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Excavations at Tell Brak: Exploring an Upper Mesopotamian Regional Centre, 1994-1996, vol. 4.

Excavations at Tell Brak, vol. 4: Exploring an Upper Mesopotamian Regional Centre, 1994-1996. Edited by ROGER MATTHEWS. McDonald Institute Monographs. London: BRITISH SCHOOL OF ARCHAEOLOGY IN IRAQ, 2003. Pp. xviii + 446, illus. $135. [Distributed in North America by David Brown Book Co., Oakville, Conn.]

After more than twenty years of excavation, the British field project at Tell Brak under the direction of David Oates began producing a sequence of final reports in 1997, of which the present volume is the third to appear. While the first two volumes reported on excavation seasons supervised by David and Joan Oates, the report under review covers three campaigns (1994-96) in which Roger Matthews was field director. As with the first two volumes, the reports in this book are written by a diversity of excavation supervisors and specialists.

Brak, located in the southern margins of the Khabur triangle of modern northeast Syria, is one of the foremost--and most formidable--tells of upper Mesopotamia. Despite the many years of excavation, the sheer immensity of the mound has ensured that only a very small sample of its bulk has been studied intensively. Confronting this predicament, Matthews adopted a two-pronged strategy. First, he aimed to investigate under-explored periods at the site, particularly the early fourth and early third millennia B.C. In order to find remains of the targeted periods, Matthews focused on the mound slopes, where a chronological sequence could be identified by the materials on the surface; often, surface materials mirrored subsurface contexts faithfully, with a sequence of progressively earlier periods identifiable by the changing styles of surface sherds as one descended the mound slope. The second goal was to devote particular attention to the recovery and analysis of environmental and ecofactual data, procedures under-represented in earlier seasons at Brak.

The excavations were primarily diachronic in focus, documenting sequences of strata from trenches relatively limited in area (16-100 sq m) and thus usually yielding only fragments of walls or architectural units. A large and potentially very useful selection of carbon-14 dates are provided here, although it is regrettable that in many cases, the nature of the context from which they derived is not specified.

Matthews' team concentrated primarily on three slopes, HS (northwest), HF (northeast), and HL (southeast). For late fifth- and early fourth-millennium sequences, evidence was recovered from area HS. In trench HS 6 was material of the Late Chalcolithic 2 horizon, ca. 4200-3900 B.C. (In addition to LC 2 and 3, the terms Early Northern Uruk and Northern Middle Uruk are used in this volume, confusing designations that I would recommend eschewing in favor of the LC terminology; see Uruk Mesopotamia and its Neighbors: Cross-Cultural Interactions in the Era of State Formation, ed. M. Rothman [Santa Fe: School of American Research, 2001], esp. G. Schwartz, "Syria and the Uruk Expansion," pp. 233-64.) The thickness of some of the excavated walls is taken to indicate sociopolitical complexity, but the limited nature of the sounding renders such a conclusion tentative.

From trench HS 1, a sequence of Late Chalcolithic 3 strata (ca. 3900-3600 B.C.) is reported on by C. Felli. These data should assist in refining our understanding of fourth-millennium ceramic chronology and complement the important sequence already retrieved from Brak Area TW. Despite the detailed description of the HS 1 pottery, no quantitative data are provided, which is the case for most of the ceramic discussion in this book (an exception is the discussion of the second-millennium material by H. McDonald, who supplies figures on ware categories).

Contrary to expectations, southern Mesopotamian Uruk-style material was surprisingly rare on or below the surface in all three areas investigated. This result contradicts the assumed importance of the "Uruk expansion" at Brak, and Matthews concludes that occupation at the site was much reduced during the period of Uruk contact (LC 4-5, ca. 3600-3100 B.C.). Another possible interpretation is that the sampled areas were occupied during LC 4-5 by people who continued to employ local styles of material culture of pre-Uruk type (i.e., LC 3) rather than southern Mesopotamian-style pottery, as at Hacinebi and Godin Tepe V/VI. It is worth noting that we have yet to ascertain the character of indigenous pottery in the LC 5 period contemporaneous with the Late Uruk Mesopotamian material in upper Mesopotamia, Syria, and southeastern Anatolia.

