On the days that we are out in the fields seeking to provide some practical assistance to Syrian refugee field workers, it is our normal practice to stop mid-way through for a meal break.
We do not stop willy-nilly, indeed there are only a few places that we habitually return to. These locations have gained this status by meeting certain criteria. For example, a place must not be too near an encampment or other buildings, have space to park safely off the road and it simply must have shade – which is essential, vital, in the hot summer months.
In the region where we labour, we have settled on a limited number of locales that meet this criteria; one at an isolated tree on the edge of a field, another under the trees at a water pumping station, and one that is next door to a well treed cemetery. The latter one, the cemetery, is also situated in the lee of a very distinctively shaped bald hill.
Recently we arrived at my specifically selected and chosen luncheon venue, by the cemetery.
That may sound a bit odd as a place to lunch, but cemeteries in Turkey are often treed – and hence the shade so-created spills over the boundary, giving the weary traveller or in our case, the weary aid provider, a coolish place to rest without having to actually go into the cemetery.
By this particular cemetery there is ample off road parking.
When this venue was originally selected as a ‘luncheon venue’, the fact that there is barren hill beside the cemetery was not in the least a factor in choosing it.
But, today I specifically selected this venue, precisely because of that hill.
On even a cursory observation, it is apparent that this is not a natural hill. Its unique shape tells the observer that while this hill is not ‘natural’ – it is the ‘natural result’ of continuous human occupation over millennia.
These distinctive hills or mounds develop, because, historically the most common building materials were simple, sun baked mud bricks and/or wattle plastered with mud mixed with dung and straw.
In time, the buildings inevitably return to the soil from whence they were born. This deterioration can be the results of the effects of rain, neglect, age, fire or humanity being what it is, wanton destruction. In the ‘crumble down – rebuild’ process, new buildings are constructed over the remains of the previous building, resulting over time in the creation of a rather unique shape, and this shape speaks, it ‘tells’ that that location is the site of human occupation stretching over millennia.
As these mounds grow, not much at first, but over lifetimes, over centuries, and then over literally millennia, a distinctively shaped hill develops and slowly rises above the plain. These mounds have surprisingly steep sides, often with a slightly tapered side and, invariably, with an unnaturally flat top. This is their prevalent shape and they are fairly wide spread across Mesopotamia – the Fertile Crescent.
It is because these mounds are the result of the same common, human activities, that in various locations across this region, they share the same basic shape. This is so widespread and so common that it has become a means of recognising the location of these ancient settlements. It has become a ‘tell’, something that clearly indicates that history is buried and hidden within.
Archaeologists, often names things in a simple, plain, unimaginative, prosaic fashion: when they engage in an excavation or in other words, they are engaged in actually digging an archaeological site, they refer to that simply as a ‘dig’. When something is found in a ‘dig’, it is unimaginatively referred to as a ‘find’. And the indicators that inform or tell the archaeologist that a mound is actually the remnants of human activity, it is banally labeled a ‘tell’.
The plains around Antakya are liberally decorated by these characteristic ‘tells’.
I am aware that there are one or two ‘tells’, by the main road that traverses the plain from Antakya to Reyhanlı, that have been excavated revealing, among other things, centuries of Hittite rule and millennia of human habitation. Many impressive artefacts from these and other ‘tells’ are on display at the local Archaeological Museum telling the story of daily life, government, religion and tracing the history that has transpired on this plain since time immemorial.
This broad valley that leads to Antakya has always been a fertile region and hence mankind has dwelt, married, buried and farmed here from antiquity. The area is still actively farmed and farming communities continue to be dotted all over the plain – hence the presence here of Syrian refugee field workers. These are desperate people, willing to do whatever needs to be done. Field work is hard, strenuous, poorly remunerated, providing no security – no one chooses to do it if they have any choice. Thankless, profitless, arduous do not begin to adequately describe the work.
Previously, we had eaten here, by the cemetery, on the skirt of this striking mound, on a number of occasions, and, being acutely aware as I am of the presence of this millennia old, man-made accumulation of the detritus of daily life, I have silently longed to ascend the pinnacle of the mound. But, alas, not to inconvenience others in my personal quest, I both refrained from sharing my longing and from arbitrarily heading off on my own.
