We have been calling Tell Mozan/Urkesh an Early Bronze Age (3150–2200 B.C.) Hurrian city. But how can you identify an archaeological site as belonging to a specific ethnic group?

Material culture is of little use, for there is no broad consensus as to what, if anything, might be distinctively “Hurrian” in ceramic manufacture, artistic style, architectural design—in the things you find in excavations. How can you identify a city’s material remains as Hurrian until you’ve already found a Hurrian city to use as an exemplar?

Ethnic solidarity involves the awareness of a special type of self-identity on the part of a social group. It spans many generations. It is not necessarily linked to specific organizational mechanisms, such as an administrative apparatus. It develops an ideology of solidarity that is rooted in kinship. And it is rich in symbols that affirm its cohesiveness.

All these factors contribute to the development of shared cultural traits, which we can observe and recognize. However, no single trait, in and of itself, defines ethnic identity. Worshiping a certain deity, speaking a common language, cooking a particular dish or wearing a distinctive garment may be powerful symbols of ethnicity, but none alone constitutes ethnic identity. What is specifically ethnic involves clusters of traits. There might also come a point when a trait cluster evolves into something quite different and, therefore, ethnic identification alters—for example, from English to American or Australian. The point is that ethnic identity is a slippery concept, especially in dealing with the material remains of a long-gone civilization.

We have found cuneiform texts at Urkesh with Hurrian names. But a few names are not a sufficient indication of ethnic identity, particularly when just as many other names in the texts are not Hurrian. For example, the names of the king (Tupkish), the nurse (Zamena) and the cook (Tuli) are Hurrian, but the names of the queen (Uqnitum) and another official (Innin-shadu) are Akkadian.

In the end, we must look at recurring clusters of traits in order to identify a site as belonging to one ethnic group or another. Following are several traits that identify Urkesh as Hurrian:

Besides having Hurrian names, the kings of Urkesh bear the distinctively Hurrian title endan, not used elsewhere in ancient Syro-Mesopotamia. Urkesh’s rulers, and perhaps their subjects, identified themselves as a specifically Hurrian political entity.

More importantly, there are political and religious texts written in Hurrian and referring to Urkesh. This implies not only a common language and some level of literacy but also shared social and cultural traditions. Texts like the Kumarbi Cycle develop over time—not only does the language have to find a script (in this case, cuneiform) but the oral stories have to be collected, written down, and perhaps edited. The Hurrian stories were eventually passed on to other cultures, meaning that something specifically Hurrian lasted long enough to become known to its neighbors.

Moreover, the myths themselves describe an original landscape—where the congruence of mountains and cities is central, and where phenomena like volcanic eruptions are described with a vividness that suggests direct experience. (This rootedness in a certain landscape may explain why the Hittite translations of Hurrian myths keep so faithfully to the north Mesopotamian settings.) These texts, in other words, are not only written in Hurrian; they also reflect a distinctive physical world. It is the myths, not just their language, that is Hurrian. And Urkesh plays a central role in this mythology.

Once we establish a basic Hurrian cluster of traits, other characteristics fall into line. The realism of the Hurrian glyptic style (the practice of carving or engraving on cylinder seals); the peculiar recurrence of gestures, such as the touching of the lap; the suggestion that a special meal of lamb and cream may have been important to the royal house (as shown on the cook’s seal); the stone architecture. If some or all of these traits are found at a site, then it, too, may well be Hurrian.