Kneeling goat

British School of Archaeology in Iraq

(Gertrude Bell Memorial) Registered Charity No. 219948

Kneeling goat




Report from Iraq

On 5th June this year myself and a colleague from the British Museum, Sarah Collins, boarded a plane at Brize Norton to fly out to Iraq as part of the CPA (Coalition Provisional Authority) seconded to the Ministry of Culture. We hoped to help our Iraqi colleagues in the wake of the looting of the Iraq Museum and the continuing looting of archaeological sites in the south. In the first few days in Baghdad we had the excitement of visiting the Central Bank vault that now contained the Nimrud treasure (it having been moved from the vault flooded as a result of the bombing). So we were able to help the Iraq Museum staff unwrap the treasure and repack it all in clean and dry material. It was a great relief to see that it and the Ur jewellery had survived the bombing of the bank. The Nimrud treasure was displayed briefly on 3rd July at the museum to show to the world at large that it was safe.

At the Iraq Museum itself staff were busy sorting the object register cards back into some sort of order and a cleanup was underway. Given the mess made by looters and the constant interruptions of visiting journalists, it was apparent this was going to take some time. The sight of smashed objects in the restoration room and storerooms was a very sad sight indeed.

Those first few days in Baghdad was full of highs (the return of the Warka vase) and lows (the discovery that the vast majority of the museum’s cylinder seal collection was missing). We were joined in the Iraq museum by Lamia al Gailani and Ismael Hijara, Iraqi archaeologists returning as part of the IRDC (Iraqi Reconstruction and Development Council).

I was then offered a post as Cultural Affairs officer in one of the regional CPAs (South Central) down in Hillah (Babylon). This regional CPA covered the governorates of Nejef, Kerbala, Wasit, al Anbar, Babil and Qadisiyeh. I hoped that by being further south I would be closer to the areas where sites were being looted and would be able to get out assess the extent of the looting and press for some protection of archaeological sites. (The looting of archaeological sites becomes steadily worse the further south one travels). It was unfortunate that during the period of our time in Iraq (June to August) the security situation deteriorated continually. This had the effect of making the planning of trips more and more difficult, the security needed to make any trip became more extensive and rules about procedure were more rigorously applied. Some areas were always thought to be dangerous (the town of Ramadi in al Anbar for instance), others were out of bounds from time to time (the city of Najaf after the governor was arrested). Planned trips could be called off at short notice if the military were busy in a particular area, or if demonstrations were expected.

By talking to local archaeologists and visiting sites within the Babil governorate, it was possible to discover that at least this governorate did not yet have a large scale archaeological looting problem. Some signs of recent minor looting could be seen on some of the Islamic sites along the Shatt an Nil (a medieval canal, now silted up). These sites (known collectively as an-Neeliyat) are in the extreme south of the Babil governorate on its border with the Qadisiyeh (Diwaniye) governorate. It was possible to visit the museum in Diwaniye, which had been looted, but as it held only copies nothing archaeological had been lost in this instance. As well as the looting we already knew about at sites like Adab and Isin the staff there told us about looting of Zibliat near Abu Salabikh and the looting that had just begun at Nippur, a site that otherwise was had been largely untouched as recently as May. I tried to organise a trip to Nippur to document this problem but the day of the trip had to be rescheduled due to activity by the US Marines in the Diwaniye area. As I tried to reorganise the trip I found that in order to get a Marine escort it was now necessary to borrow a SAW or squad automatic weapon (machine gun) and when this was not possible the trip had to be abandoned.

It was possible to visit a series of Partho Sasanian sites (largely cemeteries) south-east of Najaf which were being actively looted (Umm Kheshem, Abu Skreyr and al-Assaya). The looting problem in this particular area had not been known to the international archaeological community and was reported to the CPA by one of our Iraqi colleagues working at the Kufa museum in Kufa/Najaf. Unfortunately, when this looting was reported to the military in this area they were too hard pressed to be able to offer a military solution to the problem. In general, as the security situation deteriorated and there was no security for anyone or anything, it was just not possible to organise security just for archaeological sites. This is not to say that the military have done nothing, but that it depends very much on local commanders and the other problems they are trying to solve. The US Marines at Shartra north of Nasiriyah for instance were patrolling Umma and Larsa before they were recalled to Kuwait.

