Research Goals

The excavations of the Neubauer Expedition have demonstrated that the site of Zincirli is unusually well suited to achieving large horizontal exposures of well-preserved architecture in an Iron Age lower town. This is important because a quantitative increase in the scale of excavation will produce a qualitative leap in our understanding of urban life and culture in this formative period of Mediterranean history. An ancient settlement's social and economic organization cannot be understood from a limited sample of individual houses. Careful investigation is needed of clusters of adjoining houses spanning thousands of square meters. Indeed, it is necessary to study entire neighborhoods—large blocks of houses bounded by streets and open spaces—in different parts of the city, because such neighborhoods were coherent architectural and social units whose inhabitants interacted in ways that actually constituted Iron Age "urbanism."

In order to grasp the economic and social structures through which the settlement functioned and cohered for hundreds of years, the Neubauer Expedition is examining not just individual houses on a local scale of analysis but also interlocking groups of houses and their shared facilities, their overall architectural arrangement, and their degree of isolation from other house clusters. By this means, the social and economic relationships among households, and not just within them, can be understood in light of historical and ethnographic analogies in more recent Mediterranean and Middle Eastern societies. An important tool in this effort is the geomagnetic map of the lower town, which reveals in remarkable detail the outlines of buried structures and streets across about two-thirds of the lower mound (the rest of it is covered by modern trees and buildings and so was inaccessible to magnetometry). The geomagnetic map is being used to guide the excavations and to provide additional data in areas that are left unexcavated.

More specifically, the Neubauer Expedition is focusing on the following research questions: (1) the settlement’s chronology throughout the Bronze and Iron Ages and its regional context and contacts; (2) the population composition and cultural influences in Sam’al; and (3) the socioeconomic organization of the Iron Age lower town and changes in this organization over time, from the ninth to the seventh century BCE, as the kingdom of Sam’al moved from political independence to vassalage within the Neo-Assyrian Empire and ultimately to its final phase as an Assyrian province.

Chronology and Context

Although a basic settlement chronology was established by the German expedition in the late nineteenth century, a much more refined stratigraphic sequence is needed to determine the phases of occupation at the site and to isolate the architecture and the artifactual assemblages associated with each phase. The Neubauer Expedition has so far explored only the final phases of the Iron Age occupation in the eighth and seventh centuries BCE. In future seasons, stratigraphic trenches in the southern and eastern areas of the upper mound will be enlarged and deepened to obtain a complete sequence from the Early Bronze Age to the early Hellenistic period, when the site was finally abandoned (i.e., from ca. 3000 to 300 BCE).

Enough material has been collected to show that the pottery of the site, although broadly similar to the pottery of other sites in the wider region, is highly local in character, with many idiosyncrasies and very few imported wares. This is in keeping with Zincirli’s relatively isolated geographical position in a narrow valley hemmed in by mountain ranges. The total quantity of pottery and the range of forms are actually quite limited, at least in the Iron Age levels, suggesting that vessels of metal, wood, and stone played a larger-than-normal role at this site. Radiocarbon samples are being taken from every phase in order to establish an absolute chronology for the architectural phases and the local ceramic sequence. Occasional imported wares also provide a means to link the local sequence to ceramic sequences elsewhere.

This aspect of the research, although fundamentally descriptive, is essential for understanding the site within its wider context, as well as for making temporal correlations from one excavation area to another within the site. Not only will it provide an essential framework for future archaeologists who excavate in the same valley, but it will be essential for the regional survey project of the Neubauer Expedition (a related project planned for future seasons), in order to date the periods of occupation for the scores of settlement sites in the vicinity. The Zincirli ceramic sequence will be used to understand the settlement history of the region, comparing the Zincirli material with surface artifacts collected from surveyed sites identified on the ground and via satellite imagery. A chronologically refined settlement history will be of great value for understanding the economic and political functioning of the kingdom of Sam’al in the Iron Age, and also of earlier polities in the region, by indicating how many and what kind of settlements existed in a given period. With a sufficiently precise chronology, the wider settlement history and the architectural changes at Zincirli itself can be related to broader political and cultural changes of the Bronze and Iron Ages, such as the imperial conquests and population migrations documented in ancient texts.

