Warfare at Hasanlu in the Late 9th Century B.C.

By: Oscar W. Muscarella

Originally Published in 1989

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Warfare in the ancient Near East is abundantly docu­mented by written and archaeological evidence. The use of force to settle political disputes, and to validate the role of kings or leaders is not only common but is glorified in both historical texts and representational art. Excavations at the site of Hasanlu have produced information about the culture, peace­ful or otherwise, of the people who inhabited the site at the beginning of the first millennium B.C., and evidence of a conflict that anni­hilated them. The most obvious manifestation of warfare at Ha­sanlu is the complete destruction of the late 9th century B.C. (period IVB settlement by a conflagration, and the interment within its ruins of the battle’s victims.

Ancient Near Eastern Warfare

The human actions that pro­duced the archaeological remains at Hasanlu can best be understood when viewed against the contem­porary historical background, speci­fically the 1st millennium Assyrian and Old Testament systems of war and their treatment of the enemy (see box). The full force and extent of the horrors of ancient Near Eastern warfare are presented to us in gruesome and explicit details in the annals and records of the As­syrian kings of the late 2nd and early 1st millennia B.C. In the 13th century B.C. Assyrian texts inaugur­ate what was to become a common­place attribute of 1st millennium Assyrian records: the explicit des­cription of battle slaughter and the gory events that followed. King Shalnianeser I (ca. 1272-1244 B.C.) records that he blinded over 14,000 enemy prisoners; Assurbelkala in the 11th century first mentions the flaying and impaling of prisoners; Tiglath-pileser I (ca. 1114-1076 B.C.) mentions the deportation of captives.

In the 9th century B.C. the texts of Assurnasirpal II and Shalman­eser III again record the mutilation of captives: the cutting off of their noses, ears, limbs, impaling and blinding, and the immolation of male and female prisoners. Assurnasirpal II, like the Alckadians 1500 years earlier, mentions the deliber­ate massacre of prisoners (see Schneider, this issue). Brutalities, along with associated battle scenes, are also vividly and realistically depicted on the bronze and stone wall and gate reliefs that decorated the 9th century palaces of the Assyrian kings (Fig. 1). These re­liefs served equally as historical records and as propaganda, inspir­ing both local and foreign visitors with awe, and warning of the consequences to be suffered if they betrayed Assyrian interests.

The Old Testament is another important source of information for war and its tactics and brutalities in the early 1st millennium B.C., especially for the western states of the Near East—Israel, Edom, Syria. Aside from the usual recording of warfare, we read also of the blind­ing or killing of prisoners of war, and the slaughter of a captive city’s population: When you invest a city, you must offer it terms of peace….But if it will not make peace with you, but wages war with you, you are to besiege it, and when the Lord your God delivers it up to you, you must put every male in it to the sword; but the women and children and live stock and every­thing that is in the city, that is, all its spoil, you may take as your booty….[I]n the cities of the peo­ples here, which the Lord your God is giving you as a heritage, you must not spare a living soul; but you must be sure to exter­minate them, Hittites, Arnorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivvites, and Jebusites, as the Lord your God commanded you, so that they may not teach you to imitate all the abominable practices that they have carried on for their gods, and so sin against the Lord your God. (Deuteronomy 20:1018)

And ten thousand others did the Judeans carry away alive, and they brought them to the top of a crag, and cast them down from the top of the crag, so that all of them were dashed to pieces. But the men of the band whom Ama-ziab had sent back without allow­ing them to go with him to battle fell upon the cities of Judah from Samaria to Bethhoron, and slew of them three thousand and took a large amount of spoil. (2nd Chronicles 25:12-13) (See also Josh 6:17, 24; Judges 1:6, 17:21; I Sam 11:2, 30:17; II Kings 25:7).

Evidence for the use of the bow is provided by arrowheads (Fig. 7), sometimes found massed in a qui­ver. There were at least three bronze quivers, as well as a unique iron quiver with bronze trim (Fig. 8). Given this arsenal of weapons, it is not surprising that the Hasanlu finds included protective metal armor. Among the bronze helmets were 2 crested (Fig. 9) and 3 pointed (Fig. 11) examples, as well as 3 detached crests, their (leather?) helmets having disintegrated; the crested helmets had separately added ear guards. Three bronze shields, a pair of bronze shoulder guards and a number of bronze and iron armor plates were also re­covered. Even horses sometimes wore armor on their heads (see de Schauensee, this issue).

Both military techniques are evident in the plaque scenes, al­though as noted above, these wea­pons were recovered at Hasanlu. The diameters of the 3 shields excavated at Hasanlu are respec­tively 33, 37, and 43 cm; the first two, at least, could be the same size as those represented on the ivories. That the belts worn may have been metal is suggested by the many bronze examples excavated at Ha­sanlu. It is almost impossible to determine how the enemy infantry was outfitted, but one certain repre­sentation shows an unhelmeted figure wielding a spear against local chariotry (Fig. 17); another fragment shows barefooted antagonists fighting each other (shown with another fragment in Fig. 16). On the ivories, the Hasanlu cavalry employs only the spear; this contrasts with the way in which Assyrian reliefs display their ca­valry, shown wielding the spear, the bow, or both. The Hasanlu riders wore boots, and seem to have ridden bareback since no saddles are depicted (Fig. 15b). Chariots were driven by two horses and staffed by two men, the rider and an archer_paralleling Assyrian and North Syrian custom for this period. Chariot wheels had six spokes (Fig. 15a), although one fragment shows a four-spoked wheel, perhaps an indication that this is an enemy chariot. Unlike Assyrian custom of the 9th century, but similar to contemporary North Syrian ca­valry, there were no outrider horses used for the cavalry or chariots, nor are blinkers, bits, or horse armor depicted.

