In The Field: The Satu Qala Project

By: Cinzia Pappi

Since 2010, a combined team from the University of Leiden, the University of Leipzig, and the Salahaddin University of Erbil has been conducting excavations at Satu Qala, the ancient city of Idu (van Soldt 2008). The fieldwork continued in 2013 in cooperation with the University of Pennsylvania with a study season to examine all the excavated materials now stored in the archaeological museums of Erbil and Koya. The work was, of course, made possible through the generous support of the General Directorate of Antiquities of the Kurdish Regional Government, the Directorate of Antiquities of Erbil and of Koya, and the Erbil Civilization Museum. The project was supported by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research NWO and the Fritz Thyssen Foundation.

The Site
Satu Qala is located on the northern bank of the Lower Zab, upstream from the modern town of Taqtaq and 40 km downstream from the Dukan Lake, 70 km south-east of Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan (Fig. 1).

The main tell of Satu Qala is situated along a small branch of the Zab. It is likely that the slope of the mound facing the river has been eroded in the past, so that a substantial part of the tell may be missing. A modern village consisting of traditional mud-brick and modern concrete houses occupies most of the mound and continues to expand quickly into the lower town (Fig. 2).

In The Field Fig 1
Fig. 1: Regional Map (Drawing: Satu Qala Project)
In the Field Fig 2
Fig. 2: Satu Qala from the East (Photo: Satu Qala Project)

Fieldwork 2010-2011

The main tell covers an area of two hectares and is approximately 10 metres high. In the first two seasons archaeological fieldwork focused on four operations, located, respectively, on the west, the northeast, the east, and the south slopes of the tell (van Soldt et al. 2013, Anatolica 39; see Fig. 3).

Operation D, a small surface cleaning section on the south slope (Fig. 4), revealed the oldest settlement of the site, built directly on the ancient gravel bed of the river and characterized by the presence of a thick deposit of land snails, flint, and the absence of pottery, features well known in other Epipalaeolithic and early Neolithic sites in northern Iraq. Materials collected in this area indicate also that the site was settled almost continuously through the Late Uruk period to the first half of the second millennium BC.

In the Field Fig 3
Fig. 3: Topographical Map
In the Field Fig 4
Fig. 4: Operation D (Photo: Satu Qala Project)








The archaeological evidence obtained from Area A and B, located on the northeastern and northwestern side of the tell, is mostly connected to the latest occupational phases of the site.

Both areas reveal well-stratified Post-Assyrian and Parthian contexts, characterized by layers of burials, domestic architecture and domestic material culture (Fig. 5).

In the Field Fig 5
Fig. 5: Remains of Post-Assyrian Levels (Photo: Satu Qala Project)

They also yielded a significant stratification of modern levels, related to the recent history of the region. All the structures belonging to different phases from Late and Post-Assyrian to the recent past show evidence of several restorations and the reuse of earlier materials, including baked bricks bearing cuneiform inscriptions and finely decorated tiles, glazed in blue and yellow and of different sizes and shapes. These and other inscriptions found on the site revealed the existence of a local dynasty consisting of at least seven kings, dated between the 11th and 10th centuries BC.

Rich, glazed architectural decorations, which belonged to a royal building of the local dynasty of Idu, were most likely produced in a local atelier using imported styles and technologies. These were later reused in Post-Assyrian domestic architecture. In addition, objects of cultic and administrative function, dating to the early phase of the Assyrian empire, reflect the historical significance of Idu as a crossroads linking Assyria with the Zagros, with the land of Zamua, and with Babylonia. This is further highlighted by the presence of an inscription of King Baiuri of Idu on a stone plate in Level IVb of Hasanlu in western Iran.

In the Field Fig 6
Fig. 6: Glazed Tile Bearing an Inscription of Baiuri, King of Idu, Found Reused in a Later Structure (Photo: Satu Qala Project)

Fieldwork 2013

The study season conducted this summer allowed us to record, analyse, and restore the materials excavated so far (Fig. 7). The work in the museum included the typological study of the pottery by Lauren Ristvet (University of Pennsylvania) with the help of Lara Fabian (University of Pennsylvania), the palaeoanthropological analysis of the burials made by Megan Luthern (Temple University), the restoration and preservation of the objects conducted by Giulia Barella, and a final collation of the inscriptions by Christian W. Hess.

In the Field Fig 7
Fig. 7: Overview of the Work in the Museum of Erbil (Photo: Satu Qala Project)

Preliminary results show that the material from the latest phases at operations A and B is surprisingly uniform (Fig. 8). There are occasional examples of later decorated pottery, particularly a few pieces of green and blue glazed Islamic wares, and some Sassanian stamped ceramics. But most of the pottery from these operations can be dated to the late or Post-Assyrian period. The assemblage most closely resembles pottery from well-known Post-Assyrian sites located in the area, e.g. Khirbet Qasrij and the late Assyrian level 3 at Khirbet Khatuniyeh, with additional parallels from Nimrud and the “Red House” at Dur-Katlimmu. Samples of ware types are undergoing petrographic analysis at the Penn Museum in order to answer questions about clay sourcing and vessel formation processes.

