Ancient History & Civilisation

CHAPTER 2

IN SEARCH OF THE PAST

In order to reconstruct the past, historians make use of two kinds of documents: texts and objects, the word ‘object’ here meaning literally any artefact, from the most elaborate building to the humblest kitchen utensil. But while objects play a comparatively small part where recent periods are concerned, they grow in importance as one moves back along the scale of time, and as historians have no direct access to non-written documents, they usually must rely upon the publications of those men whose task it is to dig up ancient cities and necropoles: the field archaeologists.

Historians of the ancient Near East are even more dependent upon archaeologists than those of classical antiquity, for, in Mesopotamia, objects and texts lie, for reasons that we shall presently examine, deeply buried in the ground and can only be reached by means of excavation. Archaeological excavations began in Iraq in 1843 and have continued unceasingly ever since. At first the work of genial amateurs, they rose to scientific standards at the turn of this century when it was realized that filling museums withobjets d'art was not an end in itself and that finding out how people lived was far more important. On the other hand, the very nature of their work, the fact that they were dealing with fragile material such as mud bricks and clay tablets, and the necessity, in order to reach deeper into the past, of destroying layer after layer of human occupation almost as soon as they uncovered them, obliged archaeologists to devise proper, elaborate techniques. Teams of experts trained in, and sponsored by, European or American museums and universities and backed by all the resources of modern science were brought in to direct and supervise the skilled workmen who handled the pick and the spade. During the last ninety years more than thirty sites – including practically all the main cities of ancient Iraq – have been extensively excavated and more than three hundred mounds ‘sounded’. The results of this international effort are astounding. Our knowledge of ancient Mesopotamian history has been completely altered and broadened beyond all expectations. Historians, who 150 years ago had no other source of information than the scanty data supplied by the Bible and by a handful of classical authors, now confess that they can hardly handle the enormous amount of material put year after year at their disposal and gratefully acknowledge their debt to archaeologists.1

Courtesy alone would therefore justify this chapter, but other reasons have also prompted us to write it. Throughout this book we shall speak of the mounds or ‘tells’ which represent the buried cities of ancient Iraq; we shall refer to ‘levels’ and ‘layers’; we shall, whenever possible, give ‘absolute’ and ‘relative’ dates. It seemed to us that the reader was entitled to know from the start what we were talking about, and that the best way of satisfying his curiosity would be to summarize the objects, methods and development of what is now commonly called ‘Mesopotamian archaeology’.

The Buried Cities of Iraq

To most tourists, the first contact with the ancient sites of Iraq comes as a surprise. They are taken to a hillock rising above the plain and they are told that this was once an ancient city. As they go nearer they may find such splendid monuments as the stage-tower of Ur or the Ishtar Gate of Babylon, but in most cases they are confronted with unsightly bits of brickwork and heaps of earth littered with broken pottery. Quite naturally they are puzzled and wonder how this happened.

To answer this question it should be first explained that these ancient towns were built of nothing but mud. Stone is rare in Iraq, whereas clay is everywhere at hand. In very early times houses were made of piled-up mud (pisé) or of shapeless lumps of clay pressed together (adobe), but as early as in the ninth millennium B.C. it was soon found preferable to mix clay with straw, gravel or potsherds, mould it into bricks, let these bricks dry in the sun and bind them together with a gypsum mortar. In that way, thicker, stronger and more regular walls could be built. Of course, kiln-baked bricks were much more resistant and durable, especially when they were jointed with bitumen, but this was a costly material, as wood fuel was rare and bitumen had often to be shipped from comparatively distant regions. Burnt bricks therefore were in general reserved for the houses of gods and kings, though this was by no means the rule,2 and the vast majority of ancient Mesopotamian buildings were of simple mud bricks. The roofs were made of earth spread over a structure of reed mats and tree-trunks, and the floors of beaten earth sometimes with a coating of gypsum. A coat of mud plaster was also usually applied to the walls.