Two, possibly three, ivory frag­ments depict the siege of a city, a common motif on Assyrian reliefs. On one fragment a ladder placed against a platform is being mounted by an attacker who confronts a defender (Fig. 18). Another poig­nantly depicts a female holding her head in grief, next to a city turret just struck by an arrow (Fig. 19; see also Fig. 1). On a bronze plaque, four archers shoot from platforms (like those of Fig. 18) seemingly set above fortification walls, probably representing a city under siege. Other metal plaques depict archers, It need not be assumed that the representations of battle scenes on the ivories were conceived by the local authority solely to emulate Assyrian propaganda techniques projecting power and royal might. And it is probable that the military forces of Hasanlu itself are repre­sented fighting and defeating an historical enemy. If so, the depic­tions of a cavalry and chariot corps signify that there existed at Hasanlu an elite class that had the leisure and skills to practice and perform the necessary complex maneuvering tactics. Whether this class itself maintained and supplied the equipment and horses or whether this was a state function is unknown. Equally unknown is whether there was a conscript or a standing army, the latter being a standard Feature of the Assyrians by this time.

The Battle of Hasanlu and Its Victims

Approximately 246 skeletons of men, women, children, and infants were recovered, who perished either as a result of the fire, or as targeted victims of violence. A number of the unfortunates (about 157) were found in five of the burned buildings where they were caught when the structures col­lapsed. For example, in the Great Hall of Burned Building II about 50 victims were uncovered lying clus­tered near the main (northern) doorway, crushed beneath fallen walls and roof (Fig. 20). The vic­tims included men, women, and many children. Some individuals were armed, while many of the females and children were wearing jewelry, including relatively heavy lionheaded pins (Fig. 14). Another group of about 89 people were found where they fell in open areas, victims of slaughter. The cause of death is graphically documented by head wounds, or by disarticulated limbs; in the latter cases, the bodies could have been mutilated by ani­mals and vultures, but the head wounds patently tell another story. In each category, those who per­ished from the collapse of the buildings, and those from slaughter, were men, women, children, and infants.

Three clusters of skeletons re­vealed chilling episodes of death at Hasanlu. In the first two cases, random slaughter of fleeing troops and inhabitants seems to have oc­curred. South of Burned Building XI the skeletons of 11 adults, 3 children  the cause, the fire spread through the wood and brick buildings of the Citadel quite quickly, apparently preventing the enemy from acquir­ing much, if any, booty. There is no obvious evidence within the debris that looting or post-destruction digging for treasure occurred; rather the opposite is suggested. For example, the well-known gold “bowl” (actually a beaker; see Winter, this issue) was found in the arms of, apparently, a local inhabi­tant, who in the process of attempt­ing to save it died in the collapse of Burned Building 1-West. And the vast quantity of material recovered within the debris of all the build­ings, some of it sumptuous (artifacts of silver, gold, ivory, Egyptian Blue), suggests that the city’s con­tents remained essentially unplundered.

Who Burned Hasanlu?

To encounter the material re­mains of the destruction of the buildings and inhabitants of Hasanlu is to confront the actualities of the written descriptions and illus­trated reliefs of the Assyrians: burning, killing, massacre. Not a few archaeologists who excavated at the site were emotionally af­fected by the carnage and the human suffering that had taken place. Yet, there is no historical evidence that it was the Assyrians who destroyed Hasanlu. In fact, both locally derived chronology and archaeological and textual evi­dence of Erartian penetration into the neighboring Ushnu valley di­rectly to the west (at the mountain­top site of Qalatgah) suggest that it was an Urartian army in the last decade of the 9th century B.C. that probably destroyed Hasanlu. This information soberly expands our perceptions, geographically and culturally, about the extent and context, derive from Altin Tepe, an Urartian site in northeastern Tur­key. Were the Altin Tepe examples booty from the Hasanlu campaign kept as heirlooms, or were they locally made in Erartu under north­western Iranian influence; or is the Hasanlu example a weapon lost there by an Urartian soldier? We do not know. Nor in fact do we know how many (if any) of the other artifacts excavated at Hasanlu actually may have been left by the enemy forces and are thus not to be documented as local products. Here too, more research, not speculation, is required to resolve this tantalizing issue.

From all the evidence made available by archaeology—the destruction, the artifacts, the pic­torial representations—it is attested that warfare was not a casual or incidental activity for the people of Hasanlu IV. Nevertheless, archae­ology has also revealed that there was time, energy, and talent for architects and workmen to con­struct monumental buildings, and for highly skilled craftsmen to manufacture a large variety of objects, both luxury items and objects for daily use. At Hasanlu there was a time for war and a time for peace, but war was the ultimate event in its history.

Cite This Article

Muscarella, Oscar W.. "Warfare at Hasanlu in the Late 9th Century B.C.." Expedition Magazine 31, no. 2-3 (November, 1989): -. Accessed July 21, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/warfare-at-hasanlu-in-the-late-9th-century-b-c/

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