What Is a Tell? - The Remnants of Ancient Mesopotamian Cities

Ancient Cities of the Fertile Crescent Occupied for 5,000 Years

Mudbrick Walls and a Shrine at Catalhoyuk Tell, Turkey
Mudbrick Walls and a Shrine at Catalhoyuk Tell, Turkey. Verity Cridland

A tell (alternately spelled tel, til, or tal) is a special form of archaeological mound, a human-built construction of earth and stone. Most types of mounds around the world are built within a single phase or period of time, as temples, as burials, or as significant additions to the landscape. A tell, however, consists of the remains of a city or village, built and rebuilt in the same location for hundreds or thousands of years.

True tells (called chogha or tepe in Farsi, and hoyuk in Turkish) are found in the Near East, the Arabian peninsula, southwestern Europe, northern Africa, and northwestern India. They range in diameter from 30 meters (100 feet) to 1 kilometer (.6 mile) and in height from 1 m (3.5 ft) to more than 43 m (140 ft). Most of them began as villages in the Neolithic period between 8000-6000 BC and were more or less steadily occupied until the Early Bronze Age, 3000-1000 BC.

How Did That Happen?

Archaeologists believe that sometime during the Neolithic, the earliest inhabitants of what would become tells chose a natural rise in, for example, the Mesopotamian landscape, in part for defense, in part for visibility and, especially in alluvial plains of the Fertile Crescent, to stay above annual flooding. As each generation succeeded another, people built and rebuilt the mudbrick houses, remodeling or even leveling the previous buildings.

Over hundreds or thousands of years, the level of the living area became increasingly elevated.

Some tells included walls built around their perimeters for defense or flood containment, which restricted the occupations to the top of the mounds. Most of the occupation levels remained on top of the tells as they grew, although there is some evidence that homes and businesses were built along the base of the tells even as early as the Neolithic.

It may be that most tells have extended settlements that we can't find because they are buried beneath floodplain alluvium.

Living on a Tell

Because tells were used for such a long time, and presumably by generations of the same families sharing cultures, the archaeological record can inform us of the changes over time of a specific city. In general, but, of course, there is a lot of variation, the earliest Neolithic houses found at the base of tells were single-storied one-roomed buildings of basically the same size and layout, where hunter-gatherers lived and shared some open spaces.

By the Chalcolithic period, the residents were farmers who raised sheep and goats. Most of the houses were still one-roomed, but there were some multi-roomed and multi-storied buildings. Variations seen in house size and complexity are interpreted by archaeologists as differences in social status: some people were better off economically than others. Some tells show evidence of free-standing storage buildings. Some of the houses share walls or are in close proximity to one another.

Later residences were thinner-walled structures with small courtyards and alleys separating them from their neighbors; some were entered through an opening in the roof.

A singular style of room found in early Bronze Age levels of some tells is similar to later Greek and Israelite settlements called megarons. These are rectangular structures with an interior room, and an exterior unroofed porch at the entry end. At Demircihöyük in Turkey, a circular settlement of megarons was enclosed by a defensive wall. All of the entrances to the megarons faced the center of the compound and each had a storage bin and small granary.

How Do You Study a Tell?

The first excavations in a tell were completed in the mid-19th century and, typically, the archaeologist simply dug an enormous trench right through the middle. Today such excavations—such as Schliemann's excavations at Hisarlik, the tell thought to be the legendary Troy—would be considered destructive and highly unprofessional.

Those days are gone, but in today's scientific archaeology, when we recognize how much is lost by the process of digging, how do the scientists cope with recording the complexities of such an enormous object? Matthews (2015) listed five challenges facing archaeologists who work on tells.

  1. Occupations at the base of tells could be hidden by meters of slope wash, alluvial floods
  2. Earlier levels are masked by meters of later occupations
  3. Earlier levels may have been reused or robbed to build others or disturbed by cemetery construction
  4. As a result of shifting settlement patterns and variations in construction and leveling, tells are not uniform "layer cakes" and often have truncated or eroded areas
  5. Tells may represent only one aspect of the overall settlement patterns, but may be over-represented because of their prominence in the landscape

In addition, simply being able to visualize the complex stratigraphy of an immense three-dimensional object is not easy in two dimensions. Even though most modern tell excavations only sample a part of a given tell, and archaeological record keeping and mapping methods have advanced considerably with the use of both the Harris Matrix and GPS Trimble equipment widely available, there are still important areas of concern.

Remote Sensing Techniques

One possible assistance to archaeologists would be to use remote sensing to predict features in a tell before beginning excavation. Although there is a wide and growing number of remote sensing techniques, most are limited in range, able to visualize only between 1-2 m (3.5-7 ft) of subsurface visibility. Often, the upper levels of a tell or the off-tell alluvial deposits at the base are zones which are quite disturbed with few intact features.

In 2006, Menze and colleagues reported using a combination of satellite imagery, aerial photography, surface survey, and geomorphology to identify previously unknown remnant roads connecting tells in the Kahbur basin of northern Mesopotamia (Syria, Turkey, and Iraq).

In a 2008 study, Casana and colleagues used low-frequency ground penetrating radar and electrical resistance tomography (ERT) to extend the remote sensing reach into Tell Qarqur in Syria to map subsurface features in the mound to depths greater than 5 m (16 ft).

Excavation and Recording

One promising recording method involves the creation of a suite of data points in three dimensions, to produce a 3-dimensional electronic map of the site that allows the site to be analyzed visually. Unfortunately, that requires GPS positions taken during excavations from the top and bottom of boundaries, and not every archaeological examination of tells has that.

Taylor (2016) worked with existing records at Çatalhöyük and produced VRML (Virtual Reality Modular Language) images for analysis based on Harris Matrices. His Ph.D. thesis reconstructed the building history and plots of artifact types of three rooms, an effort that shows much promise for grappling with the huge amount of data from these fascinating sites.

A Few Examples