Working in Sumer: the New Italian Archaeological Expedition at Nigin, Southern Iraq

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May Ancient Near East Today

By: Davide Nadali and Andrea Polcaro

Despite Iraq’s troubles, archaeological research continues to expand. The Italian Archeological Expedition to Tell Surghul, ancient Nigin, started in February 2015 (Map). The project is a joint effort by Sapienza University of Rome (Davide Nadali) and Perugia University (Andrea Polcaro). The site was first excavated briefly by German archaeologist Robert Koldewey in 1887 and surveyed by American institutions in later decades. Both testified to the distinctively southern Mesopotamian landscape of the site, then surrounded by water and marshland.

But the landscape of the site changed drastically around thirty years ago, when the reclamation of the swamps in Southern Iraq revealed many archeological sites in the area. Tell Surghul, about seventy hectares in size, is characterized by two main mounds. Mound A is about 15 meters high and Mound B about 5 meters high. In 2015, the Italian Archeological Expedition has opened two main areas of excavation, close to the southern side of Mound A and on the top and western slope of Mound B.

Nigin Ancient Near East Today May

General view of the western side of Nigin from the top of Mound A.

Nigin Ancient Near East Today May

The profile of Mounds A and B in background, from the south-west.

An area was opened on the southern side of Mound A, consisting of 5 x 5 meter square, centered on a line of white gypsum bricks that were visible on the surface due to the heavy rain of the last winter. The wall was badly preserved due to the winter rain but a portion of a floor was still preserved. Above this floor several fragments of bevelled rim bowls have been discovered, dating this later phase to the Late Uruk Period (ca. 3100 BCE). Under this layer other two mud brick walls have been detected. These walls were made of small so-called “Riemchen bricks,” of brown-yellow color, forming a corner of a room with the associated floor.

Above this ancient floor at least forty complete flower pots and some spouted jars have been discovered. The vessels, dated also to the Late Uruk Period, were scattered on the floor, with a concentration on the north-western corner of the room. Mostly of the flower pots had been recovered overturned on the floor. Inside were well-preserved remains of food, like grain, fish bones and other undetected organic materials. The heavy traces of ash and burning on the floor indicate that the room was probably destroyed by fire. A small hole in the room’s floor and some gypsum bricks could be related to wooden furniture where the flower pots were collected, fallen due to the fire which destroyed the space. Some concentration of burned grain could also be related to sacks containing food preserved under the furniture.

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Area A, the room L.20 with the flower pots in situ, from the south.

Nigin ANET May

Area A, the room L.20 with the flower pots in situ, from the north-west.

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Area A, details of two pots in situ on the floor of room L.20, from the north.

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Area A, details of the pots in situ on the floor of room L.20, from the east.

The large number of flower pots of identical dimensions identify this room as a storage area of a public building, perhaps devoted to the preservation of products ready for redistribution. The layers covering the room identified at the base of Mound A seem to be more preserved toward north and east, leaving the possibility for later excavation of an entire public building.

In Area B, corresponding to the second minor mound of the ancient city (Mound B), a trench (10 x 5 meters) was opened on the top and western slope of the hill. Indeed, the same area was excavated by German archaeologist Robert Koldewey in 1887. We were even able to recognize the western limit of the old German excavation on top of the hill.

Our operation aimed at verifying the stratigraphy and occupation levels of Mound B, since the frequent presence on the surface of clay cones, some of them still bearing traces of black and red paint indicated later occupation.

Less than a meter below the surface, mud-bricks were recovered belonging at least to three walls. Two different occupational phases have been detected, the most recent partially obliterated the previous one. But both phases can be clearly ascribed to the Ubaid Period, more specifically to the Ubaid 4 Period (ca. 4500 BCE) indicated by the abundance of typical whitish pottery with black painted geometric designs and floral motifs.

Nigin ANET May

Area B, general view of the walls W.26 and W.29 from the south: W.26 in foreground and W.29 in background.

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Area B, the wall W.29 from the east.

The most recent phase is indeed documented by a thick north-south wall made of alternate beds of reddish mud-brick and pisé, or rammed earth. This wall covers underlying mud-brick structures that have been also partially cut by later occupation. In fact, mud-bricks to the east of the wall have been clearly cut, probably by Koldewey’s excavation.

The most ancient phase is so far documented only by a wall and floors. With a different kind of mud-bricks (greenish instead of reddish), its limits are still unknown. But the visible part is characterized by recesses and buttresses typical of the facades of Mesopotamian public buildings. This architectural feature suggests that the exposed mud-bricks structures might belong to a sacred building, a hypothesis confirmed by the discovery of at least five censers on the floor that find a perfect comparison with the censers recovered in Temple VI of Eridu, dated to the same Ubaid period.

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Area B, detail of the portion of recesses and buttresses decoration of W.29, from the west.

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The five censers found on the floor L.30 in Area B.

In addition to these two main areas of excavations, a preliminary survey of large sectors of the ancient settlement has brought to light (as the previous German excavations and American surveys already noticed) several fragments of inscribed backed bricks and foundation cones of the king Gudea of Lagash. The texts are all related to the so-called inscription 30 of Gudea, remembering the erection of the temple Sirara, dedicated to the Sumerian goddess Nanshe, patron of the city and lady of the water, fishes and birds.

The temple, located along a canal going from the city of Girsu to Nigin through Lagash and leading to the sea coast (probably built during the First Dynasty of Lagash in the Early Dynastic Period, ca. 2500 BCE), is the final destination of Gudea’s boat trip, as stated in his Cylinder A. The king went to Nigin, to the Sirara temple (called “the mountain rising from the water”) so that the priests of Nanshe could interpret his dream. While the excavation in winter 2015 have yet not identified architectural features related to the Early Dynastic or Neo-Sumerian periods, future operations on the top and southern slope of Mound A aim at revealing the occupational levels of the city of the third millennium BC.

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A stamped baked brick with the so-called inscription 30 of King Gudea.

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Group of foundation cones bearing the so-called inscription 30 of King Gudea.

Davide Nadali is researcher in Near Eastern Archaeology at the Sapienza University of Rome. Andrea Polcaro is researcher in Near Eastern Archaeology at Perugia University. Both are co-directors of the Italian Archaeological Expedition to Nigin (Iraq).

For the support the MAIN expedition wishes to thank the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage of Iraq. For other information about the Italian Archaeological Expedition to Nigin, please see www.tellsurghul.org.

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1 Comments for : Working in Sumer: the New Italian Archaeological Expedition at Nigin, Southern Iraq
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