By: Jesse Casana
The transformative political events in the Middle East over the past two years have had, among many other unexpected outcomes, profound effects on the direction of research in Near Eastern archaeology. War and civil unrest act as both a carrot and a stick, forcing the cessation of fieldwork in some areas, while promoting new investigations in places that might otherwise have gone unexplored. The geopolitics of the post-Arab Spring world are changing where we are able work, and by consequence they will shape the research questions we investigate, as well as the regions where future generations of scholars will likely specialize. But the present moment of realignment is far from unique—our discipline has been shaped from the beginning by the tumultuous political history of the Middle East.
In the spring of 1920, James Henry Breasted and a group of scholars from the University of Chicago’s newly founded Oriental Institute embarked on a survey of major archaeological sites in Mesopotamia and Syria. It was Breasted’s hope that the return of political stability under British rule after the end of World War I would facilitate renewed investigations in Mesopotamia. Having traveled by steamer from Egypt, via Bombay, to Basra in southern Iraq, the team began making their way up the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, visiting many of the most prominent sites in the region, including Uruk, Babylon, and Nineveh.