End of Empire: The Archaeological Excavations at Ziyaret Tepe

Excavations have revealed a massive ancient Assyrian provincial capital, including a unique and remarkable glimpse into the demise of an ancient empire.

 In the pioneering years of Mesopotamian archaeology, the rediscovery of Assyria took place chiefly by expeditions targeting the massive imperial cities of Nineveh, Nimrud, Khorsabad and Assur in the Assyrian heartland. Gradually the decipherment of cuneiform writing and the translation of the annals and correspondence of the Assyrian kings led to an appreciation of the extent of the empire – at its peak stretching into southeast Anatolia, Egypt and western Iran – and the existence of a sophisticated mechanism for the administration of this territory. The archaeological exploration of the wider empire also started early, famously with an expedition of Austen Henry Layard into Syria in 1850. But while over the years a number of excavations have investigated the Assyrian presence in Syria and Israel, material remains of the Assyrian presence in southeastern Turkey had, until very recently, consisted only of chance finds and a few rock reliefs; there had been no excavation of a major Assyrian site. It is into this picture that the Ziyaret Tepe Archaeological Project steps in. 


The site of Ziyaret Tepe is located on the upper Tigris river some 60 km east of Diyarbakir in southeastern Turkey. Known in antiquity as Tushan, the city was a bulwark of the empire, a massive fortified outpost guarding the northwestern reaches of Assyrian rule. With a central mound some 30 m high and a surrounding lower town almost 30 hectares in area, the remains at Ziyaret Tepe clearly reflect a site of such importance. It was, however, only with the salvage campaigns necessitated by the construction of a massive new hydroelectric dam at the site of Ilisu, over 100 km further downstream on the Tigris, that the impetus was generated to commence formal excavations. Ziyaret Tepe lay within the impact zone of the dam and was, therefore, part of a large international salvage initiative started by the Ministry of Culture in the mid-1990s to record as much as possible before the future Ilısu Lake, projected to hold over 10 billion cubic meters of water with a surface area of 310km2, was filled. At the time of writing (November 2017), the completion of the Ilısu Dam is imminent. In 1997 a major new research project was instituted at Ziyaret Tepe by Prof. Timothy Matney of the University of Akron, Ohio. Starting with a program of geophysical prospection and ceramic surface collection, the expedition went on to conduct twelve seasons of excavation, revealing in the course of this work the remains of this massive provincial capital which flourished for a period of almost 300 years, from its foundation by the Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II in 882 BC to its capture by the armies of the Babylonian king Nabopolassar in 611 BC. In so doing, the excavations at Ziyaret Tepe have given us a unique insight into the reality of imperial occupation in this part of the empire across the entire span of Assyrian rule.


01 Map of Turkey (improved)

 Location of the site of Ziyaret Tepe in southeastern Turkey.



 Ziyaret Tepe viewed from the southeast.



 Archaeologists were onsite for 12 seasons of excavations.



A Challenging Task

One of the greatest challenges in working at Ziyaret Tepe was time. Initially we thought we had six years to work, and each year thereafter we had to assume might be our last. As a result, our research strategy was always one in which the primary drive was to get as much out of the ground as possible, leading to a large backlog of material to be processed and published. Expectations from the Ministry of Culture were that we would excavate every year, putting considerable stress on fundraising and the field crew. While the ever-present threat of flooding from the Ilısu Lake was the ultimate threat to the site, there were other active agents that made this a challenging project. When we first arrived in 1997, the fields around the site were all planted in wheat, a crop which had been grown here for thousands of years. Winter wheat farming in this part of Turkey does not require irrigation, so when farmers started to shift towards cotton production in the 2000s, new irrigation channels and pipes were laid across much of the site. Water was pumped from the Tigris River to the north of Ziyaret Tepe into holding basins in low hills 3.5 km to the south and east of the site. The fields were then irrigated largely by gravity-fed pipes, some of which were cut into the fields causing damage to the underlying archaeology. In 2002, we arrived to find a large iron pipe running up and over the citadel mound and across the entire lower town. In addition to the degradation of the ancient site from modern agricultural practices, a small shrine located on the southeastern corner of the citadel was both a pilgrimage place and marked the spot where several dozen graves delineated an ancestral burial ground for a prominent family from the nearby village of Tepe. The graveyard was immediately adjacent to the location of the “Bronze Palace” [a major subject of excavations as the project progressed]. Although technically located on a protected site, the villagers continued to conduct burial ceremonies throughout the years we worked at the site. Potential conflicts were avoided when we negotiated a zone into which we would not excavate further and the villagers for their part agreed to confine new burials to the existing graveyard. The politics of village life were sometimes complex. Each summer, the current mayor presented us with a list of available workmen, drawn from his supporters and family. While we were not legally constrained to hire these men, as visitors reliant on the good relations we held with our local hosts, we always drew a heavy majority of our workmen from his list. When a new mayor won election, we consequently found ourselves with an entirely new workforce, and training began all over again. And all the while, our team was faced with working in searing heat, with frequent electrical outages and consequent lack of running water, mosquitos, dust-choked computers, no internet – the day-to-day hardships which are part and parcel of Near Eastern archaeology. But our team took these hardships in their stride!