In the past the site guards employed by the Department of Antiquities had acted more as ‘eyes in the landscape’ and had been able to report any problems to the Iraqi police and army. Now that most of the Iraqi government and army had effectively ceased to exist, the site guards were more or less on their own. The Regional Controller of South Central and the Iraqi governor of Hillah were looking into the possibility of setting up an antiquities police. For administrative reasons this would be set up in Hillah/Babil to begin in with and then expanded to other governorates. This is no small undertaking as it will include recruitment, training, and the provision of uniforms, vehicles and communications. CPA South Central were willing to fund such a force in the short term, but eventually such a force would have to join the payroll of the Ministry of Culture. Although this may work to prevent the Babil governorate from developing a looting problem, it will still be some time before it is active in other governorates. Obviously one has to hope for a general improvement in security at the same time. If the military were less hard pressed it might be possible for them to assist, but in the present situation that is unlikely to be possible. Until there is a new Iraqi army and police force and some restoration of order there is unlikely to be an improvement in the overall situation with regard to the looting of archaeological sites.

At the site of Babylon itself the US Marines and CPA had organised repairs to the Museum which had been looted at the end of the recent war. No archaeological objects were lost as the museum largely contained copies. (Like many of the regional museums it had also been looted after the first Gulf war and lost some of its archaeological objects then.) Being surrounded by a Marine camp has been perhaps a mixed blessing for the site of Babylon. Even though it has had military protection, at least two areas had a degree of bulldozing to make helicopter landing zones. A similar situation exists at the nearby site of Kish in use as a MP message relay station, protected, but with positions dug into the tops of its twin ziggurats.

As the difficulties of travel and security multiplied it became less and less possible to go anywhere and I decided to return to Baghdad. Back in the Iraq Museum I helped scan in photographs of looted cylinder seals to be sent to Interpol. Some improvements had been made. Sarah Collins had organised the redecoration of the Department of Antiquities offices and was trying to do the same for the library (the latter paid for by the British Academy). The US State Dept. had sent furniture and computers. Armed Iraqi guards were replacing the soldiers. An Italian team was about to come out to install a new conservation laboratory. There was still much to do however and the Iraq Museum still needs international help. None of the museum offices or galleries have been redecorated or repaired yet. There is a need for basic operating funds for small items like tools, transformers and other equipment (such as a generator for the frequent power cuts) that can be bought locally. Air conditioners from the State Dept had not yet arrived, so the storerooms were too hot to work in. Safe travel for museum staff to work was a continuing issue, with the money for transport from UNESCO due to run out soon. Offers of training in conservation and museum studies abroad had been made, but there seemed to be no way that most Iraqis could acquire a passport if they were not already in possession of one.

Dr John Russell, whose work on Neo-Assyrian reliefs may be known to many of our members, has accepted a position in the Ministry of Culture in Baghdad.
Helen McDonald (June-August 2003)

The Umma Project

The Umma project was initiated in order to expedite the publication of the more than 3000 Sumerian economic texts of the Ur III period from Umma currently in the British Museum, within the overall context of reports of major looting of the site of Umma during the 1990s and the beginning of Iraqi archaeological excavations under the direction of Dr Donny George at the nearby site of Umm al-Aqarib. Dr George has revealed major buildings of the late third and early second millennia BC.

During the course of our work this third year of the project we have been able to transliterate about two hundred documents. We have also catalogued almost the same number without transliteration. This has enabled us to reconstruct some previously known texts and put them in their context. As an example we found a legal text which compliments a tablet published decades ago by C. J. Gadd; our text gives us a fuller picture of the law-suit being described.

A particular feature of the Umma archive is the presence of many basket tags. The presence of such tags makes it possible to reconstruct archives of tablets. In fact the administrators, Sumerian sha-dub-ba, responsible for the baskets together with their seal impressions are recorded on the tablets we have dealt with so far. To put this in perspective we give here a copy of one of these tags, BM 110745, below. As can be seen from the copy, two holes were made in the left edge of the tag to fix the thread, which tied the tag onto the basket. The text reads:

“ Tablet basket, sealed and received by Gutar, the cattle overseer, and Urenunna, the cattle overseer, present. In the year the Western Wall was built.” The year is the fourth year of king Shu-Sin.

