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Left: The excavation site at Zincirli, southern Turkey. (Lucas Stephens)Top Right: Baking and cooking pots and trays found at Zincirli, including a ceramic pot with soot still left on the bottom from when it was last used (left). Bottom Right: Items found at Zincirli include bronze needles stored in a bone case (top left), a bronze figurine of a goddess (left), and animal knucklebones often used as dice (bottom). (Roberto Ceccacci)

3,500 Years Ago, Hittites Sacked and Razed an Unwary City

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Archaeologists in Turkey have unearthed a city that was sacked by the Hittites over 3,500 years ago.

One afternoon more than 3,500 years ago, hundreds of families were getting about their everyday activities in the ancient city of Sam’al, located at Zincirli (pronounced "Zin-jeer-li") in southern Turkey. Suddenly, a horn sounded striking a cold fear of death into the hearts of the residents as news quickly spread through the city that an army of Hittite warriors had encrusted the horizon.

Since 2006, archaeologists from the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute (OI), and since 2014 teams from the University of Tübingen in Germany, have been excavating the ancient city of Sam’al. The fall of this Iron Age kingdom came after a 17th century BC expansion of the Hittite Empire whose army sacked and burned the small mountain-side city. At that time it was located on a major trade route between Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean Sea.

The excavation site at Zincirli, southern Turkey. (Lucas Stephens)

The excavation site at Zincirli, southern Turkey. ( Lucas Stephens )

Bronze Age Treasures

The ongoing excavations are part of the OI's mission to understand how the ancient Middle East influenced Western civilization, and according to David Schloen , a professor of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations and a leading ancient Middle Eastern scholar who co-directs the excavation, the discovery was “an incredibly lucky find.”

Schloen is a respected specialist in the archaeology and history of the ancient Levant (Syria and Palestine) from 3000 to 300 BC and to him this city is of the greatest cultural value because the pottery is found sitting inside the buildings exactly where the inhabitants left it in 1650 BC, providing a rich insight into how typical days were spent by people living in the city.

Among the other day-to-day artifacts recovered from the ancient city that have excited the archaeologists are bowls, drinking goblets, cooking pots and storage jars, bronze needles stored in a bone case, and a bronze goddess figurine.

Items found at Zincirli include bronze needles stored in a bone case (top left), a bronze figurine of a goddess (left), and animal knucklebones often used as dice (bottom). (Roberto Ceccacci)

Items found at Zincirli include bronze needles stored in a bone case (top left), a bronze figurine of a goddess (left), and animal knucklebones often used as dice (bottom). ( Roberto Ceccacci )

A report in PHYS.org says “every archaeologist hopes for an intact destruction layer because it gives you a snapshot of a day in the life of this town.” And finding the Bronze Age layer “was a surprise” that the scholars didn’t expect.

Exploring inside they discovered 10 rooms, some of which contained small figurines and pottery. Evidence of incense having been burned was found and in another room a dagger was found lying on the floor, just where it had been dropped several millennia ago.

Sacked by a Well-Known Hittite King

Answering “who” sacked the city, Schloen said it was a well-known Hittite king called Ḫattušili I who was a founding ruler of the Hittite Empire, whose capital was located near Ankara in modern-day Turkey and its territory stretched all the way to northwestern Syria. This discovery, according to reports was made using “decades of work documenting the history of the region” and especially the OI’s creation of the most extensive dictionary of the Hittite language.

Hittite soldier models. (Joanbanjo/CC BY SA 4.0)

Hittite soldier models. (Joanbanjo/ CC BY SA 4.0 )

It was in the early 17th century BC that the Hittites began expanding and the city of Sam'al was in their catchment area. When you read the words, “sacked” and “invaded” and hear of abandoned homes and daggers stirringly left lying on floors, it’s so easy to imagine a horror scene.

But interestingly, excavations at Sam'al have revealed not one human remain, which the scientists rationalize by saying “People are worth much more alive” and they believe the population probably surrendered and subsequently were sold as slaves.

You Learn Archaeology in the Field

After going on to sack Babylon, the Hittite’s power eventually collapsed under the weight of ancient Egypt and Schloen pointed out that both Egyptian and Hittite writings say this conflict ended with a peace treaty in 1250 BC. But Schloen is no book worm and he casts some encouragement towards budding archaeologists saying, “You can't learn archaeology sitting in a library - you have to learn it out in a field.”

Turkish student Menekşe Türkkan, at left, and Assistant Director of the Chicago-Tübingen Expedition to Zincirli and OI postdoctoral fellow Kathryn Morgan, at right, work on the excavation of an ancient city called Sam'al. (Henrik Brahe)

Turkish student Menekşe Türkkan, at left, and Assistant Director of the Chicago-Tübingen Expedition to Zincirli and OI postdoctoral fellow Kathryn Morgan, at right, work on the excavation of an ancient city called Sam'al. ( Henrik Brahe )

Top Image: Left: The excavation site at Zincirli, southern Turkey. ( Lucas Stephens )Top Right: Baking and cooking pots and trays found at Zincirli, including a ceramic pot with soot still left on the bottom from when it was last used (left). Bottom Right: Items found at Zincirli include bronze needles stored in a bone case (top left), a bronze figurine of a goddess (left), and animal knucklebones often used as dice (bottom). ( Roberto Ceccacci )

By Ashley Cowie

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