The discovery of yesterday

By Tiffany McElroy

More than 50 years ago, mystery novelist Agatha Christie and her husband Sir Max Mollowan, a British archeologist, travelled to Northeast Syria in search of the lost city of Urkesh.

After just two days of digging, they gave up, leaving the mystery unsolved but also leaving behind a clue to the city's location.

But now after more than eight years of excavations, the mythical city of Urkesh has been found by a team of persistent archeologists from all over the world, including UCLA.

"Its not like finding Santa Barbara; it's like finding Los Angeles," said Marilyn Kelly-Buccellati, an art history professor at Cal. State Los Angeles.

Urkesh was the capital of a kingdom and a sacred religious center to its people, who were known as the Hurrians. The city's population was approximately 20,000. Most of the history of the Hurrians comes from a people known as the Hittites who lived in central Turkey about 1,000 years ago and picked up much of the Hurrian culture and religion.

"(Urkesh) is/was a very sacred place, but it was mythical as far as we knew," said Giorgio Buccellati, a professor emeritus of near eastern languages and cultures at UCLA and the chief archeologist of the expedition.

"Urkesh was a very holy city, like Mt. Olympus was for the Greeks, and what is unique about Urkesh is that it is the only ancient city found in Syria known to have a primordial god," he added.

There is little known about the Hurrians,whose history dates back about 4,000 years. Along with several myths, the only other suggestion that Urkesh existed was through a brief passage in the Old Testament.

However, much of the Hurrians' forgotten history was considered to be legend and most historians did not believe Urkesh had existed. Proof of the city came about two years ago, however, when the international team uncovered sealed impressions, clay tablets, metal tools and drawings which revealed that the ruins of Urkesh were beneath the modern city of Tell Mozan in Syria.

"We were very excited because we never knew if it existed or not," the chief archeologist said. "Urkesh now has a geographical as well as a mythical location."

Before the excavation of Urkesh, there were several clues that pointed to the city's existence. Ancient road maps were found that located the general area in which Urkesh was located.

The most critical clue was the discovery of two bronze lion statues. Scholars deciphered the unusual writing inscribed on the base of each statue, which spelled out "Urkesh." Also, the various names of several kings, queens and gods were etched into the bronze.

Of the variety of clay seal imprints found, many had inscriptions of Tupkish, the king of Urkesh, and his wife, Uqnitum. These two royal figures were unknown, even in myth.

Many of the objects uncovered, however, had the symbol of the queen on them. Uqnitum appeared to have her own royal storehouse and her own land. This is seen as evidence that some women in the Hurrian society had considerable power.

"The queen appears to be identified by a hair spindle," Marilyn said. "The spindle is connected to her and has something to do with her royal status."

Giorgio and his team of archaeologists found more than 600 objects with sealed impressions, shards of pottery, about 300 small clay figures of animals and a temple 30 feet wide. Sheets of clay were thought to be written on by Hurrian students learning to write in the ancient Hurrian cuneiform.

San-xi Xu, a UCLA graduate student of near eastern studies, participated in the excavation two summers ago as a part of a field studies program led by Giorgio. Xu studied cunei language in his native China and helped translate the ancient language on some of the tablets.

"I personally found a few tablets of the writings of Hurrian students, and I have already translated some of the writings," he said. "I hope to participate in the book that will be written on the findings in the near future."

Raju Kunjummen, a UCLA graduate student in near eastern studies, also went to Tell Mozan two summers ago a part of his class curriculum.

"At first, I did not know what to expect, and after finding ancient objects, I was very excited," he said. "I hope to go back to help excavate other parts of the site, and to help with the book that Professor (Giorgio) Buccellati will be working on."

The scholars will publish a book next year documenting the artifacts and their significance. Even with publication in the works, the project is not over. There are still parts of a large temple that have not yet been excavated, and the archeology team will be back in Syria this summer to find more clues about the newly discovered city and culture.

"(The discovery) is very important," said Harry Hoffner, a professor at the University of Chicago who studies the Hittite civilization. "What we know of the Hurrians through the Hittites is intriguing, but it is only the surface.

"(The Hurrians) were among the major superpowers of that era," he added. "I would like to penetrate to the origins of their civilization. Urkesh gives us the opportunity to do that."