A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Sorting through a mountain of pottery to track the Roman oil trade
By JARRETT A. LOBELL
Tuesday, January 13, 2015
Each day excavators remove bucketfuls of amphorae from the 150-foot-tall Monte Testaccio. The artificial hill is made up almost entirely of olive oil amphoras from the ancient Roman province of Baetica in southern Spain.
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?
“Monte Testaccio stands near the Tiber River in what was ancient Rome’s commercial district. Many types of imported foodstuffs, including oil, were brought into the city and then stored for later distribution in the large warehouses that lined the river. 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.”
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.
A 1570 painting shows a field next to Monte Testaccio hosting a joust. Over the centuries, the mountain was used for contests, to reenact the Way of the Cross, to store wine in caves cut into its sides, and as a park. 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.
Project director José Remesal cleans dust from a handle stamp that he believes names the oil’s owner, who also may have had kilns to manufacture the containers. Archaeologists have excavated more than 100 of these kiln sites across southern Spain. 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.
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.
The Romans covered the discarded amphorae in lime to mask the smell of the decaying olive oil. 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.
An excavation worker walks down a sherd-strewn path from the top of Monte TestaccioAccording 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.
How the first excavations in an ancient city are supporting its claim as the oldest continuously inhabited place in the world
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 booming city of Erbil (ancient Arbela) in Kurdistan encircles the ancient citadel where evidence of more than six millennia of human habitation is just beginning to be uncovered.
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.
Work is now under way to restore and reconstruct the elegant 19th-century mansions and palaces that cover much of the citadel. These residences of the wealthy fell into ruin during the last several decades. 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.
Arbela’s (modern Erbil) strategic location between the great Assyrian cities to the west and south, and the Zagros Mountains to the east, placed it at the heart of the ancient Near East’s most important cities and empires.
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.
Ishtar of Arbela was a popular goddess throughout the region in the Assyrian period. A stone stela found in northern Syria depicts the statue of the goddess that once stood in her temple in Arbela. 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.
An inscribed clay cylinder found at Nimrud details how the Assyrian King Esarhaddon made Arbela’s temple to Ishtar “shine like the sun.” 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.
Arbela’s formidable walls and arched gate are depicted in a seventh-century B.C. stone relief found at Nineveh. 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.
Much of the citadel today is filled with abandoned buildings and weed-choked winding dirt paths waiting to be cleared and restored. 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.
An excavation on the north edge of Erbil’s citadel is the site’s first large-scale dig. Currently, archaeologists are examining the city’s medieval layers. 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 Kurdish flag flies above the citadel’s historic buildings. The site is the pride of Iraqi Kurds, who have carved out a stable and prosperous society within the tumultuous Middle East. 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.
Wednesday, March 26, 2014
In New Mexico's Rio Grande Gorge, Barnard College archaeologist Severin Fowles and his team have recorded hundreds of panels of barely visible rock art left by Comanche around a basin known as the Vista Verde site. Groups of Comanche traveled to the area from the Great Plains during the early eighteenth century to take part in raiding or trading expeditions. Many of the panels depict warriors on horseback fighting other Native Americans or capturing horses. Unlike most rock art, which often represents timeless, ritually important subjects, these panels appear to depict real-life events, perhaps traced on the rocks by warriors eager to remind their fellow Comanche of their brave exploits. Below are tracings Fowles and his team made of some of the panels, which were scratched onto basalt boulders.
This detail of a panel at the Vista Verde site may depict a single Comanche engaged in feral horse raiding. In the upper left corner the warrior is visibly on horseback, with his headress flowing behind him. The wild horse to the immediate right appears to have a lasso around its neck, and the larger horse below may have an arrow lodged in its body. At the bottom of the panel are semi-circle abrasions around a natural hole in the rock. They may depict hoove prints around a watering hole, represented by the hole. According to tradition, one Comanche horse raiding tactic was to capture feral horses while they gathered around sources of water.
This panel appears to depict a Native American, probably Comanche, raid in progress at a tepee encampment. The mounted warrior on the lower left has lines connecting him with another figure. This could be a representation of the act of "counting coup," or physically touching your opponent in battle without a weapon, which was considered the greatest act of bravery a Plains Indian could commit in battle. The Comanche were known as fierce warriors. The very word "Comanche" comes from a Ute term that translates as "anyone who wants to fight me all the time." Outside some of the teppees in this panel are circles on top of three or four lines. These probably represent personal shields, which Plains Indians rested on tripods outside their tepees to represent their owners.
Reminiscent of a football coach’s chalkboard diagramming plays this rock art panel depicts several different warriors on foot wearing headdresses and bearing shields. To the upper left the initials “E.T.” are visible, a reminder that cowboys, herders, and modern tourists have left their own graffiti on the same boulders used by the Comanche. Lines likely depicting the act of counting coup connect several of the warriors on this panel.
Some two-dozen tepees are depicted on this boulder, which seems to show Comanche warriors mounting their horses, perhaps in preparation for a raid or trading mission to a nearby settlement. Depictions of tepees are one of the most common scenes found around the Vista Verde site, and it’s possible this panel is a sketch of the site itself.
Tuesday, June 03, 2014
For the last three years, Italian archaeologists have been excavating a large Etruscan necropolis at the site of Vulci, 75 miles from Rome. Called (for reasons now obscure) the “Necropoli dell’Osteria,” or "Necropolis of the Pub," the large cemetery's most spectacular burial has been been dubbed "The Tomb of the Silver Hands," after the discovery of a pair of silver hands once adorned a wooden dummy. But the team has also uncovered dozens of other tombs containing remains and grave goods belonging to Etruscan nobles and common folk alike who lived in this region of Italy more than 2,500 years ago. Below is a selection of some of the most interesting artifacts from the site.
Among the many tombs in the necropolis, the team also found a small rectangular altar (left) that once held a jar containing cremated remains, and impressive tomb (right) filled with artifacts, including a pair of silver hands, that likely belonged to an Etruscan noble family.
Another wealthy tomb, excavated in 2012 near the “Tomb of the Silver Hands,” contained this spectacular stone figure of a sphinx.
The “Tomb of the Sphinx” also contained a blue faience scarab dating from sometime in the 25th or 26th Dynasty (746-525 B.C.). The Etruscans were particularly fond of Egyptian objects, many of which are found in tombs in this and other Etruscan tombs.
Along with the tombs belonging to Etruscan nobility, archaeologists also found small family tombs like this one in the necropolis containing at least one, and possibly several, pottery jars in which the deceased cremated remains were buried.
Many of the artifacts, such as this painted terracotta architectural element from a well-decorated tomb in the necropolis, have been taken to a nearby lab to be reassembled, if possible, and conserved.
By ERIC A. POWELL
Thursday, January 30, 2014
In ancient Egypt, the practice of mummifying animals became widespread in the first millenium B.C. Until the advent of Christianity, visitors to temples could buy animal mummy bundles as offerings to the gods. Wealthier pilgrims could also splurge on elaborate coffins shaped as creatures to hold these mummies, which ancient Egyptians probably believed represented the souls of the gods. Along with the sale of animal mummies, the production of lavish bronze and wooden coffins must have been an important source of revenue for temples.
The coffins below illustrate the wide array of animal forms taken by Egyptian gods. They will accompany 30 newly rediscovered animal mummies in The Brooklyn Museum's traveling exhibit Soulful Creatures:Animal Mummies in Ancient Egypt. The exhibit's catalogue is available at gilesltd.com
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