Excavation of Tell Chuera in Syria: an archaeological history
Many major archaeological sites in Syria have a long history of excavation linked to the work of passionate researchers. Tell Chuera, a large tell located in the flat steppe of northern Syria is one such example (fig. 1). Tell Chuera had two main occupations, one in the 3rd millennium BC, and the other in the second part of the 2nd millennium BC. It has proven to be a key site for understanding the phenomenon of urbanisation in Northern Mesopotamia, which was consolidated at the very beginning of the Bronze Age around 3100 BC (fig. 2).
Tell Chuera and the Baron (Freiherr) von Oppenheim
The site of Tell Chuera is inextricably linked with the name of Max Freiherr von Oppenheim (1860-1946). During his travels throughout the northern Syrian steppe region, this German Baron, diplomat and historian, also visited this site (fig. 3). He was the first to draw attention to a series of settlement mounds with several features in common. They all consist of an elevated upper city and a shallow lower city, which is almost circular around the upper city and is enclosed by rampart-like elevations (fig. 4). Because of this shape, they were called « cup and saucer » or « Kranzhugel ». The peculiarity of these tells is that their distribution is limited to a relatively small area in south-eastern Turkey and north-eastern Syria, between the upper reaches of the Khabur and Balikh Rivers. In Syria, the westernmost settlement is Tell Ghajar al-Kabir, about 10km from Tell Chuera, the easternmost Tell Bati, north of Hassake, and the southernmost Tell Malhat ed-Deru. In Turkey, they are mostly known from survey and satellite images (Google Earth)
In April 1913, Max Freiherr von Oppenheim began a journey from Tell Halaf through the western Djezirah and reached Tell Chuera on May 28. The next day he undertook a brief sondage at Kharab Sayyar, a small mound nearby, but explicitly emphasized the size and importance of Tell Chuera. However, the Baron never worked on this site. From his records, only part of which survived the Second World War and are now in the Oppenheim Archives in Cologne, the Baron was impressed by massive stone structures visible on the surface at Tell Chuera. These were the foundations of monumental buildings within the settlement, now known as Stone Building I (fig. 5) and III, and the remains of the so-called Outer Building and its Stelae Road, both probably part of an outdoor sanctuary. Baron von Oppenheim was very interested in the site, but the outbreak of World War 1 no longer allowed German activities in Syria.
Fig. 5: Tell Chuera, Stone Building I before the beginning of the first excavations in 1955 (Photo J. Lauffray) and current state (before 2011 – photo mission Tell Chuera).
The Von Oppenheim family has played an essential role in preserving the site of Tell Chuera and the archaeological research that has taken place there. Thanks to this family, after the Second World War, the foundation initially established by the Baron was re-established by the Oppenheim private bank in Cologne. Thus his life’s work found a continuation in the excavation of the Tell Chuera « Kranzhügel », which the Baron would have liked to excavate himself.
The first excavator, Jean Lauffray
However, almost 40 years were to pass after Oppenheim’s visit until the first excavation campaign. It was not until the autumn of 1955 and the spring of 1956 that Jean Lauffray and Willem van Liere undertook the first excavations of Tell Chuera on behalf of the Syrian Directorate of Antiquities (Van Liere, Lauffray 1954). Jean Lauffray, a multifaceted figure of French archaeology, knew Northern Syria very well He was the conservator of the Aleppo Museum in 1941 and the architect at the Antiquity service of Syria (1944-1951). Willem van Liere was a Dutch geomorphologist. This was one of the first « multidisciplinary » teams.
Due to Lauffray’s return to France or due to the difficulty of the conditions on-site, the excavations were not continued. Today, most of the documentation of this work is at the University of Strasbourg under the care of Philippe Quenet. J. Lauffray prepared a rather rough topographic plan and started sondages in six areas: the later Stone Building I, the House Quarter H, the Temenos Wall along the central axis, and near the areas of House Quarter K, Palace F, and the Mitanni Building.
