio excavations. It’s the same question that must occur to everyone who visits the site when they realize that the crunching sounds their footfalls make are not from walking on fallen leaves, but on pieces of amphoras. (Don’t worry, even the small pieces are very sturdy.) Remesal replies in his deep baritone, “Something like 25 million complete ones. Of course, it’s difficult to be exact,” he adds with a typical Mediterranean shrug. I, for one, find it hard to believe that the whole mountain is made of amphoras without any soil or rubble. Seeing the incredulous look on my face as I peer down into a 10-foot-deep trench, Remesal says, “Yes, it’s really only amphoras.” I can’t imagine another site in the world where archaeologists find so much—about a ton of pottery every day. On most Mediterranean excavations, pottery washing is an activity reserved for blisteringly hot afternoons when digging is impossible. Here, it is the only activity for most of Remesal’s team, an international group of specialists and students from Spain and the United States. During each year’s two-week field season, they wash and sort thousands of amphoras handles, bodies, shoulders, necks, and tops, counting and cataloguing, and always looking for stamped names, painted names, and numbers that tell each amphora’s story.
Although scholars worked at Monte Testaccio beginning in the late 19th century, it’s only within the past 30 years that they have embraced the role amphoras can play in understanding the nature of the Roman imperial economy. According to Remesal, the main challenge archaeologists and economic historians face is the lack of “serial documentation,” that is, documents for consecutive years that reflect a true chronology. This is what makes Monte Testaccio a unique record of Roman commerce and provides a vast amount of datable evidence in a clear and unambiguous sequence. “There’s no other place where you can study economic history, food production and distribution, and how the state controlled the transport of a product,” Remesal says. “It’s really remarkable.”
What's in a Name?
Monte Testaccio has stood relatively undisturbed for more than 2,000 years in ancient Rome’s Emporium district, the main port on the Tiber River from the late Republic (second century B.C.) to the end of the empire in A.D. 476. The trash heap was part of the everyday Roman landscape until a new city wall was built by the emperors Aurelian and Probus between A.D. 271 and 280, effectively closing Monte Testaccio off from the river and ending its usefulness as a dump. After the fall of Rome, the area was largely abandoned, but Monte Testaccio always had a role in the city’s life. In the Middle Ages, it was used for religious festivals such as the Way of the Cross, owing to its resemblance to the hill of Calvary. The area around the hill was also the site of jousting tournaments and public spectacles.
Throughout the 19th century, excluding a brief moment in 1849 when Italian patriot Giuseppe Garibaldi used it as a gun emplacement during his fight for Italian unification, families went to Monte Testaccio for picnics. Wine merchants discovered that Monte Testaccio’s interior was remarkably cool, and deep caves were cut into the sides to create storage cellars that were in use until about 100 years ago. Even into the 20th century, Romans went to pick arugula and hunt rabbits on Monte Testaccio, until it was closed to the public more than a decade ago at a time when people used the park to shoot heroin instead of bunnies. Throughout the millennia, Monte Testaccio was sometimes thought to be a dumping ground for debris from the emperor Nero’s A.D. 64 fire that destroyed much of the city, or for discarded funerary urns from the columbaria along the nearby Via Ostiense. The amphora sherds also provided a seemingly never-ending supply of tiles to refurbish the neighborhood and for visitors to take home as souvenirs.
In 1872, Monte Testaccio attracted the attention of German archaeologist Heinrich Dressel, who came to Rome to study and catalogue the amphoras and their inscriptions. By reading the consular dates (years in which consuls, the highest non-imperial officers, were in power) on the amphoras, Dressel concluded that Monte Testaccio had been used as a dump from the reign of Augustus until the mid- to late third century A.D. Contrary to the opinion of contemporary French scholars who, perhaps not surprisingly, thought that the amphoras at Testaccio had held wine from France, Dressel claimed they had contained olive oil from the province of Baetica, the region of Spain that is now Andalusia. But for nearly 100 years after Dressel, scholars paid little attention to his discoveries.
Finally, in the 1960s, Spanish archaeologist Emilio Rodriguez Almeida came to Testaccio to investigate how and when the hill was formed. He discovered, and Remesal’s current excavations have confirmed, that it grew in two distinct phases—an eastern section in use from the Augustan era through the mid-second century A.D., and a later one on the western side used extensively until A.D. 265, the latest consular date yet found. Remesal believes the sheer number of amphoras suggests Monte Testaccio had its own system of administration, although how this might have worked is unclear.
The current team has also solved the mystery of how the mountain was actually formed. They discovered that amphoras without bases were filled with sherds and used to make artificial terraces. Additional sherds were dumped behind these “amphora walls” until the top of the wall was reached. Another row was then begun on top of it and set back a bit to form a sloping hill, which gradually grew to its current (and Remesal thinks close to final) height.
What's in a Name?
Eager to resume my tour—is it really all amphoras on the other side, too?—I continue up the hill with Remesal. It’s surprisingly quiet on the 10-minute walk to the top, although the tranquility is regularly shattered by the wail of ambulances speeding down the tiny streets of the neighborhood of Testaccio, which uses an amphora on its administrative seal. As we reach the top and take in the stunning vista, I am thrilled by my first-ever view of the top of the Pantheon’s dome, impressed by the massiveness of St. Peter’s in the distance, and amazed by the density of streets, rooftops, palaces, and churches that make up this extraordinary city. Then I remember I am standing on a mountain of garbage. But thanks to the passage of a few thousand years and the thick coating of lime with which the ancient Romans covered the amphoras to mask the smell of rancid leftover oil, it doesn’t smell like your typical landfill.
