ARCHAEOLOGY IN MESOPOTAMIA

ARCHAEOLOGY IN MESOPOTAMIA


Akkadian victory stele in the Louvre

The Louvre's holdings of Mesopotamian art and artifacts are among the finest in the West, thanks to the pioneering efforts of 19th-century French archeological teams. They were the first to excavate the great Mesopotamian civilizations of Sumer, Akkad and Babylon, as well as the state of Elam to the east in present-day Iran.

Mid-19th century archaeologists rediscovered Mesopotamia by poking around crumbled cities in the deserts of present-day Iraq. Unlike ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, which boasted standing stone monuments, many of the remains in Mesopotamia are graves, mud brick foundations and mounds comprised of the remains of mud brick buildings. Many of these remains were either buried from the outset, have crumbled over time or have been buried by sand and soil after centuries of floods and sand and dust storms.

In the 1920s and 1930s, British and American archaeologist made great discoveries in Ur and other locations in present0day Iraq. The excavations were sponsored jointly by the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania Museum, and the finds were divided between London, Philadelphia and Baghdad, following the tradition of the era. Robert McCormic Adams mapped Mesopotamia by land and air and laid out Mesopotamia's huge irrigation system. One Ur-era site was revealed when Saddam drained Iraq’s marshes to punish the Marsh Arabs.

Most of what archaeologists and historians regard as ancient Mesopotamia is in Iraq Of Iraq's 25,000 identified sites, less than percent have been worked on. Almost no field work has been done in Iraq since the first Persian Gulf War in 1990-91 and there was relatively little during the Iran-Iraq war period in the 1980s. War and looting have left their marks. These days many new discoveries are made from artifacts purchased from smugglers and looters. New hydroelectric projects in Syria and Turkey are also disrupting archaeological work. Only recently have archaeologists started going back to Iraq but it still is a very dangerous place for them to work.

A lot the early archaeological work in Iraq was driven by attempts to find historical evidence to back up claims in The Bible. Sumer was discovered in 1853 by the British consul at Basra, J.E. Taylor, who dug into a tumulus at Tell al-Muqayyar. A clay cylinder seal with a cuneiform symbols, including one for Ur, establishing the existence of the city mentioned in the Old Testament as Abraham’s birthplace. The discovery in 1872 of tablets from Assyria, Babylonia and Sumeria that told a Noah-like flood story was a major news story in the Victorian era. The Biblical city of Ukresh was found in 1995 in northeastern Syria near the border of Turkey.

Ebla was discovered in 1964 by Paulo Matthiae, an archaeologist from the University of Rome, who did exciting excavations at a site called Tell Mardikh in Syria. When news of Ebla was revealed, University of Chicago archaeologist Dr. Ignace J. Gelb told National Geographic, "These discoveries reveal a new culture, a new language, a new history. Ebla was a mightY kingdom, treated on a an equal footing with he most powerful states of the time."

Websites and Resources on Mesopotamia: Ancient History Encyclopedia ancient.eu.com/Mesopotamia ; Mesopotamia University of Chicago site mesopotamia.lib.uchicago.edu; British Museum mesopotamia.co.uk ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Mesopotamia sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Louvre louvre.fr/llv/oeuvres/detail_periode.jsp ; Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org/toah ; University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology penn.museum/sites/iraq ; Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago uchicago.edu/museum/highlights/meso ; Iraq Museum Database oi.uchicago.edu/OI/IRAQ/dbfiles/Iraqdatabasehome ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; ABZU etana.org/abzubib; Oriental Institute Virtual Museum oi.uchicago.edu/virtualtour ; Treasures from the Royal Tombs of Ur oi.uchicago.edu/museum-exhibits ; Ancient Near Eastern Art Metropolitan Museum of Art www.metmuseum.org

Archaeology News and Resources: Anthropology.net anthropology.net : serves the online community interested in anthropology and archaeology; archaeologica.org archaeologica.org is good source for archaeological news and information. Archaeology in Europe archeurope.com features educational resources, original material on many archaeological subjects and has information on archaeological events, study tours, field trips and archaeological courses, links to web sites and articles; Archaeology magazine archaeology.org has archaeology news and articles and is a publication of the Archaeological Institute of America; Archaeology News Network archaeologynewsnetwork is a non-profit, online open access, pro- community news website on archaeology; British Archaeology magazine british-archaeology-magazine is an excellent source published by the Council for British Archaeology; Current Archaeology magazine archaeology.co.uk is produced by the UK’s leading archaeology magazine; HeritageDaily heritagedaily.com is an online heritage and archaeology magazine, highlighting the latest news and new discoveries; Livescience livescience.com/ : general science website with plenty of archaeological content and news. Past Horizons : online magazine site covering archaeology and heritage news as well as news on other science fields; The Archaeology Channel archaeologychannel.org explores archaeology and cultural heritage through streaming media; Ancient History Encyclopedia ancient.eu : is put out by a non-profit organization and includes articles on pre-history; Best of History Websites besthistorysites.net is a good source for links to other sites; Essential Humanities essential-humanities.net: provides information on History and Art History, including sections Prehistory

Mesopotamian Scholarship

There are only about 250 Sumerologists in the world and a similar number of Assyrianologists. There is no such thing as a Babylonologist. Professor Ake Sjöberg of the University of Pennsylvania University Museum is a head of team that is assembling a Sumerian dictionary. The first letter "B" of the dictionary was finished in 1984. The second latter "A" was finished in 1989. The entire 18-letter dictionary is expected to be completed around 2025.

