Tell Ahmar, the Figurines and the PhD Tell Ahmar

Tell Ahmar from the Euphrates, taken by me in 1993

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…’

I gasped.


‘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. Tell Ahmar figurines PhD

Iron Age figurines from Carchemish and nearby sites, excavated by Woolley and held at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

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

The track down to the Euphrates River, Tell Ahmar Tell Ahmar

Sunset over Tell Ahmar

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… Tell Ahmar

Sketch map of Carchemish and district compiled from two military field surveys with additions by PLO Guy (Woolley, CL, 1969).

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. 

fertility figurines Eretz Israel Museum

Cabinet labelled 'Fertility Figurines', in the Eretz-Israel Museum.

Information panel in Kelsey Museum, University of Michigan, describing how figurines were used in the fertility cult (apologies for blurred photo).

fertility cult figurine

Label from Cypriot figurine display, British Museum

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.

Knives, Pots and Figurines: Problems of Function

If culture historians and processualists were not particularly interested in the individuals whose lives made up the archaeological record, they were even less interested in the idea that archaeological objects could reveal something about what these individuals might have thought or believed. figurine function

And yet, this is the problem when faced with figurines: the purpose or use of figurines is not immediately obvious. If there is no obvious utilitarian purpose for an object (not obvious to us, that is) then perhaps the form of the object reflects some idea in the mind of the people who made and used that object.

Not like a pot or a knife.

You can get some idea of what a pot or knife looks like because the shape is dictated by the function and the function can be identified, at least to some extent, because we ourselves are familiar with such objects in our own lives.

So a metal object with a long shape blade may be described with some certainty as a having a function related to cutting. Perhaps it was a knife or a dagger.

But as we have seen, examining the object, while a crucial first step, doesn’t give us the whole story.

Not if we are asking the types of questions I like to ask!

We understand that metal objects with a long sharp blade are knives,  but what else could it have been to the person who made and/or used it? Was it used for chopping vegetables, or did it have pride of place as a ceremonial dagger of some kind? Is it roughly made or has some care gone into the manufacture and decoration of the piece?

Even obviously utilitarian objects may have had other meanings too.

Asking questions about meaning help us to move a bit closer to understanding the roles these objects played in people lives and therefore tell us something about them as individuals.

But you have to believe it is possible to get some understanding of how ancient people – individuals who lived in the remote past – viewed themselves and the world around them from the objects they made and the houses they lived in before you can ask the types of questions which might reveal this kind of information.

In other words, if you don’t believe it is possible to access what ancient people thought and believed, then you’re unlikely to try.

And the culture historians and processualists didn’t seem to believe it was possible to get inside the heads of individuals who lived long ago.

Except for the fertility cult theory, of course!

If that’s not putting beliefs and ideas into ancient people’s heads, I don’t know what is! All with an extraordinary lack of serious evidence.

So what does all this have to do with figurines? figurine function

Vessel decorated with figurines; how are archaeologists to interpret these types of artefacts?

Well, figurines are hard to interpret from a functional point of view. Sure, they had a function, certainly they did, but it’s hard to understand what that is merely from looking at them.

Unlike a knife or pot.

Every feature of any figurine will have a meaning for the person who made and/or used it, but the decisions to make a figurine in a certain way will be both culturally and/or socially defined.

And there’ll be individual decisions that go into the making of a figurine as well.

People who don’t belong to that culture may have a hard time understanding the meaning of those features.

So we go back to our consideration of context.

How can context help us find people?

Have you read my post in which I look at both the archaeological and historical context in which the figurines from ancient Tell Ahmar were used. It’s absolutely fascinating! Click here to read it. 

As always, please email me at or using the contact page with any comments and questions. I love hearing from readers and will reply to all emails.

Or, leave a comment below. Go on! Let’s start a conversation.

My Super Simple Research Question…

Are you ready?

For the absurdly simple research question which skyrocketed my investigation into the meaning of the figurines from ancient Tell Ahmar?

Here it is:

Who made them? Who made the figurines?

Ridiculous, isn’t it?

Ridiculous that this question is so rarely asked of ancient figurines.

Absurd but not altogether remarkable when you think about archaeological schools of thought and what they believed was possible to know about the past.

When I talk about ‘traditional’ archaeology, or ‘traditional’ figurine interpretation, I’m really referring to two approaches to archaeology – the school of culture-history and the processualists.

The school of culture-history was the ‘original’, early archaeology, whose aims were to uncover, record (sometimes) and display the past. Archaeologists of this way of thinking about the past were interested in identifying cultures, often known from historical records, and showing how these cultures changed, developed and interacted.

So, for example, a team of archaeologists might start excavating at a site which was known from texts to be a place where a certain group of people – the Makonites (I just made that up) – lived. The archaeologists find Makonite pottery, which they classify according to shape and decoration.

They carefully reconstruct the ‘history’ of the site, focussing on how pots change to create a chronology or dating system for the site. If Makonite pottery is found at other sites, they ponder how it got there. Was it traded? Culture-historians are also interested in how sites became abandoned. Is there evidence for destruction?

In the 1970s, another group of archaeologists – the processualists – arrived on the scene.