The Palace of the Governor

At the start of the very first season, investigation of what appeared to be a baked brick platform eroding out of the upper slopes of the mound led to what was to be one of the most spectacular of the finds at Ziyaret Tepe – the palace of the Assyrian governor. Built out of high quality bricks made out of fresh red clay, this building must, at least in its original phase, be the very palace referred to in an inscription of Ashurnasirpal II:

I approached the city of Tushan. I took Tushan in hand for renovation. I cleared away its old wall, delineated its area, reached its foundation pit and built, completed and decorated in splendid fashion a new wall from top to bottom. A palace for my royal residence I founded inside. I made doors and hung them in its doorways. The palace I built and completed from top to bottom. I made an image of myself of white limestone and wrote thereon praise of the extraordinary power and heroic deeds which had been accomplished in the lands of Nairi. I erected it in the city of Tushan. I inscribed my monumental inscription and deposited it in its wall. I brought back the enfeebled Assyrians who because of hunger and famine had gone up into the mountains to the land of Shubria. I settled them in the city Tushan.

Although damaged by erosion of the eastern side of the mound and by later pitting, the plan of the palace can be reconstructed as having had at least two courtyards divided by a range of rooms which contained the principal reception suite. This must correspond to the governor’s throne room. Among the finds on the floor of the throne room was a cuneiform tablet listing women whose names do not belong to any of the major known languages of the ancient near east (Assyrian, Elamite, Egyptian, Urartian, etc), and who may have come to Tushan as deportees from the Zagros mountains, on the border between present-day Iraq and Iran. Also in the palace, inserted below the baked brick pavement of the courtyard were five “cremation burials”, burials made by digging the grave pit, laying down the body with grave goods and then conflagrating everything in situ. This is not an Assyrian practice, and to find such features in an Assyrian building constitutes superb evidence for a blending of religious practices, an element of what anthropologists call “hybridization”. The grave goods included stone bowls, ivory and a very fine stamp seal, but it is the melted remains of a large number of bronze vessels which led us to give the complex the name “The Bronze Palace”.



Aerial view of work in progress in the palace.



 Reconstructed plan of the palace.



 Tablet ZTT 30 – a list of women, the majority of whose names do not belong to any known language.




 Stamp seal from a cremation burial showing a worshipper before a deity.



 Decorated wall plaster excavated from the Governor’s Palace.



Assyrian Warfare at Ziyaret Tepe

Finds from both the high mound and the lower town shed light on the military function of Tushan. To put this in context, the Assyrian army was the most accomplished, and perhaps the most feared, military power in the ancient Near East – the world’s first superpower. Memory of its fearsome warriors is reflected in passages in the Bible. The Book of Kings, for example, laments “Truly, O Lord, the kings of Assyria have laid waste the nations and their lands” (2 Kings 19:17). The reputation was immortalized in Byron’s famous 1815 poem “The Destruction of Sennacherib”:

The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold,

And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;

And the sheen of their spears was like stars in the sea,

When the blue wave roles nightly on deep Galilee.

Images of helmeted and armored warriors –charioteers, archers, slingers, spearmen, sappers, and, of course, the King himself, the foremost warrior of the empire – formed the scenes in one of the major artistic genres of the time, the sculpted orthostat reliefs adorning the walls of the great palaces of the Assyrian heartland. Such royal propaganda was no exaggeration: the Assyrian military machine was huge and overwhelming. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that our excavations at a provincial capital such as Tušhan would have uncovered evidence of Assyrian fortifications, armor and weapons, including a few of Byron’s shining spears.

