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Hasanlu V: The Late Bronze and Iron I Periods

Hasanlu V: The Late Bronze and Iron I Periods

By Michael D. Danti (Hasanlu Excavation Reports 3, University Museum Monograph 137). Pp. xxviii + 483, figs. 162, b&w pls. 46, tables 6, map 1. University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Philadelphia 2013. $89.95. ISBN 978-1-934536-61-2 (cloth).

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Hasanlu, a high mound surrounded by a large lower mound in the Ušnu-Solduz Valley south of Lake Urmia in extreme northwestern Iran, was excavated by Robert H. Dyson of the University of Pennsylvania from 1956 to 1977. The site is perhaps best known to the public from the many popular articles by Dyson and others that appeared in the 1960s and 1970s on its Iron Age II burned palace (Hasanlu Period IVb, ca. 1050–800 B.C.E.) with its more than 250 skeletons and its famous golden bowl. Other eye-catching artifacts from this period were published in four volumes in a Hasanlu Special Studies series. Two volumes of the Hasanlu Excavation Reports series have previously appeared. Volume 3 (the “V” in the title refers to the period), the subject of this review, is Danti’s second “Final Report” on Hasanlu. Consequently, the published documentation for Hasanlu is an uneven combination of a well-studied Neolithic period, then a gap of some 5,000 or so years, then a wealth of popular but incompletely documented reports, then the Special Studies series centered on Period IVb, then another gap of some 2,000 years until the later Middle Ages, a rather spotty distribution to say the least.

The most coherent part of the book is the table of contents (vii). A first glance at it suggests that this report will be straightforward and relatively easy to read or review. But a second glance shows a glaring omission: there is no index for a 500-odd-page book. That augurs trouble, and the augury is borne out over the rest of the volume.

What Danti proposes to do in Hasanlu V (the book) is to make some kind of sense of the 600 or 700 years (formerly known as Hasanlu Period V) before Period IVb, and he records all the attempts by various excavators or trench supervisors (with all their conflicting terminologies and interpretations) to understand what was going on. He is plagued by something the excavators called Early Western Grey Ware (EWGW), a 600-year-long pottery period which may have begun after the disappearance of the painted Khabur Ware (KW), which was thought to mark the end of the Bronze Age. Danti has renamed the pottery from this period Early Monochrome Burnished Ware (Early MBW). Depending on whose interpretation one uses, this ware is local, or an import, or even evidence of migration from the east or the north. It is not even always gray (see below). “We see here,” Danti says (37), “quite vividly the problems of dealing with ‘Period V’ ... which included: (1) objects and iron datable to Period IVc, now the Iron I; and (2) ceramics spanning at least the entire half of the 2nd millennium BC. The inclusion of Hasanlu IVc (Iron I) within ‘Period V’ (the later LBA) acted to raise the dates, while connections with KW assemblages in turn lowered them.” Danti is also plagued by the apparently exclusive attention given by the Hasanlu excavation staff to the impressive objects and architecture of Period IVb to the detriment of any thorough analysis of the outlying trenches and the burials on the lower mound, compounded by the incorporation into the chronological record of trash deposits and intrusions (unrecognized as such at the time) into the deep sounding of U22. Finally, he is plagued by how the Hasanlu staff dealt with—or did not deal with—changes in archaeological method and theory over the excavation and study years from 1956 to 1977 and in the years since then, plus the early attempts to match Hasanlu with Mesopotamia—in retrospect, a bad idea since Hasanlu is part of the ceramic tradition of Iran. One sentence sums it up: “Interpretation of the results bearing on 2nd millennium BC chronology was severely hindered by the Balkanization [is this a fair remark on Danti’s part?] of the research effort: scholars chose or were ceded select, small bodies of material, such as a particular ceramic ware or artifact category, without the benefit of access to the associated finds, the primary field documentation, or detailed stratigraphic and architectural phasing” (43). Did Danti ever talk to Dyson or other senior staff members? The Hasanlu excavations started with a focus on chronology and then moved to explore the big dig, Hasanlu IVb. Dyson wanted to build a regional sequence and to document changes in material culture, economy, and relationships to other regions. (See Dyson’s introduction [xxvi–xxviii] in M. Voigt, Hajji Firuz Tepe, Iran: The Neolithic Settlement. Hasanlu Excavation Reports 1 [Philadelphia 1983], where he clearly states his goals and the need for horizontal excavation for each period.) He did this by exploring several sites where a period of interest could be found without his having to move a lot of dirt.

