Episode 61. Shigeo Yamada: Yasin Tepe: on the margins of empire: transcript

0:13  JT

Hello, and welcome to the Thin End of the Wedge, the podcast where experts from around the world share new and interesting stories about life in the ancient Middle East. My name is Jon. Each episode I talk to friends and colleagues and get them to explain their work in a way we can all understand.

0:34  JT

The Kurdish region of Iraq was for many years one of the less explored regions in Iraqi archaeology. More recently, a flurry of expeditions has been working on sites across the area, yielding important new contributions to our knowledge.

0:50  JT

Our guest is a specialist in Assyrian history. He is part of team that has been working at a major site in the Kurdish region over the last few years. He reveals the results of that work, and explains what it means for our understanding of life on the margins of the Assyrian empire.

1:11  JT

So get yourself a cup of tea, make yourself comfortable, and let’s meet today’s guest.

1:26  JT

Hello, and welcome to Thin End of the Wedge.

1:28  SY


1:29  JT

Could you tell us please: who are you, and what do you do?

1:32  SY

My name is Shigeo Yamada. I’m an assyriologist working based on the University of Tsukuba, located north of Tokyo; a distance of about one hour by train. I have worked mainly on the historical texts in the broad sense–royal inscriptions, king lists, chronicles, historical-literary texts, as well as letters and other sources, especially in the Neo-Assyrian period. I’m interested in the political history and the social administrative structure of the state of Assyria. I’m also working on the late Old Babylonian texts from Tell Taban, in the Hasakah region in northeastern Syria, excavated by Japanese mission. And now I’m also involved in the Yasin Tepe archaeological project.

2:22  JT

Okay, thank you. And it’s the Yasin Tepe archaeological project that we’re going to talk about today. So before we get into any details, could you tell us some basic information about the site please? You know, where is it? How big is it? What period is it? And, how long have the excavations been running?

2:37  SY

Yasin Tepe is located in Iraqi Kurdistan, in the southern part of the Suleimaniyah governorate. And it is situated in a plain called Shahrizor, about 30 kilometres from the city of Suleimaniyah. The plain extending in the midst of the mountainous area; its size is about 40 kilometres times 20 kilometres. Yasin Tepe is situated in the northwestern side of the plain. It is one of the largest tell sites. It consists of the two parts: the elevated acropolis mound, and the low profile mound surrounding it, in a concentric manner. The acropolis is shaped round, and its size is about 350 metres in diameter, and about 20 metres high. And the lower town is about 600 to 700 metres diameter. Thus the total size comes to about 40 hectares.

3:43  SY

Some soundings were undertaken already there in the past by Ephraim Speiser in 1927 and then several times by Iraqi teams on the acropolis mound to find some Islamic remains. The German survey project led by Peter Miglus and Simone Muehl revealed that Yasin Tepe has occupations dating from the Halaf period, the bronze and iron age, and the later periods as well–the Achaemenid, that is the Persian period, and later. The Japanese excavation to which I was now involved as epigraphist started in 2016 after the surface survey in the lower town in the previous year. From 2017 on, the project has been led by Shinichi Nishiyama of Chubu University–the University is based in the Aichi Prefecture of Japan–and they continue until now. The excavations revealed impressive structures from the Neo-Assyrian period in the lower town.

4:54  JT

So why was this site chosen, then? What is the main goal of excavating there?

4:59  SY

The main goal is to investigate the historical role of Yasin Tepe in the neo-Assyrian period as the provincial town in the fringe of the Assyrian Empire, by exploring especially the iron age remains in the lower town. It is also planned to investigate the immediate surrounding of about 3km radius in an attempt to understand how the city was maintained by the rural environment or the nearby settlements.

5:29  JT

OK, and who is in the team there? You mentioned Chubu University and professor Nishiyama.