There are extenive collections of cuneiform tablets at the British Museum, the Louvre, Pennsylvania University, Yale and museums in Iraq, Syria and Turkey, with additional ones at other places like Columbia University, Cornell, UCLA, the University of New York and universities in Germany. Yale's longstanding study of Mesopotamia was enhanced in 1988 with a report by Harvey Weiss, an associate professor of Near Eastern archeology, of a discovery of 1,100 cuneiform clay tablets and seal impressions covering 1740 B.C. to 1725 B.C. at the university that the university didn’t know about.

The deciphering of 300 tablets, unearthed in 1987 in Tell Leilan, Syria, have revealed information about soldier movements, regional shifts of political power and kings and their servants. These materials have remained in Syria.

Archeology and Plundering in Iraq


Bull's head from the Queen's lyre from Pu-abi's grave, in the British Museum

Iraq is home to between 10,000 and 15,000 archeological sites. These include famous Sumerian, Babylonian and Assyrian cities like Ur, Uruk, Babylon, Nimrud and Nineveh. In addition there are 33 museums, many of them associated with a specific archeological sites. Many of the sites are in areas controlled by certain tribes.

In the earliest days of Mesopotamian archeology, most of what was found went to European museums. In 1870, the Ottoman issued an edict which stated that half could go to Europe and half to the Oriental Museum in Istanbul. The European often took more than half and in any case they took the better half which is how the Louvre and the British Museum obtained their Mesopotamian collections. When the British took over Iraq in 1921 half still went to Europe but the other half remained in Iraq.

On the plundering of the archaeological site of Babylon, Alan Cowell wrote in the New York Times: The Germans came and took the best parts and put them in the Pergamon Museum, now in Berlin. And there they seem destined to stay because the Germans will not give them back. The French had already taken the brightest ceramics, and the Turks took the bricks to build dams on the Euphrates. [Source: Alan Cowell, New York Times, September 27, 1987]

In the 1920s the National Museum was established. The museum and antiquities laws that ensured that a large portion of the artifacts found in Iraq remained in Iraq was written in 1923 by Gertrude Bell, the British traveler, archeologist and advisor to King Faisal. In 1936, an antiquities law decreed that all antiquities, more than 200 years old, found in Iraq were the property of the state. The law made it illegal to remove artifacts from Iraq without state permission. A law in 1974 ended the Ottoman tradition of dividing finds and the export of all Iraqi treasures banned

For much of the 20th century, Iraq worked hard to restore and guard its archeological treasures, prohibiting or restricting the export fo artifacts Even Saddam Hussein did his part by imposing stiff penalties on thieves.

Archaeologists or Spies

David Price wrote in Archaeology: “The romantic image of the archaeologist as adventurer is the source of much of the speculation linking archaeology with espionage, but there is documentary evidence that the two have at times been closely linked. Some of these relationships are open secrets revealed in obituaries, discussed in interviews, memoirs and histories, but documenting others requires sleuthing. Over the past decade, I've used interviews and materials from various public archives, as well as the US Freedom of Information Act to gain access to classified documents held by the CIA, the defence department and the FBI, to verify some of the relationships between archaeologists and intelligence agencies. [Source: David Price, Archaeology, 4 September 2003 *~*]


Leonard Wooley and T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia)

“Archaeologists can move easily across borders and into the world's hinterlands. They are familiar with the attitudes of the people living where they excavate and have natural opportunities to watch troop movements, note the distribution of military hardware and bases, and even to commit sabotage. Many archaeologists are trained in deciphering dead languages, a skill useful in mastering codes.

“Western archaeologists first used fieldwork as a front for spying during the first world war. TE Lawrence's excavations with British archaeologist Leonard Woolley at the Syrian site of Carchemish mixed archaeology and surveillance. Lawrence's mission for British intelligence was to monitor German progress on the railway to link Berlin and Baghdad, which would circumvent the Suez canal and secure means of shipping oil and other vital supplies during the war. In 1914, Lawrence wrote to his mother to say that these excavations were "obviously only meant as red herrings, to give an archaeological color to a political job".