Today, we covet Italian extra virgin olive oil, but in the Roman Empire the Italian peninsula couldn’t produce nearly enough to meet the population’s needs. In addition to being one of the staples of the Mediterranean diet, olive oil was also used for bathing, lighting, medicine, and as a mechanical lubricant. During the emperor Augustus’s reign, olive oil as well as other products, including garum (the fish sauce Romans used to flavor everything from steamed mussels to pear soufflés), metals, and wine began to come into Rome as tax payment in kind from the provinces of Hispania (roughly modern Spain), especially Baetica. Over the next several hundred years, Baetican oil imports continued to grow, reaching their peak at the end of the second century A.D. All of this oil came in amphoras. These inexpensive, durable, and often reusable containers (not to be confused with the expensive Greek painted fineware used as prizes in athletic games) were produced all over the empire in distinctive shapes from local materials. More than 85 percent of the amphoras found at Monte Testaccio are the type from Baetica known as Dressel 20, following Dressel’s classification system, which is still in use today. The other 15 percent came from North Africa, chiefly Libya and Tunisia, and are easily distinguished by thinner walls and a more slender shape. Amphoras were also used to transport other products, although the mountains of amphoras for wine or fish products (if they survive) have not been found.
The Dressel 20 was perfect for long sea voyages because its globular shape made it less likely to tip over and spill its contents. We can easily imagine ships with cargoes of Dressel 20 amphoras reaching Portus, the Roman port first built beginning in A.D. 42 by the emperor Claudius to replace the old one at Puteoli (modern Pozzuoli). Several shipwrecks, including the Cabrera III wreck found near Mallorca and the Port Vendres II close to Marseille, were found carrying full loads of Baetican exports that included olive oil in Dressel 20s. At Portus, or in the imperial warehouses closer to Monte Testaccio, the oil was emptied into smaller containers for distribution throughout the city. The amphoras were then taken, probably by mule, to Monte Testaccio, where they were discarded. Although many types of amphoras were reused as flower pots and drainpipes, the thick walls and tendency of the Dressel 20s to break into large curved fragments limited their value as recycled products. Much like New York City, which temporarily suspended its plastic bottle recycling program several years ago because of its cost, so too the Romans may have found it cheaper just to throw the amphoras away.
Oil and amphoras produced in Hispania and transported to Rome for unloading, distribution, and disposal, help tell the story of the Roman economy. Since there is little archaeological evidence of trade in other products such as grain and wine, they also provide a unique snapshot of how Rome developed large-scale imports from the provinces. With such a high volume of imported oil, the Romans needed a system to control distribution and deter cheating and fraud. One of the many advantages of amphoras is that they are easy to write on. Each one carries a thorough accounting of its contents and of the people involved in its creation and transfer. These inscriptions include stamps and incised marks made before firing that refer to the production of the amphora and tituli picti—words, names, and numbers painted on after firing. Both provide a wealth of information about the production, administration, and transport of oil.
What's in a Name?
According to Roman pottery expert Theodore Peña of the Institute for European and Mediterranean Archaeology at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York, “One of the keys to comprehending the Roman economy is to understand how the emperor supplied the people of Rome with basic foodstuffs.” This is where Monte Testaccio is again the best source. “In looking at these amphoras,” Peña continues, “we realize that this apparatus for handling oil and possibly grain was unique and went far beyond what the empire did for any other products.” Augustus, who became emperor in 27 B.C., knew that his power base came from two sources—the army and the plebs, or common people. He also understood that the needs of a growing population of Rome (between 600,000 and one million in the first century A.D.), along with a massive army stationed along frontiers from Spain to Syria, demanded a sophisticated and complex system to transport food and raw materials between Rome and its provinces. The emperor ensured the army’s support by paying and feeding it. He likewise bought the plebians’ loyalty by continuing the tradition, established in the mid-first century B.C., of providing them with access to free grain and by subsidizing the price of olive oil much like the current state-regulated price of tortillas in Mexico or baguettes in Tunisia. More than a century after Augustus, the Roman satirist Juvenal would give lasting expression to this populist approach in the famous line about the emperor giving the Romans “bread and circuses” in exchange for their freedom. To administer these needs, Augustus set up the praefectura annonae, or “prefect of the provisions,” an office whose function remains hotly debated. Some scholars believe the annona only handled the grain distribution for the plebs. But Remesal argues that the office served all of Rome’s inhabitants and dealt with many products, including olive oil. “From Augustus’s time, olive oil amphoras from Baetica are found at Monte Testaccio and as far as the northern borders of the empire, in the provinces of Brittania and Retia [parts of Austria and Germany],” he says. “I don’t think this could have happened without the emperor being directly involved.” But how far-reaching was this so-called “command economy,” the state-driven system controlled by the empire that brought olive oil to Rome and the amphoras to Monte Testaccio? University of Southampton archaeologist Simon Keay, who directs a major survey project at Portus, says, “The imperial finger is clearly on the pulse and they are very closely controlling and monitoring everything, but it’s not heavily bureaucratic. Rather, this is a system of small suppliers who are well controlled and monitored, not a system of great trade routes like other empires have had. It is uniquely Roman.”