Perhaps the easiest way to approach this book is to pull out the six-page chart (after 292) of the “Seriation of Periods VIb–Early IVb Graves from Hasanlu, Dinkha, Geoy, Yanik, and Hajji Firuz with Relevant Diagnostics from Hasanlu and Dinkha Occupation Deposits.” The pot profiles are well drawn, but the type objects mentioned at length in the text are not captioned. (Note to the printer: a blank seventh page would have allowed the chart to stay open throughout the reading of the book without the reader’s having to flip back and forth, and the money spent on the six pages of glossy, colored pie charts of pottery distributions and the graphs of the radiocarbon dates—all of which could have been more cheaply printed in black and white—would have been far better used to show some of the crucial ware types in color.) Even if one is a veteran student of pottery profiles, some of Danti’s “phasing” seems capricious. Nowhere are the istikhan beakers, supposedly a type object at Hasanlu, or the “worm bowls” from Dinkha labeled or identified as such. For other sets of overviews, see the four pages of bowl types and their distributions over time (272–75) and the conclusions (323–39). The latter might best be read even before beginning with the text proper to get an idea of where Danti is planning to lead the reader.

With no cross-referencing from the chart and tables to the text, Danti has divided the centuries before Hasanlu Period IVb (Iron II) into eight periods (30, where Early Bronze is further subdivided into I, II, and III) or six periods (C-3 and 4) based on two-sigma calibrated radiocarbon date ranges. The 600-year period of (old) “Hasanlu V” or (old) “Iron I” (properly labeled by Danti as a “pastiche of material”) or EWGW has now been subdivided by him (again, see the seriation foldout) into at least three periods: Middle Bronze III or Hasanlu VIa/Dinkha IV, then a Late Bronze Hasanlu V/Dinkha III, and finally an Iron I or Hasanlu IVc/Dinkha III. On the late end of this sequence, about two centuries, he has Monochrome Burnished Ware (MBW), formerly the “button-base phase,” not a single photograph or drawing of which appears in this book. Working back in the volume from the long foldout and the radiocarbon tables to the text to try to find the stratigraphic justification unit by unit is frustrating because of the lack of an index. The publisher and reviewers should have insisted on one.

Note that Hasanlu V is really a pottery story. There is little or no significant architecture in the earlier periods (and even so there is disagreement on its interpretation), nor are there the well-known weapon types, furniture, and other objects that characterize Hasanlu IVb. Ceramic analysis discussed in a long chapter (143–275) shows how ware categories were based primarily on surface color and fabric and secondarily sorted by vessel form. (Dyson was trained by people who worked in the American Southwest, and he followed their system as do many anthropologists today.) Munsell charts were rarely employed. What is the reader to make of “light greyish-buff Grey IIc” or “reddish buff Ia” (145)? (The pottery, and there is a substantial amount of it, with which Danti had to work is stored in the Penn Museum. Surely there must be a Munsell color chart somewhere in the building. The later so-called Grey Ware [Danti’s MBW] occurs in buff, red, gray, and black. None of these colors appears in the foldout or in the pottery photographs, and the descriptive ware designations would have made much more sense if some appropriate figures had been included in the book [even if limited to the sherds available in Philadelphia] to allow the reader to get a feel for the differences among Buff I–VIII and their subvariants.)

So, did Danti reach his goal of sorting out the 600 or 700 years of the (old) “Hasanlu V”? In a word: no. He has replaced the old terminology of EWGW with Early MBW (i.e., deleted the word “Grey” and added “Monochrome Burnished”) with nothing beyond the long drawing and the uncorrelated information in the 133-page pottery “Overview” to back up his analysis. The long, six-page, foldout chart, although admirably drawn, does not really show differences from one subphase to another, and the divisions and subdivisions are less than convincing. What we are left with at the end of the book is the same 600-year pottery period with which we started, albeit with a new nomenclature.

There is a lot of information and documentation hidden away in this book, but for anybody other than a Hasanlu staff member, it is extraordinarily hard to find it and to connect the pots. It reads like a graduate student’s somewhat undigested term paper—or rather like the catalogue of notes one might prepare before writing a book. Danti several times says he does not want to blame the excavator(s) for errors or omissions but then goes ahead and does it. I do not recommend this book, other than, perhaps, the foldout pot-profile drawing, the radiocarbon dates, and the 15 pages of bibliography. Hasanlu—both the site and its excavators—and the reader deserve better.

Peter Ian Kuniholm
School of Anthropology and Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research
University of Arizona

Book Review of Hasanlu V: The Late Bronze and Iron I Periods, by Michael D. Danti

Reviewed by Peter Ian Kuniholm

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 121, No. 1 (January 2017)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1211.Kuniholm

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