“The Egyptian explorations of archaeologist and adventurer Gertrude Bell before the war made her an invaluable resource to British intelligence's Arab Bureau. Her years of near eastern excavations provided geographic information of great importance. In 1916, she spied on Iraqi tribal activities around Basra.” *~*

Archaeology and War in Iraq

Archeological work in Iraq has been greatly disrupted by the wars and sanctions. In the sanction era in the 1990s between the Persian Gulf wars there was little or no money to do archaeological work or protect sites from looters. Foreign archeologists were for the most part not allowed in the country. Many Iraqi archeologists were forced to find other kinds of work. Famous sites like Jatra were guarded by a single old man with a hunting rifle.

In the Iran-Iraq war many sits along the border of Iran and Iraq were destroyed or damaged. In the first Persian Gulf war Saddam Hussein placed two Iraqi jets next to the ziggurat of Ur. After the war looting began almost immediately and peaked in the mid 1990s.

Before the first Persian Gulf war Iraq’s antiquities department employed 2,600 people. At the time Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 there was a great deal of archeological activity taking place in Iraq . Dozens of foreign and Iraqi teams were engaged in projects. All that came to a halt after Kuwait was invaded. The shortages of funding reduced the number of people employed in the antiquities department to a few hundred. All 33 archeological museums were closed to the public. There was few resources available to police sites and people took up looting to feed their families.

After the first Persian Gulf war excavation work did not begin again into 1997. Then work was only done at only 32 sites, with archeologists protected by armed guards. Onlly four sites were worked by foreign archeologists.

Ur Archaeology

Andrew Lawler wrote in National Geographic: “In the 1920s and 1930s, British archaeologist Leonard Woolley dug up some 35,000 artifacts from Ur, including the spectacular remains of a royal cemetery that included more than 2,000 burials and a stunning array of gold helmets, crowns, and jewelry that date to about 2600 B.C. At the time, the discovery rivaled that of King Tut’s tomb in Egypt.” [Source: Andrew Lawler, National Geographic, March 11, 2016 *-*]

“But Ur and most of southern Iraq has been off limits to most archaeologists during the past half-century of war, invasion, and civil strife. A joint U.S.-Iraqi team reopened excavations there last fall, digging at the site for ten weeks. The work was supported in part by the National Geographic Society. Unlike earlier generations, today’s archaeologists are less interested in breathtaking gold objects than in clues like the bit of ebony that will help them understand more fully this critical time in human history.” *-*


map of Ur excavations in 1900


“Most digs in the past, including Woolley’s, focused on the temples, tombs, and palaces. But during the recent excavation, the team uncovered a modest-sized building dating to a couple of centuries after Ur’s peak. “This is a typical Iraqi house,” said Abdul-Amir Hamdani, the senior Iraqi archaeologist on the project, who grew up in the area. He gestures at the mud-brick walls. “There are stairs to the roof and rooms around a courtyard. I lived in a house just like this. There’s a continuity in the way people live here.” *-*

“That hints, Stone and Hamdani said, at a society that wasn’t under the control of a small tyrannical minority. By bringing such analysis to bear on common objects like grains, bones, and less flashy artifacts, the team hopes to shed light on how workers lived, the role of women in the wool factories, and how environmental changes might have impacted the eventual decline of Ur’s power.” *-*

History of Archaeology in Ur

Michael Taylor wrote in Archaeological magazine,“In 1854, James E. Taylor, the British consul at Basra, conducted an excavation at Tell al-Muqayyar, the "Mound of Pitch," so named by the locals for the bitumen mortar visible in it. He revealed the crumbling ruins of the ziggurat, as well as cuneiform tablets that identified the site as the biblical "Ur of the Chaldees," birthplace of Abraham in Genesis. [Source: Michael Taylor, Archaeological magazine, March/April 2011 |+|]

“There were a few minor British digs in the waning years of World War I, but the landmark excavation of the site was conducted between 1922 and 1934 through a joint expedition sponsored by the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania. The chief archaeologist was Leonard Woolley, an experienced Near East excavator who had previously dug in Syria with T.E. Lawrence. The dig captured the public imagination and proved curiously conducive to romance. Woolley married his assistant Katherine Merke in 1927. |+|

In 2009, U.S. military authorities turned the site of Ur over to the Iraq State Board of Antiquities and Heritage.

