The Land of Nineveh Archaeological Project: The Ceramic Repertoire from the Early Pottery Neolithic to the Sasanian Period

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By: Katia Gavagnin, Marco Iamoni, and Rocco Palermo

The present article discusses the preliminary results of the Land of Nineveh Archaeological Project, an on-going archaeological project in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, an autonomous territory in North-Eastern part of the country, which borders with Turkey and Iran. The region is largely mountainous due to the presence in its eastern part of the Zagros range which runs from south-east Turkey to south-west Iran. In western and southern areas of Kurdistan, mountains leave place to rolling plains and steppe lands. Several waterways run in the region (the Tigris River, the Upper and the Lower Zab being the major ones), making the whole territory particularly fertile and water plentiful.

In the current political scenario of the Middle East, the stability and the economic prosperity of Kurdistan allowed, in the very recent years, a significant reprise of the archaeological operations in what is an incredibly rich and yet almost totally uncharted territory for the study of the ancient world and the Mesopotamian civilizations specifically. The region indeed offers an invaluable archaeological potential mirrored, through the millennia, by several historical events such as the Neanderthal presence at Shanidar cave (between 65.000 and 35.000 years ago), the emergence, formation and development of the social complexity (6th– 4th millennium BC) and the urban revolution of the 3rd millennium BC. In later phases the entire region also experienced the inclusion in wider political and socio-economic contexts. It was the heartland of the Neo-Assyrian imperial entity (10th – 7th century BC), it was consequently part of the Hellenistic global world (late 4th – 1st century BC), and it also represented the western border of the Parthian and Sasanian kingdoms which confronted and defied the Roman and the Byzantine Empire along their eastern frontier (2nd – 6th century AD).

In such fascinating area multiple archaeological projects, both local and international, are carrying out their works in a mutual and fruitful collaboration with the Kurdish authorities.

Among these projects, the Land of Nineveh Archaeological Project (LoNAP), directed by Daniele Morandi Bonacossi from University of Udine (Italy) operates in the region of Duhok (Northern Kurdistan) since 2012 (Fig. 1). The major objective of the LoNAP is the accurate investigation of the physical and cultural past landscape of a 3.000 sq. Kms area through the combined use of satellite imagery analysis (remote sensing) and ground recognition (archaeological survey) of all visible traces of the human occupation (settlements, infrastructures, burial sites, etc). Field activities have revealed a continuously settled region from the Prehistory to the Modern times, whose archaeological evidence is testified by a tremendous amount of ceramics, lithic and other objects collected on the visited archaeological sites (Fig. 2). Notwithstanding the biased nature of surface investigations, which may or may not coincide with the effective subsurface occupation of an unexcavated site, the objects that archaeologists usually find during field-walking surveys provide important clues for the preliminary reconstruction of the landscape and for other various purposes such as finding site boundaries and defining the distribution of artefacts within the site and into the outer fields (off-site). The examination of the datasets generated by the collection of artefacts and the recording of specific features, also allow archaeologists to gain a significant understanding of a region and of the specific sites detected.


(Fig. 1) The area of the Land of Nineveh Archaeological Project in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. The expedition is housed in Duhok, where analysis, researches and studies are carried out every year between August and October.

(Fig. 2) The landscape of the region is dotted with tells, archaeological mounds created by human occupation and consequent erosion on the same spot through several millennia. The LoNAP team identified hundreds of these sites during fieldworks.


Ceramics sherds, particularly, represent one of the most recognizable indicators of the past human presence and they might also provide pertinent clues about the type of settlement, the chronological periods in which it was occupied, and whether it was included in a broader cultural framework or rather belonged to a local sphere. Pottery, in addition, tends to mirror different aspects of the society in which it was produced, traded and used and thus its in-depth study might also be employed for proposing socio-economic considerations.

For this reason, the present article aims to frame the ceramic horizon of the LoNAP area in a broader cultural context, but also to emphasize peculiar regional features, which are elsewhere in Mesopotamia rarer or underrepresented. Such regional focus represents a unique opportunity to further underscore the crucial role of the Kurdistan region for future archaeological investigation in the Middle East.

