The use of karu (port, harbour, trading station) in the name given to Til Barsib by Shalmaneser III when he conquered the region in 856 BCE suggests that the town was important economically. Included in the tribute offered by the kings of the Euphrates states were metals, copper vessels, cattle, sheep and brightly coloured woollen and linen garments. The Assyrian sources refer to the capital both by the new royal name and also the original name, Til Barsib.
Maybe Assyrian traders were installed in the town by the king. Tablets found in the excavations by Melbourne University in Area C mention a man named Hanni who was conducting some kind of business there, possibly related to textile manufacture. How do we know this? Archaeologists use written (historical) records as well as the objects they excavate to put together the story of what happened in the past.
So who was Hanni? Was he Assyrian or perhaps a local man?
The excavations in the lower city where the figurines were found have revealed a material culture that echoes that of the Assyrian heartland, the kingdom of Assur. For example, twelve pieces of carved ivory dating to the second half of the 7th century recovered from a destruction layer that signals the end of the Neo-Assyrian occupation at the site. The carved ivories indicate a variety of styles, but the closest parallels may be found among the ivories from the city of Nimrud, located in Assur.
Other pieces of carved ivory from Til Barsib that show a procession of men carrying various foodstuffs is similar to a carved pyxis from Nimrud, while the techniques of carrying provisions on a string is depicted on the procession reliefs of Sennacherib’s palace at Nineveh, another capital city in Assur. Stylised trees shown on other ivory fragments from Til Barsib may be compared to similar motifs from Nimrud.
The fact that some pieces were uncarved suggests that production was taking place on site. There certainly seems to be a clear influence from Assyrian culture if not direct imitation.
Pottery found at Tell Ahmar complements the picture painted by the carved ivories.
Most of the pottery is predominantly Assyrian, with some pieces identical to those found at Nimrud. Although no kilns have been found, scraps of pottery and possible wheel bearings as well as the plentiful supply of local raw clay suggest that pottery production, like the ivory carving, took place at Til Barsib. Large storage jars and cruder ceramics such as cooking pot ware are likely to have been made at the site. Thus, it seems that replica Assyrian wares were being produced at Til Barsib.
The picture we have of life in Til Barsib at the time when the figurines were made is of locals and Assyrians living together. Manufacturing and trade is thriving, with possibly many people involved in business in some way. Some two hundred years have passed since Shalmaneser’s invasion and colonisation of the town and the types of objects used in households is still very similar in shape and style to those used in Assur.
But what about the figurines? Are they Assyrian as well?
I believe that the figurines are local in style and tradition. What was the relationship between the two populations, the Assyrian colonisers and local inhabitants?
Bunnens, G. 1997. “Carved Ivories from Til Barsib”, in American Journal of Archaeology, Vol.101, pp.435-450.
Jamieson, AS. 1993. “The Euphrates Valley and Early Bronze Age ceramic traditions”, in Abr Nahrain Vo.31, pp.36-92.