5:35  SY

Ah, yes, the director is Shinichi Nishiyama of the Chubu University from Japan, but several colleagues from Japan, Iraq, Lebanon, and other countries are taking part in the project. The analysis of excavation objects and the magnetic survey for example, was practiced also by Belgian and German specialists. Yeah, and they are holding many roles. And the Iraqi archaeologists, local archaeologists, join the excavation. And the Lebanese archaeologists are working with Nishiyama in Lebanon, digging the iron age Roman site. And they sharing the time and coming also to Yasin Tepe and digging together. And we need of course experts in the specialised fields such as the magnetic survey and the analysis of the human bones, human and animal bones. So we are inviting other specialists from European countries.

6:38  JT

Okay, so we have Yasin Tepe as an Assyrian site on the margins of empire. Do we know which city this was to the Assyrians?

6:48  SY

Yeah, strictly speaking, we do not know what’s the name, but the one episode that has attracted the scholarly attentions is a reference to the ancient city called Dur-Ashur in the annals of Ashurnasirpal the second, an Assyrian king from the ninth century BCE. And the text tells that the king conquered the city called Atlila at that time, in the land called land of Zamua. It is Suleimaniyah. And fortified it, giving a new name Dur-Ashur, meaning “fortress of Ashur”. So, it has been discussed which city in the Shahrizor plain, that surely belonged to the Land of Zamua, is to be identified with Dur-Ashur? Bakr Awa, the tell called Bakr Awa, the large tell located southeast of the Shahrizor plain, it was the first candidate. But Yasin Tepe is also the possible choice.

7:51  JT

And why is there this uncertainty?

7:54  SY

Because we have no inscription source. And we have only two major sites: it is Bakr Awa and Yasin Tepe. Both sites of the large plain, the Shahrizor plain. So now the excavation of Peter Miglus at Bakr Awa found the local culture, not Assyrian remains. So people started to talk about the Yasin Tepe more as the possible candidate of Dur-Ashur.

8:24  JT

Do I understand correctly then the reason that we have the identity of this site Dur-Ashur … the reason we know the name, but not the place is that it’s mentioned in texts. There is a kind of an itinerary, isn’t there?

8:38  SY

Yeah, we have itinerary of the annals of Ashurnasirpal the second. And we’re quite sure that it is an itinerary, actually, passing through the Shahrizor plain. But there is many sites, and we didn’t know what cities were and what is what. But Dur-Ashur must be the major site. So it should be identified with the largest site. Then we have only two large sites. Yasin Tepe is one of them.

9:12  JT

Okay. So, what have been the key results from the excavation so far?

9:16  SY

Until the summer season, several major structures from iron age–8th through 7th century BC in the main–have been excavated. One of them is a large building. The size is, let’s say, about 15 metres times 15 metres with a reception suite, a well-known feature in Neo-Assyrian architecture often found in the palaces and the elite buildings. An impressive discovery, another one, is the undisturbed underground brick tomb in the northwest of that building that I said. It is composed of an entrance shaft and a chamber with vaulted ceiling. Within the chamber, on the brick-built floor, the abandoned burial goods, including potteries, bronze and other metal goods, glass vessels etc. And a bathtub-shaped terracotta coffin with the bones of several persons. The coffin is now displayed in the Suleimaniyah Museum.

10:28  JT

Ah-hm. The coffin has gone to Suleimaniyah Museum. Do all the finds from the site go to Suleimaniyah?

10:35  SY

Yes, yes, it was brought to Suleimaniyah. All major things are brought to the Suleimaniyah Museum, also from the other sites in the Shahrizor plain and other regions in Suleimaniyah governorate. That’s a distance of one hour or something like that from the site. And the researcher can visit to study them with the permission.

11:00  JT

Are objects from the excavations at Yasin Tepe on display at the museum? Has it been possible for them to process them and to display recent work in the area in the museum itself? Or are they behind the scenes for scholarly research?

11:14  SY

Yes, part of them, part of them. And now they are preparing actually, and they are investing to develop this place. It is going on, but not entirely ready.

11:27  JT

Could you say something about what the finds from this site tell us about the people who lived there?

