A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
By SAMIR S. PATEL
Monday, September 15, 2014
On the night of July 31, 1761, Jean de Lafargue, captain of the French East India Company ship L’Utile (“Useful”), was likely thinking of riches. In the ship’s hold were approximately 160 slaves purchased in Madagascar just days before and bound for Île de France, known today as Mauritius. It had been 80 years since the dodo had gone extinct on that Indian Ocean island, and the thriving French colony had a plantation economy in need of labor. However, though slavery was legal at the time, de Lafargue was not authorized by colonial authorities to trade in slaves.
According to the detailed account of the ship’s écrivain, or purser, as L’Utile approached the vicinity of an islet then called Île des Sables, or Sandy Island, winds kicked up to 15 or 20 knots. The ship’s two maps did not agree on the small island’s precise location, and a more prudent captain probably would have slowed and waited for daylight. But de Lafargue was in a hurry to reap his bounty. That night L’Utile struck the reef off the islet’s north end, shattering the hull. Most of the slaves, trapped in the cargo holds, drowned, though some escaped as the ship broke apart. The next morning, 123 of the 140 members of the French crew and somewhere between 60 and 80 Malagasy slaves found themselves stranded on Île des Sables—shaken and injured, but alive.
De Lafargue had some kind of nervous breakdown, according to the écrivain. First officer Barthélémy Castellan du Vernet took over, and rallied the crew to salvage food, tools, and timber from the wreck and build separate camps for the crew and the slaves. Under the first officer’s guidance, a well was dug, an oven and furnace built, and work on a new boat begun. Within two months, the makeshift vessel La Providence emerged from the remains of L’Utile. Du Vernet, before he sailed away with the crew, promised the Malagasy people that a ship would return for them. And so they waited. The few that survived waited a very long time.
The islet, today called Tromelin Island, lies 300 miles east of Madagascar and 350 miles north of Mauritius. Shaped like a sunflower seed, it is just one-third of a square mile of sand and scrub. Today it hosts an unpaved runway, a staffed weather station, and a wildlife preserve. Hermit crabs swarm across the island in packs at night, and each year hundreds of sea turtles and countless birds arrive to lay their eggs.
Diaries, letters, and the écrivain’s account document the wreck and the two months that the French crew stayed on the island, but the Malagasy castaways left no written records. Their story would have remained almost completely untold but for Max Guérout, a former French navy officer. Guérout had captained an underwater research vessel in the late 1970s, and upon his retirement in the early 1980s founded the Naval Archaeology Research Group (known by its French acronym, GRAN), which has since studied dozens of postmedieval shipwrecks. He heard the Tromelin story from a colleague and, with support from UNESCO, began two years of archival research in 2004. “The history was so interesting that we decided to make an archaeological survey,” he says. Guérout built a team, which included experts from GRAN, the French National Institute of Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP), and the administration of the French Southern and Antarctic Lands, to travel to the isolated islet four times—2006, 2008, 2010, and 2013—for six weeks at a stretch to examine the wreck site, excavate, and learn something about the lives of the Malagasy castaways, lives undocumented by history.
After four days at sea, La Providence arrived in Madagascar, and the crew were transferred back to Réunion Island and Mauritius. De Lafargue died in transit, leaving du Vernet to face Antoine-Marie Desforges-Boucher, the governor of Mauritius, who was furious with the violation of his prohibition on bringing slaves to his island. Du Vernet repeatedly requested to have a ship sent back to the islet, only to be denied again and again. News of the abandonment even reached Paris and caused a brief stir, but was forgotten in the wake of the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763) and the looming bankruptcy of the French East India Company. According to documents found by Guérout, du Vernet never gave up. “He was probably the only man who tried to save the people who remained on the island,” Guérout says. Finally, in 1772, in response to another request from the first officer, the minister of marine affairs agreed to send a ship. La Sauterelle arrived at Île des Sables in 1775 and sent a small boat carrying two men to the island, but it was dashed on the reef. One man swam back to the ship, the other to the island. Two more ships followed La Sauterelle, but neither was able to make landfall at the reef- and whitecap-shrouded island. At last, on November 29, 1776—more than 15 years after L’Utile wrecked—La Dauphine, captained by Jacques Marie Boudin de la Nuguy de Tromelin (from whom the island gets its current name), made contact. Only seven women and an eight-month-old boy remained.
