The large mound of Hasanlu Tepe is nestled in the uplands of northwestern Iran, in the verdant Qadar River valley near the southern end of Lake Urmia. The valley led westward to the Kel-i Shin Pass, an important route through the towering Zagros Mountains and down to the heavily settled plains of northern Mesopotamia. Excavations were conducted at the site from 1956–1977 by a joint expedition of the University of Pennsylvania Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; and the Iranian Antiquities Service under the general direction of Robert H. Dyson, Jr. (Director Emeritus of the Penn Museum).
The Hasanlu Project revealed a fairly continuous occupation from the Neolithic (ca. 6000 BCE) to the early Iron Age (1200–330 BCE) with ten major periods. Hasanlu is renowned for its Iron II occupation (1000–800 BCE), when the settlement included a fortified citadel (High Mound) and a surrounding lower town and cemeteries (Low Mound). The Iron II settlement had been sacked and burned ca. 800 BCE, effectively providing a frozen moment in time, with incredible preservation of the buildings, artifacts, and the victims of the attack. Despite this wealth of archaeological data, the ancient name of the settlement still eludes us, as does the ethnicity of the inhabitants. There is no evidence of an indigenous writing system, and the material culture of Hasanlu shows a strong local style but also close contacts with Mesopotamia.
When Hasanlu was defeated ca. 800 BC, the attackers were intent on annihilating the settlement. Neighboring settlement mounds also bear evidence of destruction, suggesting that a large-scale military campaign targeted the valley. Once the attackers breached the citadel’s defenses, they systematically executed the inhabitants in the western sector nearest the gates. The killing was indiscriminate — men, women, and children were brutally murdered. As the attackers reached the inner citadel, the settlement was burning and the enemy had driven many of the residents into the Lower Court area where they were killed or perished in the burning and collapsing buildings. The attackers were intent on looting the riches of the temples, arsenals, and monumental residential structures, and not all of them may have survived the conflagration. The famous Hasanlu gold bowl was found with three soldiers who perished in the flames. In some instances bodies had been stripped of their possessions and others were mutilated. The attackers decapitated many of their victims or cut off their left hands, perhaps as a means of claiming kills after the battle. We are not sure who attacked Hasanlu, but circumstantial evidence points to the Urartians of the Lake Van region. Hasanlu was destroyed when Urartu’s chief rival, Assyria, was weak. Following a period of abandonment, an Urartian fortress was constructed atop the ruins of the destroyed citadel. skeletons b&w Caption: Many of Hasanlu’s residents were trapped in burning and collapsing buildings during the attack on the city. These skeletons were found at the north entrance to Burned Building II, one of the temples in the Lower court area of the citadel. Aerial photograph of Hasanlu Tepe showing the High Mound and Low Mound. Robert H. Dyson with the Hasanlu gold bowl in 1958.