Obituary: Professor David Oates ; Archaeologist Who Oversaw Excavations on an Old-Fashioned Scale in Iraq and Syria

By Curtis, John | The Independent (London, England), April 1, 2004 | Go to article overview
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Obituary: Professor David Oates ; Archaeologist Who Oversaw Excavations on an Old-Fashioned Scale in Iraq and Syria


Curtis, John, The Independent (London, England)


THE GREAT British archaeological expeditions abroad that were a feature of the second half of the 20th century have now, through lack of funding and changing priorities, become almost a thing of the past. David Oates was closely associated with three such excavations - at Nimrud and Tell al-Rimah in Iraq, and at Tell Brak in Syria.

Oates arrived at Nimrud in spring 1955 to join the excavations of (Sir) Max Mallowan at the great Assyrian capital city. The first excavations at Nimrud had been by Austen Henry Layard, who worked there in the middle of the 19th century. He found a wonderful series of colossal gateway figures in the form of winged bulls and lions and stone bas-reliefs showing the Assyrian king sitting in state or out hunting and the Assyrian army on campaign.

Most of these sculptures, some of which are now in the British Museum, came from the North-West Palace of Ashurnasirpal, who reigned from 883 to 859 BC; and it was in the same building that Mallowan restarted the work on behalf of the British School of Archaeology in Iraq in 1949. He had many early successes, finding beautifully carved ivory plaques in a well and a stela recording a great banquet which Ashurnasirpal arranged at Nimrud to mark the completion of his new palace.

Mallowan then moved on to investigate other buildings on the citadel mound and Oates arrived just in time to be given the difficult job of sorting out the stratigraphy of the Nabu Temple and the Burnt Palace and supervising the excavation of the Hellenistic settlement above the Nabu Temple, tasks which were accomplished with distinction.

On the strength of this Oates was appointed field director of the Nimrud project in 1958, and it was in that year that work started in the vast building in the outer town known as Fort Shalmaneser. This was a fortified structure containing several hundred rooms arranged around courtyards that seems to have had a dual function of arsenal and palace. It is probably Oates's greatest achievement that he managed to produce a plan of this huge building and before 1962 to excavate many of the storerooms, which contained a vast array of carved ivories and military equipment.

It is sometimes regretted that the British School of Archaeology did not continue with its excavations at Nimrud - instead the Iraq Department of Antiquities took over and went on to discover the tombs of the Assyrian queens with their vast quantities of gold jewellery - but Oates felt that the time was right for a change.

Thus in 1964 he branched out on his own and started a major new excavation at Tell al-Rimah, near Tell Afar, also in northern Iraq. Having discovered much new information about Assyria in the first millennium BC at Nimrud he was anxious to excavate a site that was going to yield information about Assyria in the second millennium BC, and the smaller provincial site of Tell al-Rimah was selected for this purpose. The excavations here, which continued until 1971, revealed a palace built in the time of Shamshi- Adad I of Assyria in c1800 BC which contained an important archive of tablets.

A temple built at about the same time was exceptionally well preserved and yielded important evidence for mud-brick vault and arch construction. There were also engaged mud-brick columns with spiral decoration imitating palm-trunks. A small shrine of a later period contained a stela of the Late Assyrian king Adad-Nirari III (810-783 BC).

Both Nimrud and Tell al-Rimah were excavations in the grand style, employing up to several hundred workmen supervised by a team of specialist archaeological diggers (Sherqatis) from the town of Sherqat near Ashur. Much of the specialist work, such as tracing mud- brick walls and other features and identifying archaeological deposits, was done by these Sherqatis, so that young Western site supervisors had much less of a hands-on role than they do in modern excavations.

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