Perhaps the most impressive military remains at Ziyaret Tepe were those of the exterior fortification wall, which may have been as much as 6m wide, and a two-chambered city gate, replete with external towers and monumental twin doors (the latter not preserved). The defensive wall sat atop a raised earthwork 4m in height that ringed the lower town and would have presented an imposing barrier to advancing armies.

We also recovered fragmentary evidence for the armor worn by the Assyrian warriors and their horses. Some Assyrian soldiers wore armor made of overlapping scales of either iron or bronze. Figures in such scale armor are depicted in the palace reliefs and the individual scales are known from many sites, including Nimrud, Boğazköy, and Nuzi. At Ziyaret Tepe we found lying on the floor of the courtyard of the Bronze Palace a piece of overlapping scale armor with scales preserved six rows wide and five rows high. Each scale has a raised ridge to add strength, and holes for attaching the scales both to each other and to an underlying leather or woolen garment. Each piece also has one of the long sides bent upwards, possibly to lock the scales together. 

Moreover, we found evidence for two types of Assyrian arrowheads. Bronze examples have a socket for hafting and typically three blades, while iron examples usually have only two blades (although a few three bladed examples were also found). We found spearheads in both iron and bronze, as well as over four dozen blades (not all necessarily military) of the same two metals. One particularly interesting example coming from a cremation burial in the Bronze Palace appears to have once had a gold handle, of which only a fragment is preserved on the head of one rivet. 



Iron scale armor excavated at Ziyaret Tepe. 




Artist’s drawing of section of scale amor discovered on the floor of the palace.



Excavations in the Lower Town

Down in the lower town we carried out excavations in a large number of areas. The process was led by the results of the geophysical survey. The survey by magnetometry covered, in the end, almost the whole of the lower town, complemented in places by resistivity; we also experimented with the use of ground penetrating radar. Using these methods, we were able to identify sub-surface remains and direct excavation accordingly. 


A Barracks Block

One block of building on the south side of the site we tentatively identify as military barracks. The complex consisted of eight rooms built around a semi-open courtyard. A series of five rooms measuring approximately 4 x 3m are laid out in a row parallel to the city wall. The presence of tannurs (clay ovens) tells us that two of the rooms were used for cooking, and most of the rooms contained sherds of bowls with thickened rims, very likely coarse table ware. The proximity of this block to the city’s southern gate, as well as its being built parallel to the city wall, and most importantly the fact that a series of rooms have a direct outdoor exit, do not give the impression of a household plan. We think for these reasons that these may be the remains of military barracks.



Plan of the barracks complex. 



Elite Residences 

In several places we came down onto the remains of elite residences and in one case, at Operation G, we excavated the building in its entirety. This building demonstrates a number of characteristics typical of high status architecture – firstly, its impressive size, measuring in at 25 x 38 m; secondly, the high quality of the masonry, with walls up to 1.80 m thick; thirdly, the presence of pithoi (huge jars), indicating the storage of agricultural surplus; and fourthly, the surfacing of the courtyard with a beautiful pebble mosaic pavement made from black and white river stones arranged in checkerboard fashion. The residence had eleven rooms. The main entrance was on the east through a doorway paved with stone slabs. This led through a hall into a central courtyard, around which the remaining rooms were arranged. Two soundings were carried out in Operation G. The first of these was carried out in order to determine the depth of the building’s foundations, which turned out to be five courses of bricks deep, about 70 cm. The second sounding was carried out in order to establish the overall depth of cultural deposits in the site, which proved to be a little over 3 m.


OpGR Master Plan 20Aug2012 [Converted]

Plan of Operation G/R – the building on the right is an elite residence, the one on the left the administrative complex (See below for Administrative Complex).



 View of Operation R showing a pebble mosaic pavement cut by later pits.



 Pebble mosaic detail.



