Flooded Settlements of Western Armenia

Many have heard of the ancient temple complex of Portasar or Gobekli Tepe, located in Western Armenia (occupied by Turkey), in the southwestern part of the Armenian Highlands. However, few know that it has a sibling, not as well-known but more mysterious. Its Turkish name is Norsun-Tepe (Norshuntepe). Gobekli Tepe is today considered the oldest, first temple complex of humanity, being 12,000 years old. It has already become a symbol of the birth of civilization and is located near the ancient city of Edessa (modern-day Sanliurfa).

This happened thanks to the work of the outstanding German archaeologist, Professor Klaus Peter Schmidt (1953-2014), who conducted excavations there from the end of the last century and made the greatest archaeological discovery of the 21st century. Norsun-Tepe is about a hundred and fifty kilometers north of Portasar. Its Armenian name has not reached us. In general, such objects as hills or mounds are not often marked on old maps. Experts say that unlike cities, villages, mountains or rivers, their old names may only be remembered by local residents.

The ancient settlement of Norsun-Tepe, about which very little is known, was located on a hill, in the Keban region on the Upper Euphrates, approximately 25 km from the city of Elazig (Armenian: Kharberd, Խարբերդ). There is very little information about it in the Russian-speaking internet, and what is there is very intriguing: the hill itself was flooded during the construction of a reservoir. Let’s try to find out what is known about it in general.

At the top of the hill was a site measuring from 500 to 300 m, inside which archaeologists discovered traces of an ancient settlement.

Excavations in Norsun-tepe were carried out between 1968 and 1974 by archaeologists from the German Archaeological Institute led by Harald Hauptmann (1936 – 2018), a professor of prehistoric and ancient epochs from the University of Heidelberg. The discovered settlement was covered with soil. The layer of soil had several dozen layers, which belonged to different epochs. This means that the site was densely populated from the late Chalcolithic period up to the Iron Age. It must be said that even this brief information is very impressive. If we compare it with the monuments known to us, it spans epochs such as Erebuni, Karmir Blur, or Argishtikhinili together with Shengavit and even Areni and Metsamor (Chalcolithic), but its dating has not reached the Neolithic, possibly because the research was stopped. This clearly shows the continuity of the cultures of the ancient Armenian civilization over thousands of years.

In the 70s, work was carried out as part of a rescue project to research and document archaeological monuments that were soon to be flooded as a result of the construction of the Keban Dam. Excavations were carried out in four areas: on the western slope, in the area of the so-called “acropolis”, on the southern terrace, and lower fields.

Before the flooding, Norsun-Tepe was located on the Altyinova plain, at the tributary of the Murat River (Armenian: Aratsani, Արածանի), an important tributary of the Euphrates.

Now the ancient hill is mostly flooded by the reservoir created by the Keban Dam. Only its top is still above water level. The site consists of a central hill or “acropolis” measuring 140 by 100 meters and 35 meters high, making it the largest hill in this area. The central hill is surrounded by lower terraces, covering an area of 800 by 600 meters.

History of the Settlement

Half a century ago, the datings were different, they did not go that far. It was only since the end of the 20th century that it was found out that many objects are significantly older. Then it was concluded that Norsun-Tepe was inhabited from the Chalcolithic (Copper Age) to the Iron Age. Archaeologists identified 40 different levels of layers, starting from the fifth millennium BC and ending around 600 BC. These layers showed the time of existence of ancient cultures, and they almost completely coincided with the cultural layers discovered during the excavations of the nearby ancient city of Arslantepe. Its name in Turkish means “Lion’s Hill”. This settlement of the ancient Kura-Araxes culture (4000-2200 BC) is located near the city of Malatya in the neighboring province of the same name. This means that all these monuments belonged to the same culture as the Shengavit culture objects, excavated in Yerevan in 1936-1938 under the direction of Yevgeny Bayburtyan, which itself was related to the Kura-Araxes. Shengavit was a settlement of the early Bronze Age, the 5th-3rd millennia BC. That is, Norsun-Tepe, like Arslantepe, and many others, are not only contemporaries of Shengavit, they are all representatives of a single ancient civilization.

Scientists have divided the settlement of Norsun-Tepe into three periods. The oldest phase I belonged to the middle Chalcolithic and included Ubaid-type pottery. The Ubaid culture dates back to the 6th to the early 4th millennium BC. Phase II represented the late Chalcolithic, and more complex architecture appeared in its later levels of excavations. Copper production was practiced during this period. The inhabitants of the late Chalcolithic lived in small single-room houses they built. Radiocarbon dating of different levels allowed the dating of 4300–3800 BC.

After a break, the reasons for which remain unknown, Norsun-Tepe was resettled in the Early Bronze Age. At this time, the site was surrounded by a mud-brick city wall built on a stone foundation. There is evidence of copper production, and some palace or large central building appears in the 6th layer, which could have been the residence of a prince or king. Based on these findings, scientists suggest that such settlements were sovereign city-states. Although this does not exclude that they could have been united with each other in the form of a larger state formation.

In material culture and architecture, archaeologists noted clear parallels with finds in Transcaucasia, especially in Armenia. The last phase of the Early Bronze Age at Norsun-Tepe ended with traces of a large fire. This probably happened due to the invasion of some enemies, but there was no time to find out all the details, as the dam construction deadlines were pressing. Layers of the same period at the Arslantepe mound also testify to a severe fire. It was suggested that the fire in both settlements could have been associated with an invasion or movement of foreign tribes.

The Middle Bronze Age settlement was less than before. The remains of the Late Bronze Age at Norsun-Tepe were severely disturbed by later Iron Age activity, as the inhabitants of this period dug and deepened their homes and buildings. But some larger buildings were excavated, which already belonged to the Urartu era.