These houses with their thick walls were relatively comfortable, being cool in summer and warm in winter, but they required constant attention. Every summer it was necessary to put a new layer of clay on the roof in anticipation of the winter rains, and every now and then the floors had to be raised. The reason for this was that rubbish in antiquity was not collected for disposal but simply thrown into the street, so that the street level gradually rose higher than the floor level of the houses that bordered it, allowing the rain and the filth to seep in. Earth was therefore brought into the rooms, rammed over the old floors and covered with another coat of plaster. It is not infrequent for archaeologists to find two, three or more superimposed floors in one house. Provided these things were done, mud-brick buildings could last for a great many years. But then one day something happened. Whether it was war, fire, epidemic, earthquake, flood or change in river course, the result was the same: the town was partly or totally deserted. The roofs left unattended collapsed and the walls, now exposed to weather on both faces, crumbled down, filling up the rooms and sealing off the objects left behind by the householders. In the case of war, the destruction was of course immediate, the victorious enemy usually setting fire to the city. These arsonists of yore unknowingly made modern ‘cuneiformists’ happy, since many sun-dried and therefore fragile tablets were baked by the fire and became almost indestructible.

After years or even centuries of abandonment, new settlers would perhaps reoccupy the site, attracted by such things as its strategically or commercially advantageous position, the abundance of its water supplies or, possibly, a lingering devotion to the god under whose aegis it had been built. Since they had no means of removing the enormous mass of debris, they levelled off the ruined walls and used them as foundations for their own building. This process was repeated several times in the course of years, and as ‘occupation levels’ succeeded one another the city gradually rose above the surrounding plain. Some sites, it is true, were abandoned early and for ever; others, like Erbil and Kirkuk, have been more or less continuously occupied from very ancient times until now; but the vast majority of them, after centuries or millennia of occupation, were deserted at some period or another of the long history of Iraq. It is not difficult to imagine what took place then: windborne sand and earth piled up against the remaining walls and filled in the streets and every hollow, while rainwater smoothed off the surface of the heaped-up ruins, spreading debris over a large area. Slowly but inexorably, the town took its present shape: that of a rounded, more or less regular ruin-mound or, as the Arabs say, using an old, pre-Islamic word, a ‘tell’.3

The task of archaeologists is to dissect that closely woven fabric of standing or fallen walls and foundations, rubble, floors and earth-filling, to recover the plan of buildings, to collect and preserve the objects they may contain and to identify and date the successive ‘levels’ which constitute the tell. Depending upon the time and funds at their disposal, they use one of several methods.4

The quickest and cheapest way of knowing roughly what is in a tell is to carry out a ‘sounding’. Several trenches are dug into the surface of the mound at various angles. As the trenches are deepened, objects such as pottery are collected for dating purposes and a record is made of the floors and segments of walls encountered. This method is obviously imperfect and should only be used for preliminary surveys or for comparatively unimportant sites. A variety of sounding often applied to high and narrow tells consists of cutting a long trench, not on the surface but on the side of the mound from summit to base, just as one cuts into a Christmas pudding. An impressive series of occupation levels can be detected in this way, though it is practically impossible to circumscribe any building.

Another method, in theory perfect, is to divide the surface of the site into squares, dig up each square in turn until a certain depth is reached and start all over again for the second horizontal ‘slice’. The objects found in each square and in each layer are carefully numbered and plotted on maps. As the work goes on, monuments gradually take shape. This very slow and expensive method is rarely used. As a rule, archaeologists prefer what may be called ‘extended sounding’. A certain area is carefully selected on the surface of the tell and a trench dug, but as soon as walls are encountered, they are followed and denuded on both faces until the whole building is unearthed. Several areas are treated in the same way and may or may not join together. Whenever desirable, digging is pushed in depth underneath the uppermost and consequently more recent buildings, which are destroyed in order to bring older buildings to light. In one or more points a shaft or ‘test-pit’ may be sunk down to the virgin soil, giving a cross-section of the mound, a summary as it were of its various occupation levels. Some parts of the site remain, of necessity, untouched, but this is of little importance if the main monuments such as temples and palaces and a selection of private houses have been unearthed. Nimrud, Babylon, Uruk, Ur, Nippur and all the main sites of Iraq were or still are excavated by this method with, in the main, highly satisfactory results.

