Palace economy at Qatna (Tell Mishrife), Syria

Dr. Simone Riehl

The Tell of Qatna, present day Tell-el-Mishrife in the Wadi il-Aswad, a tributary of the Orontes river, 18 km northeast of Homs, occupies 1 km², which makes it one of the largest Bronze Age towns in western Syria.

During the 2nd Millennium BC Qatna was situated near the end of the road connecting the middle Euphrates valley, for example Mari by way of Tadmor/Palmyra to the Mediterranean. Another route started from Aleppo, left the Euphrates at Emar and led via Halab, Qatna and Hazor to Egypt. The valley of Homs formed a connection to the Mediterranean near the port of Byblos and Tripoli, running between the Lebanon and the Ansari-mountains.

Massive research gaps exist, regarding the Late Bronze and the Early Iron Age environmental and economic development in southern and western parts of Syria.

Qatna, together with other sites in the area (Tell Atchana and Emar), is subject to the investigation of palaeoenvironmental conditions and ancient economy with archaeobotanical methods.

The archaeobotanical investigations at Qatna by a Spanish-Italian-German group (L. Chocarro-Pena and M. Rottoli and on the remains from the domestic areas, and S. Riehl on the plant remains from the palace) represent an extraordinary chance to approach unsolved questions concerning the Late Bronze and Iron Age economic and environmental history of southern Syria.

Archaeobotanical analysis of the remains from the German excavations started in 2004, although sampling was conducted already in earlier years. In 2005 a flotation machine was built to meet the requirement for larger samples.


Not much archaeobotanical research has been conducted in southern Syria (south of the 36° latitude), whereas most of the investigated sites concentrate in the Euphrates and Upper Khabur river valleys (see Figure 1). So far archaeobotanical data published on the Late Bronze Age and earlier periods are only available from Tell Afis (TAF; limited to the crops, WACHTER-SARKADY 1998), Tell al-Rawda (RAW, HERVEUX 2004) and Bosra (BOS; limited to charcoal remains for the Islamic period (WILLCOX 1999), and to crop remains from different periods (SAMUEL 1986)) all located in the Western part of the area, and Tell Schech Hamad in the East (TSH, VAN ZEIST 1999/2000 (2001), FREY et al. 1991 ). The archaeobotanical remains from Tell Nebi Mend (TNM) and Umbashi (UMB) date to the Early Bronze Age.

Main research questions, the origin of the samples and methods

It is assumed here that political development is strongly interrelated with economic changes. The economy of the settlement in general, and of the palace in particular is of strong interest regarding the pivotal role Qatna played in the trade between Mesopotamia and the Syrian coast (see also KLENGEL 2000), the archaeologically documented good relations with Egypt, and the literary transferred information on the Amorite dynasty that reigned over Qatna in the first half of the second millennium. Other political relations that may have been of some economic importance are attested for Alalakh (level VII: palace archives; later destroyed by Hattusilis I; earlier Late Bronze Age according to WOOLLEY 1955). Further, it may be reasonable to assume that the economy must have changed again considerably with the supposed settling of Arameans in the first half of the first millennium BC.

The sites of Qatna (TEMI on the map, Figure 1) and Alalakh (ALA, RIEHL in press b) represent two important research objects to the author for the investigation of economic and political development during the Late Bronze and Iron Age.

So far 44 botanical samples have arrived at the archaeobotanical laboratory of the University of Tübingen. However, the bulk of samples is still on the site, waiting for flotation. The samples analysed so far are all derived from operation G in the palace area, only two samples being taken from the tomb. Some of the samples were processed by bucket flotation. The floats were sorted under the microscope in the archaeobotanical laboratory. Identifications were made with the modern reference collection hosted there and diverse identification literature accessible via Jensen (JENSEN 1998).


About 25% of the samples were without finds, eight of the remaining samples had to be considered as contaminated with modern seeds or as having been derived from disturbed contexts; only two samples had more than 100 seeds, though one of them was from a Middle Bronze Age storage find of barley. In all, about 7000 seeds and fruits have been analysed so far.

Excluding the samples of probably modern origin (The classification of samples as modern in origin has been conducted by methodological means, not by the fact that they contain numerous uncarbonized grape pips (cf. contribution by CHOCARRO-PENA and ROTTOLI)), which are characterised by a large number of uncarbonized grape seeds, and those with less than five remains, which mainly contained barley grains, olive stones and grape pips collected by the excavators from the sediment, a total of 16 samples remained for data analysis.

