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Under a Barley Field

Tell es-Sweyhat, Syria
By Dr. Richard L. Zettler, associate curator-in-charge,
Near Eastern Section

SEVEN YEARS AGO, we embarked on the Museum's first-ever foray into Syria, beginning excavations at a site on the east bank of the Euphrates. We've been reconstructing the layout of Tell es-Sweyhat, an ancient city that by ca. 2100 BC had become a
At left, a female skeleton was found near the tomb entrance. At right, close-up of pots that were found inside the tomb.
bustling urban center. Assisted by over 25 undergraduate and graduate students from Penn and other universities, we've uncovered important insights into the late third millennium in northern Mesopotamia, a period that hasn't been well documented. Our excavations are helping to fill a gap in the historical and archaeological record.
A few years ago our research took an unexpected turn when a mishap led to an exciting discovery. In the spring of 1993, we found that the northwestern portion of our site had sprouted waist-high ripening barley! The local landlord had irrigated, and we were effectively prevented from working in at least one of our excavation areas. But our dismay turned to interest when we noticed the irrigation water had opened up three deep holes in the ground.
Early one morning Michael Danti, a Penn graduate student in anthropology, squeezed down into one of the holes, tethered by a rope and armed with a flashlight. He stopped on a kind of landing, from which his flashlight revealed a domed-ceilinged chamber. We asked if he could see anything -- all hoping he would repeat Carter's famed response to Lord Carnarvon upon opening the tomb of Tutankhamen: "Yes, wonderful things!" He didn't -- but he did spot the tops of several pottery vessels protruding from the fill in the chamber. We had discovered Tell es-Sweyhat's Early Bronze Age cemetery!
We excavated two tombs in 1993, but local looters had beaten us to the punch (they left behind cigarette packs and a lighter). A third tomb -- which proved intact -- was explored by our team two years later, and yielded some fascinating artifacts. The excavation was undertaken by two Penn graduate students in anthropology, Jill Weber and Brad Bentz, with the help of our archaeobotanist, Naomi Miller of the Museum Applied Sciences Center for Archaeology (MASCA), which uses various methods to date cultural materials, and Peter Roberson, a student at Purdue University.
The chamber contained two articulated skeletons, both female, one with her jewelry in place. More human bones were scattered around the floor, with a large pile against the north wall, apparently tossed aside when the newly dead were interred. Our tomb contained at least eleven bodies. We were looking at a family burial -- if the biblical account of Jacob's instruction's to his sons at his death (Genesis 49: 29-33) can be taken as documenting similar practices in the Levant: "[H]e gave them these instructions, 'I am about to be gathered to my people. Bury me near my fathers, in the cave that is in the field of Ephron the Hittite."
We also found the remains of funerary offerings, including the bones of a piglet and sheep or goat heads. In addition to jewelry, the tomb yielded pins for securing garments or shrouds; daggers, axes, a javelin head, and spear butts; bone cosmetic containers with incised designs, a flint core, a model of a four-wheeled covered wagon, and more than a hundred pottery vessels. Although we sieved the contents of the vessels and used flotation to recover any plant remains, only one jar gave a hint of its original contents: a large number of birds the size of modern pigeons.
Tell es-Sweyhat's tombs, which we know from the pottery date to 2500-2250 BC, consist of a 2 meter deep rectangular shaft that provides access into a 4 by 5 meter oval chamber. The chambers are high enough to stand up in, but their tops are 2.5 meters below ground. The tombs are cut into sterile soil and are stable, so we worked inside them, stringing an electric light powered by a small generator on the surface.
Conditions were cramped and the pace of work slow. On any given day two or three students were inside digging with small tools and brushes to loosen the soil around crumbling bones and artifacts, while workers from a nearby village handed up basketfuls of soil. The soil was sieved before being discarded. Documentation -- photography, in particular -- has been a major problem because of the low light.
The tomb is intriguing but archaeologically not unique. For us the really exciting story is the size and potential of the Tell es-Sweyhat cemetery. It's spread over almost two acres, and there may be 100 to 150 tombs. This gives us an unparalleled opportunity to study the population of the settlement, as opposed to just their refuse and isolated possessions.
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