Cultural Influences

The kingdom of Sam'al was located in a border region between the ancient Anatolian and Levantine cultural zones. Bounded on the north and west by the towering Taurus and Amanus mountain ranges, it was the most northwesterly region of habitation of Semitic-language speakers, and in many periods it had cultural ties with Syrian population centers to the south and east. But within the Semitic-speaking royal dynasty of Iron Age Sam’al were kings who bore non-Semitic Luwian names, reflecting the powerful political and cultural influence of Luwian-speakers of Anatolian extraction who had migrated southward into the region centuries earlier from across the Taurus Mountains under the aegis of the Hittite Empire and who continued to dominate the northern Levant in the immediate post-Hittite period. The Semitic-speaking rulers in the Iron Age themselves adopted the Luwian "Neo-Hittite" style of architecture and iconography, indicating the continuing prestige of that cultural tradition.

The Neo-Hittite cultural tradition in North Syria was transmitted within the rump kingdoms that emerged after the collapse of the Hittite Empire in the early twelfth century BCE, which were ruled by Luwian-speaking elites. In particular, Carchemish on the Euphrates River, 120 kilometers (75 miles) east of Zincirli, which was formerly the seat of the Hittite viceroy (and prince of the imperial dynasty) who ruled Syria on behalf of the Hittite king, became the capital of a powerful local kingdom with a Luwian-speaking dynasty. The presence of Luwian hieroglyphic inscriptions at various sites in the Zincirli region suggests that it was initially part of the Luwian-dominated Carchemish kingdom, or at least was controlled by a local Luwian-speaking elite, until a Semitic-speaking dynasty took over in the late tenth or early ninth century and chose the old Bronze Age mound of Zincirli—at that time largely abandoned—as the capital of their kingdom.

The newly expanded and fortified city was called Y’DY (possibly its Luwian name, thought to have been pronounced "Yādiye") and was also referred to interchangeably by the Semitic name ŚM’L ("Sam’al," meaning "north"), although it is possible that one of these two names denoted the city proper while the other denoted the kingdom of which it was the capital. In any case, the new Semitic-speaking rulers adopted Neo-Hittite iconography and decorative styles similar to those of Luwian-ruled Carchemish, as shown by the basalt orthostat reliefs lining the gates of their city, indicating the continuing prestige of that cultural tradition, which was widely imitated even by non-Luwian elites. A "tree of life" orthostat discovered by the Neubauer Expedition in 2008 is very similar in style to orthostats found at Carchemish that were similarly placed outside a major gate and displayed a procession of soldiers and royal officials.

Further complicating the ethnolinguistic situation, it is worth noting that the Semitic place-name Sam’al was in use already a thousand years earlier, as shown by an Old Assyrian text from the Middle Bronze Age, which indicates that there was a Semitic-speaking population in the area long before the Hittite Empire and subsequent Luwian domination, and that the old Semitic name was never forgotten. This is confirmed by the strongly Amorite character of the artifacts and architecture found at the Middle Bronze Age royal capital excavated at the site of Tilmen Höyük, located just eight kilometers (five miles) south of Zincirli (see Marchetti 2006). The rulers of Tilmen had close cultural and political links to regions to the south in inland Syria, which was dominated at that time by the Yamhad Empire based in Aleppo. Moreover, similar Middle Bronze Age material has been found at Zincirli itself, which was apparently a fortified town in the Amorite kingdom ruled from Tilmen. Furthermore, the place-name Sam’al (written ś-m-i-r-w) appears also in the Late Bronze Age, in an Egyptian list of North Syrian toponyms carved on the wall of the temple of Amun at Karnak to celebrate the exploits of the pharaoh Thutmose III, who campaigned repeatedly in the region, conquering the Orontes River and its tributaries and marching as far as the Euphrates in his eighth campaign around 1450 BCE (see Astour 1963, p. 233).

