Anglo-Turkish Society

On November 16, 2010 John MacGinnis of the McDonald Insitute of Archaeological Research gave a talk to the Society about the dig at Ziyaret Tepe, a late Assyrian period site, to which the Society made a charitable donation earlier in the year. This was followed by a question and answer session and then a meal at Sofra restaurant.

>> read lecture summary:

At the Frontiers of History: the Ziyaret Tepe Archaeological Project

Dr. John MacGinnis
University of Cambridge
McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research

Although the history of Turkey is littered with the remains of many empires and many civilisations, and although these have all left their mark on the physical fabric of the country, there are some whose exceptional importance has never been forgotten while there are others whose contribution has over time been eclipsed. It is probably true to say that the latter is true of the Assyrian empire. Its status as one of the very first empires - perhaps, indeed, the first true empire - in world history notwithstanding, it is nevertheless the case that in the annals of Turkish history the role of this empire is not always given the prominence it deserves. This can be attributed to a number of reasons. The first is the sheer weight of antiquity. The whole Assyrian phenomenon was, essentially, done and dusted by the turn of the sixth century BC: the fact that the episode had come to an end over two and a half millennia ago takes it toll.

image courtesy of John MacGinnis
The Assyrian Empire at its zenith

Secondly, the Assyrians only occupied and ruled the southeastern part of modern Turkey with the result that the influence on the country as a whole could be considered only partial and also that only a small portion of the modern population will come into direct contact with evidence of the Assyrian imperium. And thirdly, this conceptual remoteness is matched by an impediment in terms of the potential for modern scholars to actually access the actual material evidence for the Assyrian presence in Turkey. Or at least this has until very recently been the case. For in fact the relevant part of the country, the southeastern corner, had for a very long time been terra incognita in terms of archaeological exploration with the result that virtually nothing was know of the reality of the Assyrian impact on the region. Subsequent to the recovery and decipherment of the great collections of cuneiform texts from the ancient Assyrian capitals in Iraq (above all, Nineveh, Nimrud and Assur), it had been known that Assyrian kings had first campaigned in the region and then comprehensively settled it, but beyond this very little else could be said. The discovery in the 1860's by the then British consul Taylor at Kurkh (modern Uçtepe, approximately 40 km east of Diyarbakır) of two stelae inscribed in cuneiform provided concrete evidence that the surmises from texts found in Mesopotamia were correct but this was then followed by a hiatus lasting more than a century in which almost nothing could be added to the picture. In the 1980's excavations were in fact carried out at Uçtepe itself but the principal result of this work was to establish that while the site was indeed host to major Assyrian levels, these lay under an overburden of later material more than seven metres thick, the implication of which was that large-scale investigation of these layers was unlikely to ever be a feasible operation. Fortunately in the closing years of the twentieth century this somewhat limiting state of affairs began to change. The announcement of the Turkish government of its intention to implement the next stage of the GAP project, an ambitious strategy of harnessing the waters of the rivers of southeastern Anatolia for both hydroelectric and agricultural purposes, created a new situation. Specifically, the resolve to resume work on the construction of the Ilisu dam meant that attention really had to now be paid to the archaeological resources of the Upper Tigris. Building on the lessons of both the successes and failures of the salvage work accompanying earlier dams, the Turkish government authorised a programme of intensive survey of the archaeological sites scheduled for immersion by the Ilisu dam and followed this up with the granting of permits to a number of teams, both Turkish and foreign, to excavate sites threatened with destruction. Although the surveys identified hundreds of sites stretching from the palaeolithic (Old Stone Age) right up to modern times, there is one site which stands out as truly exceptional.

image courtesy of John MacGinnis
Ziyaret Tepe showing its strategic location guarding the northern foothills.

This is the site of Ziyaret Tepe. Its very size - a mound 30 m high and a total area of 30 hectares - is massive. Combined with the presence of an intensive surface scatter of Assyrian ceramics the suspicion was immediately aroused that this was likely to be an Assyrian site of major importance. This was also suggested by the morphology of the site - a high central mound with a surrounding lower town - as this is a characteristic type for Assyrian provincial capitals1. In these circumstances the Ziyaret Tepe Archaeological Project (ZTAP) was inaugurated with the aim of exploring and documenting as much as possible of this site before it disappears forever. The ZTAP is an international project. Under the overall direction of Prof. Timothy Matney of the University of Akron, Ohio, teams from Britain, Germany and Turkey have come together to collaborate in this vital undertaking. Starting in 1997 with three seasons of intensive field walking together with survey by remote sensing (in this case, magnetometry and resistivity).

image courtesy of John MacGinnis
Resistivity map of the area.