The processualists were not satisfied with ‘finding cultures’, they wanted to know how societies and communities survived. They used scientific methods and analyses, technologies and a more anthropological approach to the archaeological record. They wanted to know what kinds of plants and animals were consumed, how the climate affected food sources and ways of life and how societies organised themselves.

What’s missing here?

On one hand we’ve got a pottery typology and on the other a batch of pottery fabric analysis…but…

Where are all the people? people

People…the past is made up of people…

The people of the ancient past. The individuals. Men and women, mums and dads, old and young. The people who made the pots and used them in their daily lives?

Who made the figurines?

Asking this question means believing that archaeologists can actually answer such a question.

I’m not sure that the archaeologists of the culture-history school nor the processualists thought that answering such a question was possible.

However, within both schools of thought, figurines were identified as being evidence of a fertility cult.

After all, they were primitive people, and goddesses are a pretty primitive concept. Life was harsh back then. Primitive fertility goddesses were needed to keep things going. Says the school of culture-history.

Yes, life was tough. Look at all this evidence we have for lack of food resources; conflict between communities for meagre resources was frequent. Its tough hunting your next meal and farming was pretty grim too. People looked to the heavens and the gods for success in staying alive. Say the processualists.

At least, I think that’s what they’re saying. It’s a little hard to know.

What was resoundingly clear was that “figurines=fertility cult” theory is evident in both schools of thought and this appears to be the case because neither school of thought it possible to answer the question:

…Who made the figurines?

Why? Why is this questions so rarely asked? Because this means finding individuals and trying to identify what they actually experienced and believed about life.

Not a research question for either the culture-history nor processualists schools.

But it was for me!

Armed with my research question, my next step was to find an approach which would allow me to start looking for answers. How could I start to answer the question: “Who made the figurines?”

What approach was that?

Let me reveal all in my post! Sign up for the complimentary introduction to my book, Visible Bodies, Resistant Selves: The Iron Age Figurines From Tell Ahmar and I’ll send you notification of my next post.  Keep a close eye on your inbox for the next instalment in the story of the figurines from ancient Tell Ahmar.

Got a question or a comment? Please leave a comment in the form below.

Using All The Contexts To Interpret The Tell Ahmar Figurines

I’ve talked in other posts about how important context is in the interpretation of figurines.

There are many types of context: archaeological, that is, where they were found on an excavated sites and what features they were associated with.

Then there’s the historical context, which is sometimes learned from documentary records of one kind or another, and includes the political, cultural and economic background to the site.

And finally, the social context, which may be determined by looking at and interpreting the objects and activities that were taking place at the site.

For 7th century Tell Ahmar, there is good evidence for all three contexts. where were the Tell Ahmar figurines found?The archaeological context where the figurines from ancient Tell Ahmar were found was domestic…and industrial.

They were found in a large building which was probably a place where people lived but also where they worked. The figurines were found in long rooms within this building, but also in the courtyard.

They were found with stone and clay loom weights, spindle whorls and pieces of shaped bone.

The main excavation are of Tell Ahmar dates to the 7th century BCE and rests on bedrock with very little occupation above. So we have a very nice archaeological ‘snapshot’ of life in this place from about 650 to 600 BCE.

What was happening historically in the location of Tell Ahmar during this time?

Tell Ahmar (one of its ancient names is Til Barsip), was a trading port on the Euphrates River. There had always been a settlement here, way back to the Chalcolithic period, but it was during the Iron Age when it really expanded.

This was because the Assyrian kings, whose heartland was further to the east, around modern northern Iraq, were busy building their empire and had conquered this part of what is now modern north Syria and were pushing through to the Mediterranean Sea.

So Til Barsip became Kar Shalmaneser – the Port of King Shalmaneser, who conquered and colonised the settlement in 856 BCE, some 200 years before the date of the building where the figurines were found.

And inside the house/workshop where the figurines were found? What was the social context like?

Well, from the architecture and design of the house and the objects found inside, it seems to have been quite grand and likely owned by a person of some wealth. Baked clay tablets inscribed with cuneiform script record business transactions, even the purchase of slaves.

We know then that a person of some wealth, as well as people with nothing at all of their own, lived together in this great house.

The Assyrian army was famous for its ferocity, it’s decorated horses and pointed iron helmets. They must have been present in Kar Shalmaneser at the time the building was occupied.

And who else occupied that house? Slaves, servants, workers? There are objects related to the manufacture of fabrics: weaving and spinning. Who was involved with that activity?

How can an archaeologist use archaeological, historical and social context to provide information about the people whose lives are evidenced by the archaeological record?

How does the physical location, objects found nearby, textual evidence, and external historical events contribute to how we understand what figurines meant to the people who made and used them?

Each of these avenues of investigation is crucial and through them, perhaps we can glimpse the real lives of the actual people of the remote past.

Archaeology is about using all the available evidence to construct a feasible story.

Archaeology is very much about story telling! We can’t literally go back and ask people who lived 2000 years ago what they thought about life and each other.

But we can have a pretty good try. Using tools to guide us, I believe archaeologists can begin to glimpse inside the lives of ancient people and get an understanding of what they thought about themselves, each other and the world around them.

What kind of tools can help us do that?

That’s the topic of my next post! Please leave a comment below with your thoughts and ideas!

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