The Tell Billah Expedition

Originally Published in 1931

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THE first reports have been received from Dr. E. A. Speiser, Director of the Expedition at Tell Billah sponsored by the Museum in association with the American School of Oriental Research, Baghdad. The uppermost level of the section being excavated contained remains of rather unpretentious stone buildings, but the second and third strata contained inscribed bricks of the period of Ashurnasirpal II and his son Shalmaneser III (884-824 B.C.), while elsewhere in the mound were found bricks of Sennacherib (705-681 B.C.).

View of a group of men at the top of a large mound
Plate IV — The Mound at Tell Billah, Iraq

More important were the finds in what is apparently a post-Assyrian level. This section was evidently used for a long time as a necropolis, and most of the burials contain pottery urns, with a shallow bowl usually placed near the opening of the urn. Quite different was another tomb: the walls were of stone covered with spanning stones, each a single piece across, and the entrance was closed up with bricks. The sarcophagus, which reposed on a beautifully laid brick floor, was of terra-cotta and possessed the extraordinary feature of being adjustable in length by reason of its being constructed in two pieces, the one sliding into the other. Around the sarcophagus were a number of pottery objects, and the tomb also yielded two excellent bronzes: one a contrivance for smoking hashish or the like, and the other a finely wrought bowl.

The second month’s work served to establish unmistakable contacts with the second millennium B.C. An interesting connecting link between that period and the later one of Ashurnasirpal is a piece of primitive sculpture of some dignitary in a worshipful attitude; this is a companion piece to one found earlier in the deposit associated with Ashurnasirpal, but the heard of the man depicted in the more recent find is pointed, not unlike the representations of the Hammurabi period (about 2100 B.C.), and hence we have here an example of an older object that has been retained and reused by the Assyrians.

A man crouching next to a sarcophagus that is slightly crumbled at the head
Plate V — Adjustable Terra-Cotta Sarcophagus, Tell Billah, Iraq
Image Number: 42915

It is not yet possible to state just how long the Assyrian period lasted, but the more recent finds permit answering with considerable confidence the question as to who preceded the Assyrians. Under the remains of the Ashurnasirpal period, were found levels full of fragments of painted pottery, and in the rooms of a fortress of sun-baked bricks resting on a massive stone foundation, were the same types of pottery. The ware is very fine and in a variety of designs and colours. Since related ceramic shapes have been found in the Hurrian city of Nuzi, the people of this period at Tell Billah may be identified with reasonable certainty as Hurrians. Among the designs are several types of spirals entirely unknown in Susian ware but not unfamiliar in the Aegean world. Thus the pre-Assyrian inhabitants of Tell Billah are revealed as the connecting link between the ancient East and West at a time when the most remote confines of the then civilized world were in intimate contact with one another and when cultural goods circulated freely among the nations-an interlude possible only towards the middle of the second millennium.

The Hurrian graves which contained the pottery were much damaged by exposure to the weather, but they were sufficient protection to preserve intact several of the fragile vases and wine cups. Other interesting objects found in the tombs were a curious terra-cotta figurine of a bull and a painted pot in the shape of an animal with a boar’s head.

The lowest strata so far excavated promise the most interesting results. Here has been revealed a cyclopean retaining wall, which in sections is ten feet high and six feet wide. Outside the wall, was found a fairly complete collection of bronze weapons. It will take a number of weeks to extend the excavations to a point behind the wall, but it seems likely that rich deposits will be found.

A workman crouching in an excavated area
Plate VI — A Native Workman, Tell Billah, Iraq

Cite This Article

"The Tell Billah Expedition." Museum Bulletin II, no. 3 (January, 1931): 79-85. Accessed July 15, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/bulletin/602/


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