Monte Testaccio is not one of those sites that amazes either with its beauty or its ability to transport the visitor to another time. In the Forum, walking among the still-standing columns and stepping on the ancient pavement makes me feel as though I am in ancient Rome. I can see the Vestal Virgins walking solemnly to their beautiful round temple to make burnt offerings to the goddess of the hearth; I can almost smell the smoke. Just in front of me, the emperors Titus and Septimius Severus march at the heads of their victorious armies, chained prisoners and captured kings and queens dragging behind them. Looking east to the Colosseum, I hear the roar of the crowd as two gladiators fight to the death. But in a way that no temples, triumphal arches, or arenas ever can be, Monte Testaccio is incontrovertible evidence of the Romans’ ability to move the empire’s vast resources in an organized fashion, to feed their people, and to offer them a previously unknown level of stability. On the last day I am at Monte Testaccio, a University of Barcelona student going through a bucket finds an amphora missing only its base—the shoulders, neck, and handles are complete and the stamp and tituli picti are still there. Remesal takes the amphora and hands it to me, a smile creeping over his face, and says, “Here history is not read in books. We read history on the pots.”
Jarrett A. Lobell is executive editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.
What's in a Name?
By MARION BLACKBURN
Tuesday, April 05, 2016
Long time we travel on way to new land. People feel bad when they leave Old Nation. Women cry and made sad wails. Children cry and many men cry, and all look sad like when friends die, but they say nothing and just put heads down and keep on go towards West. Many days pass and people die very much.
—A Cherokee account from The Oklahoman, 1929, cited by John Ehle in Trail of Tears: The Rise and Fall of the Cherokee Nation, 1988
It’s easy to miss this subtle groove, covered in pine straw and vines, worn in the ground of eastern Tennessee. In the summer of 1838, about 13,000 Cherokee walked this path from their homes in the Appalachian Mountains to a new, government-mandated homeland in Oklahoma. They traveled over land and water and were held in military camps along the way. Unlike other settlers heading west, who saw in America’s open expanses the hope of a new life, the Cherokee traveled with a military escort. They left behind highly coveted land that was, even as they walked, being divided up among white land speculators.
The Trail of Tears was a journey of some 900 miles that took approximately nine months to complete. After they were rounded up from their villages and homes, the Cherokee were assembled in large internment camps, where some waited for weeks before heading out in waves of approximately 1,000, following different paths, depending on the season.
As many as 4,000 died along the way from dehydration, tuberculosis, whooping cough, and other hardships— by some accounts, a dozen or more were buried at each stop. Some escaped along the way and were caught and returned to the march like criminals. Still others refused to leave, hiding out in the mountains, joining others on small farms where, stripped of tribal connections and burdened with unclear legal status, they faced an uncertain future.
Despite all our historical knowledge of the forced removal, there has been little study of the archaeology of the trail, the internment camps along the way, and the farms that sheltered those who stayed behind. The military forts that held the Cherokee in crowded, unsanitary conditions have been largely consumed by development or otherwise lost. The homesteads back East, where resistors lived under constant threat of arrest, went undocumented. Buildings, roads, farms, and floods have claimed almost all of these sites. In addition to a lack of material evidence, there has long been an uneasy, even contentious, relationship between Native Americans and archaeologists. Through neglect and distrust, this sad chapter has been at risk of fading from collective memory, taking with it any chance to understand the relationships between refugees and soldiers, and cultural information about the Cherokee themselves—what they carried, how they traveled, why they died.
That now stands to change. In eastern Tennessee, archaeologists are excavating the site of Fort Armistead, a U.S. Army encampment that served as a holding area and one of the first stops for North Carolina Cherokee on their forced journey west. Hidden deep in Cherokee National Forest, the site has managed to escape the damage or destruction that has visited nearly every other significant trace of the trail and camps.
Fort Armistead lodged as many as 3,000 Cherokee over several months in 1838. Today, the site sits on about four acres of a mountaintop clearing. It consists of foundation blocks, collapsed piles of chimney stones, trash pits, and window glass—plus an enigmatic stone pipe—all settled gently into the ground, covered by only a thin layer of dirt, leaves, straw, and moss. For four weeks in the summer of 2011, archaeologists from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), and Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee, held the fourth field season at the site. The same archaeologists also have been conducting excavations about 35 miles east, across the North Carolina border, at the sites of long-forgotten homesteads where fugitive Cherokee found refuge and community.
“Any [Cherokee] who came from North Carolina came through here,” says archaeologist Brett Riggs, an adjunct associate professor at UNC, of the Fort Armistead site. “We have an archaeological site and records that speak directly to it.”
Spindly hardwoods and pines surround the clearing. The archaeologists began their efforts in 2006 at the invitation of USFS officials, who had just purchased the property from private owners. Artifacts have been found throughout the immediate area, but the main digs of the 2011 field season focused on a space at the northern end about the size of two city buses. Exposed cut stones set in powdery soil, chimney blocks, and the remains of fire pits compose what was once the barracks area. Another foundation there probably supported the quartermaster’s residence, and a pit across the site likely served as a powder magazine. “You are right in the footsteps of the Cherokee,” says Quentin Bass, an archaeologist with the USFS. “[Fort Armistead] is the only example of a removal-era fort that essentially hasn’t been disturbed since the soldiers left. It’s the dream for an archaeologist—to find an untouched site to explore and preserve.”
