I didn’t want to seem ungrateful, but the baked clay ovens (tannur in Arabic) – even 2500 year old ones - were just not that exciting.
Sure, I enjoyed a delicious oven-baked pizza as much as the next impoverished research student, but I was finding it hard to get enthusiastic over the small, clay-built ovens that were found here and there over the archaeological excavations at Tell Ahmar.
I had given them a pretty good go, reading recent articles on tannur building, and attempting to draw some preliminary ideas around their location and usage at the site, but…
I sighed and gazed gloomily at my supervisor, the director of excavations.
‘Or you could look at the figurines…’
‘Of course. Why not?’ He spread his hands and raised his eye brows in that rather Gallic fashion he had.
I swallowed, containing my excitement.
‘Well, I’d be delighted to study such an important collection. Thanks’. I nodded gravely, squealing inside.
The baked clay figurines were a fascinating assemblage of artifacts and the dig director was inviting me to research them for my PhD.
Figurines are fabulous. They’re so appealing. Little humans, tiny horses…what is it about miniatures that is so alluring? The age of ancient figurines only adds to their attraction.
Part of the appeal of figurines is that they evoke emotional responses in us because they demonstrate that the past is not merely a vast rubbish tip filled with shards of broken pots, fragments of worked bone and remains of ancient dinners. The archaeological record is a human record, filled with Mums and Dads, workers, craftspeople, farmers, all the individuals, the young and the old that make up every community.
The figurines found at Tell Ahmar are hand-made of baked clay and include standing humans, horses and horses with riders. They are dated by tablets to around 680 to 600 BCE. The excavations at Tell Ahmar provide a ‘snapshot’ of life in the important town of Til Barsib (known as Kar Shalmaneser under the Assyrians), during approximately fifty years of the later Neo-Assyrian Empire. The objects and architecture found during this excavation give us an exciting opportunity to closely investigate life for different groups of people under the Assyrian occupation.
Where is Tell Ahmar?
The village of Tell Ahmar (the ‘red hill’ in Arabic) is located in northern Syria, about two and a half hours by dig van east of Aleppo, approximately twenty kilometres south of the present Turkish border. Tell Ahmar is located on the east bank of the Euphrates River, which, in ancient times, made it strategically very important.
The settlement is also perfectly located on the fertile plain with all its agricultural benefits, easy irrigation and clear views of the surrounding area provide security and control of movement about the plain. Communications across the river could also be controlled, despite the high cliffs and desert steppe on the west side of the river. The settlement is located on the trade routes between Mesopotamia and the Levant.
Today, Tell Ahmar lies partially submerged beneath the Tishreen Dam, the valley inundated after the completion of the dam’s construction in 1998. Only the tip of the tell remains above water. The village is deserted; the villagers were offered compensation to the value of their properties and were removed (or removed themselves) to villages in the desert to practice dry farming or to one of the larger towns on the road back to Aleppo. With the current conflict, who knows what has become of the former residents of this dusty little village?
But back in the 1990s, when I was part of the research team digging at Tell Ahmar, there were about 200 people living in the village. Women left their home villages to live with their husband’s family. Fathers may split their land among their sons, or perhaps they all banded together to work it. There was a women who lived on the tell who had nine sons. How did they all make their livelihoods out of a small stretch of land? Many men left the village, of course, to carve out careers in cities in construction and perhaps small business or even the army.
Tell Ahmar village would not have looked out of place on a Christmas card; all rectangular mud-brick houses huddled together, lights twinkling from the windows. Small boys encouraged flocks of fat-tailed sheep across the valley, in search of grassy snacks. Women met and gossiped by the stream close by the mosque, as they filled their plastic drums with the family’s water supply for that day. Cows mooed, donkeys brayed. Chickens squawked.
People have been living at Tell Ahmar for 5000 years. Of course, back then, it would have had a different name, if it had a name at all. We were there to excavate the Iron Age layers, when the township had a number of different names, depending on your nationality. To the Assyrians, it was known as Kar Shalmaneser, if you were Aramaean you would have referred to it as Til Barsib, if you were Hittite, Bit Adini.
But back to the figurines…
My first task was to compare the Tell Ahmar figurines with figurines found at other nearby sites in the Upper Euphrates Valley. I discovered a local tradition in figurine making. Archaeologists had found this figurine type at other Upper Euphrates sites including Merj Kharmis, Deve Hüyük, Kefrik, the Yunus Cemetery and the city of Carchemish, as well as Tell Amarna, in the vicinity of Tell Ahmar.
I discovered a localised tradition of figurine making that included three forms: the standing figurines, horses and horses with riders. I even wondered if this style of figurine developed from the Bronze Age.
So far so good.
Traditionally, archaeologists researching collections of figurines have started by organising them into a typology, often based on how they look. But I was more interested in what they were used for, than arranging them into arbitrary categories.
What could a typology tell me about the use or function of the figurine?
Actually, I had little idea of how to go about investigating why they were made or what they were used for. I looked back over the archaeological reports I had gathered; it appeared that most of the researchers believed their figurines to be religious or magical. In fact, it seemed that archaeologists of the ancient Near East were satisfied that not only the small clay figurines of the Euphrates tradition had a religious usage, but so did any kind of human figurine found across the entire eastern Mediterranean region!
Frankly, I was astonished.
Figurines of all sorts of shapes and sizes and methods of manufacture, found in a multitude of different contexts, were all considered religious or magical. They were either images of the/a mother goddess, votive offerings to a goddess and / or somehow involved with something known as the fertility cult. And I began noticing that this theory was presented to the public through museum displays.
It seemed that if I asked, ‘What was this figurine used for?’, it was an almost-impossible question to answer. These figurines were not part of my life or the lives of people around me and I had no way of delving into the minds of the people who made and used these tiny clay images around 2500 years ago.
I needed to ask other questions, different questions.
I thought back to the workroom in the compound at Tell Ahmar. Sometimes during our afternoon study sessions I would hold the little round-bottomed pots in the palm of my hand and think of the person who owned this little pot: perhaps the maker, perhaps someone who bought it or otherwise acquired it. Archaeology is unique in that in brings us in direct contact with the people of the ancient past.
It occurred to me that I needed to think about the people behind the figurines. People seemed to be all too often missing in figurine research.
I revised my question.
‘Who made the figurines we found at Tell Ahmar?’
This seemed to be an important, even crucial place to start. I wanted to understand why a person decided, so long ago, to create a figurine. I wanted to try to decipher the message or meaning of the figurine for the person who created it. Archaeological artefacts carry in their physical shape, their decoration and where they were found, information about those peoples’ perceptions of themselves, their lives and their world.
But how to discover who the figurine makers were and what they thought about their figurines?
Well, it was quite a journey and a fascinating one at that. I’d love to share it with you and to hear your thoughts. Read on by clicking here and don’t forget to leave a comment.