Considering the chronological designation of the samples, three are from Middle Bronze Age contexts, four from Late Bronze and seven from Iron Age contexts (two samples do not have any chronological affiliation at the moment).

Assuming that these samples are representative for the three a fore mentioned periods in the excavated area, the crop proportions can be described as varying (Figure 2).

During the Middle and the Late Bronze Age, barley (with highest probability the two-row variety Hordeum distichum L.) was most common for the sampled area, followed by olive (Olea europaea L.). Only the Iron Age samples deviate more significantly from this picture, as the most numerous remains derive from grape pips (Vitis vinifera L.), although barley still is represented in relatively high counts. Hulled wheat (emmer (Triticum dicoccum Schrank), and probably also einkorn (Triticum monococcum L.) are present, but only in small numbers. Fig (Ficus carica L.), bitter vetch (Vicia ervilia (L.) Willd.), and free-threshing wheat (Triticum aestivum/durum) are only present with one record each. The low number of chaff remains correlates with the idea of primarily crop products in the palace in contrast to crop-processing by-products (see, e.g., KLENGEL 2000, 246).

Grapes for wine, and olives for oil production were probably the most important economic plants in relation to supra-regional trade , and are therefore strongly represented in the palace area.

There are parallels to the crop finds in the area investigated by Chocarro-Pena and Rottoli (operation J). These are

  1. the dominance of the undemanding two-row barley (ZADE (1933) relates this to the short growing and ripening period of barley.) in many samples, in contrast to much fewer remains of the more demanding wheat, which actually applies to most of the Late Bronze Age Near Eastern sites (RIEHL and NESBITT 2003).

  2. a dominance of lentil over all other pulses

  3. a high ubiquity of grapes, appearing partially uncarbonized in the Iron Age samples (compare CHOCARRO-PENA and ROTTOLI)

In contrast to the finds in operation J, where emmer virtually disappears after the Early Bronze Age and which is a general trend in Syrian sites (see CHOCARRO-PENA and ROTTOLI, this volume and cited references therein), in the palace area emmer increases from the Middle Bronze Age until the Iron Age. Assuming these preliminary results to be representative for the palatial economy during these periods, emmer may have represented a crop of specific value, and is therefore better represented in the palace than in the domestic areas.

The similarity of the wild plant assemblages was very striking, suggesting that the crop remains stored in the palace were grown in the same fields as those found in the domestic areas. The number of the taxa present in different periods of the palace varies from 21 in the Middle Bronze Age samples, 14 in the Late Bronze Age, to 30 in the Iron Age samples (see list of taxa below). While the small-seeded legumes (Fabaceae) are most numerous in the Middle Bronze Age samples, the small-seeded grasses (Poaceae) are the most frequent finds in the Iron Age samples.

The find of the grain weevil (Sitophilus granarius) in an Iron Age sample from a vessel (in the floor of palace room EA) arises the question of the role of pests in Qatna’s storage economy. These weevils were also found at other Near Eastern sites, e.g., at Early Bronze Age Emar (RIEHL 2001) and various sites in the southwestern Levant (KISLEV 1991), as well as in Early Bronze Age Egypt ( in the graves of the Pharaos of the 9th dynasty, 2300 BC).

Adults weevils place their eggs preferentially underneath the seed coat of cereals. After hatching the larvae feed and pupate within the grain. They belong to the most destructive storage pests, as they completely eat the product. They shun the light and usually affect cereals with a high moisture content. To reduce the amount of infestation, cereal grains should be moved, but to completely avoid infestation only cool storage or an oxygen-tight seal may help (cf. SEEHER 2000).The sample that contained the weevil seems to be a secondary fill of the vessel. The main proportion are wild or weedy taxa, followed by cereal taxa that are composed mainly of chaff remains of the hulled wheat. There are only a few grains of barley. Probably the remains represent accumulated crop processing by-products and wasted grains from cleaning storage facilities, which originally contained some pest insects. It would be interesting to explore the storage facilities in the site to find out whether insect pests may have been a problem at any time.