These undisturbed remains of apparently substantial structures suggest that the federal government poured significant staff and resources into the fort during its military occupation. Beyond the barrack foundations, in a sunny opening in the tree cover, is a key public place, the fort’s parade ground. Wide dirt roads lead right and left beyond that, and a gentle slope leads down to a creek.
Fort Armistead was formally established in 1832, ostensibly to protect local Cherokee from gold prospectors. It was the only U.S. outpost in the Cherokee Nation, whose land at that time extended from western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee south through Georgia and into Alabama.
The fort was near a corridor that already served as a major source of cultural interaction, where different tribes traded, especially the Cherokee and the Creek (also known as the Muscogee). Cattle and pig rustlers, slave traders heading to South Carolina, gold miners, trappers, and hunters all came through along this route, known as the Unicoi Turnpike. Indeed, soldiers stationed at the fort often appropriated goods (including whiskey) for themselves, Riggs says. For the next several years, the fort was irregularly staffed and maintained.
Prior to the Civil War, trade and land speculation in the South often put businessmen and speculators at odds with Native Americans who occupied the land they coveted. The federal response to this problem was the Indian Removal Act, which passed by a narrow margin in 1830. The law marked a monumental shift for the young nation by officially claiming Native lands for its expanding population and farming needs. The act granted the Natives money and land in the West if they left their homes in the South. To sell the act to the public, the federal government asserted that Native Americans were primitive migrants—hunter-gatherers who would not be able to modernize. It was also cast as a measure to protect Natives from more violent efforts to claim the land on which they lived. However, it clearly overlooked that many tribes throughout the Southeast lived in villages and towns and were adept pastoralists, farmers, and entrepreneurs, with strong spiritual ties to their lands. President Andrew Jackson, a land speculator himself, championed the controversial act and stood to profit from it. In the ensuing decades, the legislation stoked moral outrage that also helped fuel the abolitionist movement.
The Cherokee fought eviction through official channels, eventually winning support for independent status from the U.S. Supreme Court—a decision that prompted Jackson to say, “[Chief Justice] John Marshall has made his decision; let him enforce it now if he can.” Harassment, uncertainty, and eroding negotiating leverage ultimately fatigued the Cherokee. In 1835, a minority Cherokee group agreed to relocation, or removal, under the terms of the Treaty of New Echota. Deportation might then have seemed a kind of escape. The treaty included $5 million for the tribe, along with compensation for the land and possessions they abandoned.
The Cherokee, which white Americans called one of the Five Civilized Tribes, considered themselves American and wanted to join the growing country as participating members. In 1827, the Cherokee ratified a constitution modeled after the American one. They also assumed some aspects of American culture, in an effort to acculturate and escape the fate they had seen befall other Southeastern tribes, such as the Choctaw, the first tribe to move to the West in 1830, or the Seminoles, who violently resisted removal from Florida.
“The Cherokee were trying to play by American rules,” says archaeologist Lance Greene, who worked with Riggs at UNC and now works at the Fort Armistead dig. “They were forming their own national government. A large part of the population had converted to Christianity. They sang Christian hymns as they were marching. There’s still an image of savage Indians living in tepees, but maybe the Cherokee, more than anybody, made an attempt [to acculturate]. But ultimately it failed.”
Despite the apparent Cherokee desire to join instead of fight, the federal government began a military buildup in preparation for what it assumed would become a long, bloody conflict. As part of this militarization, they reactivated Fort Armistead in 1836 and occupied it with soldiers who marched there from Florida. By the summer of 1838, more than 7,000 federal and state troops were stationed throughout the Cherokee Nation—a remarkably high concentration for America’s nascent military.
“What drove their idea of a protracted conflict in North Carolina was the unanimous opposition to the Treaty of New Echota and strong activism to prevent its ratification, and then to have it annulled,” Riggs says. “There were rumors afoot that there would be a guerilla war in North Carolina. The military was poised for an eventuality that never happened.”
There was no insurgency and little resistance when the military began the roundup of the Cherokee in June and July 1838. Most of them gathered what belongings they could and came together in their town squares or waited for a soldier’s knock on the door (though some did seek refuge in the mountains). Coming together as they accepted their fate became a final act of preservation for their families, communities, and values, Riggs says. “They were trying to promote the cohesion of their group,” he adds. “They were making a political statement, a moral statement. They believed very strongly in the ideals of this country and the moral imperative to treat everybody fairly.”
For Cherokee living in North Carolina, Fort Armistead was the first stop outside their home state. It held as many as 800 to 1,000 for stays of two or three nights. These included not only the Cherokee, but also those traveling with them, including Creek and African Americans, some of them slaves. They continued on to a series of other outposts (there were up to 30 forts or stops along the trail) in Tennessee, including Fort Cass, the main holding site, near present-day Charleston, which was known for its especially unbearable conditions. In summer 1838, when drought made river levels so low that a planned river route became impossible—and heat made an overland course deadly—the march was delayed until fall, leaving thousands of Cherokee to languish there to face disease and death.
Once the Cherokee were moved and soldiers left in 1838, Fort Armistead was abandoned. From the Civil War period through the turn of the century, the site was privately owned, until it was purchased by the USFS in 2005, and archaeological exploration began the next year.
“We poked around and realized that, in fact, the site had never been plowed,” Riggs says, a common fate for many archaeological sites in the Southeast. “Many of the anomalies that we were seeing on the surface, which I thought were small piles pushed up by a bulldozer, were melted chimneys and cellar pits that had been filled in [by settling debris].” Riggs says the site is in “as nearly pristine condition as you find in the East.