History of the excavation campaigns (1958-2011)
In the early fifties, a couple of archaeologists, Anton Moortgat and Ursula Moortgat-Correns, began to work in Syria. Anton Morgart was a Belgian archaeologist who became Professor at Berlin University in 1948, and his wife, a historian specialized in the ancient history of Asia Minor. At that time, one of the objectives within the community of Near Eastern archaeologists was to find the capital of the Mittani kingdom, a powerful kingdom that had flourished during the second half of the 2nd millennium BC in Upper Mesopotamia. One hypothesis for its capital was a tell of the region, Tell Fekheriye, but neither the excavations of an American team nor that of the Moortgats could verify it. Therefore, during his third visit to the Department of Antiquities in Damascus in 1956, Anton Moortgat asked to see the rather extensive documentation of Jean Lauffray, and, guided by the desire to find evidence of the Mitanni, he decided to begin work at Tell Chuera.
Then, in the fall of 1958, under the direction of Anton Moortgat, the first systematic investigations at Tell Chuera began and, with major interruptions, continued until his death in 1977 (Meyer 2008: 171-174). During this period, eight excavation campaigns took place, well documented by a series of regularly published reports (in German). Already in the first year, a topographic plan was prepared, which was improved in the 5th campaign (1964) and provided with an archaeological grid. In 1990, W. Orthmann extended this plan by including the surroundings of the settlement, and he introduced a reference point for the height quotas, which he fixed at 100m; thus, negative height quotas can now no longer occur.
These early excavation campaigns are undoubtedly among the richest in finds (worship statuettes, cylinder-seals, bronze objects…) in the history of excavation at Tell Chuera (fig. 6), and the construction findings are of the most significant importance. In almost all excavation areas where work was begun in those years, investigations also took place in later years (fig. 7). Thus, from the 1st campaign on, work was carried out in the Outer Building area and the Stelae Street, and in the impressive massive stone buildings (Stone Building I & II). Excavation also took place in the area of Houses H, where J. Lauffray was already active. Then, during the 3rd campaign, the only large-scale investigation of the North Temple took place. In this context, a building complex attributable to the Mitanni period was also uncovered for the first time. Then, from the 4th campaign in 1963 to the 8th campaign in 1976, a long series of investigations began: 1) in the area of the House Quarter K – called « Kleiner Antentempel » by A. Moortgat – , 2) on Stone Building III – the monumental staircase, and 3) on Stone Building V with the so-called “pottery quarter”. In addition, the Mitanni building located approximately in the middle of the northern half of the ruins was investigated. J. Lauffray had already made a sondage (sondage 6) in this area.
After the death of Anton Moortgat, his wife, Ursula Moortgat-Correns, took over the directorship. She carried out three more excavation campaigns (9th-11th), two of them (1982 and1983) together with Winfried Orthmann, Professor of Near Eastern Archaeology at Saarbrucken University, and a last one (1985) under her sole responsibility. Ursula Moortgat-Correns’ team continued work in House Quarter K (« Kleiner Antentempel »), including the west extension, and began work on Stone Building VI, the later Palace F. In addition, the animal bone remains were processed for the first time (Boessneck 1988). In 1982 and 1983, W. Orthmann continued the work in the House Quarter H and the Stone Building III area. Beyond that, a first smaller investigation took place in the Lower Town area (area P; houses and a grave complex). The two human skeletal finds (House Quarter H) of those campaigns were studied by Joachrim Wahl (Wahl 1986).
From 1986 to 1995 (12th-18th campaign), W. Orthmann, then Professor at Halle university, took over the head of the excavation (fig.8). Most of the previously begun work was continued, while new investigations took place in area G (Middle Assyrian palace and houses) and on the outer city wall (area P). In addition to archaeozoological studies (Vila 1995 a-b), geomorphological investigations of soil development in the vicinity of Tell Chuera were also carried out for the first time (Weicken, Wener 1995). In 1996 and 1997 (19th-20th campaign), the author of this post, Jan-Waalke Meyer, was in charge of the excavations together with W. Orthmann. In addition, from 1995 to 1997, Peter Pfälzner carried out the DFG-funded project « On the Urbanization of Northern Mesopotamia in the 3rd millennium BC » (Dohmann-Pfälzner, Pfälzner 1996). In the framework of this project, the area K investigations were continued, and a square between Stone Building VI (Temple S) and the House Quarter K was brought to light (Anton-Moortgat square).
In 1998, J.-W. Meyer took over the excavation directorship until the outbreak of the civil war in 2011. Fourteen further excavation campaigns would be carried out (21st-34th campaign).; Starting in 1998, work resumed in the area of Stone Building VI and, after an interruption, continued from 2007 until 2010. Then, starting in 2001, regular excavation work also took place in the House Quarter H and House Quarter K, which, in a sondage, expanded into the Chalcolithic Period level. Since 2003, investigations took place again in the area of Stone Building III and the Outer City (area ASA: interpreted as a production area outside the walled settlement), in 2005 in the lower town and the outer city wall (mud brick structure with bastions, fig. 9), and in 2010 in the area of Palace F starting in 2010 (fig. 10).
