Forum Archaeologiae - Zeitschrift für klassische Archäologie 13 / XII / 1999

A first preliminary Report of the Excavation Project of the "Institut für Orientalistik der Universität Wien" and Archaeos at Tell Arbid, Syria, Sector D

0. Upon invitation of Professor P. Bielinski who is heading the Syrian-Polish excavations at Tell Arbid and who, since several years, is doing research at this site, the Oriental Institute of the University of Vienna and Archaeos Inc. undertook a joint expedition to Tell Arbid, situated in the Jezireh region in Northern Syria (fig. 1). The Vienna - Archaeos [1] group operated, from an archaeological point of view, autonomously, but, of course in conjunction with the Syrian and Polish colleagues.

Fig. 1: Mesopotamia, early dynastic era (Uwe Finkbeiner - Wolfgang Röllig, Tübinger Atlas des Vorderen Orients [1988] B II 7 )

1. The expedition took place between the 25th of August and the 11th of October 1999. The excavation was co-directored by Gebhard J. Selz (Vienna) and David Gimbel (Vienna and New York, President of Archaeos). The expedition's assistant was P. Zimmerman (Philadelphia and New York, Vice-President of Archaeos). Further members of this expedition were Doris Fellsner, Gerhard Karner, Bojana Jankovic, and Katharina Wernisch, all students at the Institut für Orientalistik in Wien.
1.1. Archaeos Inc. covered most of this expeditions expenses, additional support was provided by the Geisteswissenschaftliche Fakultät of Vienna University.
1.2. The expedition had three major objectives:
1.2.1. To include and establish field archaeology as an additional branch in the teaching and the research conducted at the Institut für Orientalistik, Wien.
1.2.2. To provide the unamissable training for students with a major interest in Near Eastern archaeology.
1.2.3. It was hoped that the excavations could make some substantial contribution to the understanding of the urban history of Arbid, and therefore of the North-Syrian Jezireh.

1.3. All activities of the Vienna - Archaeos team concernd the exploration of "a previously unexcavated sector of the site, i.e. the north-western corner of Arbid's citatel", called "sector D". This region was assigned to our group by Professor Bielinski from the Syrian-Polish team [2]. In general, the Syrian-Polish procedures of documentation were applied.
1.3.1. Within this "sector D" ultimately eight trenches were opened, known as D 32/44, D 32/45, D 33/46, and D 30/43, D 29/43, D 29/42, D 28/43, D 28/42. A surface sample with a sizable amount of Niniveh V pottery suggested that the third millennium levels would be reached not far below the surface.

2. The work started in the trenches D 32/44, D32/45 and D 33/46, near the end of the citadels's slope. Initially it was hoped that a broader surface scraping would allow us to map out the architecture within a larger area, in order get a clearer idea of the urban developement of Arbid and, if possible, perhaps even of the occupational scheme in the third millennium. However, the scraping and digging down to a depth of approxiamtely 25 cm (D 32/44) or 50 cm (D33/46 and D 32/45) yielded no architectural remains. Thus we concluded that within this trough-like region, between the slope of the citadel and an outwardly elevation, which in fact might conceal the remnants of the cities fortification structures, we had a fill of debris and soil washed down from the citadel. In the squares D 32/44 and D 33/46 activities were therefore abandoned. To test that hypothesis, it was decided to undertake a deep sounding in square D 32/45 in an reduced 4x4 m area in its north-eastern part. Below the 20 cm or so of the surface layer, two layers of a darker and more compacted earth were found. Below, there was a layer of about 60 cm thickness, which turned out to be a fill of almost sterile soil, not even yielding significant pottery sherds. It was decided to go even further down, in order to get some understanding of this rather strange observations. There we found a sequence of layers, containing some sherds, bones, ashes and decayed libn, including a broader ash-layer (fig. 2). Since the lower levels contained a sizable number of Habur-pottery it was finally decided to close this sounding, because there was little hope to reach any third millennium levels in the remaining time and the work-force was urgently needed in the other squares. The most spectacular find in this square was a ED IIIB cylinder seal, unfortunately out of any context (fig. 3).

