Iraq - Hamrin

Hamrin dam; international salvage project of the archaeological sites in the Jebel Hamrin region
Investigated sites:
Tell Yelkhi, Tell Hassan, Tell Abu Husaini, Tell Kesaran, Tell Harbud, Tell al-Sarah, Tell Mahmud
Scientific director:
Antonio Invernizzi
Field directors:
Giovanni Bergamini, Paolo Fiorina, Antonio Invernizzi, Sebastiano Tusa, Elisabetta Valtz

The excavations of the Centro Ricerche Archeologiche e Scavi di Torino began in June 1977 within the context of an international cooperation project promoted by the State Organization of Antiquities and Heritage of Iraq for the saving of the archaeological sites that the basin created by the dam on the Diyala river would have submerged, and lasted until 1981. Excavations in the area took place, without interruptions, for three consecutive years, with the participation of several teams of researchers, technicians and students, and concerned a specific area around the main site, Tell Yelkhi. Traces were found of several minor sites that developed in different periods: Tell Hassan (Halaf period) and Tell Abu Husaini (Obeid period) date to prehistoric times, Tell Yelkhi and Tell Kesaran to the third and second millennium BC. Tell Harbud may be dated to the end of the first millennium BC, while Tell al-Sarah e Tell Mahmud were rural settlements of the late Sasanian and Proto-Islamic periods.


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).

Levels I and II

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 privileged position. 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.

Level III

The settlement of Yelkhi III reflects a decidedly variegated situation. The excavations allowed the identification of several quarters separated by alleys and small open spaces. The settlement is characterized by the presence of a small rectangular temple in which two cellae 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, in addition to 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 the one hand with the Paleo-Babylonian ceramic style that emerged in the great metropolises of southern Mesopotamia, and on the other hand with the tradition developed in the Diyala region and specifically in Eshnunna, to whose administrative system the village of Yelkhi level III probably belonged.

Levels IV e V

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.

Levels VI e VII

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.

Level VIII

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 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.

Levels IX and X

The remaining early-dynastic and late Jemdet 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 early-dynastic times by the main settlements of the Hamrin basin.


The excavation of Tell Hassan, which took place in 1978-1979, brought to light 13 occupational levels of settlements dating from the Halaf period (late 6th millennium BC) to the Sasanian period (224 AD). It must be noticed that actual architectural structures are related to the most ancient phase only, the Halaf period, in levels I-II and, to a lesser degree, levels III-IV. In level V the village was abandoned. In the western part of the site, extending over approximately one and a half hectares, dwellings that span the four levels I-IV were discovered. The central part is crossed by a ditch, at the bottom of which layers corresponding to the deepest levels of the adjacent village were recognized. To the east remains of structures pertaining to the village were uncovered suggesting that the area was dedicated to productive activities, such as a ceramics kiln belonging to level 1.

Levels I and II

In level Ia, the most ancient one, the dwellings brought to light are limited to 11 rooms, built on virgin soil. Level Ib, excavated more thoroughly, follows the organisation of the rooms of Ia. The architectural structures are delimited by an open area to the west, probably a courtyard, and, to the east, by another open area occupied by two large pits dug into the virgin soil. Several functional areas were identified inside the settlement: dwellings to the north, and productive and storage areas (a sling balls depot, and a stoneworker’s shop) to the south; to the east, beyond the previously mentioned ditch, a kiln, probably used for ceramics, was found. The residential area was plausibly occupied by more than one family, because several rooms were used as kitchens. Level II displays a certain architectural continuity with the previous level, although the settled area in the north-western part was replaced by an open area. Moreover, some rooms that had a more specialized function in the previous phase, like the stone workshop and a living room, were now used for several purposes. In this level too, as in the previous ones, several kilns were found. In one room, white or pink plaster disks were found next to a kiln. They may have been used to check the colours used to paint the pottery.

Levels III and IV

Level III is not well preserved, mostly due to the Isin-Larsa graves cutting across the settlement’s centre and to the strong erosion in the northern part; consequently, the structures are often difficult to recognise. However, structures have been identified in the eastern part of the tell: specifically a tholos, a type of building with a circular layout that, almost always in association with quadrangular buildings, is typical of Halaf settlements throughout Mesopotamia. Our tholos was probably used for storing perishable goods or as a shelter for animals: it contained virtually no pottery fragments or utensils. Very little remains of level IV, including what was probably the wall of a kiln in the eastern area. An interesting element is given by the different construction technique. The tauf, which in the previous levels had a high content of straw, is now mostly sandy.

