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Grabungsstelle C – Gräber (all squares)
Peter V. Bartl

A Late Bronze Age – Iron Age graveyard and other burials at Tell Fekheriye

During the seasons of fieldwork from 2006 – 2010, carried out in all squares of the western terrace, a total number of 45 partially or completely preserved graves were investigated and the corresponding individuals exhumed for further osteological studies. These burials are either embedded under the floor levels of some Middle Assyrian rooms, or cut the Middle Assyrian architecture of House I and House II. They can therefore be classified into two main groups based on stratigraphic location, and in several more based on construction features, position and grave inventories. Four categories have been defined: a) Mud-brick cist burials, b), jar burials c) inhumation burials and d) double-jar burials (Plan).

The Late Bronze-Age – Iron-Age graveyard

The vast majority of burials consist of grave-pits at the base of which a rectangular mud-brick enclosure is erected, in which the deceased is placed in a stretched position on his or her back. These burials usually have a roof made of mud-bricks standing on edge to form a triangular pediment (Fig 1a, b). So far, 29 of these graves have been excavated on the terrace and a further one in Area A in 2006 (Bonatz et al. 2002, 99-100, fig. 3). Typologically these graves can be further subdivided. A small group, represented by only three examples thus far, has a slightly different brick covering. Here, two rows of vertically standing mud-bricks cover the architecture, leaning against a small wall at the top end of the grave (Fig 2). Another sub-group shows a covering made of one or two rows of lying mud-bricks.

These mud-brick cist graves are either oriented in a north-south or an east-west direction and cut the walls and fills of the Middle Assyrian buildings without any regard for the older architecture. Therefore, they must have been dug after the buildings on the western slope of the ancient mound had lost their function, were abandoned and their walls were no longer visibly standing above ground. It is rarely possible to determine the exact floor level from which the graves were dug into the ground due to later disturbances and pits. This makes it almost impossible to assign them to any of the levels by stratigraphic means. Moreover, the situation on the western slope of the high mound is responsible for an east to west height difference of about two meters in the base levels of the graves. Therefore a combination of several characteristics is required to obtain an exact dating.

One of the main characteristics is the presence of a pottery-set deposited in the grave pits, next to or on top of the mud-brick architecture near the head of the deceased (Fig 3). The set consists of a large jar, sometimes decorated with an incision, (Fig 4) originally containing a liquid, a nipple base goblet placed in the bottom of the jar and a small bowl to cover the mouth. These vessel types were used over a long time span and can be found from the Middle Assyrian period onward until the Roman era. In consequence the graves were dated, in a first approach, to the Roman-Parthian period, a period suggested by the close parallels in architecture also found at Tell Sheik Hamad (Bonatz et al. 2008, 100, 110). Despite the long life span of the vessel-shapes, there is growing evidence for a date in the period of the Late Bronze-Age – Iron-Age transition. Not only the increased number of typical Middle and Late Assyrian type nipple base goblets that have been found, but also a white frit bowl with black drops on the rim, that has parallels in Middle Assyrian burials in Üçtepe (level 9), Tell Barri (strato 33C) and Mohammed ‘Arab (phase e), emphasises this notion.

Apart from the previously described pottery-set, the only ceramics regularly found in association with the mud-brick cist graves, are small carinated bowls with smoke residue, placed on top of the gable or in a niche in the wall of the architecture (Fig 5). It is possible that they were used to illuminate the grave during the inhumation ceremony. In addition the deceased have few grave goods, mainly bronze pins to secure a shroud and bronze foot-rings. Several burials have included bronze or iron bracelets, some beads of semi-precious stone, a golden earring and infrequently some small pottery bowls deposited near the chest of the individual or in its hands.

Closely connected to these graves are the jar burials of infants. So far, five have been identified. They consist of a large mostly ovoid vessel, in which the infant is placed. In one case the jar had a tree design incised on it before firing and the opening of the jar was covered by a mud-brick (Fig 6). One jar burial was already found in 2007, one in the previous season and a further two jar burials with poor inventories have been found this season.

