IAP VII: Greater Mesopotamia

Reconstruction of its Environment and History


Work Package V: History and Chronology


This work package examines transitional periods in the history of Greater Mesopotamia, their causes and their impact, on the basis of textual and archaeological data. Of special interest to us is the period between grosso modo 1200-900 BCE in which the transition from the Late Bronze to the Early Iron Age took place and which is known to have been an age of profound transformation for the region. It saw a widespread collapse of the Late Bronze Age centralised political systems, the migration of cohesive groups of people (most notably the so-called ‘Sea-People’) and the emergence of the Iron Age cultures. Other periods of crisis are documented in a restricted geographical area only. These events and their aftermath are studied in depth for different interconnected areas within the region: the Northern Levant (1), Anatolia (2), the Persian Plateau (3), Mesopotamia (4) and Luristan (5). It is supplemented by a geographical study of glyptic material from Greater Mesopotamia (6).


1.The Northern Levant and Cyprus (KU Leuven)


The point of departure of the new project is based on the current archaeological record in the Eastern Mediterranean. This includes the following sites from the Northern Levant: Tell Tweini and Tell Kazel (where our teams have conducted extensive archaeological excavations in the past), Ugarit, Tell Afis, Aleppo and Tell Tanach. We also examine material culture from Late Bronze to Early Iron Age sites on Cyprus, whose central location and copper resources made it a centre of Bronze Age international trade: namely, Kition, Enkomi, Hala Sultan Teke, Politiko-Troullia, Kalavasos, Maroni, Alassa and Kouklia. The project focuses on the contact between these ancient communities as an important form of evidence to illustrate dramatic historical developments.

The projects aims: (1) to obtain a detailed recovery of the material culture of the Late Bronze-Early Iron Age transition in Cyprus and the Northern Levant; (2) to achieve a better knowledge of this transitional period and of the causes - such as a drastic climate change as observed by D. Kaniewski (Toulouse III) - leading to the collapse; (3) to compare the long and differentiated stratigraphy from Cyprus with other sites in the Levant; and (4) to synchronize the Late Bronze-Early Iron Age archaeological assemblages in Cyprus and the Northern Levant, with the goal of producing a reliable relative and absolute chronology.


2.Anatolia: periods of confusion and chaos, from 1250 to 800 BCE (UCLouvain)


During the Late Bronze Age, the Anatolian region was for the most part controlled by the Hittite Empire. It is known that after the disappearance of the Hittite Empire, the political situation in Anatolia drastically changed, and the region became very fragmented: in the Southeast (as in Northwest Syria), various Neo-Hittite and Aramaic states were established, the most famous being Karkemish. In Central and Western Anatolia, a new political force emerged, the Phrygians. In the eastern parts of Anatolia one can notice the rise of the Urartian state, as documented by Assyrian sources. The project will have a closer look at the developments in the last decades of the Hittite Empire and present a general overview of the real causes and combinations of factors which have led to its fall. There are various geo-political aspects that need to be studied thoroughly: the rise of Phrygian power, the Assyrian attitude towards its western neighbours, the appearance of the so-called Sea People and other pirates, the role of people living in Western Anatolia, climatic and perhaps seismologic factors, and the rise of Urartu to a powerful state.

Written as well as archaeological sources will be used to reconstruct this part of Ancient Near Eastern history. This project is closely related to the research (e.g., on climate change during this period in Syria) and fieldwork done by other partners of the IAP-project in North Syria (KUL and Toulouse III), a region also controlled by the Hittite Empire.


3.The Persian Plateau (UCLouvain)


Elam, situated on the Persian Plateau to the east of Mesopotamia, has known a turbulent past with various periods of instability. The end of the Bronze Age coincides with the transition from the Middle Elamite period, with its centralized kingdom encompassing Susa in the West and Anshan in the East, to the Neo-Elamite I period and its brittle, fragmented political structure (ca. 1100-743 BCE). The project also considers the confusion and chaos (e.g., rebellions and famines) attested in Elam during the Neo-Elamite II period (743-646 BCE) as a central topic, stemming from research on revised textual and new archaeological sources. Although some scholars have paid attention to this transitional period, an in-depth study of it has not yet been conducted and is, as a consequence, highly desirable. The work of the project partners RMAH and RBINS, who concentrate on the history of Luristan and the historical geography of Khuzestan, will prove highly valuable. Our research on periods of transition, confusion and chaos in Elam continues well after 646 BCE, when Elam was left to struggle in the wake of their capital city's destruction by the Assyrians, and into the Persian period. Again both textual and archaeological sources will be brought together in order to reconstruct the history of the period, and in particular, to the address the questions of how and when the Persians arrived in Elam, and how they integrated Elam into their empire.


4.Mesopotamia: Babylonia and Assyria


The aim of this part of the project is to study the impact of transitional periods on the socio-economic situation of individuals, families and institutions on the basis of textual data. The large corpora of cuneiform tablets from Mesopotamia, for instance those from Nippur, Dūr-Abiešuh, Kissura, Marad and Ma’allânâte, are a major source for the study of daily life through times of prosperity and crisis. In particular, the cuneiform data promise to help solve certain problems of chronology that inevitably arise in modern research on transitional periods in history. Fundamental data regarding the period 1200-900 BCE were re-examined in preceding phases of the IAP, and as a result, a new chronology was proposed for Mesopotamia in the 2nd millennium BCE, thereby solving the problem of the Dark Age at the end of the Old Babylonian period.


