Online Review: Book

Urbanism and Cultural Landscapes in Northeastern Syria: The Tell Hamoukar Survey 1999–2001

Jason A. Ur


Reviewed by Michael D. Danti

Tell Hamoukar 1, OIP 137. Pp. lxi + 384, figs. 210, tables 74, maps 3. Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, Chicago 2010. $75. ISBN 978-1-885923-73-8 (cloth).

This exemplary monograph represents the first in the much-anticipated series of final reports of the joint Oriental Institute/Syrian Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums' (DGAM) archaeological project at Tell Hamoukar in northeastern Syria. Since its inception in 1999 by McGuire Gibson and through the subsequent research directed by Clemens Reichel, work at Hamoukar has profoundly reshaped our understanding of the Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Age in northern Mesopotamia. From 1999 to 2001, Ur conducted a regional survey as part of this project, combining a spectrum of multiscalar survey techniques and remote sensing data sets to reconstruct settlement and landscape in the Tell Hamoukar Survey (THS) area. The survey involved a 125 km2 area defined under permit by the DGAM as a 5 km radius around Hamoukar and its southern extension, called Khirbat al-Fakhar (Site TH25). This survey area "at no time corresponded to a political or cultural entity in its entirety" (42) and represents "a small and not always representative sample area within much broader interaction spheres" (147). The volume expands and reworks parts of Ur's 2004 University of Chicago dissertation titled "Urbanism and Society in the Third Millennium Upper Khabur Basin." The author's chronicling and assessment of diachronic patterns in settlement and land use in the region, home to more than 60 archaeological sites, from the Pottery Neolithic to modern times, sets a new standard in regional studies, as does his adaptation of the methodologies promulgated by Wilkinson (esp. Archaeological Landscapes of the Near East [Tucson, Ariz. 2003]) and now applied by a new generation of scholars throughout the Near East. The work is divided into eight chapters, including an introduction, an overview of the physical environment, two chapters detailing survey methods, and four chapters covering the archaeological landscape, including the data set and middle-range theory, settlement patterns, transportation routes, and diachronic patterns and variability.

The centerpiece of Ur's research is his intensive site survey of Hamoukar (ancient name unknown). Tell Hamoukar is a remarkably large (105 ha) multi­component site consisting of high and low mounds and an extensive Late Chalcolithic 1–2 southern extension (TH25) that covers a staggering 300+ ha. Ur provides a detailed account of site morphology and the periods and intensity of occupation over time. Three key issues addressed in the volume are the meaning of the unusually large Chalcolithic 1–2 settlement at Hamoukar/TH25, the nature of the southern Uruk presence in the northeastern Khabur, and how Early Bronze Age Hamoukar seemingly surpassed putative population growth thresholds and yet withstood potential dramatic climate events in the later third millennium B.C.E.

To document the region around Hamoukar, Ur used a combination of traditional site survey and off-site survey, recording site/occupation areas, occupation periods, and off-site features such as hollow ways, ancient canals, and field scatters of sherds indicative of ancient manuring with urban waste. Survey methodology was carefully planned prior to the project and is meticulously reviewed, with the author discussing how sites were identified prior to survey using maps, aerial photographs, and satellite imagery, in particular declassified CORONA images. Generally, sites were identified by "high density surface artifacts, the presence of mounding, and the presence of lighter sediments of anthropogenic origin" (49). The results achieved through examination of remote sensing data sets were cross-checked by walking field transects. Ur discusses the obstacles and shortcomings of various techniques, which makes the volume particularly useful for those developing research projects in similar environments, since it provides a virtual step-by-step procedural guide. In particular, Ur shows how the recent availability of CORONA images offers archaeologists a valuable means for studying settlement and land use in northern Mesopotamia prior to the demographic explosion and substantial reworking of the landscape of the last 20–30 years.