Leonard Woolley and the Excavation of Ur

Ur was excavated in the 1920s and 30s by a team led by the British archaeologist Leonard Woolley, who found a great temple complex, royal tombs, and the remains of houses on city streets. In the tombs were treasures---including scores of stunning objects made with gold, silver and precious stones---that rivaled treasures found at famous burial sites in ancient Egypt. Most of the objects were taken to the British Museum.


another picture of Woolley and Lawrence

Michael Taylor wrote in Archaeological magazine,“Although he really didn’t do so Woolley is credited with discovering the ancient Sumerian city of Ur in 1922, nine miles west of Nasiriya, Iraq. He and his team excavated the site in the 1922 and 1934. Woolley excavated 2,000 tombs at Ur, conducted extensive excavation of the ziggurat and other large buildings, made headlines when he claimed to have found evidence of Noah's flood (10-foot-thick deposit of river clay found in a 40 foot, reasoned to have come from a catastrophic flood). [Source: Michael Taylor, Archaeological magazine, March/April 2011 |+|]

“Woolley was also a friend of Lawrence of Arabia. He and his wife Katherine did much of the most delicate archeological work themselves. Woolley realized the importance of working the locals when his camp was attacked and robbed. Sheik Manshet of the al-Ghizzi tribe took responsibility for the robbers, turned them over to authorities and assured Woolley he would be no more trouble. |+|

“Woolley especially excelled in the excavation of delicate objects. He extracted fragile artifacts (such as the two "Ram in a Thicket" statues) by coating them in melted wax before removing them. Noticing two voids in the earth left by decaying organic matter, he carefully filled them with plaster, producing a precise cast of a lyre. Woolley continued excavating until diminishing finds and funds forced an end to the expedition. There has not been an excavation at Ur since.” |+|

Woolley, the Royal Graves of Ur and Queen Pu-abi

Michael Taylor wrote in Archaeological magazine,“Woolley's most dramatic finds were in the necropolis, where he uncovered the remains of around 1,850 people from all stages of the city's life. He defined 16 tombs as "royal," and identified a grisly burial practice: Human sacrificial victims were arranged around the royal dead, producing what he dubbed "death pits." The largest of these, the "Great Death Pit," contained the bodies of 68 women and six men. Woolley excavated 660 tombs in the so called Royal Cemetery at Ur, dated at 2600-2500 B.C.. Sixteen of the tombs contained such riches they were considered the tombs of royalty. [Source: Michael Taylor, Archaeological magazine, March/April 2011 |+|]


reconstructed headgear and jewelry of Queen Pu-abi

Some of the most spectacular Sumerian art was unearthed from the grave of Queen Pu-abi, a 4,600-year-old site excavated by Woolleys' team in Ur. The pieces found there included lyres decorated with golden bull heads and a wiglike helmet of gold described above as well as earrings, necklaces, a gold dagger with a filigree sheath, a toilet box with a shell relief of lion eating a wild goat, inlaid wooden furniture, a golden tumbler, cups and bowls, and tools and weapons made of copper, gold and silver. She was buried with 11 others presumably her attendants

Taylor wrote: “The pit containing the grave of Queen Pu-abi was guarded by the bodies of five men with copper daggers. Further inside was the remains of a chariot with the bones of ozen and four men . Further inside still were two rows of five women with musical instruments, including a harp famous its bull head harp. In a funerary chamber at a lower level was the body of Queen Puaba, wh lived between 2550 and 2400 B.C. and was less than five feet tall. Three other bodies were buried with her.” |+|

Queen Pu-abi was buried, wearing, a necklace of gold and lapi lazuli, 10 gold rings, garters of gold and lapis lazuli, and a striking cape made of gold, silver, lapis lazuli, agate and carnelian beads.. Her headdress was made of gold ribbons, carnelian and lapis lazuli beads, bands of gold leaves, all surmounted by a high comb of silver with eight-petaled gold rosettes, symbols of goddess Inana. Archaeologists working at the Queen Pu-abi site also unearthed a mosaic with figures made from limestone, muscle shell and mother of pearl, on a lapis background that shows a military procession with troops driving their chariots over captured enemies.

Agatha Christie at Ur, Nimrud and Nineveh

The English mystery writer Agatha Christie met archeologist, Max Mallowan, 15 years her junior, at an archaeological dig at Ur. Later they were married after Christie made Mallowan promise that he wouldn't play golf or run off with other women. The couple got on quite well. He liked "digging the dead." She wrote about "copses and stiffs.” He often took her on his expeditions to Egypt and the Near East. It was the second marriage for Christie. Her first was to an English army officer, Achier Christie, who she met when she was 22 and married in the middle of World War I. After Agatha became successful, Archie spent most of his time on the golf course. The marriage fell part when he confessed he loved another woman, Teresa Neele. They were divorced in 1928.


Agatha Christie and Max Mallowan

Christie caught the eye of Mallowan when she visited to Ur, They were married in 1930.. Michael Taylor wrote in Archaeological magazine, “ Katherine Woolley quickly came to detest Christie, who was subsequently banished from the dig. Mallowan lamented that "there was only room for one woman at Ur," and spent the first dig season after his marriage separated from his bride.”

Christie and Mallowan participated in the archaeological work at Ur and searched in vain for the lost city of Ukresh. Mallowan served as an assistant to Woolley between 1925 and 1930. Agatha Christie wrote her 1936 mystery Murder in Mesopotamia based on her experiences in at Ur. In the novel an archaeologist's sickly wife, Mrs. Leidner, is brutally murdered. Similarities between the victim and Katherine Woolley are said to have been more than a coincidence.