Guérout believes that most of the 60 to 80 slaves died within the first couple of years. A group of 18 had apparently departed the island not long after they were abandoned, but it is unknown whether they ever reached Madagascar. Some 15 survivors endured for the following 10 years or so. Just months before the rescue, three men and three women, as well as the French sailor stranded from La Sauterelle (who had witnessed two failed rescue attempts himself), had left the islet on a raft with a sail of woven feathers. They were never heard from again. The testimony of the seven remaining women and the records of La Dauphine have been lost. Only the archaeology that has been conducted on the island can reveal their story of abandonment, survival, and, ultimately, community-building.
In 2006, underwater archaeologists examined the remains of the wreck, which amounted to only the heaviest items—cannons, anchors, ammunition, rigging—that were not washed away by centuries of waves and storms. A few hundred feet offshore, the divers found marks in the rocky reef where the ship struck and came to rest, confirming the account of the écrivain.
The ship’s pilot had produced a small map that indicated where the stranded crew and slaves resided, as well as the sites of the furnace and oven. With this map as a reference, Guérout and his team were able to locate bricks used to make the oven, along with dozens of nails, which indicate that boards from the ship had been burned. For the rest of that season, and across three more, the archaeologists followed the progress of the castaways from the wreck to the beach to the site where they eventually settled, at the island’s highest point, about 25 feet above sea level. “But it was also the point where the meteorological station had built its buildings,” says Guérout.
Tromelin Island is in an ideal place to monitor weather, especially cyclones, bound for Madagascar. In 1954, French authorities built a weather station there. (It was destroyed by a cyclone two years later and then rebuilt.) It is still in operation today and consists of a few buildings, cisterns, and concrete footings. Mid-twentieth century accounts of the island note that there were stone walls there extending at least a few feet out of the ground, and that the stone was mined to build the new structures. In 2006, the archaeologists found a piece of buried wall there, consisting of slabs of beach rock and chunks of coral and a layer of bird bones and ash from cooking fires.
That year, the team also found six copper plates or bowls. These items had clearly been salvaged from the wreck, and then possibly hammered into new shapes. More remarkable was how they had been repaired—some up to eight times—over the course of 15 years. “To repair a copper plate is not so easy,” says Guérout. The castaways had to cut pieces of copper from other objects for patches, drill holes through both patches and plates, and then use small rolled pieces of copper as rivets, which they then hammered into place. The repairs are reflections of patience and industry, and reminders of the passage of time.
The next excavation season, 2008, brought the bonanza the team had been hoping for: three intact buildings. “We found what was probably the kitchen, with all things well kept in each part of the building,” Guérout says. In this oval-shaped building with five-foot-thick walls, there was a stack of six more copper vessels, topped with a conch shell, and a deposit of 15 cleverly made spoons. These were cut from copper with small wings at the base that could be folded over a twig to make a handle. In total, 45 domestic objects were found there, and in another building were tools, iron tripods to hold cooking vessels, and big lead bowls—probably made from lead sheets kept on L’Utile to patch holes at sea. The large lead bowls were likely used to hold water, meaning that lead poisoning may have been a problem for the survivors. The archaeologists also found pieces of flint and the metal against which they were struck, which addresses how the castaways started and maintained fires. “Those objects make the only history we can have,” say Jean-François Rebeyrotte, a Réunion Island–based archaeologist who helped the team organize its field seasons.
A detailed analysis of some 18,000 bird bones collected from the site during the 2013 season has revealed much about the castaways’ diet. Most of the bones come from sooty terns. These seabirds once nested on the island in great numbers, but not anymore—hunting by the survivors may have contributed to the colony’s collapse. The castaways also ate bird eggs and some fish, though fishing from the island is difficult, as well as turtle meat, even though killing and eating turtles is taboo to some Malagasy communities, according to Bako Rasoarifetra, a Malagasy historian from the University of Antananarivo who joined the 2010 and 2013 expeditions.
A few small pieces of copper jewelry—a ring, a couple of bracelets, and an eighteenth-century Portuguese coin that may have been worn as a pendant—were also found, along with a pointe-démêloir, or tip-comb, for untangling hair. Slaves usually had their hair cut short, but the castaways would have been able to grow their hair out again. Traditionally, Rasoarifetra adds, a man would make a pointe-démêloir for the woman he loved. These small, personal finds suggest that at some point in their stay, the castaways came to the realization that there would be no rescue and they would have to build lives—a community—on the island. “They have passed the time of strictly surviving and they begin to live a ‘normal’ life,” Guérout says.