Ur's research intersects with a number of the major theoretical debates in Near Eastern archaeology. Key among them are Hamoukar's, or more precisely TH25's, implications for the development of societal complexity in Chalcolithic 1–2 Mesopotamia: covering 300 ha, TH25 shows this area did not lag behind the south in cultural development. The entire area of TH25 was not intensively settled, and Ur and others have advanced alternative, but not mutually exclusive, explanations with regard to the site's urban environment. In one model, the settlement is seen as consisting of 30 ha of permanent occupation that formed the core of a larger, shifting settlement that fluctuated in size with the comings and goings of nomadic pastoralists. Alternatively, Ur favors an interpretation in which TH25 represents a permanent settlement comprising dispersed, separate units clustered around a core area of larger structures. The author tempers this with the oft-repeated dictum that "it is not possible to evaluate these models fully from surface observations alone" (148), and subsequent excavations at Hamoukar have indeed advanced our understanding, but Ur's work drives home the capacity of regional analysis to frame, focus, and refine research objectives in the early stages of a multicomponent archaeological project. With regard to societal complexity, Ur advances the interesting notion that "we may be seeing an initial impetus toward population agglomeration in which groups are motivated to aggregate, but prior to the emergence of the social structures that enabled the dense nucleation of the cities of the third millennium B.C. and later" (148). Seen another way, perhaps sprawling, dispersed settlements were characteristic of periods in which circumvallations were unnecessary.

The THS and other surveys in the northeastern Khabur have demonstrated that the area had an impressive nonlocal Uruk (southern Mesopotamian) presence of some kind amid a local Chalcolithic horizon. The cultural processes behind this pattern are as yet unclear. Again, the author highlights how we can use survey data to generate research questions, and it is hoped future Hamoukar final reports will directly address and integrate Ur's initial findings. Traditionally, the greatest barriers to projects incorporating both regional projects and excavation have been the realities of permitting: survey concessions are not excavation permits, and as a result, hypothesizing runs decades ahead of hypothesis testing. A more extensive use of geophysical prospection such as resistivity/conductivity, gradiometry, and GPR survey might prove useful intermediary steps—such approaches have been especially successful at Tell Qarqur, Titrish Höyük, and Tell es-Sweyhat.

Tell Hamoukar, a major Early Bronze Age center, is especially important in terms of our understanding of the oscillations of urbanism in the third millennium B.C.E., particularly within the theoretical framework of Wilkinson's Brittle Economy Model ("The Structure and Dynamics of Dry-Farming States in Upper Mesopotamia," CurrAnthr 35 [1994] 483–520) and recent research on alleged punctuated, high-magnitude climate change sensu Weiss and his associates ("The Genesis and Collapse of Third Millennium North Mesopotamian Civilization," Science 261 [1993] 995–1004). Like Wilkinson, Ur uses site size to estimate population, food consumption, and labor. He compares these figures with the productive capacity of agropastoral catchments mapped using field scatters of sherds (indicative of manuring) and hollow ways (the remains of transportation networks used by farmers and herders). Ur argues that Hamoukar was either dependent on importing surpluses and/or on short-term production strategies that boosted agricultural outputs at the expense of sustainability, such as violating fallow cycles (155). However, the THS permit did not encompass the area in which one would predict the presence of surplus-producing satellite settlements (154). An important, related issue is the degree to which the Khabur might have been incorporated into the Akkadian "empire" and the effects of "imperialization." Ur is justifiably skeptical (155), citing the paucity of evidence beyond Tell Brak for a discernible southern bureaucracy active in the region and the interpretive mismatch between broad archaeological periods based largely on ceramics and historical events tied to dynasts. He is equally cautious with regard to the role of dramatic climate events as a factor in a putative post-Akkadian collapse in settlement throughout northern Mesopotamia (157).

The period-by-period analysis of occupation in the THS region is carried up to the modern era with varying degrees of chronological and historical resolution, but the Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Age constitute the major foci of this work. The volume is copiously illustrated and includes appendices detailing the ceramic type-fossils used to identify occupation periods and a site catalogue. I was extremely impressed with Ur's foldout color maps of the THS region that alone must have required a monumental effort. A great strength of Ur's approach is that it dovetails neatly with other surveys conducted by Wilkinson and other researchers in the region, and the accumulation of such directly comparable data sets will prove a great strength for future research. The author adeptly incorporates the most recent historical, archaeological, and anthropological literature to formulate a compelling narrative of long-term human occupation in the region.

This volume is written for scholars and professionals in archaeology and related fields and will be of special interest to those engaged in regional archaeological projects, especially in northern Mesopotamia, and more generally to researchers using remote-sensing techniques and engaged in ground truthing airborne remote-sensing data. The author is to be congratulated on producing a fine piece of research.

Michael D. Danti
Department of Archaeology
Boston University
Boston, Massachusetts 02215


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