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Who Were the Hurrians? Volume 61 Number 4, July/August 2008
by Andrew Lawler

New discoveries in Syria suggest a little-known people fueled the rise of civilization


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Excavations at the 3rd millennium city of Urkesh in Syria are revealing new information about the mysterious people who lived there, known as the Hurrians. This view of the city's royal palace shows the service area (left) and living quarters (right). (Ken Garrett)

With its vast plaza and impressive stone stairway leading up to a temple complex, Urkesh was designed to last. And for well over a millennium, this city on the dusty plains of what is now northeastern Syria was a spiritual center for a puzzling people called the Hurrians. All but forgotten by history, their origin remains obscure, but excavations led by husband-and-wife UCLA archaeologists Georgio Buccellati and Marilyn Kelly-Buccellati over the past quarter century reveal that the Hurrians were far more than just another wandering tribe in the fractious Middle East. And during last year's season, they found compelling evidence that the Hurrians not only strongly influenced the language, culture, and religion of later peoples, but also may have been present 1,000 years earlier--just as nearby Mesopotamians began to create the first cities.


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Archaeologist Giorgio Buccellati has been leading excavations at Urkesh for nearly 20 years. (Ken Garrett)

That idea is at odds with a long-held belief among scholars that the Hurrians arrived much later from the Caucasus or some other distant region to the northeast, drawn to the fringes of civilization after the rise of the great southern Sumerian centers of Ur, Uruk, and Nippur. Scholars long assumed that the Hurrians arrived in the middle of the third millennium B.C., and eventually settled down and adopted cuneiform as a script and built their own cities. That theory is based on linguistic associations with Caucasus' languages and the fact that Hurrian names are absent from the historical record until Akkadian times.


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Project ceramicist Marilyn Kelly-Buccellati (right) examines vessels with volunteer archaeologist Mary Stancavage, in the area of the palace where all the pieces were unearthed. (Ken Garrett)

But Piotr Michaelowski, an Assyriologist at the University of Michigan, notes that Hurrian, like Sumerian, is a language unrelated to Semitic or Indo-European tongues that dominated the region during and after the third millennium B.C. Perhaps, he suggests, the Hurrians were earlier inhabitants of the region, who, like the Sumerians, had to make room for the Semitic-speaking people who created the world's first empire based at Akkad in central Mesopotamia around 2350 B.C.

The discovery of a sophisticated city with monumental architecture, plumbing, stonework, and a large population contradicts the idea that Hurrians were a roving mountain people in a strange land. Far from being yet another rough nomadic tribe, such as the Amorites or Kassites who were latecomers to the Mesopotamian party, the Hurrians and their unique language, music, deities, and rituals may have played a key role in shaping the first cities, empires, and states. The language has died, the music faded, and the rituals are forgotten. But thanks to the sculptors, stone masons, and seal carvers at Urkesh, Hurrian creativity can shine once again.

Andrew Lawler is a staff writer for Science.

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