Mallowan and Christie worked at the Assyrian sites of Nimrud and Nineveh in the 1950s. Amy Davidson wrote in The New Yorker: “Mallowan was the reason that Hercule Poirot, in one novel, visits Aleppo. (He was also the source for a classic Daily Mail headline: “British Museum buys 3,000-year-old ivory carvings Agatha Christie cleaned with her face cream.”) In her autobiography, in which she talks about the face cream, she writes about how “times in Baghdad were gradually worsening politically,” and so, for a few years, there were no new excavations in Iraq; instead, “everyone went to Syria.” [Source: Amy Davidson, The New Yorker , February 27, 2015]

Objects Found in Ur

Objects Woolley found in the grave of Queen Pu-abi, including the Queen’s Lyre, a stringed lyre with the a golden bearded bull’s head decorated with lapis lazuli and limestone, dated to 2600-2400 B.C., a gold cup with deep rounded sides, an electrum beaker, a lapis lazuli pouring cup, a double silver reign ring, and a figure of a wild ass, They are currently in the British Museum.

Other object found in the cemetery of Ur, dated to 2550 to 2400 B.C., included gold and lapis lazuli jewelry and statues, and an ornate hammered gold, carnelian and lapis lazuli headdress.

The Standard of Ur is a trapezoidal inlaid box, 18½ inches long and 8 inches high, found near a man’s shoulder and though to have been carried like a banner, or standard. One side depicts a banquet. Another side depicts a battle with an elaborately detailed mosaic made from shell and lapis lazuli. .

The mosaic was broken when it was found in the grave of Queen Pu-abi. Wax was poured on the pieces. After the wax hardened the pieces were cut free and bound and reinforced with muslin. Photographs and notes were taken of the location of each piece. Archaeologists also found some holes. Plaster was poured down them. Inside one of the plaster cast was the famous harp. The wood had rotted away but the metal parts, including the golden ram’s head were in still place.

Ur Under Saddam Hussein

Michael Taylor wrote in Archaeological magazine,“The Ba'ath Party, which dominated Iraq from 1968 to 2003, was keenly interested in Iraq's Mesopotamian heritage and its potential to unite a population fragmented by sectarian differences. As part of an aggressive program in the 1970s to restore Mesopotamian antiquities, the Ba'athists installed a new facade on the ziggurat's stairways and around the top of the first tier, in addition to making other repairs. A grand festival in 1977 celebrated the restoration, hailing the legacy of Ur-Nammu who, according to the official Ba'ath newspaper, "united the state administratively and politically after it had been divided and split." [Source: Michael Taylor, Archaeological magazine, March/April 2011 |+|]


Ziggarat of Ur today


“Ur, treated modestly by Hussein, was fortunate not to have captured the dictator's self-aggrandizing imagination the way Babylon had. Hussein liked to compare himself to that city's Hammurabi and Nebuchadnezzar II, and ordered an elaborate reconstruction of the Babylonian ruins, transforming them into a gaudy Ba'athist theme park. He even had his name stamped in cuneiform on the new bricks. Ur, on the other hand, received only basic restoration—with modern bricks protecting ancient ones within, thankfully devoid of megalomaniac excess. As a general rule, most of the bricks in the massive first tier of the ziggurat are the originals of Ur-Nammu, while rubble on the second tier dates to Nabonidus. Facade elements, such as the banisters on the stairways, fencing around the edge of the first tier, and the facing on the second tier, are modern restoration. |+|

“The site was incorporated into a Hussein-era military base, which was strafed by Allied warplanes during the First Gulf War, causing minor collateral damage. The city was in turn occupied by U.S. forces in 2003, which prevented the orgy of destructive looting that took place at other ancient Iraqi sites. While we were subject to mortar and Katyusha rocket attacks at the base, there does not appear to have been any significant damage to Ur itself.” |+|

Modern Ur

Ur today is a dusty and depressing. The only hint that it was once a great is the ziggurat. Some of the royal tombs are well preserved. The largest house, dating between 2000 and 1596 B.C., is sometimes described as Abraham's house although there is evidence to back up this claim.

Michael Taylor wrote in Archaeological magazine, “The city of Ur, once the largest in the world and the crown jewel of one of humanity's first civilizations, sits in a wasteland at the edge of a war zone. In late spring, the temperature easily hits 120 degrees as the blazing sun reflects off endless sand flats and yellow Sumerian brick. A 45-minute walk around the site is exhausting even for a very fit person. The ruins, which were inhabited from roughly 3000 to 300 B.C., consist mostly of brick walls, some of which are partially restored, revealing the outlines of monumental complexes such as shrines, storehouses, and elite residences. The ruins are now abandoned, save for a solitary shopkeeper who sits in a ramshackle hut marked "Shop Ziggurat," where he sells trinkets and Mesopotamian-themed souvenirs. [Source: Michael Taylor, Archaeological magazine, March/April 2011]

“The ancient Sumerian city is within Tallil Air Force Base, near Nasiriya, Iraq. Few Westerners have been privileged to see it. In 1999, Saddam Hussein even denied Pope John Paul II access to the site, supposedly the birthplace of Abraham (ca. 1800 B.C.).

