A Very Early ‘Palatial Complex’ at Arslantepe, Malatya (Turkey): a New Trajectory to the Origin of the State
Arslantepe is a tell over 30 meters high created by the superimposition of settlements built on top of each other for millennia, located in the Malatya plain in Turkey, not far from the Euphrates banks. The site’s name, Arslan (=’lion’) and Tepe (=’hill’), is probably due to the presence of two stone lion statues that adorned the gate of a first millennium BCE palace and were visible on the surface.
The Italian archaeological expedition, at the beginning guided by Salvatore Puglisi and Alba Palmieri, started working at the site in 1961.
Arslantepe palace from the south.
Though Arslantepe was certainly already occupied in the 6th
and 5th millennia BC, the first thorough evidence of a flourishing economic, political, religious, and administrative center has been obtained through the investigation of the 4th millennium BCE levels, when the earliest Mesopotamian urban societies were emerging along the Euphrates and Tigris banks. Monumental public buildings, pottery, metal weapons, and thousands of impressions of beautiful seals have been unearthed at the site, providingdocumentary evidence of the first known example of a ‘palace’ complex and the birth of an early state system, thus revealing that this phenomenon involved, besides Mesopotamia, the mountainous regions of Eastern Anatolia. Though there is no doubt that the Southern Mesopotamian model, based on hierarchically differentiated extended families and centralized and redistributive economy, expanded to the north in the 5th and 4th millennium BCE, the Italian excavations at Arslantepe have demonstrated that the local communities reacted in different ways to the contact with the Mesopotamian societies and, albeit on the basis of newly shared roots, produced different developments towards the formation of fully hierarchical and politically centralized societies.
By applying a rigorous stratigraphic method combined with extensive excavations, the Italian team has brought to light and investigated, in the course of many decades, a long sequence of architectural levels belonging to the 4th, 3rd and 2nd millennia BCE, which reveal not only the history of the site, but that of the entire Upper Euphrates and South-Eastern Anatolian region in the crucial periods of the formation and consolidation of the first Pristine States in the Near East.
Numerous and remarkable findings have shown that the site gained great importance at the beginning of the 4th millennium BC, when emerging elites exercised their nascent power through the administration of ceremonial redistribution practices. Between 3900 and 3450 BC (Arslantepe Period VII - Late Chalcolithic 3-4) the settlement expanded over the entire mound. Imposing public and private buildings erected on the highest part of the ancient hill revealed the existence of paramount leaders with religious prerogatives, living and operating in a clearly separated social and functional zone. Here, adjacent to the elite residences, stood a huge monumental temple, Temple C, raised on a platform of stone slabs and mud, which had – unusually for Arslantepe – a typically Mesopotamian ‘tripartite’ floor plan with a large easily accessible central hall and smaller side rooms. Over 1,000 mass produced bowls and numerous clay-sealings bearing seal impressions have been found in Temple C, suggesting the conduction of administered ceremonial distribution of meals to a very large number of people. The power of the nascent central authority appears to have gained strength from its religious and ideological role, but it was also founded on the prestige deriving to the elites by the control of food redistributed in ceremonies and feasts. As in Mesopotamia, the temple was not only a place of worship, but also the center for many different public and economic functions. Pottery, seal designs, and wall paintings however show completely local features, sharing little with the proper Mesopotamian world. The careful analysis of all archaeological data has shown that local leaders, thanks to their public role as mediators with the divinities, not only acquired prestige and political authority, but also the ability to control food circuits, adapting the system to the local conditions and giving rise to a development of their own towards the emergence of social and then economic inequality.
Arslantepe palace from the north
The recent researches at Arslantepe have moreover demonstrated that, in the last centuries of the 4th millennium (Arslantepe Period VIA – Late Chalcolithic 5), a political economy based on the centralization of resources and their redistribution developed rapidly, hastening the process of growth of social differentiation and political power, and bringing a very precocious form of ‘State’ organization’ with peculiar characteristics of its own.
By 3400 BCE Temple C was abandoned and a huge complex of public buildings different in shape and function was built, covering more than 4,000 square meters and spreading over much of the southern sector of the settlement, which conversely became smaller than in the previous period. This imposing architectural complex was comprised of two small temples, storage rooms, courtyards, corridors, representative buildings, administrative areas, and elite residences. The complex was planned as a single whole, though it was built in successive building phases, as a sort of progressive enlargement. It can be considered the first known example of a public ‘palace’ where the leaders of the community lived and performed their different public activities (religious, economic, political and administrative).
The earliest core was in the northern and higher part of the complex and was characterized by the presence of a very large courtyard, a decorated entrance corridor, a relatively small temple (Temple B), and an imposing building (Building 37) communicating both with the courtyard and the residential area. Other buildings were added successively, greatly widening the public spaces that were deeply transformed according to the increasing need to separate the various activities and functions of the new central institutions.
The public area no longer merely consisted of a holy place where the manifold activities performed were all ritualized and legitimated by ceremonial practices, but it was composed of various related buildings with different architectural features, intended as the seat of explicitly secular activities and functions. In particular, specific spaces were used for economic and administrative practices, which involved a very large number of people and were probably carried out in a regular routine way. The centralized management of the economy seems to have mainly been based on exploiting labour, which was very likely remunerated with food, probably with daily meals. This can be inferred from the small size of the palace stores that were not suitable for keeping large quantities of goods, from the absence of substantial storage of grain, from the presence of numerous vessels that must have contained processed food, as well as from the finding of more than one hundred mass-produced bowls that were probably used to distribute meals. Meat was also distributed, judging from the large number of animal bones, mainly ovine, found in the smaller storeroom used for food redistribution. Large numbers of people thus went regularly to the palace to receive food rations or daily meals, not only for occasional or ceremonial events, but as a proper 'wage'.
