Archaeological site report from the Ancient Near East: Carchemish

1. Introduction

Carchemish is an important archaeological finding that is located in the town of Djerabis in the North of present day Syria. The site is an excavation revealing the ancient city’s wealth and culture in early 1000 B.C. The excavation of the site was done and documented on behalf of the British museum and most of the material is derived from the report by Hogarth (1) commissioned by the museum.

The reason Carchemish is an important archaeological find is that it is the one of the most researched sites owing to its richness in material.

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Most of this material is in the form of reliefs, inscriptions and unique projects that displayed the level of civilization in the city. Though the information retrieved from the excavation shows that it was a Hittite city, some materials show evidence of Roman occupation.

However, the research done on Carchemish depicts it as a Hittite centre for trade, culture, art and craft and military strategy (Winter 177). The well-preserved material from Carchemish provides crucial data for historians of the early 1000 B.C. Winter (177) describes Carchemish as an important historical hub for art, religion and civilization.

The convenient location of the site on the banks of the Euphrates with several access routes meant that the city was a ‘principal thoroughfare’ in ancient Assyria. Further artefacts obtained from the site indicate that the city must have been an economic, social and religious centre in the ancient world.

Additionally, its huge acreage and towering sites indicate its monolith nature compared to other archaeological findings in the area. This is why Carchemish has attracted so much attention from modern-day researchers. It is an important piece of ‘lost’ history that can give us a clearer picture of life at that early age.

2. Archaeological History

The renowned British archaeologist, George Smith in the 1870s, discovered Carchemish and the British museum commissioned the site’s excavation in Djerabis almost immediately. Much of what was previously known about the city had been obtained from literary works of an encyclopaedic nature. Through accumulation and summary of the information available, George Smith was able to accurately locate the most likely site where the city lay.

Much of the museum’s work at Carchemish as at 1911 was experimental though in 1912, there was a long-term policy put in place. Hogarth (11) states that at the time, the museum’s greatest interest was to clear the main areas in the city.

In 1919, excavation was temporarily halted due to war but General Gouraud, the French High Commissioner, authorized its continuation. However, this was short-lived and in 1920 there were increased hostilities between the Turks and the French occupying forces.

Eventually, Djerabis (Jerablus) was captured by the Turkish National Army and excavation completely stopped. It was not possible to continue the excavation because Djerabis lies strategically in Turkey’s border and is thus militarily very important. By the time, only information about Hittite Carchemish had been obtained and is referred to in this paper.

3. Site Description

The site lies on the plains of Jerablus in Syria and extends into south Turkey into the village of Kargamis. In fact, the border between Syria and Turkey cuts through Carchemish.

Winter states that the area is known for its fertility due to its location on the Euphrates and its western source, the Sajur. The entire site runs 20 miles through Jerablus and then rises steeply into the hills of Kurd Dagh where the city’s mound is located.

The unique thing about Carchemish is that it has a high citadel that acts as a watchtower over the lower plains. The long extension of its lower town also shows the placement of Carchemish as a military fortress.

The entire valley contains 30 mounds and since Carchemish seems to be the strategic one in location and size, it is assumed that it played the role of ‘capital.’ Additionally, literature from Assyrian sources describes the “cities of Carchemish” which corresponds to the notion that the mounds represent other cities with Carchemish being the dominant one (Luckenbill 651).

The convenience of access to Carchemish is perhaps the most telling feature of the position of Carchemish as a central hub for trade and civilization. The city could be accessed from the east or west of the Euphrates via Killiz/Gaziantep to the northwest, or Aleppo located to the southwest of the mound. Most of the communication between Aleppo and Carchemish was through present day Membidj (known in ancient Assyria as Nanpigi or Nappigu; classical name is Hierapolis) and through the town of El Bab.

Access across the Taurus, Amanus and Anatolian plateau was through Maras located to the northwest near the source of the Sajur at the Kara Su valley. Geographically, Carchemish seems to have had an upper hand over all other surrounding cities due to its multiple access routes, fertile hinterland, militarily strategic citadel, constant water supply and available land for pasture and expansion of human settlement. Winter states that: “Carchemish…

meets all the requirements of modern economic geography in the location of a ‘central place: a high coefficient of importance in relation to surrounding territory, control of or dominance over auxiliary towns and villages, necessary arable land and pasturage to support a concentrated population, and routes of access to major resources as well as to other central places, such that conditions for a viable economic life may be demonstrated” (179).

4. Features and findings of Carchemish and their meanings

Winter (180) states that most of the features of Carchemish direct historians towards the city’s political and cultural life that is unavailable in most contemporary literature.

Using the archaeological evidence, researchers can reconstruct the first millennium B.C in Assyria with the aid of Assyrian historical sources and references and logical inference. Most of the information available in historical Assyrian sources provides information from Assurnasirpal II’s reign from 883 to 859 B.C to Sargon II’s conquest of Carchemish in 717 B.C. information about Carchemish outside this period in time is indirect and incomplete.

Most of the writings from Carchemish in the 8th and 9th centuries are in Hieroglyphic Luwian inscribed on architectural orthostats and stelae. The writings were mainly for providing titles, display and paying homage to patron-rulers. They failed to capture an annalistic or event-by-event account of daily Carchemish life.