In the Field Fig 8
Fig. 8: Chris Kim and Lara Fabian collecting Data for a Pottery Typology (Photo: Satu Qala Project)

The palaeoanthropological investigation included twelve individuals, both male and female, ranging in age from children of one to two years up to advanced adults (Fig. 9). According to the stratigraphic context, all of the skeletons date to the Post-Assyrian levels. Undergoing analysis of isotopic and radiocarbon assessments of samples taken from the graves will add some data on date, diet and provenience of the ancient population of Satu Qala. Despite the fragmentation and poor preservation of some of the remains, there is almost no clear evidence for illness or trauma among the adult remains, but definite signs of osteoarthritic bone growth or lipping of the joints suggest working with heavy loads over a long period of time.

In the Field Fig 9
Fig. 9: Megan Luthern Working on a skeleton (Photo: Satu Qala Project)

Restoration work was focused on cleaning, consolidating and joining fragmentary objects, particularly the glazed bricks and pegs (Fig. 10). Samples of the glaze, taken for analysis, and a accurate autopsic inspection would provide information on the raw materials employed and the technique of production.





Fig. 10: Giulia Barella Consolidating Edges of Inscriptions (Photo: Satu Qala Project)
Fig. 10: Giulia Barella Consolidating Edges of Inscriptions (Photo: Satu Qala Project)

Older copies and photographs of the cuneiform inscriptions were again checked against the originals. Collations of cleaned and restored inscribed bricks yielded a number of improvements.

All small finds from the campaigns were documented by Peter M. Johnson and Christopher F. Kim (Brown University) using either 3-D scanning or Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI photography) or both.

RTI photography could be applied to the inscribed cuneiform bricks as well as some other types of objects (Fig. 11). This allowed us not only to improve the photographic process, but also to test new user-friendly methods for documenting materials not always easily accessible. Both the 3-D imaging and the RTI composites, which were digitally compiled from photographs using multiple light sources and can be freely manipulated through the software (Fig. 12), record a level of detail beyond that of conventional photography.

In the Field Fig 12
Fig. 11: P. M. Johnson working on RTI (Photo: Satu Qala Project)
In the Field Fig 13
Fig. 12: Screenshot of an RTI Viewer File (Photo: Satu Qala Project)













After three campaigns of work at Satu Qala, the archaeological and epigraphic finds (recently summarised in a preliminary report) provide many new insights in the historical developments of the region and add substantially to the information provided by the Assyrian records (Van Soldt et al. 2013, Anatolica 39).

The Assyrian written sources suggest that the land of Idu was a flourishing provincial centre of the Middle Assyrian Empire, paying tribute to the temple of Assur until at least the reign of Tiglath-pileser I. Both the archaeological evidence and the epigraphic finds of Satu Qala prove as well that the city then gained its independence for almost two centuries under a local dynasty, taking advantage of the Assyrian collapse at the end of the eleventh century BC. The city was annexed again by Adad-nerari II at the beginning of the ninth century BC during the so-called Assyrian Reconquista. The fragmentary inscription on the wall plaque suggests that Idu was again a center of Assyrian administration under Ashurnasirpal II.

In the Field Fig 14
Fig. 13: Wall Plaque bearing an inscription of Ashurnasirpal II (Photo: Satu Qala Project)

This phase was followed by a slow decline of the region, certainly accelerated by the relocation of the Assyrian capital from Assur to Kalkhu and the shifting interests of Assyria towards the Upper Zab region. The Post-Assyrian settlement provides a definite economic scenario following the fall of Nineveh: domestic architecture, loom weights and the bioarchaeological evidence of the simple graves reflect a modest settlement based on agriculture, livestock farming and domestic textile production.

The data that we collected so far fill a gap in several obscure periods in the history of the region, but also raise numerous historical questions. We could observe that the continuous settlement from the Neolithic to at least the end of the first millennium was intimately bound to historical developments. But the persistence of the settlement as a cultural crossroads and as an agricultural center indicates the continued importance of the site as a central node in the shifting historical geography of the region. Satu Qala benefited from its location on the Lower Zab in connecting the routes along the river.

We are still far from being able to answer all the questions raised about the extent of Idu, the settlement patterns of the area, the historical geography of the kingdom or the cultural developments in the post-Assyrian periods. We hope that continued investigations on the site and in the Koya region may provide some further answers.