“When you start, you are immediately within an archaeological feature. You have to approach it with kid gloves from the outset,” he adds.
The 2011 dig season, which also included Bass and students from Lee University, focused on several large architectural features, primarily the quartermaster’s house and the enlisted-men’s quarters. The foundation stones easily emerged from the surrounding dirt, lying so near the surface that in many cases soil could be removed by vacuum. The archaeologists discovered a surprising solidity and permanence to these structures, suggesting a highly organized and militarized approach to the removal of the Cherokee. In addition, the stone most likely was brought from up to five miles away, indicating extensive manpower was likely needed for the construction.
“The structure was even more substantial than we thought,” Greene says. “It’s almost a solid rock floor. If you have something that heavy, then you’re almost building it as a foundation for a cannon. But they didn’t have that firepower at the camp. They may have overbuilt some of the structures to keep the soldiers occupied. They must have had a stonemason who was skilled enough to do that work. The stone is cut to make very tight joints. They’ve done some fine stone work.”
The seemingly grand military scale of the fort was not necessary to control the Cherokee, the demeanor of whom has been described as subdued and orderly. The fort grounds ordinarily used for drills may instead have served as a sleeping and cooking area for the internees. Direct evidence of Cherokee at the fort—or anywhere along the Trail of Tears for that matter—is vanishingly rare. Yet one find at Fort Armistead not only confirms the Cherokee presence in the area before their removal, but also suggests what sort of artifacts might be unearthed that could help reveal how the Cherokee and the soldiers stationed there interacted.
The broken remains of a carved stone Cherokee pipe were discovered at the site of the soldiers’ barracks. The pipe, which was probably discarded before it was fully carved, was found in a deposit with military regalia that date it to a time before removal. So while it says little about the experience of the Cherokee as they were interned there, it implies that before removal, “you had Cherokees coming in and hanging around the fort,” Riggs says.
“To find evidence of their presence is amazing,” Greene adds. “[The soldiers and Cherokee] are dealing with each other on a face-to-face basis. It brings up those questions, makes you think about what happened on the ground. How could you explain this?”
Other finds in 2011 include ceramics, such as pearl ware, and glass dating the site to the removal period. A faceted blue glass bead, from the 1820s or 1830s, emerged from the foundation stones (and may, in fact, be of Cherokee origin). Also, more than 4,200 distinct metal objects have been documented.
The excavation and study of the site of Fort Armistead is beginning to flesh out the story of those who left. Now, the Cherokee, whose capital is Tahlequah in eastern Oklahoma, number some 300,000—comprising the United States’ second largest tribal nation. But the small band of Cherokee who stayed behind left a smaller but still significant legacy in southern Appalachia. It is estimated that about 400 Cherokee remained in North Carolina after the others were removed. They hid in the mountains where, unable to trade publicly, they found ways to survive by cooperating with one another. They often lived together in homesteads, and the Eastern Band of the Cherokee, which today numbers about 10,000, descends from residents of those homesteads.
In Andrews, North Carolina, just over the border from his work at Fort Armistead, Greene is excavating a farm once owned by John Welch, a Cherokee, and his white wife, Elizabeth. After removal, the state took over their land. John avoided relocation to Oklahoma because of his marriage, and Elizabeth repurchased the farm, where they further defied the Indian Removal Act, Greene says. There, they sheltered about a hundred Cherokee refugees. At the homestead site, Greene has found bones of rabbit, deer, and small game animals, such as songbirds. Among the food traces, there is a notable lack of long bones, which Cherokee often cooked and cracked open for the marrow. Greene says this is a significant cultural marker—the family continued many Cherokee practices. “One of the strongest signs of that is the food remains,” he says.
The Welch settlement and others, perhaps hundreds yet undiscovered, will help explain the different experiences and separate paths of the two groups of Cherokee split by the trauma of removal. “In a broad sense, for all Cherokees, the removal is a watershed event,” Greene says. “It’s tied to the broader tribal history of tragedy and trauma.” It divided the tribe, but also, he suggests, forged the resilience and character of the modern Cherokee.
In 1987, Congress designated the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail, about 2,200 miles across nine states. Fort Armistead is on the trail and is a remarkably fragile site. Hidden cameras, motion monitors, and a high-tech security system protect it from looters and unauthorized visitors. Among the visitors allowed at the site are Cherokee from Oklahoma, whose ancestors surely passed through the fort.
For archaeology student Beau Carroll, a Cherokee who grew up in western North Carolina, excavating at the site of Fort Armistead allowed him to experience a deeper connection with his past. He remembers his late great-grandmother telling him of being sent to boarding school, as many Cherokee children were, where she was instructed to follow white American traditions. She cried when she remembered it, he says. Working at the site gave him “an indescribable feeling, a really sad feeling.
“When I’m working, the archaeologist in me gets really excited,” says Carroll. “I forget where I am. But then I take a break and look at that trail, and I can’t believe what happened.”
Marion Blackburn is a freelance writer based in Greenville, NC.
By ANDREW LAWLER
Saturday, August 09, 2014
ARCHAEOLOGY contributing editor Andrew Lawler recently reported on the 6,000-year-history of the citadel of Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan. As the humanitarian and military crisis unfolds in Iraq, we present Lawler's story, which appears in ARCHAEOLOGY's September/October 2014 issue.
