Cultural Assessment of Iraq: The State of Sites and Museums in Southern Iraq

May 2003

Photo gallery and map>>
News Report: Ancient Iraqi Sites Show Theft, Destruction>>
The National Geographic Society's Cultural Assessment of Iraq: Introduction>>
Part One: The State of Sites and Museums in Northern Iraq>>

The southern team comprised Henry Wright, McGuire Gibson (for Babylon and Nippur), Elizabeth Stone, Iraqi archaeologist Dr. Riad Abdul Rahman, videographer Peter Getzels (National Geographic TV), photojournalist Steve McCurry (National Geographic Magazine), and writer Andrew Lawler, as well as two drivers. We first drove south from Baghdad to visit Babylon, then went to Nippur, both in the northwest part of the lower alluvium not far from Baghdad. After, we went directly to Nasiriyyah in the far southwestern lower alluvium, and assessed possible damage at Ur, Eridu, Tell Ubaid, Dahaileh, Girsu, and Larsa. When we returned to Baghdad, we visited Ctesiphon, Harmal, and Tell Mohammed -- all in the suburbs of Baghdad-- and Samarra 90 kilometers up the Tigris to the northwest.

Babylon: The dominant metropolis of the lower alluvium for almost two millennia, from just after 2000 B.C. until just before our era, Babylon has been partly reconstructed using plans made by German excavators a century ago. Recently, it has become a popular destination for Iraqi tourists. We were given a thorough tour by Marine Capt. David Romley. The Babylon Museum, the Director's house, gift shop, library, etc. were looted and partially burned after the recent conflict. Damage beyond these facilities seems minimal, the guard having fended off the would-be looters with a sickle ! The site is now being guarded by U.S. Marines resident in the palace that Saddam built overlooking the site.

Nippur: This site, a holy city dedicated to Enlil, head of the Sumerian pantheon, and occupied from at least 5000 BC until the Islamic period, seemed in pretty good shape. Earlier excavations by the University of Pennsylvania and excavations since the 1948 by University of Chicago have suffered only from natural erosion. There were , however, a few recent looter's pits, which are the first to appear in the site. However, the guards are present, the roof of the excavation house is ready for occupation, and the situation seems to be under control.

Ur: This modest prehistoric town grew to be the capital of a regional empire from 2100 to 2000 BC, and was an important urban center for two millennia thereafter. It was partially excavated by the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania during the 1920s and 1930s. This site, south of Nasiriyyah, is being well guarded by the US forces who have a huge presence at nearby Talil air base. The site guard has remained in place, well-supported by Major Jon Anderson and the Civil Affairs staff at Talil. We heard accounts of graffiti and the taking of bricks as souvenirs by US military personnel, but did not see any evidence of this. There are some fox holes dug into various part of the site. There has been some new reconstruction in the AH house area, the so-called "House of Abraham", by the Department. I do find it disappointing that they did not follow the plan of these houses precisely so what were at least four separate houses now have doors linking them, convenient for modern visitors, but not a true representation of early Mesopotamian attention to family privacy. While on the site, we gave several talks to attentive audiences of visiting U.S. troops about what we do and do not know about Ur.

Eridu (Modern Abu Shahrain): This important prehistoric town south of Ur was viewed by the ancient Sumerians as the oldest city in the world, and was the site of the first independent project of Iraq's Department of Antiquities during the late 1940s. There were minor signs of looting at Eridu. The place that seems to have attracted the attention of recent looters was the old excavation house of the Iraq Museum's team, built in 1947. The looters may have found a few old sardine cans but not much else.

Ubaid: The prehistoric village site near Ur, which gives its name to the early village culture of the alluvium was partly excavated by the British Museum in the 1920s. The Department had surrounded it with a sturdy barbed-wire fence, and it has suffered no recent damage. A nearby early historic village site, which like most archaeological mounds has no such protection, was pitted by looters a few days before our visit.

Dahaileh (Eridu Project 34): This is a town site west of Ur dating to the Old Babylonian period, ca 1700 B.C. I have always wanted to visit since it is similar in plan to Mashkan-shapir near Nippur, where I initiated research just before the first Gulf War. It is quite remote and has been heavily pitted in the cemetery, in a temple or administrative area, and in a housing area. We have to include this area in their regular program of patrols.

Girsu (Modern Telloh): In Nasiriyyah, we were able to link up with the 225th Marine battalion under Major Glenn Sadowski who already had been ordered to monitor archaeological sites. We went with them to Girsu, north of Nasiriyyah, a prehistoric town which grew to be an important city in of the Kingdom of Lagash and seat of its queen around 2400 BC. The French excavated here more than a century ago, and again during the 1930s. There some evidence of minor recent looting. Indeed, our arrival with the Marines may have spurred the looters to run away in the opposite direction. The guard is in place and he and his assistants had driven the looters off earlier by shooting at them.

Larsa (Modern Senkereh): We also visited this large city west of Nasiriyyah with Major Sadowski and some of his Marines. A French team excavated here during the 1970s and 1980s. We saw evidence of extensive recent looting. This recent pitting was most severe on one or more large baked brick buildings. This looked like other large houses known already from Larsa, which often had extensive archives of clay tablets with cuneiform texts within them. The French excavation house had been destroyed after the Gulf War of 1991, and the site guard was murdered. Now, only a few bricks remain. There was no sign of the present site guard. His house had been destroyed, and he had presumably gone back to his village some time back. This site needs to be guarded, but it is in the border between several jurisdictions, and it is unclear who should be responsible.

Ctesiphon: The famous arch , the audience hall of the palace of the Sasanian emperors in the 3rd to 6th centuries AD is still standing, but there are now graffiti on it (in Arabic), and kids are climbing on the roof and throwing bricks around (some modern some old). The building with the vaunted panorama of the seventh century AD Battle of Kaddisiyeh, a victory of Arab armies over the Persians important in the propaganda of Saddam Hussein, is completely looted. No guard was in sight.

Tell Harmal: This small walled town of about 1800 BC, excavated by the Iraqis in the 1950s and partly reconstructed, has suffered a little wear and tear but no real damage. The guard is in place. I was warned by some locals not to wander too far away from the reconstructed areas but don't know whether they were worried about unexploded ordinance or wild dogs (there was evidence of the presence of dens in the area).

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