Tell Brak

Tell Brak is a large tell site in northern Syria that has been excavated throughout the 20th century. As a ‘Gateway City’, Brak controlled one of the major roads leading from the Tigris Valley north to the metal sources in Anatolia and west to the Euphrates and the Mediterranean. The tell itself was occupied from at least as early as 6000 BC to the end of the Late Bronze Age (Middle Assyrian), with settlement of `Ubaid to early Islamic date also attested in the outer town. Currently excavated areas date from the mid-fifth to the end of the second millennium BC. It is now known that Tell Brak is ancient Nagar, one of the major ancient cities in the Near East.

Brak was first excavated by Max Mallowan in 1937-38. The modern Tell Brak Excavation Project was established brakby David Oates in 1976 in order to explore the then little-known 3rd millennium BC occupation of Northern Mesopotamia. A new project is currently underway (since 2006), under the Field Direction of Dr Augusta McMahon with Dr Joan Oates as Project Director. The current excavation programme is targeted at investigating 5th millennium BC early urbanism and socio-economic complexity as well as examining the implications of political change, from the collapse of empire through growth of a territorial state to imposition of a new empire, from the terminal 3rd millennium through the later 2nd millennium BC. The discovery of two mass graves of the early 4th millennium BC on one of the small mounds on the edge of Brak’s outer town has created a new theme: exploring the prehistory of violent conflict within the context of intensifying urbanism.

Archaeobotanical work at Tell Brak is being conducted by members of SCALE and is led by Dr Mike Charles, Dr Amy Bogaard (University of Oxford) and Dr. Mette Marie Hald (University of Copenhagen, Denmark). SCALE investigations are concentrating on the impact of climate change at the end of the 3rd millennium BC and agricultural continuities and discontinuities throughout periods of environmental and political transition from the end of the 3rd millennium to the late 2nd millennium BC. As an ‘urban’ site of 40-60 ha, with a population of several thousand, Tell Brak will have required large-scale and reliable grain production. Yet the region of Tell Brak today receives highly variable rainfall that often leads to crop failure. Irrigation at Tell Brak could have had far-reaching socio-economic implications, and thus a key focus of research is to establish whether irrigation was used and in what guise. As part of the archaeobotany research strategy, a PhD thesis has been completed on the late Chalcolithic remains from Tell Brak (Halde, M-M 2008, A thousand years of farming: late Chalcolithic agricultural practices at Tell Brak in northern Mesopotamia, BAR I1880). Material from Tell Brak has been analysed as part of the Crop Stable Isotope project conducted within SCALE and Tell Brak is one of the sites being investigated by FIBS techniques.

Relevant publications

Charles, M., Pessin, H., Hald, M. 2010. Tolerating change at Late Chalcolithic Tell Brak: responses of an early urban society to an uncertain climate, Environmental Archaeology 15, 183-198.

Hald, M., Charles. M. 2008. Storage of crops during the fourth and third millennia B.C. at the settlement mound of Tell Brak, northeast Syria, Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 17, S35-S41.

Hald. M. 2008. A Thousand Years of Farming: Late Chalcolithic Agricultural Practices at Tell Brak in Northern Mesopotamia. BAR International Series 1880. Archaeopress, Oxford.

Charles, M., Bogaard, A. 2001. Third millennium B.C. charred plant remains from Tell Brak. In Oates, D., Oates, J. and McDonald, H. (eds) Excavations at Tell Brak, Vol 2. Cambridge : McDonald Institute Monographs, 301-26.