Fig. 2: View of the sections in the deep-sounding in square D 32/45

Fig. 3: Late ED IIIB (perhaps early Old Akkadian) cylinder seal from square D 32/45

3. Meanwhile the focus of our excavations had moved to the squares D 30/43, D 29/43, and D 28/43, where the western region trenches of 9x5 m (little more than a half square) were opened succeedingly. The whole area was chosen on account of Sir Max Mallowan's claim that he had there located the city wall, a statement which was supported by the claims of the villagers that in this area remnants of the wall were visible several generations ago. To the east of the Wadi-like gap, traces of Mallowan's trenches are still visible. The aforementioned trenches of the Vienna team were situated to the west of this gap, starting with square D 30/43 close to an elevation, the others adjoining in the slope running down towards the north. Because the 'Wadi' sloping down towards the east, were the modern meandering road leads towards Tell Muzan, ancient Urke$, we speculated that the gap in fact might have to do with one of the ancient city's gates, and that the elevation where our digging was begun might hide remnants of the ancient gate house (fig. 4). All the trenches of this area yielded, just below the surface soil, various levels of architectural remains. A considerable number of graves, chiefly of a much later date, were sunk into these earlier levels.

Fig. 4: The road to Tell Muzan (Urkesch); general view of the excavation area

3.1. The uppermost, the most southern trench (D 30/43) contained a large square room of about 4x4 m, dated, by the associated ceramic finds, to the end of the ED III period. The eastern wall, only visible in the section of the baulk, apparently had the entrance to this room. In the northern part of this trench, two nearly parallel walls were found, roughly running from east to west, and of a probably slightly earlier date. The northermost of these walls was probably an outer wall of the structure, unearthed in the adjoining trench D 29/43.

Fig. 5: 'Grave 2' (D 30/43)

3.1.1. In D 30/43 all together five graves were detected. The best preserved and most spectacular one is known as 'Grave 2', remarkable for its state of preservation of for its findings, which allow for a date in the Hellenistic period. This rectangular grave was walled by mud-bricks, the burial itself was covered by a row of diagonally set rectangular bricks of 40x40 cm (fig. 5). Having removed those, we found a rather well preserved skeleton with its head to the east, and which contained in its mouth, facing the south, a detoriated silver coin, the well-known obolos to be paid to the ferryman by dead as a fee for crossing the underworld river (fig. 6). Facing the head was a wine jar, the opening cupped with a bronze bowl, and the laddle still hanging inside (fig. 7).

Fig. 6: The skull of the skeleton of 'Grave 2' (D 30/43); the decayed silver coin (obolos) in front of the head, facing south

Fig. 7: The grave goods of 'Grave 2' (D 30/43) in situ

A similar constructed grave, 'Grave 3', was dug into the north-western corner of the aforementioned room. However, though seemingly undisturbed too, its state of preservation was far worse, the skeleton rather decayed. Associated with the corpse was a nicely worked alabastron. In a similar bad shape was, the earlier uncovered 'Grave 1', near the eastern corner of the northern baulk. 'Grave 4', partially in the western baulk, yielded two well preserved vessels, probably dating to the second millennium (fig. 8). 'Grave 5', again close to the northern baulk and close to the Hellenistic 'Grave 2', yielded a few beads. In addition, close to the badly preserved skull, two eye-shaped shell objects were found. A few similar shaped objects were unearthed outside any meaningful context elsewhere in these trenches.
3.2. Adjoining to the north is trench D 29/43. In the most southern part, due to the baulk, the conjunction to the northernmost wall of D 30/43 remains unclear. However, joining to the north the remnants of two buildings were detected, a larger one to the east, a smaller to the west. The evidence shows that these rooms had several phases of rebuilding, which, following the ceramic evidence, all belong to the later phase of ED III. A considerable number of scattered bones were found in this square, which, togehter with the number of excavated burials, allow for the assumption that the whole area may have been reused as a cemetery at certain times.

