The Dark Tale behind the Golden Bowl of Hasanlu
The three soldiers knew that time was running short. The citadel of Hasanlu, in what is now north-western Iran, was under violent siege. The soldiers descended into a building and grabbed a handful of valuable treasures, including a treasured golden bowl engraved with images of gods and rituals, a stone cylinder with gold caps, a figurine of laminated ivory, and a sword-hilt with bronze guard. But as the warriors began climbing up a wooden staircase inside the home, the whole building collapsed, crushing them and their prized possessions under layers of debris. And here they remained for around 3,000 years, until their ground-breaking discovery in 1958.
The discovery of the soldiers and their treasures, in particular the spectacular golden bowl, was hailed as one of the greatest finds of the decade. Images of the crumpled yet still dazzling bowl were splashed across newspapers around the world, and scholars began publishing their interpretations of the images etched onto this magnificent artifact.
But very little attention was given to the soldiers and their identity – were they hero defenders of the city who raced to rescue the town’s treasures before it was completely overrun with invaders? Or were they the warriors who descended onto the town, slaughtering its citizens and pillaging the homes and temples?
According to a new report in Live Science, Michael Danti, an archaeologist at Boston University claims that the tale of the golden bowl of Hasanlu is far less glorious than the media reports of the 1950s. Rather, the story behind the treasure is one of misery and murder.
The remains of Hasanlu, Iran. Image source: Wikipedia
Teppe Hasanlu is an archeological site of an ancient Iron Age city located in northwest Iran (in the province of West Azerbaijan), a short distance south of Lake Urmia. The site consists of a 25m high central "citadel" mound, with massive fortifications and paved streets, surrounded by a low outer town, with houses, stables, treasuries, and temples. The entire site, once much larger but reduced in size by local agricultural and building activities, now measures about 600m across, with the citadel having a diameter of about 200 m.
It is here, in 1958, that archaeologists came across a layer of the city that had been frozen in time - a "burn layer" containing more than 200 bodies preserved in ash and rubble. The preserved layer enabled researchers to unravel a gruesome tale of destruction, which had taken place at the end of the 9th century BC.
The evidence suggests a surprise attack, which destroyed the citadel. Human remains were found in their masses, many were missing heads or hands, the rest suffered traumatic head wounds. One had been completely sliced in half. The majority were women, children, and the elderly – anyone, it seems, who would have been useless as a slave.
"This was warfare that was designed to wipe out people's identity and terrify people into submission," said Danti.
However, a lack of written records means very little is known about the inhabitants of Hasanlu, and their invaders. "“There is no written evidence from Hasanlu that would attest to the identity of the inhabitants. We know neither the ancient name of the site, nor the state to which it may have belonged, much less the linguistic and/or ethnic affiliations of its population – neither preceding nor during the period with which we are concerned,” writes Irene J. Winter in an article titled ‘The Hasanlu Gold Bowl: Thirty Years Later’.
Various interpretations of the mythological scenes place their origins in Urartian, Hurrian, and/or Indo-European traditions. However, in a new analysis of the evidence, Danti, in his recent published study in the journal Antiquity, proposes that the three warriors found with the golden bowl, were invaders who hailed from the Urartu kingdom that grew out of an area in modern-day Turkey.
It is known from historical texts that the ancient Urartu kingdom was conducting brutal military campaigns during the Iron Age to expand into the region around Hasanlu. Sometime after the citadel was abandoned, an Urartian fortification wall was built on top of the ruins of Hasanlu.
"I doubt these men were rescuing a valued bowl and many other fine objects with little hope of egress as the citadel burned and its remaining occupants were slaughtered or taken captive," Danti writes in his report.
While it is well-recognized that the Hasanlu Gold Bowl is a stunning example of craftsmanship, and reflects Hasanlu’s prominence and cultural richness in the region, Danti hopes that attention will now be drawn towards the identification of the inhabitants and their invaders through bioarchaeological analyses. Bone, hair, and DNA analyses would enable scientists to confirm where the inhabitants of Hasanlu originated, and where their invaders came from, helping to piece together the complete picture of this grisly ending of a great ancient city.
Featured image: The Golden Bowl of Hasanlu. Image source.