The empty stretches of central Turkey have, over the last century, proven to be extremely interesting for archaeologists. Structures and complexes have been unearthed as old as anything on the planet, and of surprising sophistication.
Like the rock cut chambers and dolmens of Malta, these finds seem somewhat untethered from traditional archaeology, partly for their extreme age, partly for the fact that there isn’t really anything like them anywhere else. So we get truly ancient temples, such as that at Göbekli Tepe, but ones covered in animalistic carvings which don’t really fit into a known style.
And, at Arslantepe, we get what may be the very first swords ever made.
The ruins at Arslantepe date back to the 6th millennium BC, making them among the very oldest remains of human civilization, anywhere. But it is the Royal Tomb Complex, dating from the dawn of the bronze age that fascinates, and it would seem that the people who lived here were early innovators in metallurgy, and in forging weapons.
The dating of the Bronze Age complex overlaps with later bronze age layers, which contain recognizably Hittite elements. The Hittites were a well organized and expansive empire who owed much to their military. Did they learn from the work done at Arslantepe?
The Arslantepe Mound itself is huge, a 30 meter (98 feet) tall archaeological tell standing tall and isolated above the Malatya Plain in Turkey. The mound is situated some 15 miles away from the Euphrates river, a very useful location.
According to the evidence that is collected from the mound and the analysis done, the place was occupied for many millennia, with a continuous and active human presence from the 6th millennium BC through to the medieval period. And in all that time they specialized in weapons.
The smiths at Arslantepe were great innovators. As the bronze age progressed, a newer, harder material called arsenical bronze was developed which could be forged into far more durable weaponry than had existed before.
The only problem was that the material was extremely toxic, and led to a situation where metal workers for decades would knowingly work with material that was killing them. However it seems that the smiths of Arslantepe were not satisfied with this situation: evidence from the site shows experimentation with other alloys of bronze, including antimony and nickel.
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During the Chalcolithic period, this mound was an important part of the Mesopotamian civilization. The Mesopotamian history of the area is characterized by the old adobe house ruins present under and around the mound, which predate the Royal Tomb and the swords.
The most prominent period for the Arslantepe Mound was the Later Chalcolithic period, when a huge palace complex was created at the site and used as a military center. The history of the mound also winds through the paths of early bronze-age settlers who created a tomb complex at the place.
The mound also has traces of artifacts and settlements that date back to the middle and late periods of the Bronze age. The many layers of history in the dirt of Arslantepe Mound indicate the presence of a well-defined society and bureaucracy here even before historic texts were recorded. The people who lived in the area must be very advanced and ahead of their time.
But it is the clutch of swords, made of arsenical bronze and of surpassing craftsmanship, that are the most intriguing finds at the site. As mentioned they are the earliest swords ever made, and it seems the first swords were made for the elite.
Swords throughout history have been the traditional weapons of the officer class. While the rank and file often also carried such weapons, as in the Roman army, the primary weapon of the fighting unit was the spear. Does this tradition stem from Arslantepe, where the first swords were creations of extreme value, not for the common man?
The swords themselves are beautiful, all of metal with heavy pommels and light, whip-like blades ensuring they were fast and balanced in the air. Some have inlaid designs around the grip and pommel but these were primarily practical weapons, perhaps a kind of “proof of concept”. Nine in total have been uncovered so far.
Compared to later swords, the differences in design are telling. Excepting some highly specialized later designs such as the rapier and the scimitar, which were designed for a specific fighting style, almost all later swords have much wider, heavier blades. It seems that the original sword makers at Arslantepe felt that a sword attack would come from the point, like a spear, rather than with the edge of the blade.
The ancient mound has also been home to other civilizations and empires, such as the Byzantine empire and of course the Romans. All these eras are traced back to the earth of the Arslantepe Mound because of the artifacts and weapons found there, and the site seems to have never been abandoned throughout its long history.
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Excavation work is still in progress, and deeper secrets are being unearthed at the mound. For example, in recent excavations, archaeologists have discovered lion statues that go back many centuries. The excavations have also revealed the presence of an overturned king sculpture under the earth of Arslantepe Mound. This was a valued and a rich settlement.
The adobe palace in the earliest layers of the mound is another advanced structure. The adobe palace has many features, and the most striking one is the ability to carry out rainwater harvesting. The rainwater draining system of the palace allowed the area around the mound to something resembling a city-state, the first in Turkey.
The sculptures and relics found here are similar to the ones seen in Mesopotamian ruins. The finds in the mound are made of many metals and show the journey the entire area went through over the centuries. Archaeologists have found traces of gold, lead, copper, iron and silver in the artifacts found here.
A History not yet Uncovered
The history of the Arslantepe Mound is so extensive that even after decades of excavation, there are still some more artifacts and evidence to unearth. After being considered by UNESCO for world heritage status since 2014, this was officially granted in 2021.
Excavations at the site has been ongoing since the 1930s, when the first French team of archaeologists and explorers began digging at the place. Today, an Italian team led by Professor Marcella Frangipane from Rome La Sapienza University is working at the site, and there are still many discoveries to be made.
The team is working at two different locations of the mound and has successfully excavated pieces of juniper wood, small temples and storage spaces that were used in the bygone era by people settled in the area. The team also found some large walls that were built to protect the city.
These walls are found in the northeastern part of the mound, and have a rubble foundation which leads out to a rubble terrace. There are also artifacts linked with the Iron Age, including ceramics.
Amid the finds that have been made in the area, an ivory plaque with animal figures on it is a major one. The plaque and other findings show that the settlers of the area were not only warriors but also good craftsmen. On the other hand, apart from warfare and artistry, it is possible that the settlers also engaged in trade with the merchants of Anatolia.
Top Image: The Arslantepe complex was awarded UNESCO world heritage status in 2021. Source: Wirestock / Adobe Stock.
By Bipin Dimri