The subjects of the documents we are dealing with are very varied: deliveries, disbursements, expenditures, receipts, legal texts and sale contracts. Moreover there are many texts dealing with textiles, metal and craftsmanship. Most of the texts we have dealt with so far are sealed, some with well preserved impressions.The seals of the Ur III period were inscribed, the inscription comprising two to eight lines, often including a dedication to the king. We note that some of the administrators used their own seals while others used the scribe’s seal (who was in some cases the administrator’s own son); others used the seals of minor officials who have been regarded as their servants. In fact the governors of Umma sealed the tablets on behalf of their rulers; these governors were also regarded as servants of the king. Thus we can use the record of the seal impressions to reconstruct the administrative pyramid of the highly organised Ur III system.

The four hundred documents or so we have examined this year represent a small fraction of the total number of Umma tablets in the British Museum, but they include many of the larger summary texts which play a crucial role in reconstructing the many original working archives. Other scholars, particularly in Rome and Madrid, have been increasingly involved in exploiting the remainder of the Umma collection, and we expect to co-operate with them in the publication of our work. In particular it is gratifying to record that we have been invited to publish our transliterations in the Italian series, Nisaba, and we expect to take up that offer.

Dr Marcel Sigrist of the Ecole Biblique, Jerusalem, has assisted us with the checking of many doubtful readings, and the preparation of a final text on computer for publication is well advanced.

Christopher Walker and Farouk Al-Rawi

Excavations in the Lower Town of Ziyaret, 2003

In the summer of 2003 a fourth season of excavation was conducted in the lower town at Ziyaret, continuing work in Operation G, the area of Late Assyrian occupation where work commenced in 2001, as well as starting work in a new area, Operation K, on the southern city wall. In these operations a total area of 400 m2 was opened up. The following participated as site supervisors: Celine Beauchamp, Mary Shepperson, Jeff Szuchman and Gulay Dinckan.

Operation G

In the 2001 and 2002 seasons we commenced excavation in Operation G, an area in the lower town southwest of the high mound to which we were drawn by both the local topography and the results of the geomagnetic survey. The first two seasons yielded the remains of substantial architecture with a classic Assyrian pavement of black and white cobbles arranged in checkerboard fashion and rooms whose fill contained cuneiform tablets. Although at the time we thought these were part of a single complex, it now seems that we are in fact dealing with two separate buildings. Both buildings contained massive pithoi for the storage of grain. This year we concentrated mainly on uncovering more of the original (checkerboard) building, the plan of which is now nearing completion. In the area north of the courtyard we traced the walls of a long room running parallel to the courtyard with a small room approximately 3 m square at the end. On the floor of both rooms a large number of bronze fragments were found and near the door of the square room a clay seal impression. The floors of these rooms were made of thick red plaster, which was re-laid at least three times. After photography the floor was divided into a 50 cm grid and a 1 l. soil sample taken from every square for microdebris analysis. The remaining soil was taken for flotation. To the east of this area we excavated a portion of the north side of the building left over from previous years and in so doing uncovered two more pithoi built into the structure of the building. The remains of the building south of the courtyard were also uncovered, but due to erosion of the site in this area this amounted to little more than tracing the lines of the walls, with no good surfaces found.

The other part of work in Operation G this year was focused on uncovering more of the house in which the tablets were discovered last year. This was achieved in the square south of the tablet rooms and in the western part of a square to the north. The remains of this building are on the whole well preserved. In all rooms so far investigated there has been a coherent assemblage of ceramics and the overall impression is that this house was more hastily and peremptorily abandoned than the house with the checkerboard pavement. As we have only excavated about one quarter of this house to date, this holds out fair promise for the future. Some of the architectural details are also proving interesting. The inside walls were originally covered with a thin layer of white plaster but this was then covered with a layer of grey mud plaster 2-3 cm thick onto which a second layer of thin white plaster was then laid. The evidence for two distinct phases is also observable in the floors. In the most northerly room the original floor was made of baked bricks, presumably for a water installation of some kind, but this was then overlaid with the same sequence of grey mud plaster followed by white lime. In the case of the floor the lime plaster was then selectively overcoated with black paint to create a pattern of concentric rectangles. In the underlying baked brick pavement one of the bricks had a hole approximately 12 cm wide stopped with a stone ball. Our provisional interpretation of this unusual feature is that it was a drain blocked up before the room was converted to its new use. Another noteworthy feature is that in the layer overlying the floor in the southwest room of this building - a layer which we believe to be the remains of roofing collapse - were found a number of patches of bitumen with stone inclusions, which at a guess formed part of the waterproofing of the roof.