Latest work and projects at Tell Chuera
Geophysical surveys conducted at Tell Chuera since 1999, that covered almost the entire area of the site, revealed a surprising picture of the settlement structure (fig. 11). Thanks to this relatively new investigation method at that time, it was possible to discover the entire structure of the city and its amazing radio-concentric plan with a very regular street network. The specific urban organisation showed that we were facing never seen before large-scale urban planning. This resulted in a change of the excavation strategy with a focus on the 3rd millennium BC settlement. Thus, in the upper city, several sondages in the central depression – the central street – provided evidence of the foundation. Moreover, in the south of this axis, a gate in the inner city wall as well as the peripheral buildings – Temenos (east) and House Quarter H (west) – were uncovered (area HMS). In the Temenos itself (area T), extensive excavations provided a picture of the structure, and use of this complex as a working area. These results confirmed a comprehensive planning of the urban fabric (buildings, streets and places) for the latest phase of the Early Bronze Age settlement (Tell Chuera ID period; ca. 2450 BC). According to several deep soundings, this planned structure was already in place in the IA period (ca. 3100 BC).
The increased excavations in the lower town can also be seen as a result of interpreting the geophysical measurements. They provided information on the city’s sewage and drainage system (area U) and the structure of the outer city fortification (area Z and W). They also showed that the lower town consisted largely of areas dedicated to the production of ceramics and metal (area W) (Meyer 2010; Helms, Tamm, Meyer 2017).
Furthermore, the archaeological investigations were embedded in a regional project that included excavations of Kharab Sayyar (Early Bronze Age settlement), 12 km to the south (Hempelmann 2013) and of Tell Tawila (Halaf and Early Bronze Age settlement: Becker et. al. 2007), and a survey. Due to the extensive integration of the excavation into the DFG-funded Research Training Group « Archaeological Analysis », it was possible to carry out extensive geomorphological studies at Tell Chuera and the surrounding area. In addition, climate issues as well as ancient landscape development and land use were investigated through integration of aerial and satellite image analysis (GIS) and pollen analysis studies (Krätschell 2011; Fritsch 2011).
These results were further refined through intensive processing of animal bones (Vila 2010) as well as the preserved botanical remains, which contained sufficient remains for C14 dating (fig. 12).
The excavations and survey at Tell Chuera were supported throughout the years by the Oppenheim Foundation and the DFG (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft). From 2000 until 2012, the work was funded by a DFG-long term project. The private association ENKI financed the Kharab Sayyar fieldwork, and from 2006 onwards, the DFG financed several staff positions for employees. The DFG also funded the excavations at Tell Tawila, carried out by J. Becker.
To investigate the history of the extraordinary EBA round settlements and their expansion to the west and south, a French-German project, the ANR/DFG project « Round cities of the 3rd century BC in the marginal areas of Syria: Genesis, development, and decline » (BADIYAH) was carried out under the direction of C. Castel (Archéorient, Lyon), Ph. Quenet (Archimede, Strasbourg) and J.-W. Meyer (Goethe University, Francfort) from 2010 to 2013. As a result of this collective work and the investigation of a series of Early Bronze Age sites in the west (Rawda, Tell ash-Sha’irat, Tell es-Sour) and east (Malhat ed-Deru) of Syria, the chronology of the implantation of this urban innovation revealed by geomagnetic surveys is now better known (Castel, Quenet, Meyer 2020).
Thanks to decades of fieldwork at Tell Chuera (fig. 13), intensive international cooperation, and integration of bioarchaeological, geoarchaeological and geophysical approaches, it was possible to reconstruct the history of early city development in an important region of north-eastern Syria.
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Jan-Waalke Meyer est Professeur émérite d’Archéologie orientale à l’université Goethe de Francfort Institut für Archäologische Wissenschaften, Frankfurt am Main
Emmanuelle Vila est Chargée de Recherche au CNRS. Archéozoologue, spécialiste de l’Asie du Sud-Ouest. UMR 5133-Archéorient, Maison de l’Orient et de la Méditerranée, Lyon.