Most of the archaeological features in Carchemish remains are several building phases attributed to certain rulers, reliefs, sculptures and inscribed slabs. Using scientific dating methods, it is possible to reconstruct these features to the 9th and 10th centuries sequentially employing both textual and epigraphic evidence.

The earliest material is the Water Gate followed by the Long Wall sculpture built by Suhis II and the King’s Gate linked to his son, Katuwas. Other features include; the reliefs on the Herald’s wall placed before Suhis’ Long Wall, the Royal Buttress associated with Yariris and Kamanis who were the regent and son respectively of the then ruler Astiruwas.

Other inscriptions and reliefs are attributed to King Pisiris, who was reigning in Carchemish at the time of conquest by Sargon. Interestingly, the excavation site had a walled inner town with an area of 21/2 square miles that had not yet been excavated. Part of the inner town shows the “hilani” which refers to a large building east of the King’s Gate, which had the Royal Buttress placed against it.

Other significant ‘inner town’ features include; the Temple of the Storm God, which is connected to the Long Wall and the Great Staircase, that winds to the top of the citadel. The result of excavation was a well-decorated inner town with a staircase leading to the citadel and many inscribed texts pointing to a powerful and prosperous city.

The presence of a “late Hittite” theme and artistic style is the most evident signature of Carchemish and its inhabitants. The sculptural reliefs and other art forms have the same unique style that is characteristically similar across all the archaeological sites in northern Syria and Anatolia.

Winter (180) states that the similarity in both theme and style is best illustrated by orthostats acquired from Carchemish and those from Zincirli or Tell Halaf in the 9th century B.C. however, she avers, “despite these relationships, no one would suggest that the reliefs were all done by the same hands or workshops. Proportions of figures, control of composition, use of slabs and variation in details are sufficiently distinctive as to argue rather for a common cultural environment in which they were all separately produced” (181).

However, it is notable that not all surrounding cities had similar artistic themes and styles. A comparison between Til Barsib and Carchemish reveals that the two had different artistic styles. Yet, Til Barsib lies only 13 miles from Carchemish on the east bank of the Euphrates and can be seen from the Carchemish citadel.

Just like Carchemish, it controlled a vital river crossing and because of its significance, it became an Aramaean state ruled by Bit Adini and later taken over by Shalmaneser III king of Assyria in 856. Perhaps the differences in style were a consequence of Aramaean influence.

However, two large stelae excavated from the site show striking semblance to those at Carchemish. This shows that they were crafted way before Assyrian and Aramean conquests. The two stelae at Til Barsib are inscribed in Hieroglyphic Luwian and refer to a ruler known as Hamiyatas. The similarity in the storm gods on the stelae shows close connection to Carchemish.

In the first stele, the storm god wears the same headgear and garment as that of the storm gods inscribed on the Herald Wall and Long Wall. Other details such as proportions, gestures, beard, hair-curl, weapons, outlines and appendages are all identical.

In the second stele (excavated later), the bull that the god stands on is similar to the bull base that Katuwas stands on in the Temple of the Storm God and the Herald’s wall. Another similarity is the way soldiers are depicted holding the decapitated heads of enemy soldiers in Til Barsib and those on the Long Wall including the manner in which the spear and the head are held.

While the two parallels might show that neighbouring states shared motifs, Barnett (263) is of the opinion that the works could have been done by the same individual, which would show the level of interdependence between the states. It is also Winter’s (282) conception that the stelae could have been finished at Carchemish and then exported.

She based her argument on the presence of a large open-air site at Yesemek, which had an incomplete sculpture showing that the norm in the region might have been that of crafting for export. Winter (182) insists that the works were done in Carchemish since it seemed to have a more coherent and ambitious building program.

The suggestion above that artwork in Til Barsib could have come from Carchemish shows that the city was much more advanced in art and culture than neighbouring states and thus they were the centre of production and artistic impression in the region. This fact is reinforced by the statue of a king standing on a lion in Zincirli.

The statue is strikingly similar to that of Katuwas in features like sword, beard, belt and garment. More importantly, the statue at Zincirli has a head that is virtually identical to another statue of Katuwas standing on one lion in a double-lion base in Carchemish.

Winter (183) attributes the difference in the bases to the differences in time between the statues. She finds that the Carchemish statue is definitely older and it inspired the Zincirli one. It could also point to borrowed craftsmanship between the two states though with the size and wealth of Carchemish, and the tendency by the Sam’al state to buy items from larger states and align itself with them politically, the idea for the two statues must have come from Carchemish.

Therefore, we can cite the Til Barsib and Zincirli works as evidence of the role of Carchemish as a cultural centre for the South-eastern Anatolian and North Syrian states.

Winter summarizes the influence of Carchemish as “an example of a more general situation: – one in which it is to be expected that dominant centres should exert such “influence” upon less powerful, less wealthy, less established places, while ambitious sub-primary places should wish to “emulate” what is being produced in the major centre (184).