4.1.Old Babylonian Nippur and its vicinity (KULeuven)


Between 1730 and 1500 BCE, Babylonia went through a major period of crises and transition. Samsuiluna (1749-1712), heir to Hammurabi’s empire, lost control over Southern Babylonia, and the empire started falling apart. Prominent cities in the South and Central were deserted, and its inhabitants fled to the North. This seems to have been related in part to climate changes that lead to a large-scale failure of water sources (the Euphrates, in particular), widespread famine and general chaos. A geo-archaeological study of the floodplain history of the palaeo-channelbelt of the Euphrates, conducted by members of the RBINS team, indicated that the second millennium witnessed the start of the gradual abandonment of the Euphrates’ multiple channel system. Eventually, 120 years after Samsuiluna’s reign, the Babylonian dynasty perished, and a “Dark Age” set in, with virtually no written documentation. From 1500 BCE onwards, the new Kassite dynasty was able to pick up the pieces of the kingdom.

Nippur, the religious capital of Babylonia and one of these deserted Sumerian cities, provides excellent documentation – both published and new – shedding light on the situation building up to the crisis and the first decades of it. Covering a period of almost 200 years (ca. 1910-1720 BCE), the Old Babylonian tablets from Nippur, dispersed over several European, American and Middle Eastern museums and universities, offer unique material to study individual families and the city's secular and religious institutions through times of prosperity and crisis. The tablets kept in the Hilprecht Sammlung (Jena) and some of those of the University Museum (Philadelphia) have already been recorded with the Portable Light Dome (cfr. WP VI) and are currently being prepared for publication.

Old-Babylonian tablets stored at Cornell University (USA) originate from a place called Dur-Abieshuh, “the fortress of Abi-eshuh (successor of Samsuiluna)”, and they mention the city of Nippur and its cultic institutions more than one hundred years after the city was presumably abandoned. The texts document Dur-Abieshuh’s relationship with Nippur and other cities of the South in a period of supposed abandonment, and the activities of the area's foreign population groups, particularly the Kassites. With the decipherment, publication and study of another three-hundred tablets at Cornell, it will be possible to draw a provisional picture of what happened in Nippur after the dramatic period at the end of Samsuiluna’s reign

The complex urban society of Nippur, as the traditional centre of cult and education, must be situated socially and economically against the rural Hinterland, with smaller ‘provincial’ towns such as Kisurra (IAP VI/34) and Marad. Here, business was conducted on a smaller scale, and social relations are less complex. The newly gathered data from the archives of these towns complete the historical picture. The Marad tablets stored at the RMAH will be scanned by the Portable Light Dome (cfr. WP VI) for future publication.


4.2.The Ma’allânâte corpus (RMAH, Paris I, Budapest)


This corpus of 41 Neo-Assyrian cuneiform tablets in the collections of the RMAH supposedly originates from the site of Ma’allânâte. Dated to 700-622 BCE, the corpus documents the activities of three people acting in the socio-economic framework of an agricultural estate belonging to the Assyrian crown. Beyond the factual information provided by this cuneiform documentation, and thanks to the numerous slave and land purchase contracts that it contains, it is of principal interest in documenting the contact zone between cuneiform Mesopotamia and the Aramean Levant . The research project completes the study and publication of the Ma’allânâte tablets, which began in the 1980’s, and examines this Neo-Assyrian corpus within its first millennium Upper Mesopotamian geographical context. The study will attempt reconstruction of the prevailing settlement and land occupation modalities during the last decades of the Neo-Assyrian empire.


4.3.Neo-Babylonian society (KU Leuven)


It has been argued that the late 7th century emergence of the Neo-Babylonian empire and its rapid growth in the subsequent centuries can be linked to favourable climatic conditions, especially after the relatively arid climate that had prevailed in the area (with its peak around 900-800 BCE). However, climate change is not the only extra-economic variable that is to be taken into account when studying the rise or demise of an imperial power. Social factors also play a decisive role because social structures - alongside the availability of water, prevalence of peace over war, general political stability, etc. - affect the performance of agrarian economies. The project aims to reconstruct the Neo-Babylonian social landscape by using the archives of families living in Babylonia in the mid 1st millennium BCE. This will be achieved by analysing and mapping the relations archive holders maintained with other individuals, tracking the networks to which these individuals belonged, and examining the types of intra- and intercity relations.


5.Luristan (RMAH)


A Belgian team of the RMAH and Ghent University excavated and surveyed graveyards in Luristan dating from the 5th millennium to the 7th century BCE. General studies made it possible to establish a chronology, while specific research targeted Luristanian metallurgy (ore provenance and techniques), and the area's relations with neighbouring Khuzestan, Central Iran and Mesopotamia. The nature of these relations fluctuated considerably throughout the history of Luristan. This is illustrated by changes in ceramics and imports of various products. Mesopotamian Kassite pottery and Kassite luxury export products, such as fruit pyxides and shell finger rings, were discovered in 13th and 12th century tombs in Northwest Luristan. The ceramic evidence indicates that the spheres of influence of the neighbouring regions fluctuated, and regional differences must be recognized. The study of the (imported) seals, and specifically their distribution in Luristan, will elucidate this aspect since they can be classified in their own right as belonging to specific cultural entities.


6.Glyptic as a mirror of cultural interactions and local specificities (RMAH)


This project aims at undertaking a geographical study of glyptic in the Ancient Near East. Mapping of Syrian, Iranian and Levantine glyptic will be undertaken through the census of selected groups, in order to establish precise geographical distributions of seal designs, materials and techniques across these regions. In particular, two groups of seals were selected for this purpose: (1) cylinder seals from Upper Mesopotamia, and (2) scarab-shaped seals from Syria, Lebanon and adjacent regions. Special attention will be paid to the correlation between designs and local specialisations in the first group of seals, and to local imitations of imported Egyptian designs in the second group.




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