Dating the Past

Dating the monuments and objects discovered can be very easy or very difficult. Obviously, a building whose bricks are stamped with the inscription ‘Palace of Sargon, King of Assyria’ is ipso facto dated, provided we know when King Sargon reigned. But this is the exception. By far the majority of objects found in archaeological excavations – and of course the totality where prehistory is concerned – bear no inscription. In such cases, dating can only be approximate and ‘relative’, and is based on such criteria as shape, dimensions and style. The cumulative experience derived from the excavation of many a tell has taught archaeologists that bricks of a certain size, vases of certain shapes and decoration, weapons of a certain type, sculptures of a certain style, etc., are exclusively or predominantly found at a certain level and, grouped together, form what is called a ‘cultural horizon’ or ‘cultural stratum’. If only one of these objects is inscribed with a ‘date’, or if it is found in close and indisputable relation to a monument which is otherwise dated, then the whole cultural stratum easily falls in position within the scale of time. If not, attempts are made to correlate the period during which these objects were in use with more ancient and more recent periods. To take an example, in a number of southern Mesopotamian sites a certain category of painted vases (the so-called Jemdat Nasr pottery) appears immediately below a cultural stratum characterized, among other things, by ‘plano-convex’ bricks (i.e. bricks of which one side is flat and the other rounded) and immediately above a cultural stratum where plain, buff, dark or red ceramic predominates. Various inscriptions enable us to date the plano-convex bricks to the third millennium B.C. (Early Dynastic period: c. 2900-2334 B.C.). The plain pottery is undated but forms part of the cultural horizon called ‘Uruk’ after the site where it was first identified. The Jemdat Nasr stratum can therefore be given a ‘relative’ date. It is intermediate in time between the Uruk period and the Early Dynastic period and ends about 2900 B.C. How long it lasted is another matter, but there are means of forming rough estimates.

When dealing with history it becomes necessary to express dates in figures, and it is not without interest to examine how these are obtained and to what extent we can trust them.

The ancient Greeks counted from the first Olympiad (776 B.C.), the Romans from the foundation of Rome (753 B.C.); the Moslems date from the hijra (A.D. 622) and we have our own Christian era. The ancient Mesopotamians, however, had no such fixed chronological system until late in their history, when they adopted the Seleucid era (311 B.C.). Before that time, they simply referred to the years of reign of their rulers. These could be expressed in three ways: (1) the years of the reign were given in plain figures, e.g. 12th year of Nabû-na'id (Nabonidus), King of Babylon; (2) or within each reign each year was defined by some important event such as victories, royal weddings, construction of temples, etc. that had taken place in the previous year, e.g. Year (when) Uruk and Isin were conquered; (3) or each year of a king's reign was named after some high official of the kingdom (eponyms or, in Assyrian, limmu system). In Early Dynastic Sumer all three systems seem to have been used. Then the second system (year-names) was adopted in Babylonia and used until the Kassite period when it was replaced by the first system. In Assyria, however, the limmu system was kept throughout history.5

These dating systems could only be of practical value for the Mesopotamians themselves if they possessed for each king a list of his year's names or a list of eponyms, for each dynasty a list of its kings with the duration of their reigns, and finally a list of the successive dynasties which ruled over the country. Such lists existed and several of them have fortunately survived. Here are some examples:

Date-list of King Hammurabi of Babylon6

(Year 1) Hammurabi became king.

(Year 2) He established justice in the country.

(Year 3) He constructed a throne for the main dais of the god Nanna in Babylon.

(Year 4) The wall of (the sacred precinct) Gagia was built.

(Year 5) He constructed the en. ka.ash.bar.ra (?).