She laments the discovery of very few artefacts, which could have been evidence of the scale of artistic production in the city. However, some pieces in the original excavation by George Smith could be used as evidence of “internal production of portable objects comparable to larger fixed monuments (Winter 184).

The pieces that Winter refers to are fragments of chlorite pyxides or steatites in the Water Gate area together with a pyxis lid that was found on the surface. These vessels were most likely used to hold jewellery and other valuable items.

While only the bottoms of these fragmentary pyxides remain, evidence of artistic markings is clear. In one piece, the feet of a bull are seen together with its hooves and a tail between the animal’s hind legs, which draws a parallel in proportion and rendering to the Herald’s Wall reliefs. In addition, a lion is depicted behind the bull in couchant position and in a style similar to other ‘inner town’ reliefs.

The second piece shows a guilloche band (an ornamental band formed by two or more interlocking wavy lines completing a circular design) at the bottom edge above which are; parts of a human right foot on a pedestal/stool; the bases of two altars/conical plants; feet and garment hem of a seated figure; a small palmette flower; another pair of feet facing left and what resembles a plant stem.

Interestingly, these diagrams seem to form a cluster group, which seems to have been a common style at the time based on the evidence of some ivory pyxides recovered in the same period.

The upper band in the second pyxide shows a pair of legs (probably male) in a short skirt striding to the right; a big lion facing the man and a smaller lion leaping away from the man; a goat whose legs are in mid-air followed by a man who is probably carrying it; a lion and a bull in combat; another man in a short skirt facing right followed by a hoofed animal which could be a goat and finally; a palmette plant. The guilloche band is identical to that in the Long Wall in terms of loops and proportions.

Another striking finding is the seated figure that is assumed to be Suhis’s wife on the Long Wall who also has her legs resting on a footstool. There is also the characteristic long clothing that has a fringed hem and vertical folds that is also worn by the attendant figures standing on top of the couchant lion in the relief at the Great Staircase as well as the musicians of Katuwas in the King’s Gate.

There is also a similarity in the kilt design worn by the figures in combat with animals such as the kneeling hero inscribed on the Herald’s Wall relief and the genii on double lion bases on the Long Wall.

The placing of the striding man between the rearing small lion and the larger lion is similar to that of the kilted hero on the Herald’s Wall who grasps both a bull and a lion in his hands. The sketches of the bull and the lion seem to be similar in all reliefs. The most unique feature is the apparel and the depiction of the bull with its fore-quarters collapsing.

The lion’s feet and its shoulder, which is outlined twice, is also a consistent stylization in the reliefs. Similarly, in the pyxis lid, the paw of a lion can be clearly seen in the top part twisting around the neck of what seems to be a bull or a larger animal with a double-outlined shoulder.

The guilloche pattern is repeated on the lid’s border while the outer edge has been decorated with rosettes, which are placed within metope panels. One thing is apparent in the design of the lid that it is clearly a continued motif as in the other pyxides, which shows consistency in Carchemish artistry.

Interestingly, the motif is replicated in the Inner Court and on the Herald’s Wall especially on the relief depicting a bull being mauled by a lion with a double –outlined shoulder. As for the guilloche pattern and the rosette stylization, they seem to have informed the goddess Kubaba’s headdress as depicted on the Long Wall procession.

In summary, these similarities in theme, motif and stylization suggest that the occupants of ancient Carchemish were good artists who had mastered carving and sculpturing using soft stone for smaller items such as the pyxides and harder stone for architectural works such as the stelae.

5. Other Significant Features

Much of the evidence that Hittite Carchemish was religious is obtained in the numerous temples. First there is the Temple of the Storm God which was found in the Lower Palace area. The inscriptions found show that the storm god must have had a great influence on the Hittites due to their number and strategic location close to the Great Stairway.

The other temple is that of the great goddess Kubaba which is found at the North Western mound close to the Acropolis mound. Both temples are a sign of Hittite devotion to religion. Other features of significant strength, which are definitely non-Hittite, are the Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Age graves, the Gold Tomb and the Terra cottas.


All these findings indicate that the inhabitants of Carchemish were perhaps the most advanced culturally and economically at the time. The fact that their works of art are replicated in other sites in Northern Syria and South-eastern Turkey shows that the city exported art products and thus it must have been a huge economic centre.

Additionally, its inner town and high citadel suggest that the city was militarily advantaged and this might have contributed to its success while other surrounding cities were embroiled in wars and conquests (Woolley 231). The site at Carchemish provides archaeologists and other researchers with an opportunity to reconstruct man’s way of life in early 1000 B.C. Carchemish shows that man was still engaged in trade, was religious and had a penchant for art. Not much has changed to this day.

Works Cited

Barnett, Richard. Carchemish Part III: The Excavations in the Inner Town, and the Hittite Inscriptions. London: British Museum, 1952. Print

Hogarth, David. Carchemish, Part I: Introductory. London: British Museum, 1914. Print

Luckenbill, David. Ancient Records of Assyria and Babylonia. Chicago: Sage, 1926. Print

Winter, Irene. Carchemish sa kisad puratti. Anatolian Studies, 33 (1983): 177-197. Print

Woolley, Charles. Carchemish, Part II: The Town Defenses. London: British Museum, 1921. Print


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