Previous Excavations

From 1888 to 1902, a team of archaeologists led by Felix von Luschan and Robert Koldewey conducted five seasons of excavation at Zincirli on behalf of the German Orient-Comité and the Berlin Museum. Their results were published in an admirably prompt and detailed manner in four large volumes entitled Ausgrabungen in Sendschirli (F. von Luschan et al.; Berlin, 1893–1911), which deal with the architecture, sculpture, and inscriptions found at the site. A fifth volume describing the most important small finds—selected pottery and hundreds of artifacts made of stone, ivory, bronze, iron, and other materials—was published some years later, in 1943, by Walter Andrae. The German expedition is described in detail, with many archival photographs and drawings, in a book by Ralf-B. Wartke entitled Sam’al: Ein aramäischer Stadstaat des 10. bis 8. Jhs. v. Chr. und die Geschichte seiner Erforschung (Mainz am Rhein, 2005).

The German expedition delineated the city walls and gates of Iron Age Sam’al and exposed several palaces and other large structures on the 5-hectare (12-acre) upper mound in the center of the site. The upper mound was formed by the stratified remains of Bronze Age settlements, above which was built the later Iron Age royal citadel. This walled citadel sat in the middle of the extensive 40-hectare (100-acre) site and rose more than 15 meters (50 feet) above the surrounding plain.

Dozens of sculpted stone pieces were recovered by the German expedition and are now in museums in Istanbul and Berlin, including statues of lions and sphinxes that had guarded the entrances of important buildings, decorated column bases from the porticoes of royal palaces, and rows of relief-carved basalt orthostats (rectangular standing slabs) that had lined the walls of the principal gateways into the city.

Several royal inscriptions carved in stone were also found. The earliest was written in Phoenician, a lingua franca of the early Iron Age. Later inscriptions were written in the local Sam'alian dialect and in Aramaic using a variant of the Phoenician alphabetic script to record the deeds of various kings of Sam’al. The German expedition also found an imperial Assyrian inscription written in Akkadian cuneiform on a large stone monument, the famous Esarhaddon Stele, which celebrates the conquest of Egypt in 671 BCE by Esarhaddon, ruler of the Neo-Assyrian Empire and overlord of Sam’al.

Although the first excavators of Zincirli used methods that were quite good by the standards of the day, and their detailed architectural plans are a valuable resource for modern archaeologists, they excavated rapidly on a massive scale, with a staff of only a few archaeologists managing large numbers of workmen. They had a limited understanding of debris-layer stratigraphy and of the use of pottery to date soil layers. As a result, many details concerning the dating and function of the structures they unearthed are unclear and it is difficult to associate the artifacts they found with their original findspots. Moreover, they focused their efforts on the palaces and other monumental architecture in the center of the site, neglecting to excavate dwellings in the large lower town, which constitutes 80 percent of the site.