Actual excavations began in the year 2000 and since this time I have been privileged to be leading the British Expedition. Based at the University of Cambridge's McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, I have for the past decade been charged with the exploration of the lower town. It is now pretty well established that the lower town is only Assyrian, although the question remains as to whether this means both Middle Assyrian (ca.1400-1100 BC) as well as Neo-Assyrian (ca.900-600 BC). But there is no doubt about the extent and importance of the Neo-Assyrian remains. Using a combination of remote sensing backed up by both large scale and targeted smaller excavations, this work is indeed beginning to reveal the inner workings of one of the great cities of the Assyrian empire. Slowly we are learning how the city was configured. The existence of a defensive wall, initially disputed, has been proven and its course plotted; the location of the city gates established and investigations commenced; a major administrative complex identified and excavated with sensational results; one area of industrial activity has been localised and others conjectured. The lay out of the street network is beginning to emerge and with this an increased understanding of the probable location of both elite residences and low status housing. As mentioned, the work on the administrative complex has been particularly productive. It is now clear that we have the plans of two substantial buildings. The first of these is certainly of a domestic nature, but given the size of the wells (up to 1.8 m thick), the use of high quality brick made from pristine clay and the presence of an elaborate mosaiced courtyard, the structure can certainly be characterised as the residence of a high status individual. Given its position adjacent to what appears to have been a temple treasury (see below) it may be that this building was the residence of the chief priest. The pavement in Building 1 - a grid of squares made out of black and white stones from the river laid out like a chequer board - is indeed beautiful; it is also quintessentially Neo-Assyrian and the discovery of this pavement was a welcome confirmation that we were indeed excavating a major structure of this time.

image courtesy of John MacGinnis
Operation R, the administrative building excavated in 2010.
image courtesy of John MacGinnis
Operation Q, the southern gate.

Building 2, built up immediately next to the western side of Building 1, has a more elaborate plan, a warren of rooms arranged around two more courtyards also paved with black and white stone mosaics. The identification of this building as a temple storeroom come from the contents of unquestionably the most important find from Ziyaret Tepe to date - the discovery of an archive of texts written in Assyrian cuneiform on clay tablets. To date approximately thirty texts have been recovered, the bulk coming from two rooms in the eastern part of the building. Although in some ways the contents of many of the texts are very much what one would expect from this type of material - lists of names, tallies of horses and textiles, loans of grains and so on - nevertheless they cast a fascinating light on the activities of the imperial administration whilst their very date makes them extraordinary. For these texts do not come from just any time in the Assyrian control of the city, but from the very end of the occupation, 614-611 BC.

image courtesy of John MacGinnis
A mysterious pierced tablet.

To put this in context, Nineveh, the great Assyrian capital, fell in 612 BC to a coalition of the Babylonians (from southern Iraq) and the Medes (from western Iran), and though this event did not quite mark the complete end of the Assyrian state, it certainly did spell the end of Assyrian supremacy. In fact, the Assyrian government fled westward to Harran where a failing government ruled for just a few more years until the state was finally extinguished. Accordingly, our texts from Ziyaret Tepe are a unique and unprecedented witness to the final collapse of this mighty empire. In the case of one of these the evidence is so direct that it is breathtaking. For this text (ZTT 22) bears the reply of an officer who had evidently been ordered to raise a unit of chariotry but who writes back that such an order can no longer be carried out: the registers of soldiers have not been kept up to date and the personnel required to maintain a fleet of chariots (carpenters, leatherworkers, bow and arrow makers, weavers, tailors, officers, scribes) have all fled. Indeed the author of the letter, Mannu-ki-libbali, asks why he alone is being ordered to stay behind and die. Without question this letter can only have been composed as Assyria was in the process of collapse; as a first hand account of the empire in its death-throes it is unique.

image courtesy of John MacGinnis
ZTT22, one of the final tablets possibly sent, or not sent from Ziyaret Tepe.

Returning to the main body of the texts from the site, although a little less dramatic their contents are nevertheless contributing to a hugely enhanced image of the city and its life. A unifying theme which emerges from the texts is a connection with the goddess Ishtar. This comes in the form of both explicit evidence (e.g. the mention of a scribe of Ishtar) and suggestive indications (references to the harem, the akitu-festival, a transvestite). On the other hand the overall contents of the texts strongly argue for Building 2 being an administrative complex and this is also supported by other archaeological evidence. This includes the presence of a large number of pithoi (huge storage jars) and hundreds of clay tokens generally taken to be administrative in nature, to which may be added the discovery this year (2010) of a stone weight in the form of a duck (a common Mesopotamian shape for such objects) which weighed almost exactly 30 kilograms and therefore equated to an Assyrian talent: a duck weight of this size is only likely to have been used in the setting of a centralised administrative bureaucracy. Taken together, the textual and archaeological evidence combine to argue that Building 2 was a storeroom complex attached to the temple of Ishtar. Of course this is in itself somewhat tantalising, implying as it does that somewhere nearby must be the remains of the temple itself.