During the last phase of settlement (800-600 BC), Norsun-Tepe was already part of Urartu. Incidentally, according to today’s commonly accepted datings, the ethnogenesis of the Armenians had already taken place by this time, that is, the existence of the Armenian ethnos has been undisputed since then. In those times, a building with a large hall with columns was located on the hill, and a second large building, possibly a caravanserai, was excavated on the southern terrace. A burial chamber was discovered at the top of the hill, in which three horses along with their gear and weapons were buried together with the ancient ruler. In total, seven tombs were found in the layers of the early Iron Age. Iron arrowheads were left in them as burial gifts.

From fragments of mud bricks and burnt pieces of beams in the buildings, it was established that there were upper floors, and they protruded outside above the first floor. Traces of fire were found in all architectural objects. Norsun-Tepe pottery belongs to a special layer of the Early Iron Age and is divided into four main groups. Round pointed bowls with notches under the rim, jugs with spouts and handles, vases and jugs, as well as vessels with painting and carved ornament. The vessels are mostly hand-molded, thick-walled, well fired. The surface color varies from beige and light brown to light brick red.

The flooded hill hides 40 cultural layers

The very fact that so many cultural layers were discovered in one place – the number 40 is a record number, speaks of the fact that here one culture replaced another over more than 4,000 years, starting from the late Chalcolithic period (4,000 – 3,000 BC), through all phases of the Bronze Age to Urartian Iron Age settlements. The change of cultures is a common thing for many ancient monuments, but it is hard to find analogies in such quantity. For example, in the famous ancient Troy, only nine main layers were excavated, in Shengavit 4. And in the Denisova Cave for more than 200 thousand years of the presence of different types of ancient people, only 22.

Judging by all indications, Norsun-Tepe was a fortified place with brick buildings, covered with plaster, and probably painted walls, as wall painting was visible in some places during excavations.

Photographs and information provided by scientists confirm that large jugs – karases, identical to the jugs found in other ancient cities in the territory of Armenia, were found in Norsun-Tepe.

The most interesting discovery in Norsun-Tepe was the discovery of smelting furnaces and remnants of the production of different metals, as well as the metals themselves.

What was discovered in the 40 layers

When large-scale excavations began in 1968, archaeologists inside the hill discovered a large amount of copper, metal artifacts, as well as a natural shiny metalloid – antimony.

There were also remnants of a worker’s settlement and several dozens of smelting furnaces. It might have been an ancient metallurgical factory.

The oldest metallic objects in the world were found during excavations in the Armenian highlands. Residents of the Neolithic settlement of Çayönü were among the first to make items out of copper. The first known cast product dates back to 5000 BC. By this time, there probably were special smelting furnaces for obtaining copper, and blacksmiths became separate masters.

Archaeological excavation data confirm that the inhabitants of the Armenian highlands had mastered many crafts in ancient times. For example, it is known that already in the V-IV millennium BC they could melt copper, and in the II millennium BC – iron. This is about a thousand years earlier than in other regions.

But the deeper the archaeologists dug, the more layers of history opened up before them. That is, people lived and worked in the same place, but cultures changed. In the Middle East, the EBA – Early Bronze Age is dated 3500-2000 BC.

The determination of layers during excavations was as follows from top to bottom: Level 1, Middle Iron Age (Urartian period, 8th century BC). Level 2, Early Iron Age. Levels 3-5, 2000 BC. Levels 6-8, Early Bronze Age III phase C. 2200 BC. Levels 9-10, Early Bronze Age III phase B. 2500 BC. Levels 11-12, Early Bronze Age III phase A. 2700 BC. Levels 13-20, Early Bronze Age II phase B. 2800 BC. Levels 21-24, Early Bronze Age II phase A. 3000 BC. Levels 25-30, Early Bronze Age IB and IA with a gap between them. 3300-3000 BC. Levels 31-40, the construction phase of the earliest settlement, late Chalcolithic.

In total, 12 mounds with ancient settlements were found in this area. Among them, the range of epochs was even wider, reaching up to the Middle Ages. Of these 12, 9 are now submerged.

Submerged are: Çayboğazı, Fatmali Kalecik, Tulintepe, Korucutepe, Kurupınar Tumulus (partly), Norsun-Tepe, Panik-Ören, Tepecik/Makaraz Höyük, and Yeniköy/Gavur Tumulus. Above the river and reservoir level are only 3: Imirbeli Tumulus, Mineyik, and Chemsietep (Umbrella Tumulus) on the shore of the Karakaya Reservoir.

Mineyik was an Urartian settlement (Turkish: Mineyik).

It was reported that an Urartian ruler was buried in the tumulus, and valuable items were discovered nearby.

In Chemsietep, also populated from the Chalcolithic period, 11 layers were identified.

The upper layers 1 and 2 showed that at the beginning of our era, there was a Roman-period fortress with a garrison here.

All this fragmentary information cannot form a complete picture of the development of ancient cultures, it only gives the most general idea of their flow. We can relate them to the periods of ancient states, the Early and Middle Bronze Age to Aratta. The Late Bronze Age to Hayasa, and the Iron Age to Nairi or Urartu. But the study of a huge amount of detailed information about all ancient settlements in the Armenian highlands, as well as the compilation of their complete list – is a matter for the next generation of historians. For further study of those that are now under water, expeditions with diving equipment will be needed, but there is noticeable progress in this matter, as underwater archaeology is now quite commonly used.

by Armen Petrosyan

Translated by Vigen Avetisyan

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