So far only four inhumations have been excavated. They are found in different layers and show different characteristics. Two examples from Trench C-III and Trench C-V contain the bones of an individual placed in a flexed or contracted position, respectively (Fig 7). Another inhumation shows a rather peculiar burial custom, with the body of the individual being placed in a small pit in a sitting position with contracted legs (Fig 8). So far, no traces of funerary goods have been found.

The double-jar burials under House I

Last but not least, the second main category of graves mentioned above, consists, up until now, of six double-jar burials that have been excavated over the period of the last four field seasons and will be described here in brief.

The orientation along the walls and in the corners of the rooms of House I indicates that this graveyard was established during, or shortly after, the occupation of the Middle Assyrian buildings. For this period, it is not an entirely exceptional phenomenon that burials, especially those of children, were placed in a jar or double-jar grave under the floor of a dwelling. The body was placed in a flexed position inside two big vessels that were pushed together with the openings facing each other. In order to hold these vessels in position they have often been fixed with one or several mud-bricks that were placed between the edge of the pit and the jars. Parallels can be found in many north Mesopotamian sites such as, Tell Knēdiğ, Tell Taban, Tell Mohammed ‘Arab and Tell Barri.

The grave goods can be manifold, with smaller jars, carinated bowls and nipple base goblets often found outside of the burial-vessels (Bonatz et al. 2008: fig. 12) or placed next to the burial jars or in a niche within the grave-pit (see 2007: Sounding C). Inventories directly associated with the body of the deceased mostly include different beads of varying material, golden earrings and bronze bracelets. Based on two graves under Room 4 of House I, it can be stated that the grave inventories of the jar-burials are more elaborate than those of the later graves.

Burial customs and other similarities

One feature the jar-burials share with the mud-brick cist burials is the occurrence of extremities, shoulder blade and skull, of small ruminant animals (sheep or goat) placed into the shaft of the grave or on top of the fill. They are clearly associated with burial customs and rituals being performed during inhumation. Exact stratigraphic observations result in questions concerning the visibility of the burials after their deposition. In some cases it might be possible that the mouth of the vessel, with its cover and the aforementioned animal remains, were, at least for a certain time, above ground. This is witnessed in two cases by the skeletal remains jutting out over the edge of the pit (Fig 9).

Remarkable overlaps in the burial customs, especially the food offerings in the fill of the pit that are almost identical in material and deposition, as well as the type of pottery contained within the graves, are evident in these cases.

Despite stratigraphic discrepancies, varying grave types, which could point to different ethnic groups with different customs, and the fact that the exact date the younger graveyard was abandoned is still a matter of debate even if it can be postulated that the set of pottery accompanying the deceased overlaps with even younger periods until the Roman-Parthian period, a certain continuity and strong local tradition can still be observed.

In 2010, an additional radiocarbon analysis of several inhumations was conducted presenting only three samples with clear results due to the bad state of preservation. Nevertheless, they confirmed a date between 1250 and 900 BC forming a good basis for the further study of these graves (Fig 10).

Accordingly, the better part of these graves can approximately be dated to the end of the Middle Assyrian or early Late Assyrian period and therefore to the Late Bronze-Age – Iron Age transition. During that period the Middle Assyrian houses were used as a graveyard for a possible Assyrian or Assyrianised (?) population. After the abandonment of the area as living quarters, debris accumulated and only scarce building activities can be observed. The area seems to have been used as a graveyard over a considerable amount of time. Maybe this can be seen within the context of a declining settlement size and shift of settlement activities to Tell Halaf. Yet the importance of the settlement as a religiously charged site at the source of the Khabur River remained, and might have led to a ‘specialisation’ of the settlement as a temple and palace town, an argument supported by the sparse early Iron-Age settlement remains. So far, our knowledge is limited to the so called bit-hilani palace in the north of the site along with references to the weather god of the Khabur and his wife Šala being worshiped in the city of Sikāni, which might be identified with the Neo-Assyrian occupation at Tell Fekheriye.