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Discoveries of the Assyrian antiquities in Syria

10, 01, 05

In 2004 excavations were conducted for the fifteenth time at the mound in Northern Syria which is known as Tell Sabi Abyad (Arabic for 'Mound of the White Boy'). For more than two months ­ from August 21 to October 31 ­ the archaeologists from the Netherlands National Museum of Antiquities and leiden University were digging. This year the team consisted of 28 men and women, from the Netherlands, Syria, Belgium, Italy, Poland, Japan and Sweden.

Tell Sabi Abyad is about 5 hectares large and more than 14 metres high. The mound contains occupational layers that are several metres thick and which refer to two periods:

(1) The Late Neolithic, dated to the 7th millennium BC;

(2) The Late Bronze Age (the Middle-Assyrian period in our field of study), to be dated to the late 13th and 12th century BC.

Each period is characterized by far-reaching changes in the nature and organization of the society, the structure of the settlements, the elements of the material culture, the burial customs, etc. Tell Sabi Abyad offers an excellent opportunity to gain a detailed insight into these ancient times. As the occupational layers from the two periods overlap only partly, they can be excavated simultaneously.

Let us first take a look at the Late Neolithic. Here we came upon occupational layers that have so far barely been investigated by archaeologists, or not at all even. Therefore the results of our work are no less than unique! For several years the research into the prehistoric occupation focussed on the south-eastern slope of Tell Sabi Abyad. The large-scale excavation has yielded a wealth of information on what happened here almost 9000 years ago. The research has led to a number of books and theses and dozens of articles in professional journals (for details, see the bibliography).

A number of obvious questions could not be answered, however. How large were these prehistoric villages actually? Was Tell Sabi Abyad ever occupied in its entirety or was occupation limited to certain parts of the mound? Can we say anything about the size and make-up of the population and about the complexity of the society? To answer these questions we had to shift our focus from the south-eastern side to other parts of the mound, in order to discover the stratigraphic and chronological facts about the structure of Tell Sabi Abyad.


Around 5900-5800 BC the mound was abandoned. For thousands of years no one lived there. It was not until the late 13th century BC that people returned to this site and built a fortress. Especially in what is called the Middle-Assyrian period, around 1200 BC, the fortress seems to have played an important role in the administration and protection of the far western boundary of the Assyrian kingdom.

An Assyrian garrison was quartered at Tell Sabi Abyad; a custom-house on the road to the Assyrian capital Assur (in present-day northern Iraq) was established here; and the regional Assyrian administration had its seat here as well. The fortress functioned as a large estate employing hundreds of men and women. All kinds of craftsmen had their workshops here: smiths, potters, seal cutters, carpet weavers, etc.

The almost 400 clay tablets with cuneiform inscriptions which we have found at Tell Sabi Abyad in all these years, show that the Assyrian fortress of Tell Sabi Abyad was in the hands of Ili-pada ­ one of the most powerful men of Assyria around 1200-1185 BC. Ili-pada was grand vizier of Assyria and was entitled to call himself 'king of Hanigalbat'. The castle was Ili-pada's country property; here he made the fortune he needed to to live in great state in the capital Assur, where the constant power struggle took place.

A marvellous find during the 2004 excavation campaign: no less than 37 clay tablets with cuneiform inscriptions! The documents date from 1200 to 1175 BC. They are letters, administrative texts, court records, hymns, omina and a treaty between the Assyrians and local nomadic tribes.

In previous years Tell Sabi Abyad has yielded hundreds of Assyrian clay tablets with cuneiform inscriptions. Most tablets were found in the offices within the walls of the fortress, where the administration and the clerics were established. But the texts also appeared in the houses and workshops around the fortress. In 2004 more texts were found: 37 items this time.

The tablets were found between the remnants of a collapsed wall in an alley between two buildings. Of course the documents do not belong in this alley. We now have good reason to assume that they originally belonged in one of the buildings next to the alley and that they fell onto the street when the building collapsed.

Most of the texts are letters (including fragments of sealed envelopes) to grand vizier Ili-pada and administrative documents concerning the recruting of personnel and soldiers. Five texts are court reports and contain the sentences pronounced by Ili-pada in the neighbouring fortress of Sahlalu, perhaps contemporary Tell Sahlan.

Four texts are what may be termed omina. They deal with hepatoscopy, the inspection of the liver and the omens that may be deduced from it. The texts are excerpts from existing, much lengthier omen books. They were probably written on the occasion of a local sacrifice inspection, as a back-up for interpretation. We know from much later texts (from the New Assyrian period of the first millennium BC) that the Assyrian scholars in their letters often quoted single omina from the more extensive omen books to support their interpretations.

The treaty between grand vizier Ili-pada of Assyria and the chiefs of the Nihsanu tribe of the Suteans is of historical importance. The Suteans, divided into a number of tribes, were nomads who lived across Northern Syria as far as Palestine. The treaty agreed that the Nihsanu Suteans would not give food and drink nor shelter to the enemies of Assyria, such as the Kassites, Suheans, Subareans and other Suteans. Ili-pada and the nomads' "great ones" (leaders) would protect each other's rights. Several sections regulate the purchase and borrowing of beer by the Suteans. A list of witnesses concludes the text.

The treaty is probably an "office copy" for local administrative use; the real, official document was not kept at the fortress of Tell Sabi Abyad, but at Ili-pada's chief residence (in Assur?). Such office copies were also found at other places, for example at the "ministerial departments" of Ugarit on the Mediterranean coast.

We come across the Suteans elsewhere in our texts as well. They pass information on to the Assyrians and appear to be acting as spies - a function for which they were well suited, considering the fact that they were travelling nomads and that they were therefore well informed about many matters all over the country.

Remarkable, too, are two literary texts, which were probably written on the occasion of the coronation of King Assur-nadin-apli. Both texts were written in the Assyrian capital of Assur and subsequently sent to the fortress at Tell Sabi Abyad. They are striking because of their exceptional choice of words and the smallness of the writing. They are hymns to the goddess Ishtar of Nineveh. These texts allude



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