Halaf pottery

The Hamrin basin, in the middle valley of the Diyala river, is delimited to the east by the westernmost slopes of the Zagros and, to the west, by the Jebel Hamrin hill range, that separates this region from the floodplain of southern Mesopotamia. It is very distant from the place where Halaf culture was born, around the beginning of the 6th millennium BC: the valleys of the Khabur river’s tributaries in upper Syria. In fact, the Hamrin area represents the southernmost point of expansion of Halaf culture, here documented in its final phase. It is a culture characterized, throughout its approximately one millennium-long history, by ceramics of exceptionally high quality, made in fine fabric, typically in orange, buff and pink colour, and often decorated with brown, orange, red or black paint that in its latest phase may also be polychrome. In fact, in addition to stone utensils made from flint of very good quality and from obsidian, clay figurines and tools typical of a late-Neolithic agricultural village, lavish and plentiful painted ceramics stand out among the materials of our Halaf village. Besides its aesthetic value, this material is of interest for many reasons: first of all, it is not a homogeneous assemblage but comprises several different types of ware. One type of ware, found prevalently inside the village, is characterized by a more or less fine fabric whose main colour ranges from orange to buff, usually with a glossy surface and painted decoration. The typical shape is the bowl, often decorated both inside and outside in an almost endless number of variations on crosshatching or horizontal waves. Level II and subsequent levels saw the appearance of fine bowls with a glossy surface, lavishly decorated with polychrome zigzag motifs and ovules that cover the entire surface, as well as of vases decorated with a stylized bird motif covering a wide surface area. These decorations do not replace the previously mentioned crosshatched bowls, that are still very frequent, but embellish the household furnishings with pieces displaying an exceptional degree of lavish craftsmanship and creativity.
A second type of ware comes from the already mentioned central ditch, whose oldest levels, however washed out, appear to be contemporary to those of the village. The vases shapes are also the same as those found in the village, but with entirely different decorative patterns: typical examples include bowls with disc- or ring-shaped bases, while typical decorations include close bands of orange-red horizontal lines. In the upper layers, such "striped" decoration is still a distinctive element, especially on open and sinuous shapes, but a new material, made from a greenish or buff fabric, with a higher sand content compared to the previous one, is also present. These bowls continue with an imperceptible evolution, in the vases of level V, dated to the Obeid 3 phase.
Another type of ware is present in the western part of the village, beyond a pebbly alley, in a dwelling that is unfortunately heavily eroded. In this area the pottery displays further differences. The “village” lavish material is absent, while an often overfired ware, with coarser, sandy fabric and green, brown or purple paintings appears. The decoration patterns imitate the crosshatching of the village, along with new elements. In fact, we may find, for example, a large green jar with diamond and goat decorations, or a small globular vase with a band of scorpions painted on its shoulder. On a stratigraphical basis, these different ceramic types seem to be at least partially contemporaneous, and might be linked with different groups or clans that lived side by side while maintaining their own characteristics due to the conservativism of agricultural societies. The wealth and variety of painted decoration testify the importance given in Neolithic times to this everyday material, which assumed important functions in communicating the system of values and social identity of a society, but also the ability and creativity of individual potters. With time, mutual influence was inevitable, however gradual and imperceptible. As we have seen, one of these wares evolved through a process of transition that ended in the Obeid ceramics of level V.

Level V

With level Va the Halaf village was abandoned and, with the two phases of the Obeid 3 period (5th millennium BC), the settlement clearly shifted towards east: the actual settlement was not found, but it was probably located under the houses of the modern inhabitants. Phase V comprises a great central ditch and a canal that ran across the eastern part of the site. The central ditch was probably used to store water, which, led into the canal from a nearby waterway, was used by the nearby settlement. The subsequent level Vb is composed of a few architectural structures that emerged above the ditch in the eastern part of the site, with remains of fireplaces and household activities (pottery, animal bones, spindle whorls), and a craftsmen’s area, with kilns, one of which had two chambers and was used to bake pottery, as it contained remains of over-fired vessels. As mentioned earlier, subsequent human presence became limited to graves that, from the Uruk period (IV millennium BC) to Sasanian times were laid by travellers or by the inhabitants of the surrounding areas.