Cuneiform texts

Last year a total of 21 cuneiform texts and fragments were recovered from two rooms in the western part of Operation G. This year pieces from a further 5 or 6 tablets were recovered. One of these would appear to be beyond meaningful study, but the others look promising. Both last year and this year the tablets were found fairly high up in the fill and it would appear that they were within the layer of roofing collapse. As mentioned, we expect continued excavation of this building to yield good results.

Operation K

Since the original survey of Ziyaret in the late 1990's we had been aware of a low ridge appearing to run round the edge of the lower town. The natural supposition was that this marked the remains of a city wall, an idea only strengthened by a thick band appearing in the geo-magnetic survey corresponding closely to the ridge where observable. We were keen to test this theory, and this season we laid out a 15 x 2.5 m trench across the putative wall to investigate. Results were almost immediate, with excavation revealing a casemate wall comprising a mudbrick wall on the inner side approximately 1m thick, another mud brick wall on the outer side over double that width, with the space between filled with hard packed grey clay. A trench 1 m wide was excavated in front of the wall, revealing that the brick structure is preserved to a height of around seven courses in this sector, and that this was set on a rampart composed of alternating layers of sand and clay approximately 2 m high and sloping down towards the outside of the city. At the bottom of this trench we reached a layer of rich dark brown earth which we believe to be the natural. However, the lateral extent of the rampart has not yet been defined. Excavation of the middle fill of grey clay yielded a modest quantity of ceramics, which may be of value for establishing a terminus post quem date, and also a band of burnt material approximately 1 m below the present surface. A carbon sample was retrieved from this layer. Built up against the north side of the casemate wall we found remains of a modestly constructed edifice. This is reasonably well preserved, and as it appears to be of Assyrian date we hope to uncover a greater expanse of this structure next year.

Geomagnetic survey

The geomagnetic survey of the lower town continued through the 2003 season under the direction of Anne Donkin. Approximately one third of the lower town has now been covered. As mentioned above (Operation K), and in earlier reports (Operation G), the survey has been directly of use in suggesting areas to excavate, while the excavations thus ensuing have confirmed that identification of subsurface mud brick walls is possible in good conditions. The confirmation of our interpretation of the geomagnetic signature of the main city wall established by the Operation K excavation this year has given us greater confidence in identifying a structure to the west of this as a tower.

John MacGinnis

RAI 49 - Nineveh

In early July the 49e Rencontre assyriologique internationale convened in London. It was the first time a Rencontre had been held in London (and indeed Britain) for twenty-one years. The meeting was a highly successful and productive one, attracting 500 participants from all over the world, a record crowd for a Rencontre. Thanks to this high registration and the generosity of several benefactors, including the British School of Archaeology in Iraq, the organizers were able to bring to London for the duration of the meeting nine Iraqi colleagues and three from Syria, and also helped to meet the expenses of two Turkish scholars. It was good to welcome such a large contingent of participants from the Middle East, and equally good to find old friends safe and well after the campaign of March and April.

The Rencontre marked the 250th anniversary of the British Museum, and the theme was Nineveh, the last great Assyrian imperial capital. The match was perfect: the site that gave birth to Assyriology studied in the museum that is Nineveh redivivus. The week began on Sunday 6 July with a dramatic reading of the Epic of Gilgamesh, led by Timothy West and Prunella Scales, and an eve of congress reception in the Brunei Gallery building on the campus of the School of Oriental and African Studies. Frivolity is often the herald of more serious things. Monday’s opening session began five gruelling days of intensive academic work, most of which took place in the splendid new lecture theatres of the Clore Education Centre, below the museum’s Great Court. All in all, participants were able to choose from almost 150 academic papers. The medicine was sweetened by social gatherings, with a second reception elegantly laid on in the Clore Education Centre and a third served up al fresco in the gardens of Gordon Square.

