Urban Origins: the Early Bronze Age (ca. 2700-2000 BC, Umm el-Marra Periods VI-IV)

Evidence from two soundings to virgin soil in the Acropolis North and Acropolis East indicates that Umm el-Marra was founded ca. 2700 BC, in the earlier part of the Early Bronze Age (Umm el-Marra Period VI). This date is suggested via ceramic parallels to earlier third millennium BC occupations at Tell Sweyhat and Amuq G-H. The site provides a ceramic sequence for the mid-to-late Early Bronze period, with later periods V and IV corresponding to Mardikh IIB1 and IIB2 (Early Bronze IVA and IVB), along with numerous parallels to the Euphrates ceramic region.

An earthen rampart was detected in the City Wall trench in West Area A, suggesting that Umm el-Marra was already a large, fortified center in the Early Bronze Age. In the Acropolis East, West, and North and in West Area A, Early Bronze period remains included sequences of domestic architecture as well as a pottery kiln and evidence of metallurgical production like crucibles and installations. Regional analysis has shown that settlement in the surrounding plain proliferated at the same time as Umm el-Marra’s third-millennium emergence.

In 2000, the Acropolis Center excavations furnished remarkable data relevant to the elite presiding over the community during this period. In trench 1278/3900, an intact high-status (“royal”?) burial designated Tomb 1 dating to ca. 2300 BC was excavated. A rectangular building (2.6 x 3.8 meters) of mudbrick above stone, the tomb contained three layers of skeletons inside wooden coffins. In the top layer were two young women side by side, each with a baby at the knee, accompanied by rich furnishings. One woman had jewelry including a gold diadem, bracelet, and pendants and silver toggle pins and bracelets. Accompanying the other woman were lapis lazuli amulets, a large gold flanged bead, a gold filigreed pendant, two large silver lozenges, a silver disk, two toggle pins (one gold, one silver), and numerous other objects. By her head was a cup with shells containing cosmetic material.

In contrast, the layer below contained two adult males with relatively few objects, with the remains of a baby off to one side. One had a silver headband and bracelet, the other a bronze dagger and spearhead. In the third and lowest layer was one adult (sex ambiguous) associated with a silver cup and silver pins. Because the pottery in the tomb compares with that found in Ebla palace G, the tomb can be dated to ca. 2300 BC. Outside, against the tomb wall, was a jar with the remains of a baby, as well as two equid skulls and other pottery.

The tomb was evidently freestanding and built in a central, high, location. Thus, it appears to be part of the remarkable phenomenon of aboveground elite tombs built in western Syria and the Euphrates valley in the mid-late EB period, including the tumulus-covered tomb at Jerablus Tahtani, the “hypogeum” at Ahmar, and the brick mortuary complex at Bi‘a. While the latter tombs are architecturally more impressive than Umm el-Marra Tomb 1, they were substantially plundered, in contrast to the intact character of the Umm el-Marra tomb.

The singular nature of Umm el-Marra Tomb 1, with all its contents intact, has raised numerous questions. If the top two layers of bodies were interred simultaneously, which seems to have been the case, why did all six individuals die at the same time? Why are the women accompanied with rich ornaments while the men are modestly outfitted? Why is each woman accompanied by a baby? Very tentative explanations for some of these patterns could include: (1) Gold and lapis jewelry was gender-specific, with women more likely to have such ornaments than men; (2) Elite women were accompanied by sacrificed lower ranking males; (3) The interred individuals were victims of an epidemic; (4) The interred individuals were victims of factional conflict among the local elite.

In the 2002 and 2004 seasons, further excavation in the Acropolis Center revealed that Tomb 1 was part of a larger complex with at least five additional tombs. Judging from the pottery and other associated finds, the tombs were used in sequence over a period of about three centuries, ca. 2500 to 2200 BC. Some tombs like Tombs 4 and 6 contained abundant materials in situ, while others like Tombs 3 and 5 had been seriously disturbed and contained almost no non-ceramic objects. The elite character of the finds in Tombs 4 and 6, including ornaments of gold, silver, and lapis lazuli, is consistent with that of Tomb 1 and implies that the complex was associated with high-ranking members of the community and may have even functioned as a “royal” cemetery. We hypothesize that the presence of this necropolis on a high point in the center of the community was connected with the practice of elite ancestor veneration in this period, as mentioned in the texts from Ebla.

In addition to the tombs themselves were brick installations containing the skeletons of animals, primarily equids. In some cases, the skulls of the equids had been removed and placed in a separate part of the installation. Bones of human infants were also sometimes found. Apparently these installations represent the remains of animals (and human infants?) sacrificed as part of the ceremonies honoring the individuals buried in the adjacent tombs. These results provide new information on elite mortuary ideology in the third millennium BC and the symbolic importance of equids in Syrian society.

Jill Weber’s work with the equid bones has led to the suggestion that these animals were hybrids – a cross between donkeys and onagers, and likely to be the much-prized kunga equids (anše-BAR.AN) referred to in third millennium BC written records.

Collapse: Middle Bronze I (ca. 2000-1800 BC, Umm el-Marra Period IIId)

In the late 3rd and early 2nd millennium BC, many Syrian cities suffered a reduction in their size or were abandoned altogether. Debate over the nature of this “collapse” and the reasons for it is vigorous and ongoing. At Umm el-Marra, urban troubles are attested by an abandonment of the Acropolis East and other locations in the Middle Bronze I period (ca. 2000-1800 BC) and by desertion of numerous settlements in the Umm el-Marra vicinity, as attested by survey results. However, evidence of MB I occupation, while small-scale, was noted in the Acropolis West and North, revealing a variable pattern of abandonment and reoccupation of the site after the “crash” of the late 3rd millennium.