(Year 6) He constructed the shir (?) of the goddess Laz.

(Year 7) Uruk and Isin were conquered.

(Year 8) The country Emutbal (was conquered).

It will be seen from this list that the date quoted above is the seventh year of King Hammurabi.

King list B, covering the First Dynasty of Babylon7

Sumuabi, king, (reigned) 15 (14) years.

Sumulail, 35 (36) years.

Sabu, his son, same (i.e. king), 14 years.

Apil-Sin, his son, same, 18 years.

Sin-muballit, his son, same, 30 (20) years.

Hammurabi, his son, same, 55 (33) years.

Samsuiluna, his son, same, 35 (38) years. etc.

The list continues with four other kings and ends with the statement ‘eleven kings, dynasty of Babylon’. Thus we learn that Hammurabi was the sixth king of Babylon and that he reigned during 55 (43) years.*

Limmu-list (reign of Adad-nirâri III (810 – 783 B.C.)8

Adad-nirâri, king of Assyria (campaign) against Manna

Nergal-ilia, turtânu (field marshal), against Guzana

Bêl-daiân, nâgir ekalli (herald of the palace), against Manna

Sil-bêl, rab shaqê (chief cup-bearer), against Manna

Ashur-taklak, abarakku (superintendent), against Arpad

Ili-ittia, shakin mâti (governor of Assur), against the town of Hazâzu

Nergal-eresh, (governor) of Rasappa, against the town of Ba'li etc.

The time-range of these lists varied. Some were restricted to one place and one dynasty. Others, like the king list B just quoted, included several dynasties which reigned – at least apparently – in succession. Others were even more ambitious and embraced very long periods and dynasties of several kingdoms. Such is the famous ‘Sumerian King List’ reconstructed by Th. Jacobsen, which ranges from the mythical rulers ‘before the Flood’ to Damiq-ilishu (1816 – 1794 B.C.), last king of the First Dynasty of Isin.9

To express such dates in terms of Christian chronology would have been impossible but for Claudius Ptolemeus (Ptolemy), a Greek from Alexandria who in the second century A.D. appended to one of his books a list of all the kings of Babylon and Persia from Nabonassar (747 B.C.) to Alexander the Great (336 – 323 B.C.). This list, known as ‘Ptolemy's Canon’, not only gives the length of each reign but the outstanding astronomical events that marked some of them. Now it so happens that by putting together data from several Assyrian tablets we can reconstruct a long, uninterrupted limmu-list covering the period between Adad-nirâri II (911 – 891 B.C.) and Ashurbanipal (668 – 627 B.C.), and this limmu-list also gives the main astronomical phenomena of these times. Between 747 and 631 B.C. the limmu-list and Ptolemy's Canon coincide, and so do the eclipses, the movements of stars, etc. they mention. Moreover, astronomers have found that an eclipse of the sun, which in the limmu-list is said to have occurred in the month of Sivan(May – June) of King Ashur-dân's tenth year, actually took place on 15 June 763 B.C., and this is precisely the date arrived at by proceeding backwards and adding together on the list the years of each reign. The absolute chronology of Mesopotamia is therefore firmly established from 911 B.C. onwards.10 The chronology of early periods rests upon more fragile foundations. In theory, it should be possible to work it out from king lists and dynastic lists, but these have often proved to be misleading. Not only do they show significant differences, but they contain a number of gaps or scribal errors, or they give as successive dynasties which, in fact, partly overlapped or were contemporaneous. One should not therefore be surprised to find different figures in different textbooks and occasional changes of opinions. For instance, the accession date of King Hammurabi of Babylon was given as 2394 B.C. one hundred years ago (Oppert, 1888), 2003 after the First World War (Thureau-Dangin, 1927), and varies now between 1848 (Sidersky, 1940) and 1704 (Weidner, 1951), but most historians of the ancient Near East have pronounced in favour of the so-called ‘middle’ chronology according to which Hammurabi reigned from 1792 to 1750 B.C. and this is the chronology that will be found in this book.11

