Tag Archives forTell Ahmar

Discovering Identity: Weavers and Figurine Makers?

As mentioned in previous posts, the context in which artifacts are found is crucial to their interpretation. Of all the sites in the Upper Euphrates Valley where figurines of the 7th century have been found, only Tell Ahmar provides, to date, a stratigraphically secure and well-documented deposit. Unfortunately, the circumstances under which the figurines from Deve Hüyük, Kefrik and Merj Khamis were acquired prevent contextual analysis, while the excavation reports of the Yunus Cemetery and Carchemish mention only briefly the find spots of their figurines.

More recently, excavations in the middle-city of Kar Shalmaneser (ancient Tell Ahmar) have yielded Neo-Assyrian remains. A complex of buildings have been revealed, labelled C1 and C2, the former being slightly earlier in date. There is no evidence of occupation below the Neo-Assyrian levels. Therefore, we have an undisturbed period of time, around 50 years, in which to investigate the material culture, including the figurines.


Area C, Tell Ahmar. Building C1 is on the right, C2 on the left.

Area C, Tell Ahmar. Building C1 is on the right, C2 on the left.


Tablets found in Building C1 Room XII mention the name Hanni. The dates of the Assyrian kings recorded in the texts range from 683 to 648 BC. The tablets appear to be a business archive of Hanni, suggesting that he is the owner of these buildings. They also suggest he was a person of some wealth. The final abandonment of the building probably occurred in the first half of the 6th century. I refer to building C1 as Hanni’s Workshop.

Believed to have been initially constructed as a residence, Hanni’s Workshop appears to have become an industrial site where textile manufacture and craft production took place. Large numbers of loom weights and spindle whorls found in these rooms suggest that large-scale weaving may have taken place. Residential and reception suites were then constructed to the north.

The production of textiles seems to have centred around two parts of the building. The first is within the rooms to the south of the main courtyard, namely Rooms X, XI and XV. The second centre is located in Room I of Hanni’s Workshop, and Rooms I and II of the second building, which seem to be incorporated into a single architectural unit.

Clay loom weight.

Clay loom weight.


Around sixty loom weights were found in Room X. There are four basic shapes: cylindrical (sometimes slightly ovoid), ‘hourglass’ (or ‘diabolo’), thick, discoid with a central perforation (‘dough nut’ shaped) and bell-shaped. The first form was most frequent. It is possible that at least some of the discoid shaped weights were used with spindles, but only those of very even shape and well-centred perforation would be appropriate.



Numbers of bone spatulae may have been used in the textile process as well. Other types of objects included the occasional bead or perforated shell, as well as bronze fibulae fragments. Also found were a number of basalt pestles and basins, possibly used in cooking.

Spindle whorl ancientfigurinesSpindle whorl ancientfigurines

Clay spindle whorl. Also related to fabric manufacture were the two spindle whorls of stone and unbaked clay, while reused sherds and a clay wheel may also have functioned as spindle whorls.

To the north, Room I of Hanni’s workshop contained over one hundred and fifty loom weights and several spatulae, while five stone spindle whorls, one with decoration on the base comprising five concentric circles and another disk-shaped, attest to spinning as well as weaving. In addition, a considerable number of basalt objects, including grinders, pestles, bowls and platters were found.

Rooms I and II of Hanni’s workshop each yielded five spindle whorls, all except one of which were made of polished steatite and abut 4cm high. Basically hemispherical in shape with very smooth sides and a rough base, two were decorated on the base, one with sixteen circles each with a central ‘dot’ (shallow perforation) and another with five plain circles. A conical stone spindle whorl was found in Room I, Building C2, while an unusual whorl of ivory, broken but fortunately reconstructable, was discovered in Room I, Building C1, although there is no evidence for ivory carving in this room.

Room XI contained further evidence of weaving activities. A mass of over seventy loom weights, several spatulae and items that might conceivably have functioned as spindle whorls, such as stone and bronze disks, were recovered. The object assemblage also included, as in Room X, beads, pins and fibulae. Evidence for textile production was also recovered from Room XV, where over one hundred and fifty loom weights were recovered. A spindle whorl and spatulae were also found, as well as the ubiquitous beads, pins and fibulae. A large amount of burnt wood may represent the remains of a loom lay across the room.

The standing figurines and most of the horse and riders are closely associated with areas where there is substantial evidence for textile production.

Who lived and worked in Hanni’s household?

Did they make the figurines?



Tell Ahmar: 5000 Years of Continuous Occupation

Some two and a half hours by road east of Aleppo, the site of Tell Ahmar is located on the east bank of the Euphrates River, approximately twenty kilometres south of the present Turkish border.