To explain why collapse occurred, explanations focusing on climatic catastrophe (Courty and Weiss 1997) and human-induced environmental degradation (Wilkinson 1997) have been tested. Thus far, no evidence of climatic change has been ascertained from botanical or faunal data at Umm el-Marra, but our planned program of pollen coring in the Jabbul salt lake south of the site has not yet produced satisfactory results. If Wilkinson’s model of agricultural intensification and consequent environmental degradation applies, there should be evidence of agricultural and/or pastoral maximization as well as environmental deterioration in EB. Archaeobotanical analyses by Naomi Miller noted only modest evidence of deforestation in EB, in contrast to stronger indications in MB and LB. Analysis of archaeobotanical and faunal samples is still underway and should continue to add significantly to our interpretations.

Despite the changes of the period, data from animal bones and plant materials at Umm el-Marra reveal a pattern of economic continuity from Early Bronze to Middle Bronze I. Such economic continuities from EB to MB I may have been instrumental in the revival of cities and states in the succeeding phase.

Urban Regeneration: Middle Bronze II (ca. 1800-1600 BC, Umm el-Marra Period IIIa-c)

Major change occurs in Middle Bronze II, probably at the same time that the powerful Yamhad kingdom based at Aleppo makes its appearance. At Umm el-Marra, excavations revealed an energetic program of public works including new earth and cobble ramparts encircling the site and evidence of a mudbrick city wall on top. Inside the city wall, a hematite cylinder seal of a style associated with the Yamkhad royal court was discovered. In addition, the site acropolis was enclosed with a 2-meter thick wall whose northern gateway was excavated in 1999. Within the zone demarcated by the enclosure wall, an enigmatic large circular stone construction designated Monument 1 was built above the area of the Early Bronze Age elite tombs, perhaps a ceremonial platform.

In the Northwest Area, architecture dating to late MB II was exposed, either a single large complex or individual houses built against the city wall.

In addition to public architecture, samples of houses were also obtained in the Acropolis West, North and East areas.

Significant change in the faunal patterns occurs in MB II, with a remarkable increase in equids that Jill Weber interprets as a focus on the hunting of onagers, the wild asses of the steppe. Also significant is the ritual significance of donkeys, observable through donkey bones and complete skeletons interred in house foundations. An association of the ritual importance of the donkey with the newly-powerful Amorite ethnic group has been suggested, given the evidence of the Mari texts and the donkey burials of Middle Bronze Palestine.

Imperial Absorption: Late Bronze (ca. 1600-1200 BC, Umm el-Marra Period II)

Western Syria was incorporated into large, multi-regional empires in the mid-late second millennium BC. First to conquer the Jabbul region was Mitanni, centered in the Khabur area, later to be displaced in the later 14th century by the empire of the Hittites from Anatolia. In this period at Umm el-Marra, there is no evidence of public construction or fortifications, perhaps signaling the site’s subordinate status in this period of imperial domination.

In the Acropolis East, West Area A, and Southeast Area is evidence of a Late Bronze destruction episode including burned buildings with well-preserved household implements, luxury items and other remains. Carbon-14 samples of carbonized barley from a burned room in the Southeast Area yielded five close dates centering on the 14th century BC after calibration, which might suggest a link between the conflagration and the onslaught on western Syria by the Hittite king Suppiluliuma I.

In a Northern Area sounding, excavations in a Late Bronze age house recovered the first cuneiform document to be retrieved from the Jabbul. The Akkadian text concerns the granting of Mitannian citizenship to several individuals, a process conducted in the presence of the Mitannian king Shuttarna II (ca. 1400 BC). The tablet was impressed with the cylinder seal of Shuttarna’s forebear Saustatar, a sealing also known from Tell Brak and Nuzi. Mitannian kings often used the cylinder seals of their predecessors, apparently to emphasize their ties to a revered past.

The very occasional recovery of White Slip II pottery imported from Cyprus in LB contexts at Umm el-Marra indicates at least a minor connection to the sea-borne trade of the eastern Mediterranean. Similarly rare Nuzi ware sherds, characteristic of elite contexts in the Mitannian empire, may imply the occasional presence of higher-ranking households.


Occupation after the Bronze Age

Umm el-Marra was abandoned by the end of the Late Bronze period. While there is little reason to suppose that the site was occupied on any scale in the Iron Age, the discovery of a basalt receptacle with bull head protomes of Iron Age type in the North Area) as well as some Iron II sherds may imply a limited Iron Age use of the deserted tell.

Much more substantial reoccupation occurs in the Achaemenid Persian and Hellenistic periods (ca. 500-200 BC, Umm el-Marra Period I). In this era, remains are found all over the site and include a large building on the Acropolis and traces of sizeable structures (houses?) in the Northwest Area. Also common in this period are brick tombs and other burials situated on the edges of the tell.

The Achaemenid date of the earlier part of this occupation is well-illustrated by the discovery of a bronze “Achaemenid bowl” in a burial in the North Area, as well as an Aramaic graffito dated to ca. 400 BC written on a potsherd. Well-known Hellenistic pottery types, as well as occasional Seleucid coins, including a posthumous silver coin of Alexander the Great, confirm the Hellenistic date of the later part of the occupation.

On occasion, Roman period remains (1st century A.D.) have been observed below the surface at Umm el-Marra, especially on the acropolis, but the occupation must have been small-scale and “rural.” Evidence of later periods includes Late Antique or Early Islamic glazed potsherds recovered from a pit in the Acropolis East and pit graves of the Islamic period found on the edges of the site.