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Tell Afis. From initial research to the excavation project
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Tell Afis. From initial research to the excavation project

Categories: Archaeology and Heritage

The section ‘Let’s talk about archeology’ continues.

Tell- Afis -AreaE4 Fe I- edificio a pilastri
Tell- Afis -AreaE4 Fe I-edificio a pilastri

The mission of the University of Firenze, with the co-financing of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation and directed by Prof. Stefania Mazzoni, studies the site of Tell Afis in Siria.

For the column Let’s talk about Archaeology, Prof. Stefania Mazzoni updates us on the ongoing research.

Tell Afis lies on the northern edges of the Idlib plain, an area where agriculture has been practiced since ancient times, with intensive olive production, and a crossway between the Mediterranean and the Syrian interior. The site was known from the discovery, in 1908, of a stele (today in the Louvre) with the image of a possibly royal figure and an Aramaic inscription dedicated by Zakkur, king of Hamat and Lu‘ash, to the gods Ba‘l Shamim and Iluwer for their having liberated the city of Hazrek from the seige laid by a coalition led by the king of Damascus. In 1931 it was explored by the American orientalist, W.F. Albright and, in 1963 by the Italian Archaeological Mission in Syria of the University of Rome, under the direction of Paolo Matthiae, who carried out the first excavations on the site (1970, 1972, 1976).

 The new excavation project

In 1986 a new project was begun, directed by Stefania Mazzoni of the University of Pisa (1986-2005) and later of Florence (since 2006) in collaboration with Serena Maria Cecchini of the University of Bologna. Excavations and surveys have brought to light a mass of data which enable us to reconstruct many phases of the cultural development of Syria. Various activities of inventorying, analysis and the study of data and materials and the digitalisation of the archives kept in the laboratory of Oriental Archaeology at the University of Florence are in completion and will be added to the database of the Syrian Directorate of Antiquities, which has provided permits and constant support for the work conducted. The project is cofinanced by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, OrMe, Foundation for the Oriental Mediterranean, and the University of Florence.

The activities

The activities have involved researchers and technicians from the universities of Florence, Pisa and Bologna, of Rome ‘La Sapienza’, Sassari, Damascus, Aleppo, the Museum of Oriental Art of Rome, the Institute for Studies on the Ancient Mediterranean and the Institute for Technologies Applied to Cultural Heritage of the Italian National Research Council and the Florentine section of the National institute for Nuclear Physics. Employees of the museums of Idlib and Aleppo, guards, workers from the village of Afis, friends of Saraqeb and innumerable Syrian and Italian students, as well as others from Spain, Germany and the United States, have shared in the toils in the field and the passion for archaeological work.

Tell Afis and its region, between excavations and surveys

The plain and hilly areas around Tell Afis have yielded many traces of presence and settlements from prehistoric times on. When agriculture became the main subsistence strategy during the Neolithic period (between the 7th and 6th millennia B.C.), farmers and herders gradually spread towards the fertile plains of the interior where, during the Chalcolithic period (5th and 4th millennia) the first villages were established. Afis was founded on the limestone spur which dominates the alluvial plain to the north and the route towards the Mediterranean. During the Late Chalcolithic (4000-3300 B.C.) the first citadel fortified with cyclopic wall attests to a process of centralisation without comparison in the region. Dating to the second half of the 3rd millennium (Early Bronze IV), excavations have brought to light various levels with a domestic and a workshop area with kilns for pottery production (Area E3). Between 1900 and 1750 B.C. (Middle Bronze I-IIA) the acropolis and lower town were surrounded by complex walls (Areas B, E, N) with funerary deposits. From the mid-13th century B.C. (Late Bronze II), during the period of Hittite rule, a vast residence has furnished a small archive of texts in Hittite and Hurrian (Area E4). During Iron Age I (12th to 10th centuries B.C.) dense domestic quarters and a temple occupied the acropolis (Areas A, E, G, N). Their constant rebuilding and the quantity of materials found in situ furnish a unique sequence with which to reconstruct this phase which, elsewhere, was characterised by crises and abandonment. Between the 9th and 7th centuries B.C. (Iron Age II-III), the acropolis was once again redesigned, with the construction of a very large sanctuary including a monumental temple with a square in front of it, cultic and functional installations, a cultic terrace and a sunken, square open hall (Areas A,J,G). The lower town with its residences was, at this point, enclosed by walls (B,D,H,M) and this is the city called Hazrek, known to us from the stele in the Louvre as well as Assyrian and Biblical sources. Some epigraphic documents in Aramaic that came to light during the excavations confirm this identification of the site, including a fragmentary stele of the late 9th century B.C. which mentions the king of Aram, Haza’el and which was found amongst the ruins of the temple on the acropolis.

Essential bibliography

Mazzoni (ed.), Tell Afis e l’Età del Ferro, Pisa 1992; S.M. Cecchini, S. Mazzoni (eds), Tell Afis (Siria). Scavi sull’acropoli 1989-1992/The 1989-1992 Excavations on the Acropolis, Pisa 1998; S. Mazzoni (ed.), Tell Afis Siria 2002-2004: ‘Egitto e Vicino Oriente’ 28 (2005), pp. 1-138; S. Mazzoni, The Italian Excavations of Tell Afis (Syria): from Chiefdom to an Aramaean State, Pisa 2008 F. Venturi, The Excavations of Areas E2-E4 – Phase V-I – The End of the Late Bronze / Iron Age I Sequence. Stratigraphy, Pottery and Small Finds, Florence 2020.


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