Administrative Complex

Perhaps the most important find in the lower town was the discovery of a very substantial administrative complex, directly west of the Operation G residence. This was built around two courtyards, once again paved with pebble mosaic pavements. The finds included weights, sealings, and hundreds of tokens made of baked clay in a variety of geometric shapes. These are particularly interesting, for while it is known that tokens of this nature played a role in the process leading up to the invention of writing in the fourth millennium BC, the discovery that tokens were still in use in the Assyrian period was entirely new and totally unexpected. It now seems clear that the use of tokens survived long after the invention of writing – it is believed they functioned as a “para-literate” system for the temporary recording of quantities of commodities prior to entries being made into the cuneiform record-keeping.  However, the jewel in the crown is the archive of cuneiform tablets unearthed in the complex. All together 27 tablets were recovered; originally stored either in baskets or on shelves, they were found on the floors of the rooms in a fragmentary and parlous state which required very careful handling, first allowed to dry out slowly and then baked under controlled conditions. The contents of the tablets include movements of grain, the loan of a slave, lists of personnel, the resettlement of people and a census enumerating military officers and their agricultural holdings. But the majority of the tablets deal with transactions of barley – deliveries from outlying farmsteads, loans and payments for rations – and there can be no doubt that this was a major concern of the establishment; this conclusion is also indicated by the presence of the numerous pithoi in the complex. The amounts listed in the texts vary from just 2 liters to a staggering 38,000 liters. The office actually had multiple jurisdictions, and in addition to the administration of grain, had responsibilities concerning the harem, the temple of Ishtar and the military. Other commodities handled in the building were metals, woods, wool, textiles and leather. A degree of corroboration comes from the discovery of a stone ‘duck weight’ found in the building which weighed 30 kg, corresponding exactly to one Assyrian talent: this would have been used for the weighing of metal, textiles and bitumen. Another artifact of interest is an unusual tablet which had been deliberately pierced, evidently to allow a cord to be passed through for attaching as a tag to a container or a bundle of materials.



 Baked clay administrative tokens.



 The tablet archive.



 Clay tag with cuneiform docket, pierced with a hole through which a cord would be run.



End of the Empire

Most remarkably, the archive spans the period from 614 BC to 611 BC, from just before to just after the fall of Nineveh in 612 BC; this is the first time that Assyrian administrative texts from this period have ever been found. The Assyrian empire began to unravel in the second half of the seventh century BC, particularly after the death of the last great king, Ashurbanipal, in 627 BC. From then to free-fall collapse took just fifteen years. The actual military overthrow was brought about by a coalition of Babylonians, Medes and Cimmerians, culminating in the fall of the capital city Nineveh after a siege lasting three months, an event recorded in the Babylonian Chronicle. Nevertheless, this was not quite the final end of Assyria. For a few more years Assyria staggered on as a political entity, contracting into the northwest sector of the former empire, centered on the city of Harran. In the process the front line drew back across this region. In 611 BC it was the turn of Tushan. Once again, we turn to the Babylonian Chronicle, which records how the Babylonian king Nabopolassar campaigned in the northern sector of the disintegrating empire, conquering Tushan in the process. The excavations at Ziyaret Tepe have yielded evidence for these events. Most extraordinary is the text ZTT 22, a letter written by a certain Mannu-ki-libbali, clearly a senior official, perhaps the city treasurer. Evidently Mannu-ki-libbali had been asked to muster a unit of chariotry. However, the entire structure to support such an order had collapsed. Mannu-ki-libbali writes back that everyone – scribes, cohort commanders, smiths, weapon makers – had fled. Mournfully he replies “How can I command? ….. Death will come out of it. No one will escape. I am done!” This letter is unparalleled. It can only have been written as the front line drew close to Tushan and the infrastructure of the empire collapsed. As a first-hand account of Assyria in its death-throes it is unique.



 Letter ZTT 22, in which the writer Mannu-ki-libbali reports on the disintegration of the military infrastructure as the Assyrian empire collapsed.



Tasks Ahead

ziyaret21The final season of excavation at Ziyaret Tepe was in 2013, followed by a study season in 2014. Sadly, the digging is finished – but our work is not done! There is a mountain of data left to be organized and analyzed. A multi-volume final report is underway and the scientific study will continue in laboratories and offices across the globe as archeologists, specialists and students pore over the vast archive of material laboriously recorded by the field team. The full process will take many years and will constitute a major contribution to the field. But for those wanting to learn more about the project, a newly released publication records the story of the excavation and its marvelous finds, told by the people who dedicated years of their lives to it. Both accessible and scholarly, Ziyaret Tepe – Exploring the Anatolian Frontier of the Assyrian Empire is written to convey the excitement and challenges of a great project, the combination of science, artistry and reconstruction that makes modern archaeology so absorbing. 

Readers of Popular Archaeology can acquire a special discounted copy of the book by ordering it at http://www.cornucopia.net/store/offer/ziyaret-tepe-offer