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Mitanni and Nuzi

30 July 2010
Ancient history

Revision of history is rarely mentioned on In the News, mainly as it is a speculative subject. In addition, it is very often a personal creation that may not be in tune with what others have in mind. However, Barry Curnock (author of a couple of articles in SIS journals recently and a speaker at an SIS meeting in Redhill a couple of years ago) has just posted a short paper on Mitanni and Nuzi on the Eric Aitchison chronology thread in which members of SIS interact with each other (and non-members too). The chronology thread is thriving and a variety of issues have been aired over the past couple of years. Nuzi is located 15 miles south of Arapkha (modern Kirkuk) and the fortunes of both were intertwined. For a period of a couple of centuries there is evidence of a Hurrian population element living amongst the inhabitants of the region, and the names of kings of Mitanni such as Saustatar and Paratarna (Baratarna) are mentioned. They also occur at a contemporary location in Syria east of the Euphrates, at Tell Brak (the purported heart of the empire of Mitanni). The capital city of Mitanni has never been discovered, to add to the confusion, but is generally thought to be somewhere close to Tell Brak. However, this particular part of the empire was known in Egyptian sources as Hanigalbat – hence it was a province of the empire. The capital of Hanigalbat need not be the capital of Mitanni. Getting back to Curnock, he says Nuzi level II (the Hurrian period) is generally dated 1500-1350BC and some 5000 clay tablets were found there. He then describes some art and artifacts as out of place in a second millennium context, such as brass jewellery which is generally thought to have a first millennium development. However, art is somewhat fluid, but metal techniques such as brass making are quite different, and if he is right Nuzi II must be redated much later than it is in the conventional scheme – and he proposes a revision of 600 years at this point. Curnock goes on to say that would mean also relocating Tell Brak level II and Alalakh IV by the same number of years, as they all exhibit the same Hurrian culture.

In the 9th and 8th centuries BC the eastern and north eastern neighbours of the Assyrians were Hurrians, and later, the kingdom of Urartu, in the highlands around Lake Van, expanded and unified many small Hurrian kingdoms in mountain valleys in precisely the same sphere. Hence, Curnock makes a comparison with the empire of Mitanni. While it is easy to think of objections to this rearrangement of chronology, not least the Middle Assyrian reference to the land of Mitanni in an inscription from the reign of Tiglath Pileser I, there is also a nice sort of symmetry to the proposal, bringing together disparate references to Hurrians in the Late Bronze era and the expansion of Urartu in the 8th and 7th centuries. Curnock is suggesting that Nuzi II is redated to 880-740BC and quotes John Dayton’s Minerals, Metals, Glazing and Man abook that influenced a lot of SIS revisionism in the 1980s and 1990s. Dayton argued that Mitanni culture should be downdated by around 600 years on the evidence of glazing techniques, and similarities between the Late Bronze artifacts and those of the 9th century BC (and later). This works out roughly as 900-750BC and has subsequently been adopted by Curnock. His arguments on pottery are more complex and this would probably involve the largest criticism – but Curnock, and Alan Montgomery, have some interesting theories on pottery in general, particularly Mycenaean IIIA/B/C. Curnock also proposes to identify Saustatar of Mitanni (known from Nuzi) with Sarduri II of Urartu (but again, there are problems with such a synchronism, that a conventional historian would make). The jury is out – as it is in any revision. 

Other revisionists have largely concentrated their endeavours on reinterpretation of texts and documents and very often the archaeology has been ignored. Others thought the deeds of kings might have been duplicated, on the theory that ancient kings possessed a number of throne names, or were known by different names in different regions. Others have focussed on little known periods of history, the so called Dark Ages, and achieved some success by closing the gaps – but in some ways it is like arguing from lack of evidence. Others have simply become frustrated by the drying up of textual information during the Dark Ages, and pushed their work aside and still wait for illumination from a surprise piece of archaeology that never seems to materialise. Rich pickings have been made from the Dark Ages with hypothetical methods of closing the gaps but it should be noted that if major natural disasters had been part of that history and then Dark Ages might reflect the aftermath of them. However, the periods concerned appear too long even for that consideration. Curnock on the other hand chooses to walk straight into some of the best known periods where there are plenty of documents of various kinds. He is not afraid to confront the archaeology, C14 dates, dendrochronology, and proposes a revision that is deeper than the New Chronologies of either Rohl or James (former members of SIS and where their ideas were first given the light of day). Indeed, SIS journals have the basic articles written during the gestation of the New Chronology, from a time when it was a single theory and before the parties went separate ways. Geoffrey Gammon, at that time, was prominent in chronological studies and it is a pity he was not around now to analyse Curnock’s scheme in detail, picking out the chaff from the promising grains. Still, we can’t help but be impressed by Curnock’s diligence, the nuances, and the sheer afrontery of the scheme he has developed (which conforms quite rigidly to the Velikovskian timescale). Well done.

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