At Tell Qarqur, Researchers Find Evidence of Continuous Civilization During Period of Collapse

This image captures Tell Qarqur from the east. The mound is located in the Orontes River Valley in northwestern Syria.
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This image captures Tell Qarqur from the east. The mound is located in the Orontes River Valley in northwestern Syria.

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – University of Arkansas archaeologists have found evidence for the continuity of civilization across a time period when civilizations throughout the Middle East and elsewhere were collapsing. Their work occurred at Tell Qarqur, an important archeological site in the Orontes River Valley in northwestern Syria.

“This new evidence shows the survival of a city through this tumultuous period about 4,000 to 4,200 years ago,” said Jesse Casana, associate professor of anthropology. “Our discovery offers a rare glimpse of what cultures were during this transitional time and challenges ideas about the reasons for the collapse in the first place.”

The end of the third millennium B.C. – roughly 2200 to 2000 B.C. – is often described as a dark age because this period experienced the collapse of many major states, including the Akkadian Empire in Mesopotamia, Old Kingdom Egypt and the Harappan culture of the Indus Valley. Major cities and small towns across the Middle East that had been occupied for centuries were suddenly abandoned, leaving a gap in the archaeological and historical record.

“Tells” are the name for ancient cities and towns, preserved today as large mounds, throughout the Middle East. Until the 1980s, little was known about Tell Qarqur, the site of two large mounds that archeologists know was occupied continuously for more than 10,000 years, from 8500 B.C. to the medieval period. Tell Qarqur experienced particularly large occupations during the Bronze and Iron Ages, from 3000 to 500 B.C.

The researchers are now trying to understand why Tell Qarqur survived, when nearly all civilizations in the region during that time collapsed. Some anthropologists have attributed the demise of these settlements to widespread drought. If there was a drought, Casana said, the important question was how it affected the environment and ancient communities, that is, how susceptible were their agricultural strategies to drought and did they adapt to changing conditions? These are some of the questions Casana seeks to answer with continued research at the site.

 Under the auspices of the American Schools of Oriental Research, noted archaeologist Rudolph Dornemann directed excavations at Tell Qarqur for 10 years starting in 1993. In 2004, Casana joined Dornemann as co-director of the project, which is currently jointly sponsored by the American Schools of Oriental Research and the University of Arkansas.

Casana has directed fieldwork at Tell Qarqur every summer from 2005 through 2010. His team has excavated many areas of the site and completed a detailed geophysical survey, which has enabled them, without digging, to map architecture and other features that are deeply buried below the surface. Those results helped guide ongoing excavations and made some of their recent discoveries possible.

At the 76th annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, University of Arkansas graduate student Amy Karoll presented the results of her thesis, which was dedicated specifically to the question of Early Bronze IV occupation at the site and its relationship to other regional settlement histories.

Excavations in June of this year were canceled due to the political unrest in Syria, but the researchers plan to resume work at the site as soon as possible. Finds from the excavation are now on display at the Hama Museum in Hama, Syria, in a new gallery dedicated to the site, funded in part by a grant from the U.S. Department of State.

The Tell Qarqur project has served as a field school for archaeology students at the University of Arkansas. With support from the King Fahd Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies, the project has provided on-site training in excavation and field methods for six to eight undergraduate students each summer.


Jesse Casana , associate professor, anthropology
J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences

Matt McGowan, science and research communications officer
University Relations


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