Since 1993 the Palermo University archaeological expedition in North Syria has undertaken several seasons of salvage excavations at Tell Shiyukh Tahtani, a multi-period site of the Middle Euphrates Valley south of Jerablus.
This Euphrates project began as the Italian contribution to the international Tishreen Dam Salvage Programme, which was launched in 1988 by the Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums of the Syrian Arab Republic to rescue the ancient sites and monuments threatened by the construction of the Tishreen Dam. Since then, various mounds of different periods have been investigated by Syrian and foreign expeditions working side by side in the same area, thus making a significant contribution to the history and archaeology of the region.
In the summer 1999, at the end of the construction works, the dam created an artificial reservoir (namely the Tishreen Lake) about 60 km. long, which inundated a large number of ancient and modern settlements. Only a few sites on the northern edge of the new lake have been spared by the waters, including the mound of Shiyukh Tahtani. Since, as we had hoped, it seems now that the site will never be submerged, our rescue work has become a long-term archaeological project.
The main goal of the project is to study the process of urbanization at a small Bronze Age site in the Upper Syrian Euphrates region. It is well-known that this process first took place in Lower Mesopotamia and brought to the birth of civilization in the ancient Near East. In this view, the investigation of the emergence and development of the urban culture in the upper Euphrates region during the third and second millennia may give relevant data on cultural and possibly ethnic identities which could differentiate this geographic region from eastern Anatolia, western Syria and upper Mesopotamia as a whole.
The Upper Syrian Euphrates Valley is part of the north-south "Big Bend" which the River forms, when, after crossing the Anatolian highlands and skirting the Anti-Taurus mountains, it turns abruptly southwards from a western direction. At Jerablus, where it crosses the present Turkish border and enters in the Syrian territory, the River becomes less impetuous, much wider and majestic: while often changing the main course during the flooding seasons, in the summer the river bed meanders creating small islets (hawigia) separated by small channels and backwaters. It is at this latitude that the River is flanked on one side by rocky cliffs and, alternately, by open plains and alluvial terraces on the other, characterized by rich arable lands as, for example, the Jerablus plain on the left bank, or the Shiyukh Tahtani plain and the Jade arc on the left bank; south of Kara Kozak the valley narrows until the imposing fortress of Qalat Nejem to become wider again in the Serrin/Tell Banat district. The Valley becomes here a green fertile strip of land, which breaks the flat, monotonous landscape of the arid Syrian steppe.
This stretch of the Euphrates River, now forming the Tishreen Dam reservoir, was and is still inhabited by small villages, built with mud-brick houses, some of which were submerged by the waters of the new Lake. The local population includes Arabs, Kurds and a few Circassians. The Valley was also densely populated in antiquity, as it is dotted with a good number of ancient mounds.
Tell Shiyukh Tahtani (the "Lower Sheikhs' Mound") is situated on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River, about 12 km south of Jerablus/Carchemish and of the Turkish border. It lies in the very heart of an open plain in the upper Tishreen Basin, 300 m. east of the modern village, which gives the tell its name. It is surrounded by excellent farming land, suggesting that the basic economy of the ancient settlement was agriculture. Moreover, the position of the tell on a low flat terrace at some distance from the river was safe from seasonal flooding.
Today Tell Shiyukh Tahtani is distinguished by a concrete water tower, built on its top in 1985, which forms an imposing though unattractive landmark visible from afar.
"Tell" is an Arabic term meaning an artificial mound containing an accumulation of human settlements and ruins of several periods one above the other. It is a typical site formation in Near Eastern archaeology.
The ancient name of the settlement is still unknown, since no epigraphic material has ever been found.
The site was first mentioned by Sir Leonard Woolley, who, while excavating at Carchemish, became acquainted with the archaeology of the region. In his "Dead Towns and Living Men", a popular account of his early archaeological experience, published in 1920, the famous British archaeologist vividly describes the fine view of the Euphrates from the Carchemish citadel and mentions "Lower Shuk" (sic !) among many ancient mounds visible from the citadel southwards. Though he was perfectly aware of the existence of our site, it is unclear, however, why our site is misnamed as Tell Malah in the archaeological map of the region published in the Carchemish II volume (1921).
