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Discoveries in Iraq have cast doubt on the history of Mesopotamia

By: April Carson

According to archaeologist Sebastien Rey, discoveries from the project have the potential to rewrite established accounts of Mesopotamian history. After findings from the project became public, he said that further excavations of the ancient city of Girsu in Iraq, led by the British Museum, could rewrite accepted histories of development in Mesopotamia.

For years, academics have thought that the Sumerians' ability to irrigate their lands — or to have constant and reliable access to water — is what drove them from subsistence into the amazing achievements for which they are recognized: writing, temple complexes, and city formation.

But water availability in the area has always been precarious. The river that runs through the Fertile Crescent — the Tigris and Euphrates — is notoriously unpredictable, often changing its course or drying up completely. This was thought to be one of the reasons why the Akkadian Empire, which came after the Sumerians, collapsed: There was simply not enough water to sustain such a large population.

It's possible that the nobility made their houses higher to protect them from attack. And now, following the findings of the Girsu Project, it appears that water was not responsible for these modifications after all. But what exactly was it?

The new Ancient Iraq exhibit at the British Museum, which opened in September 2014 and will continue to run through April 2015, is a follow-up endeavor from the expedition. Dr. Rey was the project's lead archaeologist. Between about 3000 BC and 2000 BC, the Sumerians constructed Girsu (now Tello, in southern Iraq) as a city and temple complex. A research on this subject will be published later this year; as part of this initiative, the museum has set up an exhibition at Nottingham Castle in the UK called Ancient Iraq: New Discoveries to contextualize existing artefacts from Girsu and other Sumerian cities.

Rey and his crew used cutting-edge equipment to investigate the city's development, using drones over a 250-hectare site. The images they gathered illustrate how deeply the irrigation system had been integrated into the city and its surroundings.

This place is a testament to the impact that climate change has had on this piece of land. Extreme rainfall, caused by climate change, also washed away the top layer of soil, revealing even more distinct outlines.

The British Museum's project discovered ancient artifacts in the bottom levels of the canals, including shells and other items that would be carbon-dated, working with archaeologists from Iraq's five universities led by Jaafar Jotheri of Al Qadisiyah. The excavations revealed that the canals were dug during the fifth millennium BC.

“The most startling thing is that the biggest irrigation canals go back to Mesopotamia's prehistory, which means they're much older than the city's founding. That implies they are at least 1,000 years old; traditionally, it has been said that development in Mesopotamia begins around 3300 BC, when there was a significant shift from pre-urban to urban society and written language was created.”

“But the canals that we've dated recently push the date back to the fifth millennium, implying that irrigation was not what sparked urban development and writing invention. That's a significant find in my opinion.”

Previously, academics thought that once the ancient Sumerians figured out how to irrigate their crops, they were able to progress from basic farming to a social and religious hierarchy like Girsu's magnificent temples suggest.

The Girsu Project's findings, which have been published for a paper that has passed peer review but is yet to be published, reveal that the Sumerians lived on well-watered plains for a full millennium before beginning to construct temple complexes.

When did it go from there? What factors altered society from a simpler one to a more intricate one?

This change may have had nothing to do with the environment, according to Rey. Rather, it was the result of a mental shift among inhabitants of Girsu: an ideological transformation. The powers assigned to the gods were concentrated in one location within a larger social and political structure thanks to temples and government buildings.

“It was a domestication of the gods' power,” says Rey, using the phrase that is commonly used to describe Sumerian civilization's development of water farming.

The city of Girsu was last excavated in the 1960s, when contemporary technologies and archaeological methods were not yet in use. Since then, Sumerian academics have been working from outdated knowledge, as the invasion of Iraq in the 1990s and subsequent unrest prevented any further excavation at the site.

Girsu has also suffered major pillaging in recent years. Cones, statues, and other votive offerings may be purchased on the black market throughout the world. The British Museum returned symbolic cones that had been used in Girsu's Sumerian temple in 2018, for example, as part of a raid on a London antiquities dealer.

After the archaeological expedition arrived last year, they found Girsu scarred with holes where thieving looters had dug up goods. The excavation team now has an additional responsibility as a result of the looting. Their objective was to study the site while also practicing "forensic archaeology," treating the dig like a crime scene.

“We are attempting to protect the site from looting, as well as the late 19th century and early 20th-century excavations that have taken place there. Furthermore, we're using Girsu as a case study to teach and learn about a method that will assist Iraqis in restoring their heritage.

“You may discover evidence of what the robbers left behind if you re-excavate the robber holes — a trail that can be worked on for provenance, so when Border Force in the United Kingdom informs us that we discovered these objects in a suitcase at Heathrow, we'll have a data set to tell.

Looting is a worldwide issue that many people are unfamiliar with, which leads to the looting of ancient art and archaeological sites. Looters target unbroken things, which have the highest market value. These undamaged items make up about 10% of all the cones, votive figures, and antiquities that have been buried for thousands of years on end.

However, projecting these findings into the present day and examining Sumerian inscriptions on cones that have been left behind allows archaeologists to trace connections from those taken, even if they are not parts of the same thing.

A handover ceremony of a trove of Iraqi antiquities returned by the US in August 2021 at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Baghdad included Mesopotamian clay cones with cuneiform inscriptions on them, which were displayed. Following the 2003 US invasion, cones like these were extensively looted from Girsu and other locations.

Another objective of the Girsu Project was training and mentorship. The project works in collaboration with Iraq's State Board of Antiquities and Heritage and five partner universities in that country to educate Iraqi archeologists and conservators about surveying techniques, excavation methods, and artifact examination.

Following the British Museum's previous Iraq Program, which similarly focused on training, comes a two-year project funded by a Getty grant. The five-year project, funded by the UK government, began in 2016 and will continue through 2021 owing to Covid delays.

This phase of the project is critical, since little has altered in the archaeological landscape since the first age of European excavation, which began under colonialism in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

The majority of Iraq's archaeological excavations are still conducted by Western nations, with funding from Western nations, and then the findings published in Western publications — seldom if ever being translated into Arabic so that Iraqis can learn about them.

Even the concepts of archaeology — discovery, advancement, and a focus on an object-based culture — are entrenched in a European system of thought, as extensive academic research in the field of decolonizing archaeology has demonstrated.

Within this context, one of the Girsu Project's greatest assets is its ethical practices.

Professor Jotheri, an internationally renowned geoarchaeologist at Al Qadisiyah University who oversaw the Girsu Project, emphasizes the need for mentorship in Iraqi archeology. Newly discovered items such as votive sculptures, figurines, and carved cylinder seals were preserved while being excavated at Girsu so that trainee Iraqi archaeologists could study them rather than having knowledge gained from the site flow to European laboratories and archeologists. The objects were then handed over to the Iraq Museum in Baghdad.

“We have two sides: we have the internationals and the Iraqis,” Jotheri adds. “The archeologists on the Iraqi side need equipment, laptops, training, lodgings, and pay. Unlike others who only invited a few individuals from one university or another to participate in their project, the Girsu Project engaged many more Iraq universities, as well as local communities. They held many workshops and conferences with experts from the British side. They also provided counterparts for those on the British side.”

However, Jotheri claims that this is not the case. In reality, there still exists a two-tiered scenario for archaeology in Iraq, where the State Board of Antiquities seldom enforces equal partnerships. “The reality is that if a team comes in and wants to work on a site, they will almost always be working with an Iraqi counterpart. The thing is, though, the Iraqis are not really given any authority.”

“From the global perspective, they usually want everything,” he adds. It's like early colonial times; they need Iraqi silence. We are their cheap servants with no voice. They take everything from us. They regard the archeological site as if it were an oil field. When the barrel is inexpensive, an oil field is what you get.”

The Girsu Project may be doing significant research on how ancient civilizations developed in Mesopotamia 5,000 years ago. But the project, and the Iraq Scheme before it, also illuminated present-day issues while reminding us that some of archaeology's historical methods are not necessarily as distant in history as we might suppose.

The first westerners to study the remains of Mesopotamian civilization were colonialists, and their approach was deeply flawed. Many of the most famous early archeologists, such as Austen Henry Layard and Sir Henry Rawlinson, were more interested in collecting artifacts for museums than in understanding the culture that had created them. They frequently damaged or destroyed sites in the process of excavating them, and their work was often shaped by political agendas.

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About the Blogger:

April Carson is the daughter of Billy Carson. She received her bachelor's degree in Social Sciences from Jacksonville University, where she was also on the Women's Basketball team. She now has a successful clothing company that specializes in organic baby clothes and other items. Take a look at their most popular fall fashions on

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