A picture taken from Google Earth with the location of Tell Sabi Abyad in Syria - right in the heart of the Middle East!
Tell Sabi Abyad is located in the Raqqa province of Northern Syria, about 30 km south of the Syro-Turkish border as the crow flies. It is one of the many archaeological sites
in the gently undulating plain of the Balikh river, a perennial of the Euphrates.
The nearest major town is Raqqa on the Euphrates, some 80 km to the south of the site.
Map of Syria with the location of Tell Sabi Abyad
Actually Tell Sabi Abyad consists of a group of four small prehistoric mounds, for reasons of convenience numbered Tells Sabi Abyad I to IV. The sites are between one and five hectares in size and are located in a roughly linear north-south orientation at a distance of, at the most, a few hundred metres from each other. Excavations have been carried out at three of these mounds: Tells Sabi Abyad I, II and III. The fourth mound has been surveyed only and is not available for excavation, since it is used as a cemetery by the inhabitants of the nearby village of Hammam et‑Turkman and therefore almost completely covered by modern graves.
The modern cemetery outside the village of Hammam et-Turkman, situated on the ancient mound of Tell Sabi Abyad IV. In the distance we see the main mound of Tell Sabi Abyad I, with the trenches of excavation.
These investigations showed that the sites were inhabited from about the late eighth till the mid-sixth millennium BC, although they were not all always used contemporaneously: settlement continually shifted back and forward not only between but also within the four mounds in the course of generations and centuries.
The mound of Tell Sabi Abyad I, seen from the west
The mound of Tell Sabi Abyad I, seen from the west
Tell Sabi Abyad I
is the largest of the four mounds and measures about 240 by 170 metres at its base and rises between 5 and 10 metres above the surrounding fields. However,
part of the mound as we see it today is deeply buried below relatively modern (post-Neolithic) alluvial and/or aeolic sediments, and its earliest deposits occur at a depth of 4 metres below the modern field level. Altogether Tell Sabi Abyad may have covered about 5 hectares.
An early morning in May: Tell Sabi Abyad I seen from the north
Seeking to investigate Neolithic occupational remains in broad horizontal exposures, Tell Sabi Abyad I was selected for excavation because survey evidence suggested that layers of the seventh and sixth millennia BC were easily accessible under much of its surface. An extensive programme of excavation in the relatively low southeastern part of the site between 1986 and 1999 – in the so-called Operation I – has revealed a long and continuous sequence of what seem to have been ordinary villages with all their usual connotations, dating from the end of the seventh and the beginning of the sixth millennium, ca. 6200-5800 BC.
Plan of Tell Sabi Abyad I with the location of the trenches and the various operations. At the top of the mound is the large area with the Assyrian fortress of the 12th century BC.
After the completion of the 1999 season, it was decided to interrupt the work in operation I on the southeastern mound and to focus on other, hitherto unexplored, portions of the site. Four areas in different parts of Tell Sabi Abyad I have been opened for excavation since 2001: Operations II to V. Each operation has yielded stratified deposits assigned to the seventh and/or early sixth millennium BC immediately below the present-day surface.
The small mound of Tell Sabi Abyad III, seen from the south
Since 2010, the small 1-hectare site of Tell Sabi Abyad III is the main focus of research in the field. Here layers of the early seventh millennium, ca. 7000-6700 BC, are under excavation, with spectacular results. Very regularly built, tripartite architecture set on platforms has been excavated, as well as many prehistoric graves.
Project director Peter Akkermans and some of his team members in the field
The excavations at Tell Sabi Abyad are carried out under the auspices of Leiden University (The Netherlands) and under the leadership of Professor Peter Akkermans since 1986.
The project takes place under the supervision of the Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums of the Syrian Arab Republic (Damascus). We are grateful to the Directorate-General for its continual assistance and encouragement concerning the research at Tell Sabi Abyad. We also thank the Department of Antiquities in Raqqa for its much-valued help.
It will not surprise you to hear that the summers in Northern Syria are hot, dry and dusty.... From June till September temperatures rise to 40-45 degrees C in the shade. The strong wind, which often rises in the morning, drives the dust over the trenches and does not make the dig any easier.
For the romantics among us: what is more beautiful than sitting among the ruins of a far and distant past, looking at the incredible beauty of the sunset over Tell Sabi Abyad?
Nobly, nobly Cape Saint Vincent to the North-West
Sunset ran, one glorious blood-red, reeking into
(Robert Browning, 1845, Home-Thoughts, from the Sea)
Tell Sabi Abyad I, early in the morning (photo: Karin Schuitema)