At the heart of Ur is the best-preserved ziggurat in all of Iraq. The ruins of the city cover roughly 30 acres around the ziggurat. As one walks through the larger site, potsherds crunch underfoot. It is impossible not to step on them. And a few hundred yards from the ziggurat, there is the great necropolis of Ur, where dozens of tombs and pits lie open, their inhabitants removed by British archaeologists decades ago. Little of the architecture visible today dates to Ur's early history, though artifacts from early tombs can be viewed in the museums of London, Philadelphia, and Baghdad. The city's greatest and most enduring monuments were constructed in the period that followed the collapse of the Akkadian dynasty around 2050 B.C.

Archaeology in Assyria

In in the mid 19th century British explorer-quasi-archaeologists began rummaging around what is now Iraq look for ruins and artifacts related to ancient cities mentioned in The Bible. In 1844, Sir Austen Henry Layard, a British lawyer and pioneering archaeologist, began the first excavations of the Assyrian and Babylonian ruins in Nineveh and Nimrud. As a 28-year-old British diplomat stationed in Baghdad, he became convinced that a series of earth mounds along the Tigris River might be an ancient capita. He secretly hired Arab tribesmen to dig in the mounds and immediately found an ancient palace compound complete with murals, ivories and wall carvings. He assumed wrongly it was the ancient Biblical city of Nineveh


Austen Henry Layard

Layard discovered the remains of 9th and 7th century B.C. palaces and an immense statue of a winged bull. He had many of the things he excavated sent via camel, river raft and ship to London, where they are now on display in the British museum. He was knighted for his discoveries Back in Iraq Layard’s tools were stolen and he kidnaped a man to get them back. After Layard left, archaeologists descended on Nimrud and took everything the could find, including more extraordinary reliefs that are scattered around the globe in museums in Mumbai, Baghdad, London and New York.

Amy Davidson wrote in The New Yorker: Layard: “has extensive descriptions of local Yazidis in his book “Nineveh and Babylon,” published in 1849. (Yezidi girls, he says, wore a garment “like a Scotch plaid.”) Layard writes that parts of the winged bull were designed “with a spirit and truthfulness worthy of a Greek artist,” but that others were only roughly outlined, “as if the sculptors had been interrupted by some public calamity.” He brought one of the bulls to the British Museum. (There is another at the Metropolitan Museum, in New York.) [Source: Amy Davidson, The New Yorker , February 27, 2015]

Many of the actual discoveries were made by Hormuzd Rassam, an Iraqi archaeologist, who was friend and protege of Layard and who excavated Nineveh and Nimrud through the 19th century, making many great discoveries only to have the credit taken by Englishmen, whose acceptance and admiration he greatly craved.

Paul-Emile Botta, a French diplomat, worked in the Nineveh around the same time as Layard. Between them, Botta and Layard uncovered the remains of five Assyrian palaces. Many of Botta’s find are now in the Louvre. When monumental sculptures of winged bulls and bas-reliefs of Assyrian conquests were first displayed the British Museum in London and the Louvre in Paris, they drew huge crowds. Nivenah and Its Remains , Layard chronicle of his work, became a bestseller.

Friezes from Nineveh and King Tiglath-Pileser III’s Palace


Layard Drawing of Nineveh excavation

Layard excavated the site of a palace belonging to King Tiglath-Pileser III (reigned 744-727 B.C.) in the 19th century. The building had been dismantled by one his successors and the sculptured wall slabs had been neatly stacked in preparation for recarving that never took place. In the 1990s, many of the slabs were stolen and found their way to the international art market. Some sit in the British Museum, Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Iraq Museum.

American missionaries in the Middle East were particularly anxious to get their hands on them because they thought they proved the veracity of the Bible. Among these was Dr. Henri Byron Haskell, who sent five panels to his alma mater, Bowdoin, in the 1850s. These efforts marked the beginning of the historical study of the Bible and “awareness of the wider world of the Bible” and “the idea the Bible was historically accurate,::

Much of the stuff that Layard excavated from Nineveh, including a series of friezes called the Nineveh Marbles, was brought back to England. Some of it eventually found its way into the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Seventeen sculptures and friezes were given to one Lady Charlotte to decorate the Nineveh Porch in her estate, Canford Manor, in Dorset..

In 1923, Cranford Manor was sold and became the Cranford School, The Nivenah Porch became the school’s snack bar. In 1959, seven small reliefs were found and they ended up in museums in Jerusalem, London, Boston and Oxford. In 1992, a six-foot-long relief of an eunuch and a winged divine figure, from an Assyrian palace of the ninth century B.C. was found. It sold at Christie's in London for $11.9 million. The money was used build several new buildings at the school. It was purchased by Japanese dealer Noriyoshi Horiuchi for the Miho Museum in Japan.

