In many ways, the history of Iraq is the history of all humanity. The Iraq Museum’s huge collection tells the epic story of human civilization, from the earliest settlements to the rise and fall of vast empires. These artifacts, some of them more than 10,000 years old, show the development of everything from hunting and writing implements to mathematics, art, law, religion, and industry — and ultimately — humankind’s best and worst impulses. Learn more about the museum
Iraq announced the return of hundreds of antiquities that had ended up in the United States, although 632 pieces repatriated last year were now unaccounted for.
PHILADELPHIA — A new, long-term exhibition, “Iraq’s Ancient Past: Rediscovering Ur’s Royal Cemetery,” opens Sunday, Oct. 25, at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.
The exhibit will bring details of the famous expedition conducted by Penn Museum and the British Museum to life through field notes, photographs and archival documents and more than 220 ancient artifacts unearthed at the excavation. “Iraq’s Ancient Past” looks to the present and future as well, exploring the ongoing story of scientific inquiry and discovery made possible by those excavations as well as the pressing issues around the preservation of Iraq’s cultural heritage today.
In 1922, the same year that Howard Carter made headlines with the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb in Egypt, Penn Museum and the British Museum embarked upon a joint expedition to the ancient site of Ur in southern Iraq. Led by British archaeologist Leonard Woolley, this expedition astonished the world by uncovering a 4,500-year-old royal cemetery with more than 2,000 burials that detailed a remarkable ancient Mesopotamian civilization at the height of its glory.
Centerpiece of the exhibition is the collection of famous ancient artifacts uncovered and, in some cases, painstakingly conserved, including five objects that art critic and former Metropolitan Museum of Art Director Thomas Hoving called, “the finest, most resplendent and magical works of art in all of America”: the Ram-Caught-in-the-Thicket, the Great Lyre with a gold and lapis lazuli bull’s head, Queen Puabi’s jewelry, an electrum drinking tumbler and a gold ostrich egg as well as the queen’s headdress and other treasures large and small.
“Iraq’s Ancient Past” recounts the formation of the joint expedition to Ur, the setting up the “expedition house” for the excavation team and the many excavation challenges that Woolley’s team faced.
Known today as “Tell al Muquayyar,” or “mound of pitch (tar),” the site of Ur, near present-day Nasiriyah, was thought to be “Ur of the Chaldees,” the birthplace of the biblical patriarch Abraham. During his excavations, Woolley hoped to uncover Abraham’s home and other biblical evidence. In 1929, he interpreted a deep layer of river clay he uncovered to be the remains of a “great flood” from the biblical story of Noah. Like so much discovered at Ur, his sensational story made international headlines.
His major discovery, however, was the site of Ur’s royal cemetery. With a crew of hundreds, he began this massive excavation in 1926, eventually uncovering nearly 2,000 burials. Sixteen of these he named “royal tombs” based on their style of construction, evidence of royal attendants who were interred at the same time and the sheer wealth of the graves’ contents. The three most celebrated tombs were the looted tomb of a king, the remarkably preserved tomb of Queen Puabi and what he dubbed “the Great Death Pit” since it contained 74 carefully laid out and richly adorned bodies, all but six female.
The famous excavations attracted the attention and involvement of a number of personalities whom the exhibition also highlights. For example, T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) was instrumental in securing the excavation and Woolley’s participation, while Agatha Christie, who eventually married Woolley’s assistant Max Mallowan, wrote “Murder in Mesopotamia” to mark her experience on site.
Since the excavations came to a close in 1934, scholars have continued to study Penn Museum’s Ur collection, incorporating new evidence from other ancient sites and using improved conservation practices and new scientific techniques to further investigate the material. For example, because almost nothing excavated from the royal tombs could have been created from locally available materials, the exhibition details how scholars are rebuilding the story of 4,500-year-old trade networks across the Near and Middle East.
The exhibition concludes with a look at the situation in Iraq today, where looting in the Iraq National Museum and at archaeological sites throughout the country has destroyed much evidence about the past. To date, the Ur excavation site has been largely preserved, having been contained within the boundaries of Tallil Air Base and under the control of allied forces until May 2009 when the site was officially returned to Iraq’s State Board of Antiquities.
“Iraq’s Ancient Past” is co-curated by Penn Museum’s Richard L. Zettler, associate curator-in-charge of the Near East Section, and Holly Pittman, curator in the Near East Section. They are contributors to “Treasures from the Royal Tombs of Ur” (Penn Museum, 1998), a catalogue from an earlier exhibition that featured material from this site.
Additional information is available at www.penn.museum or by calling 215-898-4000.
