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Digging Up The ‘Geography of Colonialism’

A turkish student works in a trench at the ancient village of Kenan Tepe, Turkey, site of an archaeology project led by the University of Utah.

June 10, 2002 — As dam construction threatens to flood the Tigris River Valley in Turkey, University of Utah archaeologist Bradley J. Parker is racing time as he works to unearth secrets buried at Kenan Tepe, an ancient frontier village where cultures collided or cooperated for about 4,000 years.

Parker plans to leave Salt Lake City on June 26 for his fourth field season in southeast Turkey, where he leads a team that looks for archaeological evidence of culture contact and “the geography of colonialism” – how the region’s towns and artifacts were affected by foreign invasion. He will return to Utah on Sept. 15.

“We’re going to dig like crazy and study the pottery, the seeds, the human bones, the animal bones, the architecture, the material culture,” says Parker, an assistant professor of history. “We’re going for a bang-’em-up season.”

Today, Kenan Tepe (pronounced KEH-non teh-PAY) appears to be little more than a brush-covered hill with a beautiful view of the Tigris River in southeast Turkey. It is 65 feet tall, and roughly the length of 3½ football fields and the width of two.

But from 4500 B.C. until 883 B.C. it was an inhabited village where indigenous people met and cooperated with a variety of outsiders. Then Assyrians invaded from the south along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, seeking farmland, timber and metal. Collapsed walls and a lack of Assyrian artifacts indicate Kenan Tepe was destroyed or abandoned.

“The indigenous population knew these imperialists were coming and they headed for the hills,” Parker says.

The Assyrians built a provincial capital in Tushan, one of several fortified cities along the Tigris, and brought in enemies likely deported from Phoenicia (modern-day Syria and Lebanon) to colonize new farm villages such as Boztepe (pronounced BOWS-teh-PAY).

“The Tigris River was a prime location for Assyrian agricultural development,” Parker says, and villages like Boztepe help explain how the Assyrians fed their large central cities.

Meanwhile, in the hills above the Tigris, smaller indigenous villages such as Talavash Tepe (pronounced tah-lah-VOSH teh-PAY) traded with the Assyrians and “began to prosper as they tapped into the imperial economy,” Parker says.

Parker says his Upper Tigris Archaeological Research Project (UTARP) aims to determine what colonialism and other cultural contact looked like on the ground, and thus “contribute to the growing body of literature on ancient empires and the formation and mutation of culture in frontier zones.”

Parker’s team includes 28 scholars – half from the University of Utah, including a dozen students and Richard Paine, an associate professor of anthropology. It also includes team members from three Turkish universities; the University of Southern California; University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands; the University of Copenhagen, Denmark; Northwestern University in Chicago; Arizona State University; Bryn Mawr College, Penn; University of Minnesota; and the State University of New York at Binghamton.

The archaeological sites studied by Parker are near the Tigris roughly 60 miles from where it flows south into Iraq, and range from 4 miles to 9 miles east of Bismil, a city of 100,000 people. UTARP fieldwork began in 1999 with excavations at Boztepe and surveys at Talavash Tepe. Because Kenan Tepe will be flooded in seven to 10 years by a new dam, the Turkish government wanted attention focused there, so Parker began excavations in 2000.

“We need to do as much research as we can before it’s too late,” he says.

The fieldwork is hot; temperatures frequently exceed 110. The field team is based in Bismil, where Parker rents two apartments and a storefront for living quarters, a laboratory and storage. More than two dozen researchers cram into six bunks in each of three bedrooms, plus sleeping quarters on balconies and in the lab.

The area Parker studies is part of Mesopotamia’s Fertile Crescent – encompassing parts of Lebanon, Israel, Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran – where agriculture originated at least 9,000 years ago and the first cities and states arose some 5,000 years ago, or about 3000 B.C.

Parker’s research has focused on Kenan Tepe from 3500 B.C. until its demise in 883 B.C. Southeast Turkey, run by scattered village chieftains, “was a frontier region between Mesopotamia, where centralized states originally formed, and a mountainous peripheral region that was a source of many resources such as timber and metals,” says Parker.

Different cultures came into contact at Kenan Tepe in ways that ranged from “friendly interaction to imperialism.”

“We now believe the formation of new culture happens at points of culture contact,” Parker says. “You are more likely to get change where people are meeting new people and new ideas rather than in the interior of an already stable state or empire. … Mesopotamia is the root of western civilization. We are all the result of this cultural mutation process. … The [cultural] formation process that went on over thousands of years directly led to western civilization, including our language and our literature.”

The earliest known occupation of Kenan Tepe dates to the Ubaid Period, 4500 B.C. to 3500 B.C. Parker is focusing on four subsequent periods:

— From 3500 B.C. to 3000 B.C., during the Uruk or Late Chalcolithic period, evidence indicates Sumerians from Mesopotamia (in what now is southern Iraq) came to Kenan Tepe to buy or barter for metals such as copper. Artifacts from that period include old kilns containing slag, the byproduct of smelting ore.

— During much of the Early Bronze Age, which lasted from 3000 B.C. to 2500 B.C., Kenan Tepe grew, with more kilns and slag than in the preceding period. Parker wonders why Kenan Tepe survived when other Late Chalcolithic sites were abandoned and the Sumerian trade system at those sites collapsed.

— Little was known about Kenan Tepe and upper Tigris culture from about 2000 B.C. to 1600 B.C. – the Middle Bronze Age or early second millennium – until Parker’s expedition unearthed pot sherds, animal figurines, seeds, bones, a large public building, a small house and kilns and smelting slag.

“For the first time, we are able to recognize what the inhabitants of early second millennium southeastern Turkey look like in the archaeological record,” Parker says.

The kilns contain a surprise: preliminary evidence of iron processing in 1800 B.C., some 500 years before iron came into widespread use in Mesopotamia.

“It is very early,” Parker says. “If we are correct, it would significantly change our views of at what point in time iron was being processed.”

— Kenan Tepe did not survive the Iron Age (1100 B.C. to 600 B.C.) thanks to the Assyrian empire – the world’s biggest to that time – which arose about 900 B.C. and soon encompassed most of the Middle East until it fell to the Babylonians and others in 612 B.C.

In southeast Turkey, the colonized indigenous population came into contact with Assyrian colonizers and the foreigners sent to occupy new farm villages. Parker says the archaeological record reflects the “geography of colonialism” along the upper Tigris River, where inhabited areas grew from 12 villages covering 57 acres before colonization to 34 settlements covering 353 acres under the Assyrian empire.

After its collapse, Kenan Tepe was used later only as a cemetery, possibly during the Late Roman and early Medieval periods (roughly A.D. 500 to 1200) – the estimated dates for 25 human burials uncovered by Parker’s team last year.

“There may be 150 to 400 burials there,” Parker says, noting Paine plans to study the remains for evidence of mortality rates and perhaps ancient epidemics in southeast Turkey.

UTARP will cost about $500,000 over nine years, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, National Geographic Society, the University of Utah and other donors.

Parker’s new book – “The Mechanics of Empire” – was released this year. It is a detailed study of Assyrian imperialism in southeast Turkey. He recently got a contract to write an academic book, “Three Seasons at Kenan Tepe,” which he expects to complete in 2003.

The UTARP website is at: