Robbing the Archaeological Cradle

By Russell, John Malcolm | Natural History, February 2001 | Go to article overview

Robbing the Archaeological Cradle


Russell, John Malcolm, Natural History


In the aftermath of the Gulf War, Iraq's ancient heritage has landed on the endangered list.

Virtually all of Iraq is an archaeological site, so the 1990-91 Gulf War inevitably took a toll on the remains of ancient settlements, some well known and others still awaiting discovery and exploration. One of these sites was Ur of the Chaldees, the reputed birthplace of Abraham, where excavations in the 1920s and 1930s had yielded a great temple complex as well as royal tombs packed with sacrificed servants and gold treasures rivaling the riches of Tutankhamen. Bombing and strafing left four large craters in the temple precinct and some 400 holes in the temple's great ziggurat, or stepped tower. Far worse, following the cease-fire and the imposition of sanctions, the weakened Iraqi authorities were powerless to protect most of the country's museums and archaeological sites from looting and theft. Even now, a decade later, the nation's Department of Antiquities and Heritage is short of needed resources. As a result, thousands of artifacts have been smuggled out of Iraq and offered on the international market. Furthermore, in the course of an emergency agricultural development program aimed at averting food shortages, the Iraqis have bulldozed, plowed, inundated, and irrigated countless ancient sites. What is being lost is not only Iraq's heritage but the world's.

Called Mesopotamia by the Greeks and variously Sumer, Akkad, Babylonia, and Assyria by its own ancient inhabitants, Iraq has an excellent claim to be the cradle of Western civilization. The emergence of complex communities was accompanied by developments such as writing, the wheel, irrigation agriculture, cities, monumental architecture, state-sponsored warfare, organized religion, written laws, kingship, a wealthy class, imperialism, centrally organized production of hand-crafted goods, and large-scale trade. By and large, the first eleven chapters of Genesis are set in southern Iraq, in the land of Shinar (Babylonia). Eden, tle Sumerian word meaning "steppe," was the name of a district in Sumer, or southern Babylonia. Mesopotamian royal gardens, notably the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, may have inspired the story of the Garden of Eden. According to Genesis, the first cities founded in Shinar after the flood were Babel (Babylon), Erech (Uruk), and Accad (Akkad), while the first cities in Assyria (northern Iraq) were Calah (Kalhu, now Nimrud) and Nineveh. With the exception of Akkad, wellpreserved remains of all these cities can be seen in Iraq today.

Archaeologists were relatively slow to tackle the region's countless tells, the earth mounds that mark the sites of ancient settlements. Consisting largely of the accumulated remains of mud-brick buildings, they were less enticing than the standing stone ruins of ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, and their historic identity was not always apparent, even to local inhabitants. The first archaeologists to explore them were Paul-Emile Botta, a French diplomat, and Austen Henry Layard, an adventurous English lawyer. In the midnineteenth century they both probed mounds in and near present-day Mosul, a city in northern Iraq that embraces the site of ancient Nineveh. Between the two of them, they uncovered the remains of five Assyrian palaces.

One, excavated by Layard in Nineveh, was the "palace without rival" of Sennacherib, a king of the Assyrian empire. The inner walls and courtyards were lined with two miles of sculptured stone slabs depicting the king's various campaigns, from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean. Sennacherib is best remembered for his unsuccessful siege of Jerusalem in 701 B.c. The siege was cut short, according to conflicting biblical accounts, either by the angel of the Lord or by a large bribe paid by the Judaean king. An inscription on a statue found in the doorway of Sennacherib's throne room also recounts the bribery tale, providing the first-known independent written account corresponding to a story in the Bible. …

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