Nimrud Treasure

In the 1989 and 1990, four tombs, dated to the 8th and 9th century, believed to belong to queens (or at least consorts) of Ashurnasipal II were excavated in a royal palace in Nimrud. One tomb alone contained over 28 kilograms of gold. The items are the among the most impressive examples of Assyrian art---or for that matter ancient gold---ever found.

Archaeologists found 40 kilograms of treasures and 157 objects, including a golden mesh diadem with tiger eye agate, lapis lazuli; a gold child's crown embellished with rosettes, grapes, vines and winged female deities; 14 armlets and arm band with cloisonne and turquoise; enameled and engraved gold jewelry; four anklets including, one gold anklet weighing a kilogram; 15 vessels, including one with scenes of hunting and warfare; 79 earnings; 30 rings; many chains; a palm crested plaque; gold bowls and flasks; a bracelet inlaid with semiprecious stones and held together with a pin; and rare electrum mirrors.

The jewelry was worn by royal consorts of Assyria's rulers, A finely worked gold necklace features clasp in the shape of entwined animal heads. A finely wrought gold crown is topped by delicate winged females. There also chains of tiny gold pomegranates and earrings with semi-precious stones.

In 1990, archaeologists discovered a royal Assyrian treasure buried in a palace well around the 8th century B.C. in Nimrud. Artifacts of gold and ivory were found on 400 skeletons, once shackled in irons around their wrists and ankles. Archaeologists have speculated that maybe the skeletons belonged to supporters of an executed king.


piece from the Nimrud Treasures


Discovery of the Nimrud Treasures

In 1988 Iraqi archaeologist Muzahem Hussein uncovered two 8th century B.C. tombs under the royal palace in Nimrud. He discovered the site when he realized he was standing on some great vaults while putting some bricks back in place After two weeks of clearing away dirt and debris he caught his first glimpse of gold.

The first tomb was still sealed and contained a woman who was 50 or so and a collection of beautiful jewelry and semiprecious stones. A second tomb, about 100 meters away, contained the two women, perhaps queens. They were placed in the same sarcophagus one on top of the other, wrapped in embroidered linen and covered with gold jewelry. One of the women had been dried and smoked at temperatures of 300 to 500 degrees, the first evidence of mummification-like practices in Mesopotamia.

The second tomb contained a curse, threatening the person who opened the grave of Queen Yaba (wife of powerful Tiglthpilese II (744-727 B.C.) with eternal thirst and restlessness, with a specific warning about placing another corpse inside. The curse was written before the second corpse was placed inside. The two women inside were 30 to 35 years of age, with the second being buried 20 to 50 year after the first. The first is thought to be Queen Yaba. The other is thought to be the person identified by a gold bowl found inside the sarcophagus that reads: “Atilia, queen of Sargon, king of Assyria: who rule from 721 ro 705 B.C."

A third tomb excavated in 1989 had been looted but looters missed an antechamber that contained three bronze coffins: 1) one with six people, a young adult, three children, a baby and a fetus." 2) another with a young woman, with a gold crown, thought to have been a queen; and 3) a third with a 55- to 60-year-old man, and a golden vessel that appears to have identified him as a powerful general that served under served several kings.

The treasure was on display for just a few months before the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when it was packed away for protection and put in a vault beneath Baghdad's central bank . Though the bank was bombed, burned and flooded during the 2003 invasion of Iraq the treasure reportedly was undamaged.

Archaeological Excavations and Disfigurement of Babylon

The ruins of Babylon are situated not far from the Euphrates. The site was excavated by German and British archeologists, who took much of the best stuff they found—including murals and treasures—back to museums in their home countries. Most of the original structures were made of mud brick and wattle and have not held up against time, sand storms and floods. All that remains from the original ancient city are crumbling baked brick walls and stone foundations and a huge, weathered lion. The other buildings are reconstructions.


Processional Way from Babylon in the Pergamonmuseum in Berlin


The magnificent Processional Way and Ishtar Gate from Babylon now lies Pergamonmuseum in Berlin, Germany. Built during the reign of Nebuchadnezar II, it taken piece by piece from Iraq between 1899 and World War II, rebuilt inside the museum. The magnificent crenelated walls of the gate and walkway are made of blue, gold and red tiled bricks and features rows and walking bulls, lions, dragons and long-necked dogs. Most of the bricks were made in Germany but the animals were pieces from original Babylonian bricks. A cuneiform inscription read, "Nebuchadnezzer, King of Babylon, the pious prince.