Previous environmental research by the geoarchaeological team has demonstrated for the Mishrifeh region that there was a considerably large presence of water at least from the Early Bronze to the Iron Age (CREMASCHI, et al. 2004; CREMASCHI 2003). Anthropogenic impact was recognized from Early Bronze Age IV onwards by the increase in indicators for open vegetation.

So far, neither in the samples from the palace area at Qatna were typical moisture indicating plants found, nor were they revealed from the domestic area, although they are usually very common in sites near water reservoirs. This fact suggests that the archaeobotanical assemblages investigated so far are not fully representative, and justifies the expectation of finding moisture-indicating plants with further sampling of the different areas.


The goal of evaluating the environmental and technical conditions of plant production can be realized by the identification of wild plant species. This approach includes the application of multivariate statistics in combination with the information on weed ecology. Another method, which may be applied in the future to detect growing conditions of crop plants is the analysis of stable carbon isotopes in carbonized prehistoric crop taxa (e.g. ARAUS, et al. 1997; ARAUS, et al. 1998).

An aspect of socio-economic importance is the identification of labor and activity patterns, i.e. how and where crop-processing and storage were conducted within the whole settlement. Finds of storage facilities are rarely undisturbed (one of the exceptions are the silo finds at Bogazköy; NEEF 2001). Very often patterns are not so clear in the archaeological record, and even more vague are locations of crop-processing. Simple statistical methods, but also more sophisticated multivariate statistics enable the archaeobotanist to detect probable storage locations and crop- processing patterns (e.g. JONES 1987, see also contribution CHOCARRO-PENA and ROTTOLI).

Another important aspect to bring light onto ancient social structures within the urban site, is to investigate whether there were social differences between different areas within the settlement (i.e. the composition of the storage and/or diet in domestic and palatial areas). With a considerable amount of plant remains from a site, different social patterns can be investigated by the analysis of proportions of different crop plants in different areas. The necessary precondition for this approach is a systematic sampling of a large excavated area with a broad spectrum of different settlement structures. The comparison of the archaeobotanical results of the Spanish, Italian and the German team will enable to be gained a largely comprehensive insight into such questions.

An interdisciplinary consideration of the plant remains and animal bones is necessary to reconstruct a complete picture of subsistence and agricultural economy, and is one of the archaeobiological goals within the excavations at Tell Mishrifeh. Questions such as whether domestic animals were fed on crops can be answered by the analysis of dung remains, but possibly also by stable isotopes on animal bones (compare the contribution by E.VILA).

The environment and its development under anthropogenic influence and other natural factors is also the focus of archaeobotanical investigation, as it defines the possibilities of cultural development during different periods. A contribution to the reconstruction of the prehistoric environment will be the evaluation of the wild plant flora as distinct from the weed flora. Not only seeds from wild plants, but also charcoal remains provide good possibilities to reconstruct the ancient environment ( RIEHL in press a, WILLCOX 1999, ASOUTI and AUSTIN 2005).

Beside the classical investigation of the composition of the woodland vegetation, methods of quantifying the amount of woodland through time are applied, which are based on the hypothesis that with a decrease in wood for fuel, an increase in the use of dung takes place, which would be represented in the ratio of wild plant seeds to charcoal remains (e.g., Miller in SCHWARTZ, et al. 2000). Aside from various methodological problems (starting with the often questionable identification of dung contexts as to problems of quantification of charcoal), this kind of approach can at least be used as an additional source of information. Ecological classification of the identified plant remains in multivariate applications will enable environmental pattern searching to be conducted (RIEHL in press a). Charcoal analysis at Tell Mishrife and several other sites in the larger area is being conducted by Katleen Deckers within a joint archaeobotanical-geoarchaeological project at the University Tübingen, and will hopefully reveal patterns of woodland distribution for the underinvestigated area of the western central Levant

Having answered the above mentioned questions for a specific period, it will be of interest to discover variation in patterns over time, and how they compare to other relevant sites (e.g. Tell Atchana, Emar, Tell Mozan).


I thank Prof. Dr. Peter Pfälzner and PD Dr. Mirko Novák for providing samples from the palace area, and Dr. Daniele Morandi Bonacossi who offered useful information on the environment of Qatna.

I also owe many thanks to Dr. Leonor Chocarro-Pena and Dr. Mauro Rottoli, who shared their botanical results on operation J, and thus enabled scientific exchange.

Financial support was provided by the “Strukturfond of the Tübingen University”.


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