We cannot leave this subject without mentioning the attempts made to put chronology on a more scientific basis by means of physical methods and, in particular, the Carbon 14 or Radiocarbon method developed in 1946 by Professor W. F. Libby of Chicago.12 Its principle is briefly as follows: all living organisms contain ordinary carbon of atomic weight 12 and a radioactive isotope of carbon of atomic weight 14 which is formed in the upper layers of the atmosphere through the action of cosmic rays on nitrogen, falls upon earth and is absorbed by vegetation and ultimately by animals. The ratio of carbon 14 to carbon 12 remains fixed throughout life: one-billionth of a gram for every gram of ordinary carbon. After death, when no more carbon 14 is absorbed, that part of it which is in the organism decreases slowly and regularly by reverting to nitrogen. As the curve of disintegration, or ‘half-life’ curve, of carbon 14 is known (this is 5,568 years), it is possible to find the date at which the organism died, and consequently its age. This method can be applied to organic matter, such as bone, wood, charcoal, shells, reeds, etc., found in archaeological excavations, but its usefulness is limited by a number of factors (‘standard deviation’ inherent in the radiation counting technique, contamination by older or more recent material, variations in atmospheric carbon 14 concentrations with time) and recent attempts to ‘calibrate’ radiocarbon estimations by dendrochronology (the study of tree-rings) have met with problems. This means that radiocarbon dates must be taken with caution; they are of considerable help when prehistory is concerned – since differences of a few hundred years matter little – but cannot be used for precise, historical chronology.

Archaeological Research in Iraq

The transformation of once flourishing cities into tells was more rapid than one might think.13 Herodotus in the middle of the fourth century B.C. sees Babylon still alive, but neglects to visit Nineveh destroyed a century and a half before, and Xenophon leading ten thousand Greek mercenaries across Mesopotamia in 401 B.C. passed near the great Assyrian capital city without even noticing it.14 Four centuries later, Strabo speaks of Babylon as of a town in ruins, ‘almost completely deserted’.15

A thousand years went by. As the blanket of dust over the ancient cities grew thicker and thicker, their memory gradually faded away. Arab historians and geographers still knew something of Iraq's glorious past, but Europe had forgotten the East. The peregrinations of Benjamin of Tudela in the twelfth century and the travels of the German naturalist Rauwolff four hundred years later were isolated episodes. It was not before the seventeenth century that western interest in oriental antiquities was awakened, when an Italian nobleman, Pietro della Valle, gave an entertaining account of his journey across Mesopotamia and brought back to Europe, in 1625, bricks found at Ur and Babylon ‘on which were writing in certain unknown characters’. Gradually, it dawned upon academics and royalty that here was a field worth investigating. For the first time, in 1761 a scientific mission was sent out east by the King of Denmark with orders to gather as much information as possible on various subjects, including archaeology. The numerous inscriptions copied at Persepolis by its leader Karsten Niebuhr – a mathematician by profession – were put at the disposal of philologists, who were soon at work deciphering the mysterious writing. From then on, nearly all those who visited, or lived in, the Orient made a point of exploring its ruins, collecting ‘antikas’ and copying inscriptions. Prominent among them are Joseph de Beauchamp, a distinguished French abbé and astronomer (1786), Claudius James Rich, a Resident of the East India Company and British Consul General in Baghdad (1807), Sir James Buckingham (1816), Robert Mignan (1827), James Baillie Fraser (1834) and that extraordinary army officer, sportsman, explorer and philologist, undoubtedly the greatest of all, Sir Henry Creswicke Rawlinson (1810 – 95). We should also mention here at least one important government-subsidized expedition of the early nineteenth century, the British ‘Tigris – Euphrates Expedition’ (1835 – 6) of F. R. Chesney, who studied the course of the two rivers and collected a wealth of information on the country around them.

