Tell Asmar - The Early Dynastic Mesopotamian Capital of Eshnunna

Mesopotamian Capital City on the Diyala Plain of Plain of Iraq

Bearded Male Figurine from Tell Asmar
Bearded male worshipper with cup, Tell Asmar, Square Temple of Abu, Shrine II, Early Dynastic period, 2700-2600 BC, gypsum, bitumen, shell, lapis lazuli - Oriental Institute Museum, University of Chicago. Daderot, Oriental Institute

Tell Asmar (also known as Asmar, Eshnunna or Ashnunnak) is an ancient mound located in the Diyala Plain of Iraq, about 80 kilometers (50 miles) northeast of Baghdad. The site is an enormous tell, a large stacked mound containing the ruins of continuous occupation between about 3200-1700 BC. The rulers of Tell Asmar are the first historically-attested dynastic kings in Mesopotamia, a period known as the Early Dynastic, between about 3000-2350 BC.

Asmar is built of centuries of fired mud brick architectural remains of residential structures, palaces, paved streets, courtyards, an extensive water control system and pottery kilns. The Abu Temple is an enormously important piece of architecture at Tell Asmar, which was built and rebuilt several times over the life of the site. Deep beneath the floor of the Square Temple period at the Abu Temple was discovered the Asmar Sculpture Hoard, a cache of 12 carved "geometric style" statuettes, standing men and women with large eyes, upturned faces and clasped hands.

Some Rulers of Eshnunna

There is ample evidence proving that Tell Asmar was the site of the provincial capital of Eshnunna during the Ur and Babylonian periods (2065-1762 BC) of Mesopotamia. Some of the rulers of this period are known, their names found on impressed clay cuneiform tablets within the site's archaeological deposits, and on inscribed bricks making up the site's architecture.

  • Su-Ilija
  • Nur-ahum (2010-? BC)
  • Kirikiri
  • Bilalama
  • Isar-ramasu
  • Usur-awassu (about 1950 BC)
  • Azuzum
  • Ur-Ninmar
  • Ur-Ningiszida
  • Ipiq-Adad I (~1900 BC)
  • Narim-Sin (actually ruled Sippar)
  • Sarrija
  • Belakum
  • Warassa (ca 1860 BC)
  • Dadusha
  • Ibalpel
  • Ipiq-Adad II

The Abu Temple

The main temple at Tell Asmar is called the Abu Temple, which was excavated under the direction of Henri Frankfort at the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute in 1932-33.

The temple was named after the god Abu, because an inscribed copper bowl found nearby was dedicated to him: the principal god at Eshnunna was Tishpak.

Excavations of the temple identified four major building periods in the three meters (about 10 feet) of deposit, with several intermediate repairs and reconfigurations. Those main periods reflect architectural and stylistic changes of the material culture at Asmar, and have been used to identify the major periods of occupation for all Early Dynastic Mesopotamia.

  • Single Shrine, Early Dynastic III, realistic-style sculpture
  • Square Temple, Early Dynastic II, geometric-style sculpture, Tell Asmar sculpture hoard (found 45 cm beneath the floor of the Square Temple), Fara style glyptic cylinder seals
  • Archaic Shrine, Early Dynastic I, Fara elegant style sculpture
  • Earliest Shrine, Proto-literate

Architecture and Style Changes

The Abu Temple's pronounced architectural changes and distinctive sculptural styles--the staring eyes of the Asmar Hoard contrast sharply with the more realistic sculpture of the Single Shrine period--are what defined the periodization for the Early Dynamic (ED) in Diyala. Evans, however, notes that the geometric style was present in temple contexts throughout the ED at Tell Asmar.

Another characteristic of ED was Fara-style glyptic cylinder seals, stone cylinders carved with fantastic friezes of humans, animals and imaginary creatures engaged in conflict.

Within the excavations of the extensive Ur III/Old Babylonian palace and temple complex was a collection of approximately 1,400 cuneiform tablets made of unbaked clay; another 157 were discovered in later trenches. Of these, 59 were letters or fragments of letters. Many of them were addressed to rulers of Eshnunna: Kirikiri, Bilalama, Ur-Ninmar, Ipiq-Adad I. The letters, written in Akkadian, cover political issues, news, gossip, military actions, and complaints from the relatives, spies and rivals of the kings of Tell Asmar.

Archaeology

Tell Asmar was part of extensive excavations between 1930 and 1936 in the Diyala Plain by the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute: together those studies first defined the Early Dynastic period of Mesopotamia.

About 25% of Tell Asmar (including an area of some 70,000 square meters) was excavated by a team led by Henri Frankfort. Laboratory analysis began under the leadership of McGuire Gibson as the Diyala Project, and continues into the 21st century led by Clemens Reichel. One of the aims is to include a complete digital archive of the artifacts.

Sources

The OI's Diyala Project website is an excellent place to find additional information, including free downloads of complete monographs.

Dimand MS. 1945. A Sumerian Sculpture of the Third Millennium B.C. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 3(10):253-256.

Evans JM. 2007. The Square Temple at Tell Asmar and the Construction of Early Dynastic Mesopotamia, ca. 2900-2350 B.C.E. American Journal of Archaeology 111(4):599-632.

Frankfort H. 1935. Tell Asmar, Khafaje, and Khorsabad: Second Preliminary Report of the Iraq Expeditions. Chicago: The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.

Frankfort H. 1939. Sculpture of the Third Millennium B.C. from Tell Asmar and Khafajah. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Frankfort H, Jacobsen T, and Preusser C. 1932. Tell Asmar and Khafaje: The First Season's Work in Eshnunna 1930/31. Chicago: University of of Chicago Press.

Gibson M. 1982. A Re-Evaluation of the Akkad Period in the Diyala Region on the Basis of Recent Excavations at Nippur and in the Hamrin. American Journal of Archaeology 86(4):531-538.

Hilzheimer M, and Brux AA. 1941. Animal remains from Tell Asmar. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Whiting Jr. RM. 1987. Old Babylonian Letters from Tell Asmar. Chicago: The Oriental Institute.