The 100-foot-high, oval-shaped citadel of Erbil towers high above the northern Mesopotamian plain, within sight of the Zagros Mountains that lead to the Iranian plateau. The massive mound, with its vertiginous man-made slope, built up by its inhabitants over at least the last 6,000 years, is the heart of what may be the world’s oldest continuously occupied settlement. At various times over its long history, the city has been a pilgrimage site dedicated to a great goddess, a prosperous trading center, a town on the frontier of several empires, and a rebel stronghold.
Yet despite its place as one of the ancient Near East’s most significant cities, Erbil’s past has been largely hidden. A dense concentration of nineteenth- and twentieth-century houses stands atop the mound, and these have long prevented archaeologists from exploring the city’s older layers. As a consequence, almost everything known about the metropolis—called Arbela in antiquity—has been cobbled together from a handful of ancient texts and artifacts unearthed at other sites. “We know Arbela existed, but without excavating the site, all else is a hypothesis,” says University of Cambridge archaeologist John MacGinnis.
Last year, for the first time, major excavations began on the north edge of the enormous hill, revealing the first traces of the fabled city. Ground-penetrating radar recently detected two large stone structures below the citadel’s center that may be the remains of a renowned temple dedicated to Ishtar, the goddess of love and war. There, according to ancient texts, Assyrian kings sought divine guidance, and Alexander the Great assumed the title of King of Asia in 331 B.C. Other new work includes the search for a massive fortification wall surrounding the ancient lower town and citadel, excavation of an impressive tomb just north of the citadel likely dating to the seventh century B.C., and examination of what lies under the modern city’s expanding suburbs. Taken together, these finds are beginning to provide a more complete picture not only of Arbela’s own story, but also of the growth of the first cities, the rise of the mighty Assyrian Empire, and the tenacity of an ethnically diverse urban center that has endured for more than six millennia. Located on a fertile plain that supports rain-fed agriculture, Erbil and its surrounds have, for thousands of years, been a regional breadbasket, a natural gateway to the east, and a key junction on the road connecting the Persian Gulf to the south with Anatolia to the north. Geography has been both the city’s blessing and curse in this perennially fractious region. Inhabitants fought repeated invasions by the soldiers of the Sumerian capital of Ur 4,000 years ago, witnessed three Roman emperors attack the Persians, and suffered the onslaught of Genghis Khan’s cavalry in the thirteenth century, the cannons of eighteenth-century Afghan warlords, and the wrath of Saddam Hussein’s tanks only 20 years ago. Yet, through thousands of years, the city survived, and even thrived, while other once-great cities such as Babylon and Nineveh crumbled.
Today Erbil is the capital of Iraq’s autonomous province of Kurdistan. The citadel remains at the heart of a thriving city with a population of 1.3 million, made up mostly of Kurds, and a boomtown economy, thanks to a combination of tight security and oil wealth. During the twentieth century, the high mound fell into disrepair as refugees from the region’s conflicts replaced the town’s established wealthy families, who moved to more spacious accommodations in the lower town and suburbs below. The refugees have since moved to new settlements, and efforts are currently under way to renovate the deteriorating nineteenth- and twentieth-century mudbrick dwellings and twisting, narrow alleys. A textile museum opened in a restored, grand, century-old mansion in early 2014, and work rebuilding the adjacent nineteenth-century Ottoman gate, which sits on much more ancient foundations, is nearing completion. The conservation work is also giving archaeologists the chance to dig into the mound—which has just been declared a World Heritage Site—once so wholly inaccessible. “Erbil has been largely neglected, and we know so little,” says archaeologist Karel Novacek of the University of West Bohemia in the Czech Republic, who conducted the first limited excavations on the citadel in 2006. Extensive long-term excavations are not feasible in Erbil. Nevertheless, Novacek, MacGinnis, their Iraqi colleagues, and archaeologists from Italy, France, Greece, Germany, and the United States, are using old aerial photographs, Cold War satellite imagery, and archives of ancient cuneiform tablets to pinpoint the best spots to dig in order to take advantage of this first real opportunity to examine Erbil’s past. Although the citadel has played an important role in the Near East for millennia, knowledge of the site has been remarkably limited because so little archaeology has been done there and in the surrounding area. Only a few pieces of 5,000-year-old pottery found on the citadel attest to the existence of ancient Arbela. And although the greatest quantity of information about the city’s appearance, inhabitants, and role in the region derives from the Assyrian period, almost all of the evidence we have comes from texts and artifacts found at other sites.
The first mention of Arbela is found on clay tablets dating to about 2300 B.C.. They were discovered in the charred ruins of the palace at Ebla, a city some 500 miles to the west in today’s Syria that was destroyed by the emerging Akkadian Empire. These tablets, some of the thousands found at the site in the 1970s, mention messengers from Ebla being issued five shekels of silver to pay for a journey to Arbela.
A century later, the city became a coveted prize for the numerous ancient Near Eastern empires that followed. The Gutians, who came from southern Mesopotamia and helped dismantle the Akkadian Empire, left a royal inscription that boasts of a Gutian king’s successful campaign against Arbela, in which he conquered the city and captured its governor, Nirishuha. Nirishuha, and possibly other inhabitants of Arbela as well, was likely Hurrian. Little is known about the Hurrians, who were members of a group of either indigenous peoples or recent migrants from the distant Caucasus. This inscription provides our first glimpse into the identities of the multiethnic people of Arbela.