With the exception of the two small pits dug by de Beauchamp and Mignan at Babylon, all these men confined their activities to the examination and measurement of the ruins as they saw them and were far from imagining what those ‘desolate mounds’ concealed. But in 1843 Paul Emile Botta, Italian-born French Consul in Mosul, started at Khorsabad the first archaeological excavations in Iraq, discovered the Assyrians and opened a new era. Almost at once (1845) an Englishman, Sir Henry Layard, followed his example at Nimrud and Nineveh, and soon a number of tells were excavated. In 1877 Ernest de Sarzec, French Consul in Basrah, having heard of some statues found by chance at Telloh, near Nasriyah, decided to dig there and discovered the Sumerians. Thus within thirty years a hitherto unknown civilization was revealed to a world astonished to learn that Mesopotamia could yield nearly as many treasures as Greece or Egypt. Botta, Layard, Sarzec, Loftus, Smith, the pioneers of that heroic period were all amateurs in every sense of the term. They had no experience and little method. Their main object was to discover and send to the museums of their respective countries statues, bas reliefs, inscriptions and objets d'art in general. They had no time for mud bricks and broken pots, destroyed much and preserved little, but they opened the road and, despite obstacles of all sorts, worked with an energy and enthusiasm which have never been surpassed.

Meanwhile, in the libraries of Europe no less enthusiastic but more patient pioneers were engaged in the fantastic task of deciphering the written documents which by then were pouring by the thousand into the museums. The story of this intellectual adventure, which lasted no less than a hundred years and taxed to the extreme the ingenuity of many scholars from several nations, cannot be told here even briefly.16 We feel, however, that homage should be paid to such men as Grotefend, a teacher of Greek at Gottingen University, who made the first serious and partly successful attempt at reading the Old Persian inscriptions in cuneiform script copied by Niebuhr at Persepolis; Rawlinson, who between 1835 and 1844 not only copied at the peril of his life the long trilingual inscription which Darius had engraved high up on the rock of Behistun in Western Iran but also began to translate it – the inscription in Old Persian, Babylonian and Elamite has been called the ‘Rosetta stone of Assyriology’, with the difference that none of the three languages could initially be read – and to the Irishman Edward Hincks and his French colleague Jules Oppert, who, with Rawlinson, deserve to be called the ‘holy triad’ of cuneiform studies, since they overcame the greatest epigraphic and linguistic difficulties and, as one of their modern successors puts it, ‘laid open the dusty pages of the clay “books” buried all over the ancient Near East’.17 The decipherment of the Assyro-Babylonian language (now called Akkadian) was considered assured in 1848, and by 1900 the other language of ancient Mesopotamia, Sumerian, was broadly comprehended. The former now has virtually no secret; the latter still has its dark corners, but is read with increasing certainty. At a conservative estimate, half a million tablets are – or, since many of them have not yet been published, will eventually be – at the historian's disposal,18 and countless more will be discovered as archaeological research progresses. It can be said without exaggeration that no other country in the world has yielded such a wealth of ancient texts in the very form in which they were written thousands of years ago.

The entry on to the stage by the Germans at the turn of the century heralded a new approach to excavation work. Robert Koldewey at Babylon (1899 – 1917) and Walter Andrae at Assur (1903 – 14) introduced strict, even meticulous techniques in a domain where luck and intuition had long reigned supreme. The German method was soon generally adopted, and the twenty years between the two world wars witnessed what should perhaps be considered as the most brilliant and fruitful period in the history of Mesopotamian archaeology. These were the days when Woolley was digging up the past at Ur and its celebrated Royal Cemetery (1922 – 34), when Heinrich and his team were working at Uruk, Parrot at Mari, the British at Ubaid, Nineveh, Arpachiyah and Chagar Bazar, the Americans at Tepe Gawra, Nuzi and in the Diyala valley, and both the British and the Americans at Kish and Jemdat Nasr. One by one, large and small tells were opened up and yielded their secrets. The main features of Mesopotamian history were defined piece by piece, and beyond history older, fascinating cultures appeared which threw new light on the origins of civilization in that part of the world.