The extensive coverage of the 2012 and 2013 seasons yielded more than 18.000 pottery sherds. To make the collection easier the LoNAP team preliminarily decided to sub-divide every site in collection units in order to have a better idea of the possible extension of each single chronological phase on a specific site (Fig. 3). The pottery collected is then processed and recorded in the LoNAP expedition house in Duhok. Besides the Islamic period (7th – 20th century AD), which is the most attested macro-phase with more than 2.500 sherds, significantly represented periods in terms of collected ceramics are the Middle Bronze Age (late 3rd mill. BC – mid -2nd mill. BC) with 2.137 sherds and the Neo-Assyrian period with 2.092 sherds. In general, the ceramic data faithfully mirror the number of surveyed sites, suggesting a substantial (and, as such, unbiased) correlation between the pottery and surveyed settlement trends (i.e., large quantities of potsherds correspond to peaks in the number of settlements).

(Fig. 3) Part of the LoNAP team performing artefacts collection in the lower town of a large site (background) not far from the modern city of Duhok.

These objects constitute a significant evidence that effectively confirms the relevance of this part of the Kurdistan region for the comprehension of the Mesopotamian history. Methodologically speaking and considering the quality of the documentation, which is entirely composed of surface collected artefacts, hence un-stratified, the present article mostly deals with the diagnostic sherds whose identification has allowed the LoNAP team to precisely distinguish periods of occupation on each of the surveyed sites (Fig. 4). The enormous chronological range to cover has been resolved by employing different archaeologists and ceramic experts, whose tasks coincide with the analysis of the collected objects according to specific chronological phases. These include large timeframes which are roughly divided as follows:

  1. a) 7th – 4th millennium BC
  2. b) 3rd – 1st millennium BC
  3. c) mid-1st millennium BC – 7th AD
  4. d) 7th – 19th century AD

(Fig. 4) A selection of ceramics collected, identified and recorded by the LoNAP team. 1: Halaf period pottery (6th millennium BC); 2: early 3rd Millennium BC Pottery; 3: Middle Bronze Age Pottery (first half of the 2nd millennium BC); 4: Hellenistic period pottery (late 4th – 1st century BC).

Rims, bases, handles and decorated sherds have been primarily considered (besides the very few complete vessels recovered), as they have more chances of being typologically identified and chronologically defined than simple, undecorated body-sherds, for example. In accordance with other missions operating in the area the codification of the ceramics follows a common typology in order to facilitate inter-projects comparisons (in particular, the site chronology and the identification of common traits in the ceramic traditions of each area).

The analysis of the collected material has emphasized some interesting aspects within the ceramic horizon through time. Both analogies and discrepancies with macro-regional pottery traits have been identified. Signs of local variations have been noticed, for example, during the Halaf period (6th millennium BC) as well as during the late Chalcolithic Period (5th– 4th millennium BC). Other variations in the pottery assemblage, if compared to a broader framework, have been observed also for the 3rd millennium BC, when apparently part of the ceramic production fits into the Tigris region, rather than within the cultural sphere of northeastern Syria. Local ceramics apparently outnumber the well-known diagnostic types also during the Parthian period (2nd century BC – early 3rd century AD), when possibly the importations suffered a halt because of the troubled scenario of the Roman-Parthian confrontations. In contrast, other chronological phases seem to have witnessed a regional common tendency, like the Middle-Bronze Age, the Neo-Assyrian Period, when the LoNAP area coincided with the core of the Empire, and the Hellenistic phase, which saw the diffusion of globally widespread types (from the Mediterranean to Central Asia).

The results so far obtained constitute a solid base for a better archaeological understanding of a region still poorly, if not totally, unknown. In particular, they represent a starting point for a subsequent, more detailed characterization of the regional ceramic traditions: the next seasons will be therefore mostly devoted to achieving this task, with a particular focus on those periods that showed pottery with distinctive—and, up to now, less-known—local traits.

: Università Ca’ Foscari, Dipartimento di Studi Umanistici, Dorsoduro 3484/D, 30123, Venice, Italy.

: Università degli Studi di Udine, Dipartimento di Studi Umanistici e del Patrimonio Culturale, Palazzo Caiselli, Vicolo Florio 2b, 33100, Udine, Italy.

: Università degli Studi di Napoli Federico II, Dipartimento di Studi Umanistici, Via Nuova Marina 33, 80133, Naples, Italy.

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