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Pre-Historic Tell Matarrah (Samarran Culture)

Note: Matarrah was at first thought to be a southern variant of the
Hassunan Culture by Robert Braidwood et al (University of Chicago Press) ...

Matarrah was one of the first Samarran sites excavated and was originally thought to be Hassunan as Samarran pottery was thought at the time simply to be a Hassunan luxury ware. Braidwood et al (1952) published a fairly thorough report on its pottery and the structure of its decorative styles (1).

The site is south of Kirkuk in the piedmont zone of northeastern Iraq about 220 metres above sea level and overlooking a broad plain except to the east. A small wadi arising in the Kani Domlan-Jabal Tasak ridge to the east would have supplied water to the foot of the mound but today only flows in winter and spring. Today it lies just above the 200 mm isohyet but while occupied may have had somewhat more mean annual precipitation than today (ibid).

Matarrah is a crescent-shaped mound about 200 metres in length and 8 metres high with some 4 to 5 metres of occupational sediment. The earliest level (VI/5) of the site has no architecture and may represent the founders’ campsite. Later levels had tauf (adobe) rectilinear architecture, best exposed in Area IX of the excavation. Houses had at least four rooms associated with courtyards and although the exposures were not large enough to be certain some of them may conceivably have been similar in plan to Tell Sawwan’s “T-shaped” houses as evidenced by rows of very small chambers and hallways running parallel to larger rooms. Horseshoe-shaped clay ovens were built into some of the walls and hearths include simple patches of fire-hardened earth and sherd-lined shallow depressions. There were also bitumen-lined pits and features and several fire-reddened pits (ibid).

The lower levels have coarse and fine wares with incised decoration but they are different from the archaic Hassuna or Hassuna standard wares. However there are some parallels with the Hassunan including the presence of "husking trays". The later levels have large quantities of Samarran painted pottery. The excavations also recovered very small numbers of Halaf and Ubaid sherds from the upper levels and surface

Matarrah: A Southern Variant of the Hassunan Assemblage Excavated in 1948
Robert Braidwood et al (Journal of Near Eastern Studies)
Volume 11 [1952] Library of Congress # DS 41 J6

The site of Matarrah lies in the Kirkuk liwa of north central Iraq at a general elevation above sea level of about 220 metres. This location is some 34 kilometers south of the city of Kirkuk. The mound rises some eight metres above the surrounding plain. Excavations indicated that only about half of this elevation consisted of occupational debris, the lower core being a small natural hill. The plan profile of the mound is roughly ovoid and about 200 metres in diameter (A).

Soon after the war the Oriental Institute began making plans for the resumption of excavation in Iraq. When it was decided to give our attention first to the elaboration of the general picture of the beginnings of food-production and the establishment of the village economy --- a range on which attention had been particularly focused owing to the remarkable series of excavations carried on by the Iraq Government's Directorate General of Antiquities during and just following the war --- we communicated our interests to the Director General of Antiquities. The Directorate particularly called our attention to the site of Matarrah and also to the site of Qalat Jarmo. Our decision was to excavate at Matarrah and to seek a one month sounding permit for Jarmo. We are deeply indebted to the Directorate General of Antiquities for its helpful role in the success of our season's work at both Matarrah and Jarmo (ibid).

Note: Matarrah lies on the hilly flanks of the Fertile Crescent (See 2 Below). It is on the edge of what is called the isohyet (200 mm rain per year) which determines the amount of winter rains sufficient to yield a grain crop without the need of irrigation ...

