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The project and expedition presentation


Tell Afis is a site documenting many phases tracing a long history of urban development. It emerged during the Late Chalcolithic (4th mill. B.C.) as a fortress controlling the fertile agricultural plan of the Jazr, a crossroads between the Mediterranean and the steppe of the interior. It became a populous, fortified town in the Early and Middle Bronze Ages (3rd-2nd mill. B.C.) and, lastly, a capital and centre of the cult for the Aramaeans during the Iron Age (1st mill. B.C.). The archaeological project was, therefore, aimed at bringing to light and documenting this complex series of phases and developments and, at the same time, analysing the environmental and adaptive dynamics and the material and technological structures of the communities who inhabited the site. The project involved three distinct operations, which were carried out during long annual campaigns in Syria between 1986 and 2010: excavations on the site of Tell Afis, surface prospecting and plotting of the surrounding area, and the study and documentation of the finds.

The excavations had two main objectives. In the first place, to reconstruct the sequence of occupation of the site, that is to say, its history starting with the Iron Age (1st mill.) and its internal phases of regional developments. Secondly, to extensively reveal the buildings and related deposits documenting the most relevant archaeological phases. The uncovering of a long, well-preserved stratification of inhabited quarters with abundant pottery found in context enabled us to determine, for the 1st millennium BC., a new cultural sequence of Iron IA-C, IIA-B,-III, today widely adopted for the Syria of that period. The intensive and lengthy excavations campaigns, moreover, brought to light the sacred monumental area on the Iron II-III acropolis as well as an important administrative building with its small archive of Hittite cuneiform tablets dating to the Late Bronze Age II (1300-1200 a.C.), fortifications and other structures from the Early and Middle Bronze Ages (1800-1600 a.C.), an industrial quarter dating to the period of transition between Early and Middle Bronze I (2100-1900 a.C.), storage buildings of Early Bronze III and IV (2500-2200 a.C.) and, lastly, a stretch of Late Chalcolithic Cyclopic escarpment wall (4000-3700 a.C.) which document a proto-historic process of centralisation unparalleled elsewhere in the region. The surface survey was concentrated on the alluvial plain of the Jazr and the surrounding hills. This enabled us to document sites from varying phases and to outline the development of the first Neolithic and Chalcolithic presence west of the hills and its subsequent extension on the Jazr plain and towards the eastern steppe between the Late Chalcolithic and Iron Ages, with fluctuations within the various phases. The geo-morphological, environmental and settlement characteristics of this region show an intense agricultural use of the central plain, with cereals (especially barley) being the main crops, whilst the western hilly areas appear to have specialised in olive growing and the eastern steppe in an integrated form of agriculture with semi-mobile herding of goats and sheep in limited circuits around the villages and on wider, macro-regional circuits on a seasonal basis. Paleo-botanical analyses reveal the prevalence of barley and olives, confirming the importance of agro-pastoral activities in the area underpinning the lengthy ancient, and current, development of Afis. The third aspect of the project still has the aim of registering and cataloguing the data obtained by means of archaeological and archaeo-metric analyses of materials and paleo-botanic and paleo-zoological residues and remains, C14 analyses, and geo-chemical analysis of the pottery, cooking residues and metals. The were mostly begun during the excavation campaigns and have now being completed and prepared for publication. The work of the Tell Afis research group is, today, concentrated on scanning and digitizing the archives held in the laboratory of Oriental Archaeology at the University of Florence in order to then be transmitted to the central archives of the General Directorate of Antiquities and Museums of Syria. Constant monitoring continues of the site of Tell Afis, its territories and sites examined during the surface survey, as well as the Idlib Museum so as to prepare, when this is possible, for eventual intervention to guarantee their conservation.

The project is supported by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation (DGSP VI), the Fondazione OrMe Oriente Mediterraneo, and the University of Florence. The universities of Pisa, Bologna, Rome “La Sapienza” and Sassari and the Institute for Studies on the Ancient Mediterranean and the Institute for technologies applied to cultural assets of the National Research Council have also all contributed to the project. The activities of the mission to Tell Afis have been made possible and have always had the support of the Syrian Directorate of Antiquities and Museums, of its inspectors at the mission itself, its officials in the Museums of Iblib and Aleppo, our guards at the site and the numerous labourers who have worked with us on a daily basis for years. Their friendship and dedication have left an indelible memory in all of us.