During this time Iraq had emerged as a nation. Baghdad now had its own museum. Young Iraqi archaeologists had been trained, and excavations, far from coming to a complete standstill during the Second World War, continued with the most interesting results at ‘Uqair (1940 – 1), Hassuna (1943 – 4) and ‘Aqar Quf (1943 – 5). The war over, work was resumed by the Germans (Lenzen) at the huge site of Uruk, by the Americans (Haines and McCown) at Sumer's religious capital, Nippur, and by the French (Parrot) at Mari, the metropolis of the Middle Euphrates. Mallowan, on behalf of the British Museum, reopened Nimrud, the Assyrian military capital city which had not been touched for over seventy years. Seton Lloyd, Taha Baqir, Fuad Safar dug up for the Iraq Museum three virgin sites: Eridu, one of the most ancient sacred cities of Iraq, Harmal, a modest mound unexpectedly rich in texts, and Hatra, the strange capital of a pre-Islamic Arab kingdom. After 1958, the young Republic of Iraq opened its doors even wider to foreign archaeologists. Whilst the Germans and Americans continued working on the inexhaustible sites of Uruk and Nippur, whilst the Iraqis themselves discovered at Tell es-Sawwan a new prehistoric culture and sounded numerous smaller mounds, fresh excavations were undertaken by the British at Tell al-Rimah, Umm Dabaghiyah, Choga Mami and Abu Salabikh, by the French at Larsa and the Belgians at Tell ed-Der, by the Germans at Isin, by the Italians at Seleucia, by the Russians at Yarim Tepe and the Poles at Nimrud, and even by the Japanese at Telul ath-Thalathat, to mention only the main sites. At the time of writing, several of these excavations are still in progress and others are being planned. All the large cities of ancient Mesopotamia and many less renowned towns have been, or are being, unearthed and a considerable amount of restoration work has been done, or is going on, notably at Nineveh, Nimrud, Babylon, Ur and Hatra.

In the late 1970s a new and rewarding type of archaeological activity developed: the so-called ‘salvage excavations’ made necessary by the building, for agricultural purposes, of several dams on the Euphrates, the Tigris and some of their tributaries in both Syria and Iraq. The lakes created by these dams were bound to submerge a great number of tells, and it was imperative to explore as many of them as possible before this happened. These huge tasks were performed by Syrian and Iraqi archaeologists working in cooperation with colleagues from Europe, America, Australia and Japan. The first of these large-scale rescue operations was prompted by the construction of the Assad dam on the great bend of the Syrian Euphrates; then came, in Iraq, the ‘Hamrin basin project’ in the valley of a tributary of the Diyala river, the Haditha (or Qadissiyah) salvage excavations on the middle Euphrates, and the Eski Mosul project in the Tigris valley upstream of Mosul. Altogether, almost two hundred sites, ranging from prehistoric to late Islamic times, were explored, some of them partially and briefly, others extensively and for several months or years. The results of this international effort were very interesting: they brought to light not only a few large cities, like Emar (Meskene), but also some relatively minor towns, such as Haradum on the Iraqi Euphrates, which probably would have never been excavated; they provided a great deal of information on settlement patterns at different periods and filled many gaps in our knowledge of proto-historic cultures hitherto poorly documented.19

The ‘Gulf War’ has put an end to all archaeological research in Iraq, but there is no doubt that sooner or later such peaceful activities will be resumed there. Some six thousand tells in Iraq alone are awaiting the diggers – enough to keep busy several generations of archaeologists and epigraphists. And as though in our search for the past we were proceeding backwards, after the Assyrians, after the Babylonians, after the Sumerians, after the nameless peoples of the fourth and fifth millennia B. C, the Stone Age of Iraq has been brought under the searchlight. Despite inevitable gaps in our knowledge, it has at last become possible to write a complete history of ancient Mesopotamia, starting from those very remote days when men chose the hills and caves of Kurdistan for their dwellings and left behind them the humble tools of chipped flint which betray their presence.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!