In the late third millennium B.C. the southern Mesopotamian city of Ur began to build its own empire, and sent soldiers 500 miles north to subdue a rebellious Arbela. Rulers of Ur claimed, in contemporary texts, that they had smashed the heads of Arbela’s leaders and destroyed the city during repeated and bloody campaigns. Other texts from Ur record beer rations given to messengers from Arbela and metals, sheep, and goats taken to Ur as booty. Three centuries later, in an inscription said to have come from western Iraq, Shamshi-Adad I, who established a brief but large empire in upper Mesopotamia, tells of encountering the king of Arbela, “whom I pitilessly caught with my powerful weapon and whom my feet trample.” Shamshi-Adad I had the monarch beheaded.
By the twelfth century B.C., Arbela was a prosperous town on the eastern frontier of Assyria, which covered much of northern Mesopotamia. Over the next centuries, the Assyrians, a tight-knit trading people who built an independent kingdom just to the west and south of Arbela, became the largest, wealthiest, and most powerful empire the world had seen. This empire eventually subsumed the city, which became an important Assyrian center, although the city’s population seems to have retained a mix of ethnicities throughout this long era, which lasted until 600 B.C.
At the core of Arbela’s religious, political, and economic life in this period was the Egasankalamma, or “House of the Lady of the Land.” Assyrian texts mention the temple, dedicated to Ishtar, as early as the thirteenth century B.C., though its foundations likely rest on even older sacred structures. In Mesopotamian theology Ishtar was the goddess of love, fertility, and war. Martti Nissinen of the University of Helsinki has closely examined the 265 references to the goddess in Assyrian texts, and he suggests that the roots of this version of Ishtar may lay deep in the ancient Hurrian pantheon.
The Assyrian Empire reached its height in the seventh century B.C., when the kings Sennacherib, Esarhaddon, and Ashurbanipal ruled the region, including Arbela. Contemporary Assyrian texts describe the Egasankalamma as a richly decorated and elaborate complex where royals regularly came to seek the goddess’ guidance. Esarhaddon claimed that he made the temple “shine like the day,” likely a reference to a coating of a silver-and-gold alloy called electrum that gleamed in the Mesopotamian sun. A fragment of a relief from the Assyrian city of Nineveh shows the structure rising above the citadel walls. Some Assyrian royals may have lived there in their youth, perhaps to keep them safe from court intrigues at the capitals of Nineveh, Nimrud, and Assur in the empire’s heartland. On one tablet Ashurbanipal says, “I knew no father or mother. I grew up in the lap of the goddess”—Ishtar of Arbela.
Under the Assyrians, Arbela was a cosmopolitan gathering place for foreign ambassadors coming from the east. “Tribute enters it from all the world!” says Ashurbanipal in one text. A governor oversaw the city’s administration from a sumptuous citadel palace where taxpayers brought copper and cattle, pomegranates, pistachios, grain, and grapes. Arbela’s own inhabitants were a diverse mix that likely included those forcibly resettled by the Assyrian state, as well as immigrants, merchants, and others seeking opportunity in a city that rivaled the Assyrian capitals in stature. “Arbela at this time was a multiethnic state,” says Dishad Marf, a scholar at the Netherlands’ Leiden University. Names of its citizens found in Assyrian texts are Babylonian, Assyrian, Hurrian, Aramain, Shubrian, Scythian, and Palestinian.
Assyrian royalty also lavished gifts and praise on Arbela and its patron deity. “Heaven without equal, Arbela!” proclaims one court poem found in Nineveh’s state archives. The poem also describes Arbela as a place where merry-making, festivals, and jubilation echoed in its streets, and Ishtar’s shrine as a “lofty hostel, broad temple, a sanctuary of delights” resounding with the music of drums, lyres, and harps. “Those who leave Arbela and those who enter it are happy,” the hymn concludes. Not all, however. The Nineveh relief depicting Arbela includes a king, likely Ashurbanipal, pouring a libation over the severed head of a rebel from Arbela. According to ancient records, the king had the surviving agitators chained to the city gates, flayed, and their tongues ripped out.
After so many centuries of regional domination, the Assyrians’ fall was sudden and swift—and Arbela proved to be the sole surviving major settlement. A coalition of Babylonians and Medes, a nomadic people who lived on the Iranian plateau, destroyed the Assyrian capitals in 612 B.C. and scattered their once-feared armies. Arbela was spared, perhaps because its population was in large part non-Assyrian and sympathetic to the new conquerors. The Medes, who may be the ancestors of today’s Kurds, likely took control of the city, which was still intact a century later when the Persian king Darius I, third king of the Achaemenid Empire, impaled a rebel on Arbela’s ramparts—a scene recorded in an inscription carved on a western Iranian cliff around 500 B.C.
By the fourth century B.C., the Achaemenid Empire stretched from Egypt to India. In the fall of 331 B.C., on the plain of Gaugamela to the west of Arbela, the Macedonian king Alexander the Great fought the Achaemenid ruler Darius III, routing the Persian army as its king fled. Classical sources say that Alexander pursued Darius across the Greater Zab River to Arbela’s citadel, where historians believe the Persian king had his campaign headquarters. Darius escaped east into the Zagros Mountains and was eventually killed by his own soldiers, after which Alexander assumed the leadership of the Persian Empire, possibly in a ceremony held in Arbela’s temple of Ishtar, whom he may have equated with the Greek warrior-goddess Athena.