11:34  SY

The status of buildings, potteries and the artefacts found in the structures, suggest clearly the Assyrian culture. For example, the building with reception suite that I said; the underground tomb, the bathtub coffin, and the so-called Assyrian palace-ware. Large bronze lamp found in the tomb is quite similar to the what found at Nimrud. So all those prove the existence of Assyrians with the same material culture. And the personal names attested on an inscribed bronze necklet discovered on the floor of the large building, are the Assyrian and the Aramaic. So this probably suggests a mixture of Assyrians and the people of Aramaic origins at least. But perhaps a larger variety of the residents may have been there, including the local indigenous people of the land of Zamua, eastern slope of the Zagros mountains. But this is only the guesswork for the time being.

12:44  JT

You’ve described there Assyrian culture, and it sounds like quite an elite level of Assyrian culture. And I think you’ve suggested there that these were Assyrians. Has it been possible to determine that they are, in fact, you know, Assyrians coming over to take control of the place? Or is it possible that they are local inhabitants who have adopted Assyrian style as the province has taken into the empire?

13:06  SY

Yes, it’s of course possible. But it also depends on the character of this site. If it is a site … the site of the Assyrian provincial government, we expected both the Assyrians, the deportees, like Aramaean deportees, since the Aramaean deportees are brought from Babylonia to this direction. And also we expect the local people in the Zagros region as a mixture. So, so what I said is on the background of this situation,

13:44  JT

What we have here is an important regional site in the Assyrian empire. And we might expect perhaps, for there to be archives there. But in your descriptions of the find you didn’t mention an archive. And you said earlier that we don’t know the name of the city. So presumably, very little writing has been found so far?

14:06  SY

Yes, I wanted to see the tablets and the archives, and we are waiting for that. But for the time being, we have no such great find of the inscriptions … inscribed things. But only a few examples already coming out. And one of them is the bronze necklet I mentioned. This bronze necklet was found on the building floor. And the crescent-shaped and it is thin plaque, designed to fit the neck by a fastener. That is unfortunately lost. The fastener is unfortunately lost. It is inscribed on the front side a two-line inscription with the divine emblems of Nabu and Marduk, so the writing stylus and the spade. The inscription is composed of the divine name Nabu as dedicatee, the legal operative phrase of dedication of the child, and then the curse on whosoever might attempt to exercise right over the dedicated child. So the inscription is not just the dedicatory text of the necklet itself, but a tag, something like a tag, that is legally certifying the dedication of the child to Nabu. So it must be a display version of formal transaction legal document, that must have been written separately on the tablet.

15:43  SY

So it implies that there was a temple of Nabu in Yasin Tepe in the Neo-Assyrian period. And worship of Nabu had been introduced into the periphery of Assyrian empire. It will be published soon in the coming volume of Zeitschrift fuer Assyriologie. This is one of the inscribed objects, and we found also the sealings, including the inscriptions, personal names, and its titles, and some pottery sherds, including some letters. So this is the situation, but it encouraged us, of course, to see in the near future, some tablets and hopefully an archive.

16:28  JT

Do you think that this necklet would have been worn by the child? Or was this something that would be deposited in this temple of Nabu?

16:35  SY

It is put on the neck of the child as a ceremony or something like that, when he was dedicated. And then I believe that it was posted in the temple. So if you imagine … if you think about the kudurru, or some other things that are displayed in the temple, just certifying the legal transaction, and the ownership of the land and things and so on. So it is similar to such things. We have not so many examples like that. But the similar necklets from Zincirli / Sama’al from Turkey, and also from Nimrud we know that the metal plaque published by Professor Postgate, it bears the text of the dedication, but it is a display version, not a legal tablet itself.

17:35  JT

Are you able to say something about what this means in cultural terms? What did it actually mean? If you’ve dedicated your son to the temple, is he a temple slave? What would he do? Is this a normal Assyrian practice?

17:49  SY

Yeah, temple slave, I think. So, it is dedicated to temple to work as a temple worker. So also male and for female child it is normal to be dedicated, quite well also in Babylonia and Assyria.

