The word tell is pre-islamic and refers to those clearly defined man-made settlement mounds which are such an archeological feature in Iran, Iraq, Palestine, Turkey, Southern Russia, and a few places in Europe. In recent times these mounds have generally been inhabited; nevertheless they are the result of occupation over several millennia. Some places such as Erbil and Kirkuk are still lived ‘on’ and have been more or less continuously inhabited since ancient times- perhaps 6-8 thousand years.
The way a tell is made is by a city constructing its newer buildings over the ruins of old ones. In Mesopotamia, and other river valley places, most buildings were made of simple sun-dried mud fired bricks, and the fired bricks were generally only used for facing city walls or maybe palaces and temples. the life span of these mud fired bricks was probably limited to about 75 years, before general weathering would bring about collapse.
The rubble would then be levelled to provide the foundations for the new house , thereby raising the effective ground level slightly. This process was normally continuous, the city regenerating itself cell by cell, although complete rebuilding after some sort of natural disaster, war, or long unoccupied period could happen too. A similar process has raised many cities quite a considerable height above their original level; London and Rome for example are characterised by having historic buildings with ground floors well below adjoining streets.
In some areas, where cities have been empty for long periods dust can accumulate naturally. Rudolf lanciani, in ‘The Ruins and Excavations of Ancient Rome’, describes that “in the Forum of Trajan was no cleaned and swept once a week, at the end of a year it would be covered by an inch of dust- 100 inches at the end of a century.”
These tells conjure images of the ancient tower of babel, the great mountainous tower which men used to try to reach heaven in many ancient texts. The presence of layering and history, and the slow building of something monumental and permanent over time is interesting- almost a sort of man-made anti-erosion. Instead of our impact on the landscape being scraped away by the elements over time, we gradually build a new landscape, over generations and millennia.
If you have seen Anna Herringer’s School in Rudrapur, Bangladesh before, you might have been struck by the innovative use of local materials, or the skillful introduction of Bangla culture through the hanging saris and coloured doors. What you might not notice on first impression, is that the building is the only two-story structure in the area. There is certainly a worldwide prestige in building height, and the small school in rural Bangladesh has become a beacon of hope and future in the community, symbolised and also perhaps aided by its extra height.
Imagine a city defined by tells- what areas would gradually grow higher as others remained the same height? It would be interesting if a sort of anti-hierarchy evolved, where the poorest housing was constantly rising higher and higher on piles of its own rubble while the city halls and banks remained in place at ground level. Perhaps a truly immortal architecture doesn’t necessitate hard-wearing materials at all, and instead could live through these tells; where an architectural need for something on a specific site is so inherent that it is constantly rebuilt in the same place, slowly rising on its own plinth.