For the Bronze Age Amorites of Syria, Zincirli was the "north" (ŚM’L), just as much as it was for the Iron Age Arameans who supposedly invaded in the tenth century BCE. In fact, the only reason to think that the Iron Age rulers of Sam’al were invading Arameans, as opposed to long-indigenous Semitic-speakers who had been resident there for a millennium or more, is the linguistic classification of the Sam’alian dialect (attested in local Iron Age inscriptions) as a branch of Aramaic. But there is some question as to whether Sam’alian is actually Aramaic (see Huehnergard 1995). It does not possess a number of morphological innovations shared by other Aramaic dialects, so it could instead be an otherwise unattested branch of Northwest Semitic that was spoken in the Zincirli region since the Amorite period. In that case, Gabbār, the founder of the Iron Age kingdom of Sam’al, may well have been not a roving Aramean warlord but a local resident of Amorite heritage who threw off the Luwian yoke and restored his Semitic-speaking compatriots to a position of power. There is certainly no archaeological hallmark of the Arameans as an invasive ethnic group that can be pointed to at Zincirli. If this can be confirmed by further research at Zincirli, it would change the historical picture considerably, because the kingdom of Sam’al would thus never have been Aramean. To the extent that it became Aramaized (as indicated by the use of official Aramaic in King Barrākib’s final inscription), this would have occurred much later, in the latter part of the eighth century, under the aegis of the Neo-Assyrian Empire and its Aramaic-speaking administrators who hailed from Upper Mesopotamia.

At the very least, we can say that over the course of the Late Bronze and Iron Ages there was some form of coexistence and mutual cultural adaptation of  Luwian-speaking and Semitic-speaking populations, with Luwian elites politically dominant in the during and after the Hittite Empire, in the latter part of the Late Bronze Age and the early Iron Age, and a West Semitic elite dominant both before the Luwian regime, in the Middle Bronze Age, and after it, in the latter part of the Iron Age. Scholars have long suspected that the rivalry between these two groups is reflected in the enigmatic reference to the downtrodden muškabīm (literally, "those who lie down") and a presumably better-off group called ba‘rīrīm in the Phoenician inscription of King Kulamuwa of Sam’al (ca. 830  BCE), who claims to have aided the muškabīm (the down-at-heel Luwians?) and to have fostered mutual respect between the two groups. Moreover, despite a long period of coexistence and perhaps even intermarriage, as has been suggested to explain the intermingling of Semitic and Luwian names within the Sam’alian royal dynasty (e.g., Kulamuwa himself, whose father Hayyā had a Semitic name but whose own name is Luwian—perhaps he was the son of a queen who belonged to an old Luwian noble family), the original ethnic identities were not forgotten and could surface in various forms. This phenomenon is widely attested in other historical periods, including the modern Middle East.

A striking example of this is the recently discovered Katumuwa Stele, on which was carved a 13-line alphabetic inscription in a local Northwest Semitic dialect. It belonged to Katumuwa, servant of Panamuwa, a Sam’alian official with a Luwian name in the service of a Sam’alian king with a Luwian name, whose predecessor and successor both had Semitic names (assuming it is King Panamuwa II, son of Barṣur and father of Barrākib). Katumuwa’s inscription refers to both Semitic and Anatolian deities (including the goddess Kubaba, known in classical times as Cybele), and he was apparently not buried in a communal tomb to which the offerings were brought, according to the traditional West Semitic custom, but was most likely cremated, a practice attested in culturally similar cities of the period such as Carchemish on the Euphrates, Hamath on the Orontes, and Guzāna (Tell Halaf) in Upper Mesopotamia. Cremation was an Indo-European practice generally regarded as abhorrent in the Semitic world (for example, in ancient Israel and its neighbors). In both his name and his mortuary customs, if not his language, Katumuwa had plainly not forgotten his ancestral traditions, even though he lived two hundred years after the Luwians had lost control of the region. It seems that Luwian names and Luwian gods were still favored by some in Sam’al, even at this late date, along with distinctive Anatolian mortuary practices. Perhaps these names and practices were adopted even by people of non-Anatolian extraction for political or social reasons, just as people today will adopt foreign names and identities to enhance their social standing. Or, we must reckon with the ongoing vitality of Luwian cultural traditions in the midst of an equally vital and dynamic Semitic-speaking cultural milieu.