One significant mystery remains: the locations of the graves of those who died on the island. In 2008, two sets of human remains, which had clearly been dug up and redeposited, probably in the 1950s, were found. But no more have been located despite the team’s searching. The graves may have been disturbed or built over during construction of the weather station. Another possible explanation lies in the legend of Olivier Levasseur, a pirate known as La Buse (“The Buzzard”), who is said to have left behind a coded note leading to treasure when he was hanged in 1730. Perhaps, centuries later, enterprising workers building the weather station assumed that the coral buildings were a pirate hideout, dug through them for treasure, and cast aside artifacts or even human remains. The additional half-dozen buildings uncovered by archaeologists in 2010 and 2013 appear to support this theory, as they did not contain any artifacts. The archaeologists consider themselves lucky to have found two buildings with material inside them. According to Thomas Romon, an INRAP archaeologist who worked on each field season on Tromelin, there are probably numerous additional structures beneath the modern buildings. “We have only a very partial picture of this set,” he says.
The construction and arrangement of the castaways’ structures say a great deal about life on the island, and in some ways even reflect the psychological experience of it, according to Guérout. At the time, people across Madagascar generally lived in small huts of wood, mud, and thatch, with each family group on its own plot some distance from neighbors. Such materials were not available on Tromelin, so the people there had to make do with what was on hand. The buildings are composed of two layers: flat plates of beach sandstone planted in the ground vertically, topped by coral blocks. This construction style is unlike any Malagasy home, but it does have a direct correlate on Madagascar: burial cists. According to Rasoarifetra, traditionally, all stone buildings would have been reserved for the dead. “Psychologically, it is very interesting to understand,” says Guérout. “The people chose to live in what were, in their minds, tombs.” To Rasoarifetra, it represents another cultural shock: After surviving enslavement, the wreck, and the abandonment, they even had to overcome their own cultural prohibitions.
In addition, the buildings, rather than being separate, shared walls and were clustered in about half an acre, unlike more diffuse villages back home. The archaeologists found that the castaways had, at some point, dismantled buildings to erect a wall approximately 20 feet long, probably after a cyclone damaged the hamlet. In these ways, the structures represent systematic adaptation to the lack of space and the need for protection from cyclones, and they reflect a psychological state: grave-bound, but together, leaning upon one another.
Upon their rescue in 1776, the seven adult survivors and the child were taken to Mauritius. “What is interesting in this history is that between the moment of the wreck and the moment of the rescue, the ideas on slavery were changing,” says Guérout. In 1761, governor Desforges-Boucher had refused to send help. By 1776, the women were freed upon their arrival. The new steward of Mauritius and Réunion, Jacques Maillart-Dumesle, took three of them—the child, his mother, and her mother—into his home and had them baptized. He christened the child Moses Jacques (after himself). His mother, Semiavou, or “one who is not proud,” was renamed Eve, and the grandmother dubbed Dauphine.
The other survivors also settled in Mauritius, but nothing else is known about their lives. Analysis of the archaeological finds, according to Romon, will continue to illuminate the castaways’ technical knowledge and social and religious worlds. The team is planning a detailed publication and a museum exhibit they hope will travel across the Indian Ocean islands.
“In Malagasy belief, the land belongs to the spirits and ancestors,” says Rasoarifetra. “Archaeology is an action that awakens the earth to deliver the past.” With this in mind, at the outset of the 2013 season, Rasoarifetra arranged a ceremony. She asked her ancestors for permission for the scientists to dig on their land, and explained that they were doing it not to destroy, but rather to understand. She poured a little rum into the sand at the northeast corner of the site—the corner that traditionally belongs to the ancestors. Then every team member took a sip.
Samir S. Patel is deputy editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.
By NIKHIL SWAMINATHAN
Monday, August 11, 2014
Nearly one billion people today call the Americas home, inhabiting territories that stretch from the wide expanses of Canada and the United States, down through Mexico and Central America, and south through the varied landscapes of South America to Chile—from sparsely populated regions to some of the most crowded cities on the planet. And yet, as recently as 16,000 years ago, there may not have been anyone in these lands at all. Who were the earliest Americans, and how and when did they get here? These are questions that have long fascinated archaeologists and the public alike. As with all scientific endeavors, uncovering the story of how and when people arrived in the Americas will require an accumulation of evidence and data, and will long continue to be subject to revision. Here, then, is where the research has led so far:
By ANDREW LAWLER
Monday, August 11, 2014
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.
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