HISTORY OF EXCAVATIONS IN SYRIA
First archaeological works were carried out in the mid-19th century by adventurers/treasure hunters, inspired by the growing interest of the Europeans in the early civilisations of the Near East. These early excavations were aimed at discovery of Mesopotamian presence in the northern Levant. Some of the most important precursors of Syrian archaeology include P.E. Botta who supervised the first excavations at Khorsabad in 1845 and Sir H. Layard, the discoverer of Assyrian capitals of Nimrud and Nineveh.
In the late 19th century and early 20th century, archaeologists started to appreciate the richness of local history. More rigid and methodological approach to the excavations was applied and Syrian archaeology entered its maturity. Growing interest in the Neo-Hittite sites of the 1st millennium BC attracted more and more interest and resulted in several crucial discoveries. German archaeologists played a major role in the development of the discipline at the time, especially F. Von Luschan’s discovery of Zinjirli in 1888 and M. Von Oppenheim’s work on the great tell of Halaf in 1899 and in 1911.
Once the French mandate over Syria was established in the 1920’s, archaeological work became institutionalised under the supervision of the Direction Générale des Antiquité. Work of the French archaeologists focused on the great tells – this led to the exposure of major cities, some dating back to the Bronze Age. Among major works that are worth mentioning are the excavations of Mishrife by du Mesnil du Buisson in 1926 and works at Tell Hariri/Mari led by Parrot, which began in 1933.
All significant archaeological work ceased during World War II, but was rejuvenated the new Syrian administration in the 1950’s. First excavations were done by Syrian researchers, including A. Bounni and N. Saliby’s work at Tell Amrit and Tell Kazel. International involvement in the discipline did not, however, stop and teams from various countries continued to contribute to the development of Syrian archaeology. Among some of the most notable works were the excavations by P. Matthiae at Tell Mardikh/Ebla and D. Oates’s excavation of Tell Brak.
From the mid-1970s, the discoveries made at Ebla brought a new impulse in archeological researches in Syria and this country remains until today an earth of predilection for the archaeologists of the whole world. Concerning the written documentation, after the large collections of cuneiform texts discovered in Ugarit (Ras Shamra), Ras Ibn Hani, Mari (Tell Hariri), Emar (Tell Meskéné), Ebla (Tell Mardikh), or Ashnakkum (Chagar Bazar), new epigraphic discoveries have been made during the last 40 year. Among the most important can be quoted (in chronological order of the discoveries) those of: Dur-Katlimmu (Sheikh Hamad), Terqa (Tell Ashara), Tuttul (Tell Bi'a), Tell Sabi Abyad, Shehna / Shubat-Enlil (Tell Leilan), Ekalte (Tell Munbaqa), Nabada (Tell Beydar), Burmarina (Tell Chioukh), Tabatum (Tell Taban), and Qatna (Tell Mishrifé), in the same time as new tablets have continued being exhumed in archaeological sites excavated for a long time (Mari, Tell Brak, Tell Chagar Bazar, etc). Every year continues so bringing its collection of new epigraphic discoveries.
Partially adapted from P.M.M.G. Akkermans & G.M. Schwartz 2003 The archaeology of Syria : from complex hunter-gatherers to early urban societies (c. 16,000-300 BC), Cambridge: CUP; P. Matthiae 1980 Ebla : an empire rediscovered . London:Hodder & Stoughton; and M. Al-Maqdissi (éd.) 2008, Pionniers et protagonistes de l’archéologie syrienne, 1860-1960, Documents d’archéologie syrienne XIV, Damas: Ministère de la Culture.
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