The very end of the fourth millennium and the early third millennium, including the Ninevite 5 period, are documented in areas HF and HS. Although the trenches were stratigraphically discontinuous and thus require cross-dating, they provide new data on Khabur-region chronology and complement the sequence from Leilan. The four HF trenches have little architecture but are important for their pottery sequences dated to Early Jezireh 0, a poorly-documented phase ca. 3000 B.C. that falls between the Uruk expansion and the appearance of painted or incised Ninevite 5 pottery. The Early Jezireh 0 pottery identified here includes some beveled rim bowls, carinated bowls, bowls with crude linear incised designs, and several types that persisted in the subsequent Ninevite 5 period, such as crescent-lugged cookpots and cups with horizontal ribbing. Although the identification of this material as EJ 0 is probably correct, the well-defined EJ 0 strata are not sealed by EJ 1 (Ninevite 5) strata, and one wonders whether some of the material identified as EJ 0 could belong to the EJ 1 period and simply be lacking decorated Ninevite 5 sherds.

Ninevite 5 itself is documented in Trenches HS 2 and HS 4, which produced rather few painted sherds, illustrating the relative rarity of painted Ninevite 5 in the Khabur region as opposed to Iraq. Trench HS 2 produced a sequence of early Ninevite 5 (EJ 1) levels that included sherds with horizontal ribbing and/or crude incised motifs that seem to be characteristic of this phase in the Khabur (see also Leilan III). The later part of the Ninevite 5 period, with incised pottery comparable to Leilan IIIb-d, is represented in trench HS 4. (The HS 4 level 4 pottery, equivalent to that of Leilan IIId or Raqa'i 3, is identified as such but should be dated to the Early Jezireh II period, not Early Jezireh IIIa as stated on p. 114.) Of particular interest is the discovery of a small temple in HS 4 level 5--with possible versions in preceding and succeeding strata--that parallels buildings recently discovered at Kashkashuk III and Raqa'i.

The later third millennium is primarily represented by excavations in HS, capping that area's Late Chalcolithic-Ninevite 5 sequence. Here the most notable discovery was of a hoard of silver and gold objects found in a jar below a room floor. Including a number of circular or spiral silver rings, probably a kind of early currency, the collection is convincingly interpreted by Matthews as part of the portable wealth of a prosperous householder. Disappointing in the discussion of this period is the failure to address the problem of how to distinguish the era of Akkadian imperial domination from that of the indigenous "kingdom of Nagar" that preceded it, despite the chapter's title "Impact of Empire." How can the pre-Akkadian developments be identified, and what changes did the Akkadian imperial presence introduce?

A comprehensive discussion of early-second-millennium B.C. levels in trench HN by H. McDonald is followed by specialist reports, including those of the ecofactual analysis which was a major focus of Matthews' research program. Analyzing "a small but significant collection" of animal bones, K. Dobney, D. Jaques, and W. van Neer conclude that sheep and goats declined in importance from the fourth to the second millennia B.C., an interesting contrast to Melinda Zeder's observation of intensifying sheep/goat specialization at small sites in the third millennium.

Archaeobotanical analysis (S. Colledge) reveals that barley was the most common cereal and that its use increased through time, a result consistent with conclusions from other third-millennium Khabur sites. An overlong and often torturously written chapter on ceramic technical analysis by M. Eiland nevertheless includes useful information on changes on production techniques in fourth-third millennium Brak. While much of W. Matthews' report on microstratigraphic analysis offers unsurprising specifics on the micro-composition of plaster floors, trampled areas, and abandoned zones, some results are more revelatory: e.g., samples from pyrotechnic installations reveal that animal dung was in continuous use as a fuel source, providing further corroboration for Naomi Miller's thesis on the prevalence of dung fuel utilization in the ancient Near East. Also interesting is the evidence of spherules that contradict the controversial assertion by Marie-Agnes Courty that a catastrophic environmental event occurred in the late third millennium.

The book lacks a concluding chapter, which would have been useful for tying together the numerous and multi-faceted results presented by the diversity of authors. Be that as it may, this handsome volume once again illustrates the remarkable productivity of Tell Brak, generating a massive amount of data and many important results from only three seasons of excavation. Also worthy of note is the productivity of Roger Matthews, who deserves credit for making these data public while publishing diverse other volumes. The wealth of results from Brak illustrates that major political and economic centers will often yield a diversity and quantity of materials that is staggering compared to "lower order" settlements. The abundance of stamp and cylinder sealings from almost all periods represented in these excavations, for example, illustrates the continuous role of Brak as a locus of economic administration. May Brak long continue to bring forth interesting and challenging results!


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Author:Schwartz, Glenn M.
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 2004
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