Tell Leilan and the Dynamics of Social and Environmental Forces across the Mesopotamian Dry-Farming Landscape

by Harvey Weiss

Rain-fed northern Mesopotamia, the complement of irrigation agriculture southern Meso- potamia, was selected for a Yale University research program in 1978 because its late prehistoric-early historic, fourth to second millennium BC, developmental trajectory was virtually unknown. Further research quickly led the endeavor to Tell Leilan, an alluring site and hinterland laboratory for defi ning the dynamics of environmental and social forces across the Mesopotamian dry-farming landscape. Tell Leilan is located in the center of the extensive cereal production Khabur Plains of northeast Syria, maximizing cultivable land between the foothills of the Tur Abdin to the north and the Wadi Radd swamp to the south. Here seasonal rainfall (300 – 500 mm/annum), self-mulching soils, and fl at, unbroken topography together provide for the highest rain-fed cereal production in Syria and, along with the plains of Tell Afar and Mosul, probably ancient northern Mesopotamia as well (Weiss 1983a,b; Weiss 1986).

Equally significant, Tell Leilan also offered definition of an early historic developmental para- digm. On May 21, 1878 Hormuzd Rassam looked south from the crest of Do Gir, along the road from Turbe Spid (Qubur el-Bid, Khatuniyah) to Nusaibin, and on the horizon spied Tell Leilan, which he was “told has a wall round it like most of the Assyrian sites of importance” (Rassam 1897: 232 – 233). Thereafter, Assyriologists and archaeologists frequently visited the site, and by mid-century had speculated often that it was ancient Šubat-Enlil, the capital city of Šamšī-Adad’s “Kingdom of Upper Mesopotamia” (Falkner 1957; Hrouda 1958; Van Liere 1963). In the summer of 1978, the nascent Tell Leilan Project generated the fi rst map of Leilan, its wall-enclosed 90 hectare topography, its 15-hectare Acropolis alongside the Wadi Jarrah, and the surface ceramic distributions to encourage archaeological excavations, regional surveys, and paleoenvironmental researches (Fig. 1). Seven research problems at the intersection of environmental and social dynamics have since been addressed with excavation- and survey-retrieved data, high-resolution radiocarbon dating, and paleoenvironmental research.

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