Tell Ahmar  from the Euphrates River, picture taken by me in 1993

Tell Ahmar from the Euphrates River, picture taken by me in 1993



The artificial mound was excavated in 1927 and from 1929 to 1931 by a French expedition led by F. Thureau-Dangin and M. Dunand.

Tell Ahmar by Gertrude Bell, source: http://www.presscom.co.uk/amrath/amura01.html

Tell Ahmar by Gertrude Bell, source: http://www.presscom.co.uk/amrath/amura01.html

The main focus of these excavations was on the Acropolis, where a Neo-Assyrian palace was exposed.

This most significant site is unfortunately located in the area of the Tishrin Dam and is currently threatened with total inundation along with many other important settlements. In 1988 a research team from the University of Melbourne under the direction of Dr Guy Bunnens began further excavation of the tell and initiated exploration of the middle terrace and lower city. Photos of it being underwater now   It is clear from architectural, ceramic and artifactual evidence from the tell that the site was occupied prior to Neo-Assyrian domination. An additional goal of the recent excavations was to explore a provincial city of the Neo-Assyrian period. Investigations were centred on exposing the outermost limits of the urban area, with the main core of operations being Area C.


Tell Ahmar is ideally located to take the best advantage of the fertile plain in which it stands. The position has agricultural benefits, enabling easy irrigation, while 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.

These factors are common to a number of sites in the region, and thus it is probably this combination that accounts for the length of occupation at Tell Ahmar. Only the city of Carchemish, not far to the north, remained in occupation for as long as it has been suggested that strategic control of the region is likely to have been the cause of disputes between these two urban centres, with the smaller settlements taking a minor role.


Beginning in the Chalcolithic period, it is possible that Tell Ahmar was continually inhabited through the Bronze and Iron Ages. Ubaid material was noted by Thureau-Dangin. Tell Aber, just north of Tell Ahmar, and Hammam Seghir on the opposite bank of the river both yielded Ubaid remains. Several sites surveyed and excavated in the vicinity have also yielded Early Bronze material. Clearly, from a very early age, the considerable advantages of this part of the valley for establishing a settlement were exploited. While pottery dating from the Early Bronze Age (phases I or II) has been identified in trenches on the Acropolis, later phases of the Early Bronze Age are well represented by the discovery of the Hypogeum by the French excavators and more recently renewed exploration of this structure.

The recent operations revealed that the Hypogeum is related to a complex of rooms, two of which have been partially excavated. Ceramics found in this context indicate a date in the Early Bronze III-IVa period. Both the architecture of the Hypogeum and the associated cist graves are well represented Euphrates Valley traditions.   Levels overlying those associated with the Hypogeum have yielded figurines of the early 2nd millennium.

The figurine assemblages from Upper Euphrates sites indicate that Tell Ahmar shared the Bronze Age culture of the Euphrates Valley, identified by Badre and represented by sites further to the south such as Selenkahiye, Tell Habuba, Tell Sweihat and Tell Hadidi. Thus the material remains of Early Bronze Age Tell Ahmar suggest a close association with cultural horizons noted in the Upper Euphrates Valley region. Dr Andrew Jamieson describes the ceramic traditions as indicating the ‘unified and homogeneous nature of the middle and Upper Euphrates Valley region.”[1] The later phases of the Bronze Age are not so apparent at Tell Ahmar, although material collected from unstratified deposits suggest a human presence in the Middle Bronze Age, while a few possible Late Bronze Age shards were recovered at the base of the enormous Iron Age wall exposed in the sounding on the tell.

[1] Jamieson, AS. 1993. “The Euphrates Valley and Early Bronze Age ceramic traditions”, in Abr Nahrain Vo.31, pp.36-92 (quotation from p.78).


For early excavations see Thureau-Dangin, F, Til-Barsib, Paris, 1936.

For University of Melbourne excavations see Bunnens, G, “Tell Ahmar (Ancient Til Barsib, Middle Euphrates)”, Syrian Archaeological Bulletin 1, 1988, pp.1-2; “Tell Ahmar on the Euphrates. A New Research project of the University of Melbourne,”, Akkadica 63, 1989, pp.1-11; “Melbourne University Excavations at Tell Ahmar: 1988 Season”, Mesopotamie et Elam, Actes de la XXXIV Rencontre Assyriologique Internationales, Gand, 10-14 Juillet 1989, Mesopotamian History and Environment, Occasional Publications, Vol.1, Ghent, 1991, pp.163-170; “Ahmar”, Weiss, H (ed), “Archaeology in Syria”, American Journal of Archaeology Vol.95, 1991, pp.732-734; “Melbourne University excavations at Tell Ahmar on the Euphrates; Short report on the 1989-1992 seasons”, Akkidica 79-80, 1002, pp.1-13; “Tell Ahmar”, Weiss, H (ed), “Archaeology in Syria”, American Journal of Archaeology Vol.98, 1993-94, pp.149-151; ‘Tall Ahmar/Til Barsib 1988-1992”, in Kuhne, H (ed) “Archaologische Forschung in Syrien (5)”, AfO, Vol.40-41, 1993-94, pp.221-225.