Fig. 8: The remnants of the burial and the two accompanying vessels of the second millennium 'Grave 4' from square D 30/43

3.2.1. In the most eastern of the just mentioned buildings, an intrusive shaft was found, which we dug down to a depth of more than 2 meters. The digging was started on a grave at the top of the shaft, containing just some human bones. The second grave, at the shaft's bottom, found after taking out a filling of ashes and earth, contained a very nice bowl, a piece of the so-called metallic ware. In fact at its bottom, the shaft was cut through a mud-brick wall, dated, by ceramic finds, most probably to the Niniveh V period. Closer observations suggest, that the burial at the bottom was hit incidently by the diggers of this shaft, and that the burial had in fact no original conjunction with it.
3.2.2. As mentioned before, the southern part of D 29/43 contained various traces of burials, most of them destroyed by erosion or plundering. Even without proper archaeological context, a number of small finds deserves mentioning here: Two geometrically incised cylinder seals, two bronze pins, and a considerable number of animal figurines.

Fig. 9: Building dated to the Niniveh V period (D 28/42, 28/43, D 29/42, 29/43)

3.3. The wall corner in the north-western corner of D 29/43 and its apparent continuation in the south-western corner of D 28/43 prompted us to open two small 4x4 m areas, adjoining to the west (D 29/42 and D 28/42). This was done only during the last days of the excavation. Thus we hoped to trace the continuation of walls and eventually the outlines of the respective rooms. And, in fact, one trapezoid room of approximately 4x5 m extended under the baulks into all four of these excavation squares (fig. 9). The ceramic findings here as well as all those found north of it dated these structures securely to the Niniveh V period. In conjunction with this building impressions of a door sealing were found as well as a few bullae. Adjoining to the north of this 'four-square-building' a street, lateron filled with thick layers of Ninveh V pottery sherds, extended to the west, and ended in a sort of courtyard in square D 28/42. In the courtyard, especially in its south-western corner, numerous grindstones were detected, apparently still at the place of their original use. To the east of this building, set in a sort of small alley, three walls of a small rectangular structure (preservation ca. 180 x 80 cm) , adjoining the eastern baulk, were excavated. Only the removing of a part of this eastern baulk might eventually clarify its purpose.
3.4. The walls detected in the northernmost part of square D 28/43, just a few centimeters below the modern surface, consisted of the same badly preserved reddish mud-brick, which were typically used for the Niniveh V structures further south. Here we were most probably again in the earliest levels of this period, and any traces of a later occupation were seemingly eroded. The overall structure of these southern walls needs clarification which can only be obtained by extending the excavation area further to north and the west.

4. Summary: This first excavation undertaken by the Institut für Orientalistik of the University of Vienna has to be considered as a first step to promote field-archaeology at its renowned department. Thanks to the scholarly advise of D. Gimbel and P. Zimmerman and due to the substantial financial support of Archaeos, Inc., this expedition became a considerable success. Nevertheless, without the overwhelming enthusiasm of our students, none of the above mentioned goals would have been achieved. The importance of the fact that, besides the astonishing number of museum items - over 65 objects just from our 'little hole' -, we were able to uncover a whole, though small, area of Niniveh V buildings which includes a milling area, and, most probably, adjoinig some administrative facilities, needs no further underlining. Thus, besides the so-called public-building, excavated by our Polish colleagues, a continuation of the excavations at Tell Arbid even in 'our' "sector D" is bound to provide further insight in the earlier history of the Jezireh.

[1] Archaeos, Inc. is a non-profit organization dedicated to education and to archaeological research and based in New York City.
[2] I wish to thank Professor P. Bielinski and his team for the invitation and their hospitality, which allowed us to make use of their bathrooms and who generously ceeded the use of one of their rooms to our girls. Our special thanks go to the Syrian co-director Ahmed Serrije, who showed continuing interest in our work and was helpful in every respect. Last not least we wish to thank the Syrian authorities, e.g. Director General of DGAM, Dr. Sultan Moheissen, Damascus, and the Regional Director of Antiquities in Hassake, Abdel Messije Bardo, for their kind hospitality and help.

© Gebhard J. Selz with D. Gimbel for the Vienna team

This article will be quoted by G. J. Selz - D. Gimbel, An Austrian-American Expedition to Northern Syria, Forum Archaeologiae 13/XII/99 (