By: Jane Moon
The cities of Babylonia, Ur and Uruk, Larsa and Lagash, the very heart of Babylon itself, are the warp-threads of our understanding of ancient Near Eastern civilization. International fieldwork in this seminal area of Southern Iraq petered out in the early 1990s, and in the Ur region, no major excavation had taken place since the 1940s.
The Kurdish region in the northeastern corner of Iraq is alive with archaeological activity, but the rest of the country, including Babylonia, struggles desperately. Meanwhile, oil exploration steadily swallows up vast tracts of land, and there is still looting of archaeological sites. International help is sorely needed, and, while not feasible everywhere, is perfectly possible in many areas. In 2012 Stony Brook University of New York had a team just starting work near Ur, as had the University of Rome, La Sapienza. For myself, I had not excavated in Iraq since 1987. It was time to go back.
The Ur region was explored extensively in the past, most famously by the excavations from 1922 to 1934 directed by Sir Leonard Woolley at the site of Ur (Tell el-Muqayyar) itself. The Ziggurat of Ur is an indelible image, along with the Sumerian royal tombs from the third millennium and its famous artifacts, such as the “Standard of Ur.” The region is the heartland of Sumer and the world’s first cities, made possible as the waters of the Arabian Gulf receded, creating rich resources for farmers, fishers, and herders, and their overlords. But today Ur is located within an Iraqi air force base and the time has come to focus attention elsewhere. A combination of old and new techniques make exploration of the Ur countryside more rewarding than ever.
The site of Tell Khaiber was chosen for three reasons: satellite images show the presence of major buildings; a 1965 survey recorded occupation there of both the early third and early second millennium; and it lies in an area where it is safe to work, commutable from Ur, 20 kilometers away. Of course there has been much recent research on southern Iraq that does not involve excavation, and many are the intriguing questions posed by studies of canal systems and settlement patterns. But excavation yields information that cannot be got any other way. It also provides opportunities to showcase the ancient heritage of Iraq, to examine new artefacts, and to give immediate and direct support to Iraqi archaeologists where they need it most: in Iraq.
The buildings at the relatively flat site of Tell Khaiber were clear enough from space, but how much survived on the ground? Were they buried too deep? Or eroded away? Would soil salinity have destroyed the artefacts? After two nail-biting weeks, great thick walls and brick-paved rooms confirmed the presence of the first major building. Artefacts, especially pottery, were identifiable and restorable, if not pristine. Then we found our first moulded clay plaque, and it became clear what we were dealing with: a massive (80m x50m) administrative building from the earlier part of the Old Babylonian period. A few days later, an inscribed animal figurine and then the first tablet fragments appeared. Our epigraphist, Eleanor Robson, was able to tell us that the figurine had an invocation to Gula, the goddess of healing, and that the other fragments included name lists and field and orchard allocations.
Of course there were challenges. The 2013 field season was shortened to just six weeks as a result of delays over visas and permits, and the uneasy political conditions do require caution. Once the project began it was frustrating not being able to leave early for the site or stay late, as we depended on our police escort, and not being able to get out and about much in the local area. This affected not just rest and relaxation, but our aim of engaging Iraqi and international companies working in the area for funding and other assistance. Then there was the notorious Ur region weather.
But the rewards far outweighed all the inconveniences. We have a major Old Babylonian administrative building, possibly a temple, dominating a small settlement on a canal or river branch that must have linked up with the head of the Gulf. What was its purpose? What was its subsistence base? How does this new find affect our current understanding of the way Old Babylonian life worked? What else lies just beneath the surface of Tell Khaiber? And what is the relationship to Ur? Over the next few years, funds and everything else permitting, we will be using the full range of modern techniques to answer these and other questions. These already include gradiometer survey to detect structures using magnetic variation and organic residue analysis, but equally important is grasping the opportunities that electronic media provide.
A core value of our work is the commitment to immediate and universal availability of our results. All recording is done digitally, from architectural plans to artefact illustrations. All records are integrated into a Geographical Information System which will soon be available online to anyone who is interested. Study always takes time, but there will be no waiting for months, even years, for basic information.
But while our project is a really exciting one from an archaeological and research perspective, it is more than just a dig. From its earliest statehood, Iraq nurtured archaeologists of international calibre, from Fuad Safar, the excavator of many sites including Eridu and Director General of the Iraqi Department of Antiquities, to the recently deceased Donny George, whose most famous effort on behalf of Iraqi archaeology was helping to organize the recovery of artifacts from the Iraqi National Museum. Outside of the Kurdish regions of the north, the last two decades have seen the steep decline of this noble tradition, but there is no lack of young and dedicated individuals to step into the shoes of their predecessors; there is just a lack of resources to provide them with the skills they need.
The Ur Region Project addresses these needs, not just by providing a reconnection to the international academic community, but through on-the-job learning. In 2013 four local archaeologists, three of them completely new to fieldwork, worked alongside our professionals, all learning from each other. Competence in a European language is now rare even among graduates, but patience and good will on both sides sees us through. The next stage is to run a field school for a cohort of students during the excavation. This will add yet another challenge to our operation, but the future of Babylonia’s heritage is worth it.
Jane Moon is Honorary Research Fellow, Department of Archaeology, University of Manchester
We are grateful to our founder donors: Baron Lorne Thyssen, British Institute for the Study of Iraq, Foreign & Commonwealth Office UK, and Gulfsands Petroleum, as well as to all the other supporters and friends who have made possible this early step to in resuming archaeology in Babylonia. They are listed on our website www.urarchaeology.org. We acknowledge with gratitude the vital assistance of Elizabeth Stone and Franco d’Agostino and their teams in getting URAP set up.
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