The archaeological site of Arslantepe, located near the city of Malatya (Turkey), is now part of the list of UNESCO world heritage sites. This is an important recognition which confirms the work carried out by the Italian archaeological mission which has been operating on the site for 60 years.
On 26 July, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee included the archaeological site of Arslantepe in the list of world heritage sites. The site, called the ‘hill of lions’, from Turkish arslan (lion) and tepe (artificial hill), is located in the plain of Malatya in eastern Turkey.
The inclusion of the site in the UNESCO lists acknowledges the importance of the archaeological sequence unearthed for the history of ancient human societies, as it represents an ‘exceptional testimony of the first emergence of state society in the ancient Near East‘.
The excavation activities at the site have allowed, in fact, the recognition of a very detailed archaeological sequence, which testifies to a millenary history, that starts from the 5th millennium BC. and reaches up to the Byzantine age. The sequence also constitutes a fundamental scientific reference point in the oriental studies in broader sense.
The site was already known in the early 20th century for the presence of stone reliefs that emerged from the hill, through the witness of travelers, such as Gertrude Bell, who documented its existence. The first excavations, by a French mission directed by Louis Delaporte, date back to the 1930s. This pioneering phase led to the discovery of the famous ‘Lion’s Gate’ dated to the Neo-Hittite period (9th-8th century BC), and known for the richness of the iconographic repertoire of bas-reliefs with hieroglyphic Luwian inscriptions and for the discovery of a monumental statue of a sovereign, perhaps Tarhunazi, mentioned in contemporary Assyrian sources, found in the area of the city gate and now located in the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara.
The Italian Archaeological Mission of Sapienza began field work in 1961, under the direction of S.M. Puglisi and P. Meriggi, deepening and expanding the French excavations. This allowed on the one hand to investigate the Neo-Hittite levels in a more extensive and detailed way but also to reach, for the first time, the most ancient remains of the II, III and IV millennium BC. The latter were then deepened by excavations directed by Alba Palmieri and then by Marcella Frangipane. The extension of the excavation to the Roman and Byzantine period further expanded the study of the long history of the settlement.
Among the most important results of the excavation and research activities of these decades, there is the discovery and the museumization of an articulated building dating back to the end of the fourth millennium BC. This discovery, together with the royal ‘Audience Hall‘, represents the first known example of a public building and the tangible expression of the origin of hierarchical societies and bureaucracy. The palace, formed by a complex of areas with different functions (warehouses, temples, residential and public areas) was rich in materials found in place, now preserved in the archaeological museum of Malatya. The uniqueness of this finds, as it has been widely recognized by UNESCO, is demonstrated by the state of conservation of brick-and-mortar architecture, carefully documented and preserved by the Italian mission.
In recent years, research has again concentrated on the expansion of the excavation from the Hittite and Neo-Hittite periods, bringing to light a sequence of monumental structures relating to the early Iron Age, which make it possible to rewrite the history of the delicate transition phase between Bronze Late and Iron Age in 1200 BC. At the same time, large residential areas relating to the Late Chalcolithic phase, prior to the construction of the building, are being investigated to reconstruct the socio-economic dynamics of the site in the most ancient periods.