The history of archaeological research in the Tishreen Dam basin is closely related to the main site of Carchemish, the famous ancient capital located at a strategic crossing on the Euphrates. The site was first identified in 1876 by George Smith, a young Assyriologist of the British Museum who came across the impressive ruins near Jerablus on his way to Mosul in northern Iraq in search of ancient Nineveh. A few years later (1978-81) P. Henderson, British consul in Aleppo, undertook the first soundings.
Large-scale excavations were conducted in 1911-14 and 1920 by a team of the British Museum, directed by Hogarth, Thompson and Woolley and assisted by T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia). This expedition, though interrupted by the first World War, brought a large number of monuments and art objects to light, mostly of the Iron Age.
In 1929-31 another famous site of the region, namely Tell Ahmar (anc. Til Barsip), was excavated by a French expedition directed by Thureau Dangin. Here an imposing Assyrian palace decorated with rare wall paintings was uncovered on the citadel mound, as well as the city gates flanked by monumental stone lions and other rich finds (mainly basalt stelae, sculptures and inscriptions), which throw light on the history of the region in the Assyrian period.
After these pioneer excavations, the Upper Syrian Euphrates Valley was archaeologically neglected up to the 1970s, when two different surveys by Copeland and Moore produced a thorough picture of the environmental history and settlement patterns, ranging from prehistoric to medieval times. Since 1988, at the start of the operations for the dam project, various teams sponsored by foreign Universities and institutions from different countries initiated their salvage projects in the Valley: about twenty mounds of different periods were investigated until the summer 1999, when most of them - especially the ones in the lower flood zone - were unfortunately flooded by the new reservoir, while only a few were saved from the waters.
After several excavation seasons, thanks to this international cooperation, today our knowledge of the history of the region has been by far improved, thus illuminating various periods of occupation which were previously obscure - from the aceramic Neolithic to classical and Islamic times. An important contribution in building up this cultural sequence, especially as regards the Bronze Age, has been given by the Italian excavations at Shiyukh Tahtani, which have continued even after the formation of the Tishreen reservoir.
The site of Lower Shiyukh measures ca. 6 ha. and consists of a main mound, or Upper Tell, situated to the north-west of a broad lower level, named the Lower Town: the latter is approximately square in plan and surrounds the tell on three sides. The Upper Tell (352 m. above sea level) is a small conical mound, measuring 120 m. across at the base and rising to a height of 17 m. above the alluvial plain. Its northern side is very steep, whereas its southern flank slopes more gently towards the Lower Town. The latter rises at a maximum height of about 4-5 m. and extends about 240 m. in length.
The building of the Water Tower, ca. 20 m. high, has changed the original shape of the mound causing severe damage to the archaeological deposit. The earlier conical summit was levelled for about 3 m. so that the top of the mound is today much wider and flatter. The foundations of the Tower have pierced through the core of the mound for about 5 m., and the loose soil from all these operations has been dumped along the edge of the summit.
Since the first seasons at Shiyukh Tahtani our fieldwork has been devoted to the identification of the stratigraphic and cultural sequence of the site. With this aim in mind, a number of soundings were opened in various areas of the tell, bringing to light remains of various periods of occupation and producing promising results.
As shown in the topographic map, three main areas of excavations have been investigated so far on the upper tell:
- Area A, on the summit of the mound, where Iron Age levels have mainly been found;
- Area B, on the west side, where the earliest structures belong to the Early Bronze Age I-II (early third millennium B.C.) and are covered by Roman/Byzantine remains;
- Area CD, on the East side, where a continuous sequence of the Bronze Age has been brought to light.
On the other hand, only minor operations have been undertaken in the Lower Town, which - according to surface finds - seems to have been extensively occupied in Roman, Byzantine and early Islamic times. The most relevant data come from:
- Area E, on the East side, where a small portion of a Roman bath building came to light during the first season;
- Area G, also on the East side, where traces of Middle Bronze Age occupation were identified in a deep sounding, underlying the remains of another Roman building paved with a mosaic.