However, on this particular day, the mid-day break was at the end of our business for the day, therefore, there wasn’t the normal pressure of time hanging over me. Speaking with my companions, and gaining their understanding, I grabbed my lunch and together with T, we headed off, eating and walking, so as not to delay our departure unnecessarily. We headed up the tapered end of the mound as being the least demanding means of making the ascent – the other sides being as they are, rather steep.
Roughly speaking, the mound probably stands 30 metres (or about 100 feet) or more proud of the surrounding flat plain.
As we began our stroll up the mound, it wasn’t difficult effort, I noticed the soil was liberally littered with the ‘plastic of the ancient world’ – pottery shards. Here and there some stones were visible, lying partly buried in the soil, the sizes ranging from apple-sized to large melon-sized in diameter.
Some of the pottery shards were reasonably large, with clear shapes, a rim here, a handle there mixed with smaller bits and bobs. In the words of the British Archaeological television programme ‘Time Team’, the breaks in the pottery were clean and not worn, indicating that the soil has not been disturbed. Time Team is a wonderful TV programme that makes archaeology easily accessible and understandable. I, for one, find it highly entertaining and informative; it is available to view on YouTube.
As we made our ascent, I had to remind myself that people did not live at this site for the view, as the growth of the mound was the result of a natural process involving the building materials (sun baked mud bricks), copious amounts of time, depredations of the buildings over time, no doubt the odd earthquake and again, humanity being what it is, destruction resulting from passing armies and marauding raiding parties. As time passed, later generations built their homes on the ruins of the previous structures and consequently, the settlement slowly rose above the plain. The first settlers had a limited view, the latter residence had a marvellous view over the surrounding plain.
If an archaeologist were to come and conduct a professional ‘dig’, interpreting the ‘finds’, they would be able to discern the various levels of occupation and read the history contained therein. They could correctly decipher the signs of earthquakes and fires in the soil. They could trace the development of tools and society in the detritus that remains.
An unschooled individual like myself, can but look and marvel at the amount of pottery shards, at the height of the mound, at the rocks on the flat top – common-looking, uncut rocks that are only there because someone at some point in the past picked them up from somewhere else and physically carted them up there.
Were these stones the basis of a foundation for some building or did they perform some other function – well, those are questions left for the archaeologist.
When we crested the mound, and began walking the circuit of the flat top, it was not as I expected.
I knew they all have a distinctive flat top – that is part of the features that declares that it is a ‘tell’. But I had assumed that they were basically circular or ovalidal in shape at the top. That was an assumption.
This particular one, the only one I’ve had the pleasure and honour to walk upon, did indeed have the flat top, with the slightly trailing taper, but on the opposite side of the mound, there was what appeared like a shallow depression from the top going down to the north out of the mound to the plain. This depression made an incursion into the top of the mound, denying it a full flat ovalidal shape in practice. It did not appear to me to have been something that was done to the mound after the fact – but I do not not know. It struck me (unschooled and uneducated in all things archaeological as I am) as an original artefact of the mound, which had developed over time and in the life of the ‘tell’. Obviously, I could be completely wrong.
Nevertheless, I found it very fascinating.
I have seen mounds on the plains around the birthplace of Abraham, south of Urfa, at the village that surrounds and over-dwells the ‘tell’ of Haran. From the top of that partially excavated ‘tell’, you can see the neighbouring ‘tells’ on the surrounding plain. Those reflect the existences of villages and towns that date back to the prosperous era of farming on that plain in the time of Abraham. They were probably closer to the level of the plain then, only over the subsequent centuries and millennia slowly working their way upwards to the dominant mounds they are today.
On our journeys around Turkey, we’ve driven past many ‘tells’, some, silent, deserted monuments to that which once was, and others where people are continuing the tradition to live and work on that locus – those tells where mankind has been doing just that for millennia and continues to do so…
It was a real treat for me to be able surmount that tell. That is the good news.
However, now, I would love to visit another tell (there are many on the plain around where we labour). That is the bad news. I’m not here to indulge my passion for old mounds of dirt.
Having said that, maybe another opportunity will present itself. I am not going out of my way to find one, but, if it so transpires that one presents itself, and if it is appropriate and there is time, I will grasp it…
For me, these ‘tells’ are truly fascinating… not much to see to my uneducated, untrained eyes, but, the connection to humanity over millennia, for me, that is, well, intriguing…