While many Soldiers head home in the late hours of the second shift, Sgt. Ronald Peters sits at his desk scanning over imagery, maps and the Internet, sometimes as late as 5 a.m., looking for answers.
Peters, a geospatial analyst from Fort Lewis, Wash., with Multi-National Corps-Iraq C-7, is undertaking the largest mapping projects of his career. His work is helping to resolve a concern shared by both the U.S. military and the Iraqi government as troops have pulled out of cities and continue the drawdown.
“We try not to say we’re mapmakers, it’s more like being able to geographically depict a possible solution,” Peters said.
Peters said while most everything has been mapped, geospatial analysts extract certain features from one map and combine it with features from another map to make a new one. For example, a map showing structures and roads could be combined with a map showing different types of soil to plan an irrigation system for farmers.
“What we can do is take the data that creates all the available maps and pinpoint what a customer specifically wants to create a new map that fits their needs,” he said.
What was needed in this case was something that had never been done before, a complete mapping of all available information on archeological sites in Iraq.
“Back in June, one of the engineers working on future operations wanted to see all the archeological sites in Iraq,” Peters recalled. “Everybody knows this is the cradle of civilization.
There’s Babylon, Ur, some pretty famous archeological sites in Iraq.”
As bases were closed and troops withdrew from cities, the existing bases need to expand, without infringing on historical sites.
“We need the Iraqi government’s permission to expand a camp to house relocated troops,” Peters explained. “The government, for a number of reasons, might say no. One of those reasons might be the presence of archeological sites in the area.”
Peters volunteered for the job and began the difficult process of creating a list of archeological sites.
“I started asking around for input from different people,” he recalled. “The more I got into it the more I realized there’s a lot more than just Babylon and Ur.”
The process was pretty straight forward. Chief Warrant Officer Jason Davis and Peters scanned imagery to identify a mound that stands out from the rest of the terrain that could be an old city buried in the sand. Peters then examined the appropriate imagery to identify the geographical coordinates, searching online resources for references to ancient historical places in the area.
“It’s fun,” he said. “I love doing it; being a social science major, history and geography are two areas that have been two of my academic passions.”
Rogers used a digital copy of a 1961 map of Iraq created by the Iraq director of Antiquities and, through a process called rubber sheeting, assigned geographic coordinates to the map. There were 270 different rock monuments, cultural and historical sites.
Even though the map was a good starting point, Peters questioned the accuracy of the locations. The 1961 map had Ctesiphon, a large site buried in history, located about 50 miles away from the location on Peters’ imagery.
“The mapping software we have is a lot more accurate than what they used 48 years ago,” he said. “So I can definitely compare two known spots, see its 50 miles off on the old map and adjust. But there are places out there from the older map that I have no idea where it’s at. There’s nothing anywhere near it on our maps.”
Peters confirmed the validity of about 100 sites using the Internet, but there were still more than 150 that left him puzzled.
When the project first started he spent half his day researching. At 250 sites, he cut back the hours, but continued working on tracking down sites on his own time from his trailer.
Then he came across an Arizona State University project claiming there were approximately 12,000 sites to be mapped and presented to the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage of Iraq. After a series of phone calls and emails, Rogers linked up with Diane Siebrandt, an archeologist and cultural heritage officer at the U.S. Embassy, Baghdad.
Siebrandt shared with him information from the State University of New York.
“They had a project of about 700 sites,” he said. “I compared that to the 300 sites I had and most of them were confirmed by the SUNY list and other research.”
After months of work, Peters has established a map of more than 800 sites throughout Iraq.
“It would be nice to get all 12,000 but there’s no possible way for us to do it, so right now what we’re mainly concerned about is anything within where we are going to be operating, doing the best that we can not to infringe on any sites,” he said.
Peter’s ongoing effort to preserve Iraq’s archeological sites now is a part of the military’s diligence in caring for the ancient sites and history of the Iraqi people as U.S. forces withdraw from the country.
BAGHDAD — Iraq appealed to other nations on Thursday to help save its archaeological treasures from ruin, saying ancient Babylonian and Assyrian artifacts and priceless medieval Islamic monuments were at risk without more funds.
Iraq, which the ancient Greeks called Mesopotamia or ‘land between two rivers’ because of its Tigris and Euphrates, is regarded by archaeologists as the cradle of civilisation.
Many believe it gave birth to such milestones of human development as agriculture, codified law and the wheel.
But historic sites have been woefully neglected and damaged by decades of war, sanctions and looting. Iraqi officials say they need to spend millions of dollars to reverse the damage.