Tell Abu Husaini, included in the research project of the Yelkhi area, was excavated in 1978-1979. The tell rose approximately 6 metres above the surrounding valley. However, this height did not correspond to a rich succession of human occupation: when the first inhabitants came here, they already found approximately 3 metres of natural elevation, caused by the buildup of flood sediments. The place was therefore dry and well drained, despite its proximity to the ancient bed of a branch of the Diyala river. The site’s occupation took place relatively late, if we consider that the Hamrin area was already inhabited during the pre-ceramic Neolithic period. Its first phase of occupation, directly on virgin soil, in fact dates back to the Calcholithic period, and more exactly to the late Obeid period (late 5th millennium BC). The tell was no longer occupied after this population left, apart from its use as a burial ground during the later Isin-Larsa, Neo-Assyrian, Parthian, Sasanian and Islamic periods. The late Obeid settlement displays three phases, that developed in rapid stratigraphical succession and with no interruptions, as also attested by the analysis of the ceramic material that has homogeneous characteristics without stylistic or chronological evolution.

The settlement

After a first phase (phase 1) essentially consisting of a greenish hard-packed “floor” with traces of fireplaces and a few remains of walls of quadrangular and circular rooms, phase 2 comprises several buildings composed of various rectangular rooms. As the excavation concerned only a limited area of the site, it is difficult to reconstruct the buildings’ layouts. It is however possible to make out tripartite buildings (houses with a central hall or courtyard, and two wings of rooms), typical of the Obeid period throughout Mesopotamia. It is also possible to observe the presence of “buttresses” and offsets, also typical of Obeid buildings and which eventually had an enormous development in Mesopotamian architecture. The site undoubtedly possessed a certain degree of planning, as terracotta gutters ensured good drainage and the flow of water away from houses almost everywhere. In one building, a room contained a deposit of flint pebbles that were gathered from the river’s shore or from the nearby heights and that were probably used as the raw material for the fabrication of stone utensils. The structures pertaining to the last phase were unfortunately very fragmented. As mentioned earlier, the site was no longer occupied afterwards and the structures, being just under the surface, were exposed to natural damage caused by erosion and to the more recent damage caused by mechanical ploughs.


The materials recovered during the excavation outline the picture of a small agricultural settlement. Children were found buried under the floors of many dwellings. They were buried inside large bowls or bell-shaped vessels; another vase, overturned, closed off the opening, that often emerged from the floor, a symbol of sorts that kept the home’s inhabitants in contact with the deceased child. The very abundant ceramics (approximately 40,000 vases and fragments were recovered) are perfect examples of the northern tradition of the late Obeid style, of which Tell Abu Husaini is one of the southernmost points of expansion. The pottery was made in a straw-tempered, greenish or buff fabric, sometimes painted with simple and linear motifs, but more often incised with herringbone motifs or bands of horizontal or wavy lines. However, most of the vases were not decorated. On the threshold of urbanisation, the late Obeid period was by now quite distant from the splendid period of painted Neolithic pottery that expressed itself in the Hamrin valley as well as in the rest of Mesopotamia, culminating in the Halaf period. Stone instruments are also abundant, and include flint and quartzite tools as well as beautiful blades made of obsidian, a volcanic rock of Anatolian origin.


The wide and low tell lies at the foot of the great tell of Yelkhi, where the fortified palace of level I was built, and contains the remains of a Cassite village. Several pottery kilns, whose most fine examples were found in the residential area of the palace, belong to the first phase of settlement. The abandonment of the great residence of Tell Yelkhi was probably the reason behind the decline of Kesaran’s rural settlement, which nevertheless was frequented to a limited extent in Neo-Assyrian times.


Structures in unbaked bricks, fireplaces in open areas, animal bones and the finding of fusaroles lead us to believe that Tell Harbud was a small agricultural settlement. The morphological characteristics of the pottery found during the excavation are an expression of the typical culture of the mid-1st millennium BC.


During the Sasanian period, the microarea around tell Yelkhi saw a resumption of activities, certainly due to the canal works whose remains were found during the geomorphological prospecting, which led to a favourable renewal of environmental conditions. Therefore, the village of Tell al-Sarah most likely belonged to a series of rural settlements that developed thanks to a policy of agricultural exploitation promoted by the central Sasanian power.


The absence of fireplaces and cooking ware would suggests that Tell Mahmud was a residential centre. It was built according to a specific criterion: a large quadrangular enclosure, with the corners oriented towards the four cardinal points. Five rooms are built along the north-eastern side, where a large amount of fragments of glass vessels were found; based on their technical and morphological characteristics, the site dates back to the early Islamic age.