The archaeological question is whether these enduring social identities held by intermingled ethnic groups, and the cultural influences exerted by these groups on one another, can be detected in their material remains. The Neubauer Expedition is approaching this question through the careful analysis of spatial and temporal patterns of architecture, artistic styles and iconography, cuisine (detected via pottery and botanical and faunal remains), mortuary customs, and other social practices revealed by extensive exposures of the residential lower town. The goal is not to identify specific households or individuals in reductive terms as permanent members of this or that monolithic, crudely reified ethnic group, but to study processes of group-identity formation and identity maintenance from the point of view of the nonverbal social practices and habits that in every society accomplish the socialization of individuals into communities.

Socioeconomic Organization

The Iron Age population and ethnic interactions at Zincirli can be studied on a scale and at a level of detail that is unusual in Near Eastern archaeology because of the large quantity of Iron Age urban architecture that is readily accessible just under the modern surface. A modern village has grown up over the western part of the citadel mound and lower town, but at least 20 hectares (50 acres) are available for excavation. In most places of the lower town there are only about two meters of accumulated debris representing two or three architectural phases. A given area can be excavated down to virgin soil in two or three field seasons, depending on the complexity of the stratigraphy. The Neubauer Expedition intends to excavate thousands of square meters in various parts of the lower town, providing a sample of architecture and artifacts large enough to permit meaningful conclusions about the social and economic organization of the city.

There are very few Iron Age sites in the Mediterranean region at which large-scale exposures of urban districts have been achieved. The Zincirli excavations, profiting from easy access to well-preserved Iron Age strata of both the Assyrian and pre-Assyrian periods, will provide a large quantity of new evidence concerning the organization and use of urban space. This evidence will allow us to answer questions about population density, subsistence practices and food storage, craft production and economic specialization, livestock stabling, household size and composition, and neighborhood relations (as shown by multi-house architectural arrangements in relation to shared courtyard spaces and other shared facilities). At Zincirli, geophysical surveying methods have been shown to produce an unusually clear picture of buried structures in the lower town, at least for the latest architectural phases representing the last century of habitation in the lower town. This subsurface survey data augments the data obtained from excavated areas, which in turn can be used to interpret more accurately the geophysical maps of unexcavated areas.

A key question has to do with the existence (or not) of kin-based or quasi-kin modes of social organization. In other words, were there urban "clans" or patron-client household groupings governed by politically powerful patriarchs, forming economically autonomous and mainly agrarian subcommunities within the larger city, on the model of traditional Islamic cities or medieval Mediterranean cities in Italy and elsewhere? This model of urban farming clans (fictive or not) that had moved from their rural villages to land allotments within the city walls but had retained their traditional mode of life and kin-based social organization, is in marked contrast to the widely adopted model of urban organization that posits economically specialized urban households interacting and competing as individual units and integrated with one another, not by means of kinship, but by some form of market economy, or else by a top-down command economy focused on royal military and labor requirements and the large-scale distribution of royal rations. A careful study, not just of individual houses, but of groups of neighboring houses, can determine which model best fits the evidence.

Zincirli also provides the opportunity to examine changes in socioeconomic organization over time. The lower town was in existence for at least 200 years and witnessed three political stages, from independence under the rule of a local king, to vassal status within the Assyrian empire, to the removal of the local political elite and direct rule as an Assyrian province with an Assyrian governor, and possibly also some measure of deportation and population replacement, although this is not textually documented for Sam’al, as it is for other kingdoms. Did these major political shifts, from independence to provincialization, leave a visible mark on ordinary urban districts, reflecting the reorganization of urban elites and economic production in line with the demands (or incentives) created by the empire? Was there an upsurge in interregional trade as a result of the pax Assyriaca, causing a restructuring of the Sam’alian economy with ripple effects at the household level? Or were daily life and the use of space in the lower town largely unaffected, even though the royal citadel (and the members of the royal court) undoubtedly experienced drastic changes?

The site of Zincirli provides an ideal laboratory for investigating all of these issues: for examining ethnicity in an urban population of diverse origins affected by and adapting to cross-cutting cultural influences; for examining the material correlates of identity-forming and identity-maintaining social practices; and for examining Iron Age urban subsistence, and household and neighborhood organization, both before and during incorporation into the vast Assyrian Empire. Large-scale horizontal exposures of coherent architectural phases, which can be accomplished very cost-effectively at Zincirli and can be augmented by unusually precise geophysical mapping of buried architecture, will provide valuable new data to address these questions.