18:04  JT

And why would somebody do that? Why would you dedicate your child to be a slave in a temple? Is it a practical problem? Is it that they’ve run out of money? And this is in desperation, they’ve sold it? Or is it more a pious religious thing to honor the gods?

18:19  SY

That’s a difficult question. I think both. I think both of them. It’s of course, the dedication is the pious act, but simultaneously it actually saves the money. So I think the both of the reasons working here. Dedicator is not very poor person I think if it is done like that with was the display necklet text.

18:49  JT

What’s next then at Yasin Tepe? What are the goals for the next years? What questions do you still have?

18:56  SY

The work should continue, being contracted for more five years, at least, and I hope more. In the recent seasons with magnetic survey on the excavations, canal-like structures were detected in the lower town. And a step trench was also opened on the main tell of the acropolis. And so they distribute the urban landscape of this city located in the water-rich area. Having the canal network, supposedly, the site is close to the major spring. And a trench shows the chronological development of the site, a more long duration from the neolithic period until the Islamic period, almost no interruption. And the chronological development is now reviewed somehow. And it opens the possibility to excavate for other periods, not limited in the Neo-Assyrian period. And the other scholars might come to participate in the excavation of the site.

20:16  SY

And I also hope, of course, more inscriptions and tablets will be found in the future. And an Italian team is now starting to excavate another part of the acropolis, for the Sassanian study. And the cooperation with them also, hopefully may produce some synergy effects. So it can be developed into the several other directions. First the longer range of perspective, chronological perspective, and the involvement of other teams and scientists. And also the more detailed history of the Neo-Assyrian period will be detected, hopefully.

21:08  JT

You mentioned that the previous excavations or the previous work at the site had found Islamic period remains. And you’re now at the levels where you’re working on much earlier Neo-Assyrian levels. Is it a question that you’ve dug through the Islamic levels and you’re now deeper? Or is it digging in a different part of the site, where the other teams hadn’t looked before?

21:29  SY

Yeah, the reason why the previous excavations have found only the Islamic site is that they dug the major mound, the acropolis area. It is very much conspicuous, and they attracted the people to dig there. But when you dig from the top, actually, the very massive thick layers of the Islamic period accumulated there. So they find only the accumulation of the Islamic period. But the survey of Peter Miglus and Simone Muehl found the pottery sherds from the different periods, much earlier periods. So, Shinichi Nishiyama and his team started to make the survey again, and they found some concentration of the Neo-Assyrian potteries in some area in the lower town. And started to dig the lower town, and found just after the surface, very shallow layer, they found the Neo-Assyrian structures. And now they are expanding the area of the excavation. This is the situation.

22:45  SY

But after they opened the trench on the major mound, it disclosed the sequence of the layers from the old ones to the newer ages. So now it is the first result in the excavation that revealed the continuation of the different layers from the neolithic period to the Islamic period. And the Italian team is the interested in the Sassanian period, and they are interested to dig the mound itself.

23:20  JT

I wonder if we could come back to you and your own interests and your own context? So you mentioned that you’re based at the University of Tsukuba. Could you say something about assyriology at the University please?

23:33  SY

In the University of Tsukuba where I’m based, there are several researchers studying the ancient West Asia. And apart from me, Daisuke Shibata is the assyriologus working there. And Jun Ikeda is a semitic linguist. And five archaeologists working in the region, Turkey and the Iraqi Kurdistan, measuring the Neolithihc period, isotopic analysis and the conservation science, as well as some post-doc researchers, assyriologists and archaeologists are working there. And we are cooperating with each other, running several projects based on the research centre for Western Asian civilisation. This Institute was founded recently in the university, being equipped with a research library and the study rooms. So we started really to organise the effort and the research team there together with the archaeologists. So now the visiting researchers will be welcomed there. Please come visit, Jon, in the near future.

24:48  JT

{LAUGHS} I would love to. Thank you very much, Shigeo. I appreciate your time.

24:52  JT

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26:03  JT

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26:41  JT

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