The excavation of the great tell of Yelkhi, one of the main settlements in the Hamrin basin in the late third millennium B.C. and all through the second millennium, began in the fall of 1977 and ended in the spring of 1980 after a series of missions.
At first, the excavation regarded the top (area A, levels I and II) of the tell, reaching 12 m in height above ground level; the excavation area was subsequently limited to a vast trench of approximately 30 x 10 m opened along the south-eastern front (area B, levels III, IV and V, VI and VII, VIII), while four soundings of 4 x 4 m reached the base levels belonging to the settlement’s most ancient phases (levels IX and X).
The palace, the stately and fortified residence of Yelkhi I,
built at the top of the tell and guarding the village at its foot, Tell
Kesaran,displays characteristics ascribable
to a feudal social context typical of the Cassite aristocracy.
The high quality of the pottery, goblets and cups in fine ware, found inside the palace,also confirm its
The characteristics of the ceramics found at level II, pertaining to a poorly preserved settlement, also limited to the top of the tell, are similar of those of materials belonging to the Mitannic tradition on one hand and to the Elamite tradition on the other, attesting to the changed political situation in the Hamrin area, at the foot of the Zagros mountains. One must not forget that the region was probably crossed by the great road that connected Babylonia to Iran in the Cassite period.
The settlement of Yelkhi III reflects a decidedly variegated situation. The settlement in which the excavation was able to identify several quarters separated by alleys and small open spaces is characterized by the presence of a small rectangular temple in which two cella were brought to light, the smallest of which containing a circular podium and an altar decorated with reprofiled niches, and a small room, probably used as an archive, in which administrative and literary texts were found and, more specifically, texts concerning divinatory practices concerning prediction of the future through the examination of a sacrificed animal’s liver. The abundance of pottery suggested a standardized, almost mass production that has many similarities on one hand with the Paleo-Babylonian ceramic style that emerged in the great metropolises of southern Mesopotamia, and on the other with the tradition developed in the Diyala region and specifically in Eshnunna, to whose administrative system the village of Yelkhi level III probably belonged.
Yelkhi IV belongs to the advanced Isin-Larsa period, and despite the very poor conditions of the structures, Yelkhi seems to still maintain part of the importance it must have achieved at the height of the Isin-Larsa period, as attested by the structures of the previous level V.
The great palace of level V, of which the administrative area and storerooms – full of large jars that still contained cereals – were specifically brought to light, probably acted as a collection and distribution centre for local products, as attested by the cuneiform tablets containing long lists of rations, especially barley and wool, and the names of people these goods were intended for.
It is likely that from this period Yelkhi had entered the political orbit of Eshnunna, one of the first cities to break away from the kingdom of Ur, governed by an autonomous dynasty of rulers. The Hamrin region was the northern border of the territory under this city’s control.
The ornaments in some burials in the area of the palace, both in burial chambers or in graves, are particularly opulent. These probably relate to members of the Palatine nobility and, in addition to the usual ceramic vessels, contain metal cups, personal ornaments, armlets and anklets, and crescent-shaped or simple bronze axes.
The vast monumental complex of level VI, dating back to the Neo-Sumeric period, as proven by the ceramic horizon and by the seal impressions in the Ur III style, attests to the importance assumed by the Yelkhi settlement when the rulers of the great southern metropolis extended their dominion over the region.
Among the structures brought to light, it is possible to identify a sacred area in the western part of the trench, particularly a cella with a double moulding doorway and a great altar with a sacrificial podium. The east rooms must have served several purposes, although the incredible complex of babies burials in unbaked clay vases can only be ascribable to specific ritual purposes. The imposts of the arches in these rooms presuppose that the covering was supported by a series of arches, confirming the exquisite monumentality of the entire complex as well as a specific intent in designing it, confirmed by the finding of a layer of sand used as a foundation bed for the new building.
Sand, the purifying element par excellence in the Mesopotamian architectural and ritual tradition, was in fact used to purify an area previously occupied by profane buildings. In fact, a large house, built in pressed clay, occupied the eastern part of the trench in the previous level VII. It is an especially clear example of a Mesopotamian house with a central courtyard. The settlement was relatively short-lived and, on the basis of the ceramic horizon and the style of the cylindric seals found there, it may be dated to the late Accadian period.
Based on the glyptics’ style and on the morphological characteristics of the ceramic findings, Yelkhi VIII can be dated to the height of the Accadian period. The structures excavated in the eastern part of the trench display inhabitative characteristics, while the western area was on the other hand occupied by open areas in which craftsmen’s activities were probably conducted, as confirmed by the finding of pottery kilns, and a series of silos for storing agricultural products.
The remaining earlydynastic and late Jamdet Nasr period settlements (levels IX and X) were reached in four soundings opened at the bottom of the trench. Unfortunately the architectural remains were in very poor conditions due to their contact with the water stratum, but the very fine pottery and the glyptics provide the first evidence of the material culture of Tell Yelkhi, just when the great circular fortresses of Tell Gubba and Tell Razuk attested to the development and socio-cultural independence achieved in earlydynastic times by the main settlements of the Hamrin basin.