Tell Yelkhi and minor sites

1984, “The Excavations in Tell Yelkhi”, Sumer, XL, 224-244.
1985, “Tel Yelkhi” in La terra tra i due fiumi, Catalogo della Mostra, Alessandria, 41-56.
1986, “La couche basale de Yelkhi au début de la période protodynastique I”, in J.-L- Huot (ed.), Préhistoire de la Mésopotamie, Actes du Colloque, Paris 17-19 décembre 1984, Paris, 489-498.
2002-2003, “La ceramica dei livelli basali X – VIc”, Mesopotamia, XXXVII-XXXVIII, 21-85.

2002-2003a, “Introduzione”, Mesopotamia, XXXVII-XXXVIII, 5-20.
2002-2003b, “La sequenza ceramica generale”, Mesopotamia, XXXVII-XXXVIII, 321-336.

2009 “Le terrecotte di Tell Yelkhi», Mesopotamia, LXIV, 1-59.
2011 “La signora dell’Hamrin. Terrecotte con figura divina dagli scavi italiani di Tell Yelkhi”, in C. Lippolis, S. de Martino (a cura di), Un impaziente desiderio di scorrere il mondo. Studi in onore di Antonio Invernizzi (Monografie di Mesopotamia, XIV), Firenze, 45-60.

2007 “L’area di Tell Yelkhi: i piccoli oggetti”, Mesopotamia, LXII, 167-209.

2007 “Studio dei resti scheletrici umani rinvenuti nell’area di Yelkhi - Jebel Mamrin - Iraq”, Mesopotamia, LXII, 143-149.

2007a “L’area di Tell Yelkhi: le sepolture”, Mesopotamia, LXII, 1-115.
2007b “Kheit Qasim: Les tombes de la fin du III jusqu’à la fin du II millénaire a.C.”, Mesopotamia, LXII, 1521-165.

2002-2003, “La ceramica dei livelli VIb-III”, Mesopotamia, XXXVII-XXXVIII, 87-263.

2012, “Some Notes between Yelkhi and ‘Dating’”, Mesopotamia, XLVII, 103-112.

1980, "Excavations in the Yelkhi Area (Hamrin Project, Iraq)”, Mesopotamia, XV, 19-50.
1984, “The Yelkhi Area”, Sumer, XL, 219-223.
1985a, “Il Progetto Hamrin” in La terra tra i due fiumi, Catalogo della Mostra, Alessandria, 23-25.
1985b, “Attività della Missione Archeologica Italiana in Iraq 1976 – 1979. L’area di Tell Yelkhi”, Quaderni della Ricerca Scientifica, 112, 221-272.

1984,“Cuneiform Texts discovered at Tell Yelkhi”, Sumer, XL, 245-259.
1985, “Old Babylonian Texts from Tell Yelkhi (Hamrin Project, Iraq)”, Mesopotamia, XX, 23-52.
1995, “Testi da Tell Yelkhi del Periodo Isin-Larsa – I”, Mesopotamia, XXX, 5-38.
2001, “Testi da Tell Yelki del Periodo Isin-Larsa – II”, Mesopotamia, XXXVI, 89-102.

1984, “Sounding in The Yelkhi Area”, Sumer, XL, 293-300.
1985, “La campagna di Yelkhi” in La terra tra i due fiumi, Catalogo della Mostra, Alessandria, 69-71.
2002-2003, “La ceramica dei livelli II e I”, Mesopotamia, XXXVII-XXXVIII, 265 -319.

Tell Hassan

2013 “The prehistoric pottery from Tell Hassan, Hamrin Valley, Iraq”, Mesopotamia, XLVIII, 1-196.

1982, “Excavations at Tell Hassan”, Sumer XL, 49-50.
1982, “Excavations at Tell Hassan. Preliminary Report”, Sumer, XL, 277-289.
1987, “Tell Hassan: les couches halafiennes et obeidiennes et les relations entre les deux cultures”, in J.-L. Huot (ed.), Préhistoire de la Mésopotamie, CNRS, Paris.

Tell Abu Husaini

2004, “Hamrin – Tell Abu Husaini. La ceramica tardo-obeid dei livelli 1-3”, Mesopotamia, XXXIX, 1-70.
2007 “The children’s burials of ‘Ubaid period: Tell Abu Husaini, the Hamrin area and beyond”, Mesopotamia, LXII, 117-141.

1982, “Excavations at Tell Abu Husaini”, Sumer, XL, 50-51.
1982, “Excavations at Tell Abu Husaini – Preliminary Report”, Sumer, XL, 262-276.

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