A team from Sapienza University of Rome recently used ground-penetrating radar to examine what lies under the center of the citadel, and found intriguing evidence of two structures buried some 50 feet below the surface. “This is the rubble of large stone buildings,” says Novacek, who believes this material may sit in late Assyrian levels, and could prove to be remnants of the electrum-coated temple. However, excavating a 50-foot-deep trench in the center of a high mound poses immense engineering and safety challenges, says Cambridge’s MacGinnis, who is advising the Iraqi-led team. Thus, instead of focusing on the center of the citadel and the possible remains of the temple, the excavators started work last year on the citadel’s north rim with an eye to exposing the ancient fortification walls. At the time, an abandoned early-twentieth-century house had recently collapsed, giving researchers a chance to remove and see beneath the most recent layers. Thus far, 15 feet of debris has been cleared away and investigators have uncovered mudbrick and baked brick architecture, medieval pottery, and a sturdy wall that may rest on top of the original Assyrian fortifications. Next the team will tackle two other small areas nearby before returning to the citadel to attempt the much trickier task of delving into the mound’s central interior.
Novacek, meanwhile, has turned his attention to the ancient city that grew up in the citadel’s shadow. “The lower town, which has been barely investigated, is the key to understanding the city’s dynamics,” he says. “Digging there requires a different approach.” Today Erbil’s thickly settled downtown, in fact, hides traces of the ancient site. Novacek is using British Royal Air Force aerial photos taken in the 1950s and American spy satellite images from the 1960s Corona program to look for remnants of the ancient city that survived into at least the middle of the twentieth century. He has found faint outlines of two sets of fortifications. One of these is a modest system probably dating from the medieval era, while the second is a much larger set of structures that likely dates to some time in the Assyrian period, and had been bulldozed to make way for the modern town in the 1960s.
The earlier fortifications include a 60-foot-thick wall that likely had a defensive slope and a moat. The city’s formidable construction, says Novacek, resembles that found at Nineveh and Assur, and places it “unambiguously among Mesopotamian mega-cities.” The layout differs from that in other Assyrian cities, where the walls were rectangular, with a citadel as part of the protective fortifications. Arbela, however, had an irregular round wall entirely enclosing both the citadel and the lower town. That design is more typical of ancient southern Mesopotamian cities such as Ur and Uruk—a hint, Novacek says, of Erbil’s ancient urban heritage. “This conjecture desperately needs empirical verification,” he cautions. Yet, if it can be proven, ancient Arbela might rank among the earliest urban areas and challenge the idea that urbanism began solely in southern Mesopotamia.
Novacek is hopeful that parts of the ancient city, such as those discovered by a German Archaeological Institute team, might still lay buried under the shallow foundations of nineteenth- and twentieth-century buildings. In 2009, the German excavators uncovered a seventh-century B.C. Assyrian tomb just a short walk north of the citadel. The tomb had a vaulted chamber of baked bricks and three sarcophagi containing the remains of five people, a bronze bowl, lamps, and pottery vessels. Using ground-penetrating radar, the team surveyed a 100,000-square-foot area around the tomb and spotted extensive architectural remains under a low mound mostly covered with modern buildings. The discovery provides the first archaeological evidence of an Assyrian presence in Arbela and begins to confirm the Assyrian court records that mention Arbela as an important city. Yet Novacek worries that the deep foundations of the enormous modern structures being built near the citadel could quickly obliterate Erbil’s ancient past.
Other researchers are looking further afield, outside the city limits. A team led by Harvard University’s Jason Ur began to survey the area around Erbil in 2012. “It’s one of the last broad alluvial plains in northern Mesopotamia to remain uninvestigated by modern survey techniques,” says Ur, who also made use of old spy satellite photographs to identify ancient villages and towns that could then be explored. Examining 77 square miles, the team mapped 214 archaeological sites dating as far back as 8,000 years. One surprise was that settlements from between 3500 and 3000 B.C. contain ceramics that appear more closely related to southern Mesopotamian types than to those of the north. Ur says this may mean that the plain, rather than being peripheral to the urban expansion that took place in cities such as Ur and Uruk, was related in some direct way to the great cities of the south. This evidence further boosts Novacek’s theory that Arbela was, in fact, an early urban center.
The ongoing research of the teams now working in the city is starting to create an archaeological picture of life in Erbil and its environs over the course of millennia. After the Assyrians, Persians, and Greeks were gone, the city went on to serve as a key eastern outpost on the Roman frontier, and was briefly the capital of the Roman province of Assyria. Later it was home to flourishing Christian and Zoroastrian communities under Persian Sasanian rule until the arrival of Islam in the seventh century A.D. Though the city escaped destruction by the Mongols in the thirteenth century—its leaders wisely negotiated surrender—Erbil subsequently slipped into obscurity. When Western explorers arrived in the eighteenth century they dismissed the place as a muddy and decrepit settlement of medieval origin. While Kurdistan’s isolation under the latter part of Saddam Hussein’s reign placed the area off-limits to most outsiders, in the post-Saddam era, Erbil has been set to play an important role in the region. Conflict, however, threatens again. Amid the archaeologists’ trenches and the mounds of construction materials destined for use in the citadel’s conservation, one family still lives on Erbil’s high mound, near the ancient citadel gate, preserving the city’s claim as the oldest continuously settled place on Earth.
Andrew Lawler is a contributing editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.