In The Field: Qasr Shemamok, Kurdistan, Iraq

By: Olivier Rouault and Maria Grazia Masetti-Rouault,

A French archaeological Project in Qasr Shemamok, Kurdistan, Iraq

Fig 1 -Map region aangepast
Map of Northern Mesopotamia, with position of Qasr Shemamok.

Qasr Shemamok (Fig. 1), a large site covering more than 70 hectares, is well-known in the landscape of Iraqi Kurdistan. It is situated about 30 km southwest of Erbil, close to the village of Tarjan on the road to Gwer and to the Tigris bank. Formed by a steep tell, an acropolis more than 30 meters higher than the plain, and a lower tell limited by urban walls, it is surrounded by a much larger anthropic surface marked by different ancient occupations.

In the 19th century, after the visit of this region by Layard, the site was identified as the remains of the ancient city of Kakzu (or Kilizu/Kilizi). Layard found there the first cuneiform inscription on a brick mentioning the construction of the city wall by the Assyrian king Sennacherib (8th century BC). Soon after, the French Victor Place, too, visited the site and carried out some archaeological operations. Later on, in 1932, an Italian mission lead by professor Giuseppe Furlani from Florence University excavated the site during a single campaign. However, the history of Qasr Shemamok and that of the evolution of its urban structure was not really advanced, because complete reports of these excavations have never been published.

In 2010, a French Archaeological Mission, guided by Olivier Rouault and Maria Grazia Masetti-Rouault, came to work with a European team in Erbil on the small site of Kilik Mishik, in answer to invitations from the Kurdish authorities and from Erbil Salaheddin University. The scientific project of this mission was aimed at studying the history of the occupation of the region, especially during the Bronze and the Iron Ages. In order to enlarge the field of its research, the French team obtained in 2011 a permit for excavations at Qasr Shemamok from the Iraqi Baghdad Directorate of Antiquities and from the Kurdish Directorate in Erbil. Previous excavations had shown the possibility to study these periods there. In the spring of 2011 and 2012, in a strong spirit of cooperation, two campaigns were carried out on the tell by the French team with some Kurdish archaeologists from the Erbil Directorate of Antiquities and colleagues and students from Salaheddin University.

During the first season, the excavations on Qasr Shemamok were organized as a long trench, 60m north-south by 5 m east-west, situated on the slope in the southern part of the tell (Area A). The trench starts at the highest part of the tell, at the level that borders on the surface, and it reaches its base at the limits of the “lower town”, which is now completely converted into agricultural land and is occupied in its southern part by the houses of the village of Sa’adawa. During the second season, the trench was enlarged in some crucial parts, and a new operation was started on the top of the tell (Area B), in line with the trench of Area A.

A first sketch of the stratigraphic situation of this part of the tell has been obtained from these operations. After the surface in Area B, which is marked by the presence of modern military trenches, several phases of construction of possibly domestic structures built in mudbrick were highlighted. Some important structures have been identified but, as few material has been discovered, they are difficult to date. Nevertheless, a date in the Early Islamic period and the Parthian period is possible.

These levels seem to cover the ruins of an intensively built Iron II or Neo-Assyrian settlement, which has been identified in the middle segment of the trench in Area A. Under the modern surface, excavations have allowed the discovery of a kind of large mudbrick “terrace” built on the top of more ancient structures. Maybe this was done in order to support a new part of the urban development on the top of the tell, or even as foundations for a wall perhaps built during the Neo-Assyrian period.

Fig. 6: Detail of the Neo-Assyrian mudbrick terrace in Area A
Detail of the Neo-Assyrian mudbrick terrace in Area A

A deep pit that was intrusive in the terrace was filled with nice Hellenistic material (figurines, lamps, jewels). Another important structure was identified thanks to our trench. It is part of a monumental ramp built with baked bricks, about four meters large and organized in four steps. We enlarged its exposure during the second season, but it appeared that the ramp was well preserved only in the space of the trench.

Fig. 7: General view of the baked brick Neo-Assyrian ramp
General view of the baked brick Neo-Assyrian ramp

Its place in the stratigraphy has been difficult to understand, as it was surrounded and disturbed by pits with mixed material dating from the Parthian to Middle Assyrian periods. A cuneiform inscription on one of the baked bricks discovered at the end of the second season secured a Neo-Assyrian date: it was the same inscription as the one discovered by Layard in which Sennacherib commemorates the construction of the inner and outer walls of Kilizi. Probably associated with Sennacherib’s inner wall, the ramp connected the valley – and a road from the North-East, from Arbeles – to a city gate, or to an important building inside the city.

Fig. 8: Sennacherib's cuneiform inscription of a brick of the ramp
Sennacherib’s cuneiform inscription of a brick of the ramp

In spite of the presence of the huge Neo-Assyrian masonry, Middle Assyrian material is very frequent and visible, even on the surface of the tell. We find Middle Assyrian sherds everywhere, but also inscribed documents of the same period. For instance, a fragment of a probable clay nail gave the name of Arik-den-ili. South of the ramp only important levels of earth mixed with sherds were found, which may have been a sort of glacis sustaining the Neo-Assyrian constructions.

During the Fall of 2011 and 2012 two shorter campaigns were carried out by the French mission. These campaigns were intended to advance the topographical work, to start the study of both the Lower town of Qasr Shemamok and the anthropic environment of the site, and to carry out a geomagnetic survey, operations which are easier when there is no crop in the fields. A surface survey, in cooperation with the more general project directed by Jason Ur (Harvard University) and the study of ceramic sherds from different locations around the site, has confirmed that the area has been continuously and intensively occupied since the beginning of urbanization. These results are very encouraging for the future work of the French Mission team and for the people interested in the history of the country which is now Kurdistan.

Fig. 9: Ninivite V period ceramics, from a site South of the Lower Town
Ninivite V period ceramics, from a site South of the Lower Town