The map above (Figure 1) indicates the location of Matarrah as just above the general 200 meter contour. The site might thus be described as lying on the hilly flanks of the “Fertile Crescent”. Under present-day climatological conditions the line of the 200-meter contour might be taken as more or less coincident with the isohyet delimiting the southwestward extent of winter rains sufficient to yield a grain crop without the aid of irrigation. That the position of this isohyet may not have been greatly different during the time of the Hassunan assemblage is indicated by the fact that tells of any sort begin to thin out in the region southwest of Matarrah (as do modern villages). Samarra itself is the one exception we know of south of the Jebal Hamrin or the earlier village-stage materials and it is probably significant that it lies on the Tigris. There were a fair number of tells in the immediate vicinity of Matarrah and their number increases to the north and northwest. We noted Hassunan -- Samarran -- Halaf-- Ubaid and later types of pottery on other mounds in the vicinity of Matarrah especially in surface collections which Dr. Basmachi made during the course of our work at Matarrah. Nevertheless we all came to the conclusion that these indications thinned out entirely some ten or fifteen kilometers south of Matarrah. It is in this sense that we describe Matarrah as a southern variant of the Hassunan assemblage so fully delineated at [sic] the type site by the Directorate of Antiquities’ work under Lloyd and Safar (4). We would hardly suspect that there will be found any more southerly indication of it save along the banks of the Tigris itself (ibid).

It might be observed parenthetically that in view of Lloyd and Safar's suggestion of possible Samarran elements in the basal (pre-Ubaid) painted pottery style at Eridu there would be some importance in the discovery of a Hassunan-Samarran type of site on the Tigris south of Samarra itself. We have never held that the earlier now known village assemblages presuppose an agricultural system based on irrigation. But Samarra, and any site south of it, would seem to lie well below the isohyet of sufficient winter rainfall; and the problem of irrigation might well come into the picture, just as we suppose it must in dealing with any site in southern Iraq, e.g. Eridu (ibid).

We hold that the assemblage now seen most adequately at Hassuna and Matarrah must be moved down to the place of being the second earliest village material available from Iraq; we admit however that our assessment of precedence for Jarmo over Hassuna and Matarrah is based mainly on typological grounds. What we find interesting about Matarrah is the technological variance (as well as general similarity) which its assemblage shows with that of Hassuna. This has obvious cultural implications. Probably Matarrah lay well on the periphery of the Hassuna “heartland”. The remarkably poor quality of the Matarrah chipped-stone work when compared to the examples shown in the Hassuna report and the complete lack of the Hassuna-type “hoes” constitute one peculiar aspect of our site. Another is the lack of any painted pottery style but the Samarran one. We at first believed we were justified in classifying some of the more simple and poorly executed painted sherds as “Hassuna Archaic” or “Hassuna Standard Painted” wares; but we were dissuaded by our colleagues Lloyd and Safar who could of course bank on their own experience with the originals of the wares in question. This left us with a single bulk of painted pottery some of which was practically “classic" Samarran from the point of view of artistic embellishment and the rest aesthetically intermediate or uninspired. This has tended to strengthen our impression that the Samarran painted style may be no more than one aspect of the later phase of the Hassunan assemblage and not the “imported" or “luxury” ware it has sometimes been claimed to be, let alone a “Samarran Culture" in its own right (ibid).

For the rest of its assemblage Matarrah generally parallels that of Hassuna. It was Lloyd and Safar’s opinion that the Fine Incised Ware at Matarrah actually had a greater flourish than at the type site. Otherwise the Matarrah materials were rather technologically inferior to those of Hassuna. Hence our use of the word “variant” (ibid).

(A) Matarrah: A Southern Variant of the Hassunan Assemblage Excavated in 1948
Robert Braidwood (Journal of Near Eastern Studies)
Volume 11 [1952] Library of Congress # DS 41 J6

(1) Encyclopedia of Prehistory: Volume 8: South and Southwest Asia
Edited by Peter Peregrine and Melvin Ember (2003)

(2) The Hilly Flanks and Beyond: Essays on the Prehistory of Southwestern Asia
Presented to Robert Braidwood -- Edited by Cuyler Young et al
The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago (1983)

(3) Prehistoric Investigations in Iraqi Kurdistan
Robert J. Braidwood and Bruce Howe (1960)
The Oriental Institute (University of Chicago)
Pages 26 and 35-7 et al (PDF) 29.1 MB

(4) Tell Hassuna Excavations by the Iraq Government Directorate General of Antiquities in 1943 and 1944
Seton Lloyd, Fuad Safar and Robert J. Braidwood
Journal of Near Eastern Studies (October 1945) Pages 255-289

The History of the Ancient Near East Electronic Compendium