by Roderick Conway Morris

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Arslantepe: One of the world's most ancient cities

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME 4 December 2004
Archeological Museum, Malatya
Swords found at Arslantepe, 3,300-3,100 BC



Rural populations in the Near and Middle East usually assume that whatever archeologists say they are up to, in reality they are searching for treasure. An Italian archeological mission has been excavating Arslantepe, a remote ancient site near the town of Malatya and the source of the Euphrates in south-eastern Turkey, for more than 40 years. Comparatively little gold, in the form of small ornaments, has come to light at Arslantepe, but the site has yielded a wealth of information about the development of one of the world's oldest urban civilizations, and an impressive list of 'firsts': the first known palace, swords, toothed locks operated with a key and a princely tomb with what appears to be evidence of human sacrifice.

The palace contains some of the earliest and best preserved ancient wall paintings. They were executed on plastered surfaces, and consist of stylized representations of human beings and animals. An antique painter's palette, a flat stone with a hollowed-out depression still bearing traces of color, has even been unearthed there.

These finds all date to more than 5,000 years ago. The Neo-Hittite Lion Gate that was to give Arslantepe (Lion Hill) its Turkish name came later. Built around 3,000 years ago, the gate now stands at the entrance of the Museum of Anatolian Cultures in Ankara. But most of the many fascinating earlier artifacts from Arslantepe are kept at the Archeological Museum in Malatya.

To celebrate the 700th anniversary of its founding, the 'La Sapienza' University of Rome, whose archeologists have been running the dig in Turkey, is staging an exhibition devoted to the site, relating its history and displaying more than 180 objects from it. The show, presented with admirable lucidity in both English and Italian by the leader of the mission, Marcella Frangipane, and her colleagues, continues at the Trajan Markets until Jan. 9.

Cereals were being cultivated in the area that is now Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Palestine by the eighth millennium B.C., and in Anatolia by 7000-6000 B.C. This led some of our ancestors to cease their roaming, hunter-gatherer existence, and in due course to the growth of the first villages and towns. Arslantepe was settled from around 4250 B.C. until it was more or less abandoned with the collapse of the Assyrian Empire (614-610 B.C.), within whose territory it was by then included.As a result of this long occupation, layer upon layer of previous buildings and human detritus accumulated, and what started as a village on the plain rose to a mound that is now 30 meters, or 90 feet, high.

From what can be gleaned from the earliest excavated period of Arslantepe, the social system was at first fairly egalitarian, with the inhabitants living in similar domestic conditions. By 4000 B.C. a sizeable temple had appeared, which seemed also to play a major role in the storage and distribution of food. Thousands of storage jars, bottles and standard-size bowls for measuring and doling out food, possibly on a daily basis, have been unearthed.

Different products were kept in ceramic containers of various shapes and sizes, covered with cloth and sealed with a stamped clay marker. Later on, even the bolts of storeroom doors were sealed, and some were closed with locks using serrated wooden keys of a kind still in use today in the Middle East and Africa. Thus, the food supply could be carefully controlled, rationed if necessary, and the unauthorized removal of grain and other staples detected by the discovery of broken seals.

Following the course of Arslantepe's evolution, changes in domestic arrangements reveal that not only did labor become more specialized, but particular groups and individuals increasingly took it upon themselves to rule over others. This eventually gave rise, in around 3400-3350 B.C., to the first known palace complex, where residential, political, administrative, economic and ceremonial functions were carried out in the same place.

Sudden, cataclysmic destruction can be more help to archeologists than gradual, gentle decay. In about 3000 B.C., Arslantepe suffered its own micro version of the disaster that led to the preservation of so much at Pompeii. The palace was burned down in a great fire, preserving thousands of objects under its collapsed floors and walls. Among these were beautifully fashioned and finished swords, cast in an alloy of copper and arsenic in one piece (one of them with a silver inlay handle) and spear heads.

The destruction of the palace was possibly the result of a violent internal revolution, or alternatively an attack by the nomadic pastoralists who still lived alongside the urban dwellers of Arslantepe. And while the spears could conceivably have been used principally for hunting, the swords strongly suggest that by this time a ruling class had emerged that used force to control its subjects and to defend itself from them.

Not long after this event, a lordly burial of a male in his 30s or 40s took place, accompanied by grave goods such as ceramic food containers, weapons and gold and silver ornaments. On and around the stone lid of the tomb were thrown three girls and a boy in their teens, who show signs of violent treatment and were possibly buried alive. Various hypotheses have been advanced to explain this, among them that the youths were related to the chief in the tomb and sacrificed to join him in the hereafter, or that they were his heirs and were murdered in a coup d'état by the family's rivals.

For about a century, the pastoralists that roved the surrounding plains and mountains seem to have held sway in the area, but in due course the town revived and its urban inhabitants reasserted themselves. Arslantepe eventually came under the rule of the Hittite Empire, and when this broke up, survived as an independent kingdom. It later became a tributary state to the powerful Assyrian Empire. When its monarch failed to pay his dues, the Assyrian Emperor Sargon II , in 712 B.C., sacked the city, according to a contemporary hieroglyphic record, 'crushing it like a clay pot,' then deported the population 'like a herd of sheep,' took as prisoners the king and his court, and carried away a mass of booty.

The city never recovered, and gradually its remains were overgrown, making of this human artifact what came to look like merely a topographical feature of the vast Anatolian landscape. Thanks to the Italian mission's skillful and imaginative labors, its 3,500-year-long story has been vividly brought to life again.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023