For other publications of Tell Ahmar material see Roobaert, A, “A Neo-Assyrian Statue from Til Barsib”, Iraq, Vol.58, 1996, pp.79-87, Bunnens, G, “Carved Ivories from Til Barsib”, American Journal of Archaeology, Vol.101, 1997, pp.435-450 and Bunnens, G (ed) Abr Nahrain, Vol.34, 1996-1997 for translations of tablets and inscriptions from Tell Ahmar.

So What Do They Look Like, Those Figurines from Tell Ahmar?

So what do they look like, these figurines from 7th century Tell Ahmar?



The collection of figurines from Tell Ahmar is quite diverse with two distinct types of baked clay figurines, (one made by hand and the other using a mould) as well as a unique, rather shapeless piece which seems to be made of unbaked clay and for which I have found no parallels at any other site.


I decided to focus my research on the baked clay, hand made forms however I am now investigating the mould made figurines, a type which is found over a wide region of the Near East.


Unfortunately none of the pieces were found complete, but I don’t think they were deliberately broken.  There are standing figurines with a solid, pillar-based lower body and ornate headdresses or hairstyles.  I believe they are female, though not all of them have breasts.  Some carry very young children or babies in their arms.


All of the standing female figurines were broken at the neck and so the fragments I looked at either comprised the heads or the bodies.  Unfortunately I was only able to match two pieces.


Likewise, the horse and rider figurines were also broken.  I found a lot of horse leg pieces, which made it hard to determine whether they had come from horse figurines, or horse figurines with a rider. The riders wore pointed hats or helmets and had extended chins which I have interpreted as beards. Some of the riders had pieces of clay attached to their bodies, strips and blobs, as did the horses.  Most horses had extensive decoration on their heads and across their chests.  Fortunately, the collections at the British and Ashmolean Museums had many complete examples of all three types.

Horse and Rider figurine from the Upper Euphrates Valley, North Syria, held at the Ashmolean Museum (own sketch).

Horse and Rider figurine from the Upper Euphrates Valley, North Syria, held at the Ashmolean Museum (own sketch).

I believe these three variations, standing figurines, horse and rider figurines and horses without riders belong to the basic type. I base this theory primarily on the method of manufacture.

Have a close look at the head of this standing figurine and this horse rider.  Can you identify how the faces were formed?  The nose is a ridge, formed by pinching the clay together.  The figurine maker could have used his or her thumb and forefinger, which would have created two deep eye sockets.

Look at the eyes of all three figurine types.  Can you see the similarity?  All of them are formed from circular ‘blobs’ of clay fixed into the eye sockets.  The horses have a different shaped face, of course, but their facial features are formed in a similar way.

What about mouths?  Can you detect mouths on any of the figurines?

For a while I wondered if the thicker bands of clay apparent around the necks of some of the standing figurines might have been mouths.  I feel they are not as not all of the figurines have them and none of the riders have bands of clay around their necks.  More on mouths later.


7th century BCE baked clay figurine from Tell Ahmar, North Syria (own sketch).

7th century BCE baked clay figurine from Tell Ahmar, North Syria (own sketch).

The standing figurines all have ornate hairstyles or headdresses.  I lean towards the view that they are hairstyles, perhaps not reflecting reality, but I prefer simple theories and to argue that they were headdresses would take rather more evidence! They could be headdresses or bonnets, but why not take the simpler option and suggest that the ornate modelling of the hair could simply be a depiction of a favoured or desired hairstyle?

8th century BCE standing figurine from the Upper Euphrates Valley, North Syria, held at the Ashmolean Museum (own sketch).


Now take another look at the horse riders.

Their heads are somewhat elongated; this elongation is more acute on some than others. In the case of the horse riders, I believe this pointed head actually represents a helmet.  There is iconographic evidence for this which I will describe in a future post.

Figurine from Upper Euphrates Valley, North Syria, horse rider figurine, 8th century figurine

Figurine from Upper Euphrates Valley, held at British Museum (own sketch).


I’d love to hear your impressions of the figurines. What do you think they represent? Why do you think some parts of the people or creatures represented have been emphasised and others not?

And the big question: what ideas do you get from the form of the figurines about why they might have been made?

Go on.  Have a go.  Let me know what you come up with!  All views are welcome, there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ opinion.  Let the brainstorming begin!

Soon, we’ll start looking at the contexts to which the figurines belonged, but for now, I’d love to get a conversation started on how archaeologists can go about interpreting figurines just by looking at them!