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Mystery Stelae Volume 53 Number 4, July/August 2000
by Veli Sevin

[image] The stelae were found in the southeastern Turkish town of Hakkâri, below a ridge once topped by an Ottoman castle. Analysis of the weapons and figures shown on the stelae suggests that Eurasian nomads had penetrated the region by the early first millennium B.C. The stelae may depict rulers of Hubushkia, a kingdom known from Assyrian annals. (Map by Lynda D'Amico; photograph courtesy Veli Sevin) [LARGER IMAGE] [LARGER IMAGE][image]

Necdet Yilmaz is a retired laborer living in Hakkâri, a small town in the region where Turkey, Iran, and Iraq meet. Hakkâri is surrounded by high mountains; the winters are harsh, and for six months there is a thick snow cover. The town's small, flat-roofed single-story houses are built of mud brick. Necdet Bey lives in just such a house with his wife and five daughters. Each year the roof needs to be repaired with a fresh layer of mud, carefully compacted with a hand roller, for which new soil is needed.

Hakkâri huddles around the flanks of a steep crag surmounted by the ruin of an Ottoman castle. Centuries of erosion have washed down a thick layer of soil onto the bedrock below the castle's north side. Necdet Bey went there late in the summer of 1998, as he had for years before, for soil to spread on his roof. Soon after he began digging, he exposed first one stone face, then another, and yet another, each decorated with strange images.

Necdet Bey had never seen such stones before, though they reminded him of things he had viewed on educational television. After he consulted with his wife, then they reported the discovery to the governor of the city. Within days of the discovery, we--myself and colleagues from the Van Museum and Istanbul University--arrived and excavated a total of 13 stelae of a type never seen before in Anatolia or the Near East. Hewn from a hard local stone, the Hakkâri stelae range from about 28 inches to more than ten feet in height. Chiseled into one surface of each of the slabs is a frontal view of the upper part of a human figure (the legs are not represented). The faces--with round eye sockets, some still inlaid with white stone, and small, closed mouths--have an expressionless, cold demeanor.

[image] Digging soil for the annual refurbishing of his home's roof against the harsh Anatolian winter, Necdet Yilmaz (left) discovered the stelae. The subsequent excavation of the site drew throngs of curious townspeople eager to view the mysterious stelae. (Courtesy Veli Sevin) [LARGER IMAGE] [LARGER IMAGE][image]

Many scholars believe that the Hakkâri region is the location of an independent kingdom known as Hubushkia, centered on the headwaters of the Great Zap River, that appears in the Assyrian annals of the tenth and ninth centuries B.C. The names of some kings of Hubushkia, such as Kaki and Data or Dadi, are preserved in the Assyrian texts, which also record the relations between the Assyrian Empire and Hubushkia during the ninth century. Assyrian expeditions crossed Hubushkia several times, receiving tribute from its kings, or taking it by force when they resisted. Disputed by Assyria to the southeast and the kingdom of Urartu to the northwest, Hubushkia eventually lost its independence. The Hakkâri stelae may have belonged to the rulers of Hubushkia while it was an independent state. Certainly the complete lack of any Assyrian influence on the style of the reliefs indicates that they must have been produced prior to the last quarter of the ninth century B.C.

The best parallels for the Hakkâri stelae are found in the seventh-century B.C. through twelfth-century A.D. balbal or baba of the Eurasian steppe. They may indicate a very early connection between this area and the Eurasian steppe. The Eurasian examples are connected to graves and cults of the dead. It is even thought that the balbal represent victims killed by the person who is buried in that particular grave. A second excavation revealed a chamber tomb only about 50 feet from where stelae had been found. This chamber, which had been partly destroyed, appeared to have been in use for several hundred years from the mid-second millennium B.C. onward. Approximately 50 human skeletons were retrieved from this grave, along with a vast quantity of pottery, bronze daggers, ornamental pins, and gold and silver earrings. Although it appears that this tomb had already gone out of use before the stelae were erected, there is a strong possibility that there may be other tombs found in the area. If excavation of the stelae site, planned for this summer, reveals nearby, contemporary chamber tombs, it might mean that the stelae are related to a cult of the dead.

For the moment, we may state that for whatever reason they were erected, it is certain that these stelae, which may represent the rulers of the kingdom of Hubushkia, were created under the influence of a Eurasian steppe culture that had infiltrated into the Near East.

Veli Sevin is a professor of archaeology at the University of Çanakkale Onsekiz Mart in Turkey.

© 2000 by the Archaeological Institute of America