Information of an altogether different nature comes from a text excavated in the palace on the high mound in 2009. It is a list of women's names of which the most extraordinary feature is that, with just one or two exceptions, the names are not Assyrian. One or two may also be Hurrian or Luvian but as a whole the great mass of the names preserved, about sixty in all, do not appear to belong to a known language of the ancient Middle East. From the point of view of the modern scholar they are indeed much more defined by what they are not than what they are: with the exceptions already noted, they are not Assyria, Hurrian, Urartian, Luwian, Elamite, Old Persian, Egyptian or West Semitic. What then could be the origin of these names and their parent language? There are two possibilities: (1) that they belong to the indigenous pre-Assyrian population of the area or (2) they are the names of (the descendants of?) deportees. The second of these seems more likely. The problem with the first suggestion, in itself plausible, is that we would expect the indigenous pre-Assyrian population - the Shubrians - to have spoken a dialect of Hurrian and the (admittedly limited) evidence at our disposal does seem to bear this out. Of course, we could be wrong! The case for deportees on the other hand is actually rather strong. The Assyrian policy of deportation in which groups of populations were uprooted en masse and settled in other parts of the empire far distant from their natives land is well known from both royal inscriptions and administrative texts. One study of the numbers involved estimates that in the course of the two and half centuries of high empire approximately 4 ½ million people were transported in this way; the true figure is in fact probably higher. With regard to Tushan, we already have some evidence for deportees from Babylonia and the west, but in the case of the names of the women from the palace my current belief is that they are most likely to have been deported from Iran, from a people who spoken a non-Indo-European language. As a matter of interest, a recent reinterpretation of a text from Nimrud has been shown to be evidence of individuals deported from Israel to Media (western Iran), providing in passing a striking corroboration of a statement in the Book of Kings.

image courtesy of John MacGinnis
List of women tablet excavated in 2009.

Last, but not least, the ancient name of the site - Tushan - can now be regarded as virtually certain. True enough, we still have not yet excavated an inscription which says so in as many words, but the cumulative evidence makes this conclusion inescapable. Key points here are firstly the very stature of the remains and secondly the coincidence of orthographic stylistics found in our texts from Ziyaret Tepe which exactly match those found in letters sent in antiquity from Tushan to Nineveh (where they were found by Layard and others in the nineteenth century and sent to British Museum), but there are other arguments as well.

In conclusion, I hope that this survey has succeeded in giving some indication to the background and importance of our work at Ziyaret Tepe and the way in which it is contributing to our understanding both of the parts of Turkey which came under Assyrian rule and of the empire as a whole. It is an exciting and groundbreaking project, dimmed only by the shadow of the Ilısu Dam hovering over us. It seems unbelievable that a site of such importance is scheduled to be destroyed but such indeed sadly appears to be the case. We pay tribute to the generosity and vision of the individuals and institutions who have made this work possible and extend the invitation to help support this amazing project to everyone interested in recovering this exceptional heritage for the benefit of Turkey and all mankind.

1 The current appearance of the mound is of a flat top with a higher mounding at the eastern end. At first glance this look remarkably similar to sites such as Nimrud where the higher mounding corresponds to the remains of the ziggurrat. We had indeed wondered whether this was also the case at Ziyaret Tepe but in fact this is not the correct explanation. The higher mounding at Ziyaret Tepe is piled earth rather than mud brick structure and our current hypothesis is that the entire upper surface of the mound was levelled in antiquity in order to form the material for a burial mound. One possible time when this might have happened would have been in the Hellenistic period. return to main text

Note: Dr. MacGinnis was interviewed about the ‘Lost language’ surmised from the single tablet found in Ziyaret Tepe on the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 on 10th of May 2012. Around the same time the story was picked up by much of the main-stream press, such as the Independent newspaper:

Further reading:
J MacGinnis & T Matney, “Ziyaret Tepe: Digging the Frontiers of the Assyrian Empire”, Current World Archaeology 37 (2009) p. 30-40
B Foster & K Polinger Foster, Civilisations in Ancient Iraq, Princeton.
G Roux, Ancient Iraq, Penguin.

Work at Ziyaret Tepe is coordinated through the Ziyaret Tepe Archaeological Trust, a registered charity (No. 1133366). If you would like to support the project please contact Dr. MacGinnis on jm111[at]

web site for Ziyaret Tepe