British academy


Archaeology in Mesopotamia: Digging Deeper at Tell Brak

Dr Joan Oates, The McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research

Tuesday 27 April 2004, 5.30pm

Tell Brak (ancient Nagar) is situated in the Khabur plain of northeastern Syria and is one of the largest ancient sites in Northern Mesopotamia. A small settlement existed here as early as 6000 BC and by the beginning of the fourth millennium Brak had become one of the earliest Near Eastern cities. One reason for its importance was its strategic position, situated on a major route from the Tigris Valley northwards to the mines of Anatolia and westwards to the Euphrates and the Mediterranean. Indeed cuneiform texts of third millennium date identify Nagar as the major point of contact between the cities of the Levant and those of northern Mesopotamia. At this time Brak was a major commercial and administrative centre and a city noted for the breeding of donkey-onager hybrids which commanded high prices in the west and, until the introduction of the horse c. 2300 BC, were much in demand for rapid wheeled transport. Brak-Nagar was also a provincial centre of the earliest well-attested ‘imperial’ administration, that of the Akkadians (c. 2350-2200 BC).

A British expedition under the direction of Sir Max Mallowan excavated at Tell Brak for three seasons in the late 1930s, work which was resumed under the direction of David Oates in 1976. The lecture describes the results of recent work at the site, including major discoveries from the third millennium city, in particular its remarkable mud-brick architecture and the ritual deposits recovered from two of its monumental buildings, and then focuses on two current projects: (i) the investigation of a unique 4th/5th millennium BC archaeological sequence that is providing new insights into the origins of Mesopotamian urbanism, and (ii) an intensive survey using newly available satellite imagery of the immediate neighbourhood of Brak, the purpose of which is to attempt to understand the city’s wider landscape and the reasons for its continuing dominance. The lecture also notes both the value and some of the difficulties in excavating large and long-occupied sites of the Mesopotamian ‘tell’ type.

About the speaker
Professor Joan Oates is an archaeologist who has worked in the Near East for over 50 years. Her early research made fundamental contributions to the origins of settled village life in ancient Sumer, culminating in the excavation of the important prehistoric site of Choga Mami. She has also worked at a variety of later sites in Iraq including Bronze Age Tell al Rimah, Late Assyrian Nimrud and Roman Ain Sinu. Her publications include general volumes on Babylon, Nimrud and the Rise of Civilization (the latter together with her husband) as well as final excavation reports and over 80 papers on the archaeology and history of Mesopotamia with a particular emphasis on early farming communities and the rise of urban society.

She is a Life Fellow of Girton College and a Fellow of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research in the University of Cambridge. In recent years she has served as Deputy Director of the Tell Brak Project (northeastern Syria), the subject of the lecture. She has also been largely responsible for the preparation of the final publications of work at the site.

Lecture Chair: Professor M G Fulford FBA