The Rencontre’s main business was hearing about new research on Nineveh. Papers on important Iraqi and American excavations of recent years were given by Muayyad Sa‘id Damerji and Donny George, by Manhal Jabr and by Diana Pickworth. Another archaeological highlight was the morning devoted to Nineveh in relation to its landscape, coordinated by Tony Wilkinson. Other papers discussed various aspects of the archaeology of Nineveh across an enormous timespan, from prehistory to the Sasanian period. Assyriologists looked again at the topic of the royal libraries of Kuyunjik, whose cuneiform tablets have been since 1850 the foundation stone of their field of study, and at the intellectual life of Nineveh and its scholars. Jeanette Fincke, Ali Yaseen Ahmad and Christopher Walker reported on the British Museum’s latest initiatives concerning the Kuyunjik tablets, including a collaboration with the University of Mosul.

Historians looked at Nineveh in the pre-imperial period during the second millennium BC, at the repercussions of the city’s fame on classical and biblical writers, and especially at the policies and strategies of that most interesting of rulers, Sennacherib. Topographical matters arose in several papers, not least in Karen Foster’s discussion of the Hanging Gardens motif. Art historians looked afresh at the famous bas-reliefs from the palaces of Sennacherib and Ashurbanipal, and considered the ideology of royal art. Anthropologists found subjects for study in the reliefs and in written documents. Students of mathematics and astronomy did not go without. Matters of religion provided fodder for a wide variety of papers, with some concentrating on the goddess Ishtar and others investigating the topic of exorcism.

Alongside papers on Nineveh and Assyria, the week also saw special workshops on Babylonian medicine, digital projects in Assyriology and the administration of the Ur III state. The last of these, a full day at the School of Oriental and African Studies, was effectively a conference within a conference, and all credit for its success should go to its organizer, Steven Garfinkle. Rencontres are expected to find room for papers on other topics, especially where they present new discoveries. By packing the programme to its limits, the London Rencontre made space for many such reports. The most exciting of these filled a session on ancient Qatna, in which Michel al-Maqdissi, Peter Pfälzner and Mirko Novák shared the very latest findings from Tell Mishrifeh in Syria.

Into this very full academic programme was inserted on Monday a session devoted to the looting of museums, universities and archaeological sites in Iraq, which was addressed not only by representatives of the Iraqi Department of Antiquities and the British Museum’s mission to Iraq, but also by Anna Paolini of UNESCO. The afternoon brought publicity for Iraqi archaeology in the media and was also extremely helpful in informing academic colleagues of the true situation of archaeology on the ground in Iraq. Comedy often intervenes to lighten the recollection of sombre issues. One journalist was quick to report the regrets of a participant that a few looters had not been shot on sight - and to record the British Museum’s prompt denial that killing looters was official museum policy.

At the last minute the schedule was changed to include, late on Friday afternoon, an unexpected hour-long report by the soldier heading the Iraq Museum Investigation Team set up by the coalition authorities to retrieve antiquities looted in April. The proceedings were fortunately concluded by one last reception, aptly enough in the Assyrian basement. This allowed a cordial atmosphere to prevail, and ensured that RAI 49 was not just a conference, it was indeed a Rencontre.

RAI 49 was organized by a committee of colleagues mostly drawn from the University of London and the British Museum, under the banner of the London Centre for the Ancient Near East. It was supported by the MBI Foundation, the Charlotte Bonham-Carter Trust, the British School of Archaeology in Iraq, the British Academy, the British Institute of Archaeology at Ankara and the London Middle East Institute at SOAS. In addition the British Association for Near Eastern Archaeology made grants available to student participants. Other help was provided by the Department of the Near and Middle East at SOAS and the Department of the Ancient Near East at the British Museum.

A. R. George Chairman, Organizing committee, RAI 49

© BSAI. This site is edited by Joan Porter MacIver. Web design by David Thomas and Abigail Cooke, Web Content Manager, The British Academy.

The image of the Kneeling Goats is a detail from an Assyrian style ivory from Nimrud, and was drawn by Tessa Rickards.