In the 1980s, Saddam spent millions to restore Babylon on a dry plain near the Euphrates. Layers of earth were removed and construction began on a 600-room replica of Nebechadnezzar's palace, built using bricks stamped with Saddam’s name, a smaller-than-real replica of the famous Ishtar Gate (the original was taken to Berlin in 1903). Construction was halted at the beginning of the second Persian Gulf War and never resumed. The Ishtar Gate is already crumbling. The walls of Saddam’s palace in full of cracks as result f the salty, moist soil.

The Babylon ruins and reconstructions are reached after walking up a modern staircase. Visitors walk through the towering Ishtar gates, adorned with bulls and lions, and move past the city wall decorated sculpted lions, bulls and griffons and once covered in purple- and gold- glazed tiles. The enormous lion is carved from a block of basalt and rests on top of a reclining human figure, whose left hand is clenched in the lions’s mouth. The 14th century B.C. Lion of Babylon was part of Nebuchadenezzarls art collection.

Little remains of the broad Processional Way and the temple dedicated to Marduck, Babylon's chief God. The Tower of Babel, once at the center of a complex of temples, is only a stump. What used to purportedly be the Hanging Gardens is hardly discernable as such. In the a museum are bricks inscribed by Nebuchadnezzar and other artifacts. Gifts shops sell minitaute plastic statues of the Lion of Babylon and T-shirts with cuneiform writing, Overlooking the site is a modern palace built for Saddam Hussein on top of man-made Saddam Hill. It was constructed from white marble after the first Persian Gulf War. A festival called “Babylon: From Nebuchandnezzar to Saddam.” was held in a replica of an ancient amphitheater. It featured poetry, dance and parades.

Restoration Ruins Babylon

On the restoration of Babylon by the Iraqi Government for an international cultural festival in the fall of 1987, Alan Cowell wrote in the New York Times: “1,800 foreign workers — the Iraqi workers are at the war front — buckled down and laid 14 million bricks to rebuild walls and turrets in what was believed to be the likeness of the city that began its flourishing 6,000 years ago. The result, some critics say, shows the haste. Moreover, some of the restored stone-work has been erected on top of areas not yet fully excavated, so further burrowing through history's layers will be difficult. [Source: Alan Cowell, New York Times, September 27, 1987 /~\]

“In Baghdad, some people call it the ''massacre of Babylon,'' asserting that crude workmanship has done no justice to a place supposed to have yielded one of the seven wonders of antiquity, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. ''It is said that the walls they constructed thousands of years ago were straighter than the walls they are putting up now,'' said a Western diplomat in the Iraqi capital, 70 miles north of here. Those charged with restoring the site, said a Western archeologist working in Iraq, are ''wrestling with being archeologists and at the same time providing something to see for their masters.'' The current restoration, Wahhabi Abdul Razak, the project director, said, began eight years ago, although excavations by Iraqi archeologists has been going on for around a quarter century. /~\

“One problem, a Western archeologist said, is that there are few original pictures of the city that, at its zenith, had a population of one million and covered an area of nearly 8 square miles. ''Most of the restoration is being done from the imagination of those responsible,'' the archeologist said, and from watercolors left by the Germans who excavated between 1899 and 1912. Mr. Razak has other problems, too. Since the days of old when the Euphrates provided one of the city's defenses, the river has changed course and the water table has risen so that, 12 yards down, the workings begin to flood.


Saddam Hussein's Palace at Babylon


“Most of old Babylon, he said, was made of sun-dried brick. But that construction cannot be imitated these days because of high salt levels in the water. So the restoration uses kiln-baked brick that gives the rebuilding an air of modernity not normally associated with archeological reconstruction. That quandary, said Jeremy Black, a British archeologist, reflects a wider problem with the sites of Mesopotamia, compared with other civilizations whose granite and marble has survived the centuries. ''All these Mesopotamian sites look the same to the untrained eye,'' he said. ''They look like mounds of mud.'' /~\

“That impression might not be disputed by visitors scrutinizing the unrestored parts of Babylon, questing in vain for such relics as the Tower of Babel and the Hanging Gardens. According to Mr. Razak, the foundation of the Tower of Babel has been located, measuring 99.5 yards around the base. Since the measurement of the square or rectangular base was supposed to be the same as its height, archeologists have concluded that the Tower also stood 99.5 yards high. /~\

“The Hanging Gardens present more of a problem. As the story goes, a King brought a Queen from mountainous lands, where there was greenery, and the Queen pined for that verdancy. So the King had his subjects build a terraced garden for his Queen, and it became one of the wonders of the ancient world. ''The Germans fixed a place'' where they believed the garden was, Dr. Razak said. But that site has not been proven. ''Until now,'' he said, ''we haven't found it.'' /~\

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Mesopotamia sourcebooks.fordham.edu , National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, especially Merle Severy, National Geographic, May 1991 and Marion Steinmann, Smithsonian, December 1988, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, BBC, Encyclopædia Britannica, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); History of Warfare by John Keegan (Vintage Books); History of Art by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

Hidden in Plain Sight Huldah Dauid

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