Iraqi officials are hoping a sharp improvement in security will draw Western tourists to ancient sites like the biblical city of Babylon, home to King Nebuchadnezzar’s Hanging Gardens.
“International support is badly needed to complete works of maintenance, rehabilitation and training,” said Qahtan al-Jiboubi, Iraq’s Minister of Tourism of Antiquities.
High on the list is the national museum in Baghdad, once a trove of ancient artefacts which was plundered after the 2003 invasion while U.S. troops stood by.
Around 6,000 items out of the approximately 15,000 which were stolen when order collapsed after the fall of Saddam Hussein were back on display in February.
Officials from Greece, Egypt and Italy, each of which have much experience managing their own antiquities, attended a meeting in Baghdad to launch Iraq’s appeal for help.
There has already been some international assistance. Italy rehabilitated two museum exhibition halls from the Assyrian and Islamic periods.
The United States has donated cash to the museum and to help restore Babylon, which was looted, rebuilt by Saddam in a cavalier fashion and used as military base since 2003.
The head of Iraq’s tourism and antiquities board, Qais Hussein, said target sites included the al-Hadba minaret and ancient city of Namroud in Mosul, the medieval Islamic city of Samarra and an historic minaret in western Anbar province.
He estimated each site would cost almost a million dollars.
AS United States troops begin withdrawing from Iraq, we should take stock of the staggering damage that Iraq’s ancient archeological sites have suffered from looting over the last few years. After the 2003 invasion, swarms of looters dug huge pits and passages all over southern Iraq in search of cuneiform tablets and cylinder seals. At Isin, where a Sumerian city once stood, I watched men sifting through tons of soil for 4,000-year-old objects to sell to Baghdadi dealers. It was mass pillage.
The worst of the looting appears to be over, say the experts who monitor archeological sites with armed inspections and aerial photographs. With security improving, Iraqi authorities now have the chance to bring long-lasting protection to what’s left of the country’s ancient heritage. They could take some pointers from an unexpected place: Peru.
In 1994, residents of eight villages in northwestern Peru — a region of deserts and oases that looks much like Iraq — organized citizens’ patrols. The patrols weren’t out to stop house burglars or cattle rustlers. They were looking for looters, who, for several years, had plundered the area to feed the robust international market for pre-Inca artifacts.
I spent a few days with one of these patrols in the village of Ucupe in 2002. The members were unarmed and well organized, and they knew the terrain as well as you know your dining room. When they spotted looters digging up the overgrown ancient burial mounds that dot the landscape, they surrounded them and called the police. In this way, I saw the patrols apprehend three potential looters without firing a shot.
Last year, archeologists excavated an intact tomb at Ucupe that contained the remains of a lord who ruled during the Moche civilization around A.D. 450. He was buried with golden headdresses, war clubs, silver rattles and opulent jewelry. If sold piecemeal on the black market, these objects could have fetched millions. Instead, their discovery opened the door to a new understanding of how power was exercised in the Moche world.
Without the civilian patrols, this tomb would certainly have been emptied by looters. The people of Ucupe will now benefit from the archaeological tourism that often follows such discoveries and that, in Peru, is booming. They protected a community asset, and it paid off.
This kind of grassroots organizing — where local officials, police officers and archaeologists join forces with local residents — is the best way to combat looting and protect sites from being swallowed up by the illicit antiquities trade. A similar strategy has proved effective in Mali, a country that has little in common with Peru besides a rich archaeological heritage. It would work in Iraq and elsewhere.
Surprisingly, though, relatively few governments have focused on getting rural people involved in protecting threatened sites. Most spend their energy pressing museums in the United States or Europe to repatriate looted artifacts, instead of focusing on safeguarding the archaeological riches still in the ground. Repatriation is a valuable goal, but an immense amount of historical information is lost whenever looting occurs and sites are damaged, even if the objects are later recovered. The government’s time would be better spent expanding the patrols to prevent looting in the first place.
In Iraq, the authorities could start by inviting provincial museums and archaeologists to work with local governments and police departments on organizing residents who live near key ancient sites. Rural citizens’ patrols aren’t expensive — they need binoculars, cellphones, maybe a few dirt bikes and some basic training. Financing could come from international conservation and community development organizations and should include money for education to encourage people to see the ruins in their midst as valuable community assets as much as potable water or clean streets. Once organized, the patrols need to be lightly armed if armed at all, and they have to be well regulated by the police. But as the good citizens of Ucupe have shown, they work.
Roger Atwood, a contributing editor at Archaeology magazine, is the author of “Stealing History: Tomb Raiders, Smugglers and the Looting of the Ancient World.”