In the palace, over 5,000 fragments of clay sealings have been found, 2,200 of which still bear legible impressions of 220 seals, indicating a very large number of people interacting with the palace institutions. The thorough and interdisciplinary analysis of all these sealings has demonstrated the local performance of the sealing procedures and the complexity of the administrative practices carried out in the palace, aimed at accounting and maintaining the memory of the transactions in a period preceding the invention of writing. An intense daily movement of food was conducted in the small storeroom under the control of officials who kept aside the removed sealings as ‘document-receipts’ of the carried out transactions. One hundred thirty cretulae were found in this store, some on the floor close to the containers they had sealed, some set aside in a corner, and some others in the collapse layers, perhaps fallen from an upper storey where they had been kept temporarily.
Over 2,000 fragments were found in a narrow space in the palace corridor dumped in successive piles, each of which was characterized by sealings bearing the impression of the same groups of seals and the same sealed objects. Pots, sacs, baskets, and doors were sealed. The dump was the result of a final disposal phase after the account of the sealings that previously had been ordered according to both the operations carried out (sealed objects) and the officials performing them (seals). The removed sealings were therefore kept aside for a while to form a sort of temporary ‘archive'. They were then ordered and accounted, and finally periodically thrown away in rooms or areas no longer in use, forming special dumps.
The researches at Arslantepe have documented, in extraordinary detail, the birth of one of the earliest centralized administrative systems and a real bureaucracy. There were a remarkable number of officials responsible for the withdrawals of goods and, in some cases, for the storeroom control, who also show a complex hierarchical organization.
The recent findings in 2013-2015 have shown that the very ‘core’ of the palace consisted of a large courtyard where the long access corridor brought the people entering the complex, and the imposing monumental Building 37, which stood in front of the visitors at the northern edge of the courtyard. At the entrance of this building, which also communicated on its backside with the residential sector, a plastered platform with three steps was probably the basement of a “throne” visible from the courtyard and from any place in the corridor and the entrance to the palace. In front of this platform, two low clay bases seem to have marked the standing points for people being received by the leader or ‘king’ and paying homage to him. A new way of exercising power in a secular and direct form, accompanied by non-religious well codified ceremonies, was precociously manifested in this part of the palace. It can reasonably be considered that this was the place where a political authority (a ‘king’?) gave “audience” to the public. This very probably represents the first appearance of a secular form of ‘State’.
The discovery of 12 spears and 9 swords (which are so far the earliest examples of this kind of weapon) all made of arsenical copper also indicates the emergence of a military apparatus and the codification of different forms of combat. Power was beginning to change character and began to be imposed by force. The early "militarization" of power at Arslantepe was probably a response to both external and internal increasing conflicts. On the one hand, the mountainous populations of Transcaucasian origin, which had peacefully interacted with the site’s central institutions for centuries, were now pushing more and more on the Euphrates valley and may have exerted an unsustainable pressure on the local system; on the other hand, the increasing economic demand of the central power over the population was probably not backed by a well-rooted hierarchical social structure nor by vast productive territories, as it was in Mesopotamia. No evidence of a real urbanization process can be attested at Arslantepe or in the entire Middle-Upper Euphrates Valley. The lack of urbanism was both the characteristic feature and the weakness of the Arslantepe Early State organization.
The system’s collapse was inevitable: the palace was destroyed by a violent fire, never to be rebuilt, and the history of power at Arslantepe was to take a new turn, full of fluctuations, abrupt transformations, and regressions. Ultimately a new political revival is documented under the Hittite Empire influence in the second millennium BCE, later culminating in the rise of a local kingdom (the Neo-Hittite Kingdom of Melid) from the disruption of the Central Anatolian Empire at the beginning of the Iron Age.
Marcella Frangipane is Full Professor of ‘Prehistory and Protohistory of the Near East’ at the Department of Antiquities, Sapienza University of Rome. She was also the Director of the National School of Specialization in Oriental Archaeology from 2000 to 2003. She has participated in excavations at Neolithic and Chalcolithic/Bronze Age sites in Italy, and has been field co-director of the Italian excavations in the Late Predynastic site of Maadi, Cairo (Egypt). Since 1976 she has participated as field codirector in the excavation project of the Sapienza University of Rome “Italian Archaeological Expedition in Easter Anatolia” at Arslantepe-Malatya (Turkey), under the directorship of Salvatore Puglisi and Alba Palmieri. Since 1990 she has served as the director of the project, leading the excavations and researches at Arslantepe, Malatya and Zeytinli Bahçe, Urfa (Turkey). She has coordinated three National Research Projects on: “The Origin of the state and the role of bureaucracy in the Ancient Near East” and “Forms of central control on the economy by the first centralized societies in Anatolia and the Aegean”. Professor Frangipane is corresponding member of the Archaeological Institute of Germany (2001), and foreign associate member of the National Academy of Sciences in USA (2013). Since 2011, she has served as the Editor in Chief of the Journal ORIGINI.
Marcella Frangipane (Sapienza University of Rome)
(Source: Research Center for World Archaeology, Shanghai Academy)