Hello, and welcome to the Thin End of the Wedge. The podcast where experts from around the world share new and interesting stories about life in the ancient Middle East. My name is Jon. Each episode, I talk to friends and colleagues, and get them to explain their work in a way we can all understand.
Iraq is famously home to two great rivers: the Tigris and the Euphrates. In the south, life depended on them, and therefore was organised around them. They watered the crops, as well as being rich sources of food. And they served as highways, connecting the people with cities near and far. They could act as barriers to protect cities or weapons to attack them.
Archaeology in southern Iraq has usually focused on the monumental centres of major cities: the great temples and palaces. Less attention has been paid to the waterways that supported them. The dried up old courses of rivers, the networks of irrigation canals, and agricultural infrastructure all help us to better understand the changing fortunes of cities.
Our guest is a geo-archaeologist, equally at home with satellite imagery as with the traditional archaeological trowel. His work has helped put Mesopotamian cities back into their landscape. His expertise is much sought after, bringing him into collaborations with excavation teams working across the south. He is also a very generous scholar, training countless colleagues how to do this work, and especially supporting younger colleagues, despite his busy schedule. His energy, openness, and generosity are what inspired this podcast.
So get yourself a cup of tea, make yourself comfortable, and let’s meet today’s guest.
Hello, and welcome to Thin End of the Wedge. Thank you for joining us.
Hello, how are you, Jon?
Can you tell us please: who are you, and what do you do?
Well, I’m Jaafar Jotheri, geo-archaeologist. So I’m half geologist, and half archaeologist. I’m currently an assistant professor at the Faculty of archaeology at Al-Qadasiyah University. And I’m also the Vice Dean there.
You’re famous for your work on waterways. What makes you so interested in them?
I love the waterway, because my background, actually. I have, let’s say, two backgrounds. One, I’m a geologist, so always geologists dealing with the surface of the earth. So anything related with geomorphology, geology, waterways, topography. So I love waterway, because my background is geologist. And the second reason why I love waterway, because my other background is a farmer. I mean, my father, my grandfather, all of them are farmers. So we are dealing with irrigation system, digging canal, and always living close to the rivers. So you see, both of these backgrounds actually encouraged me to study waterways. And my, let’s say, undergraduate and post graduate, my master, I did lots of work on the Tigris and Euphrates, and their branches in terms of geology and geomorphology. And when I, let’s say, submit my application to study my PhD, I met the late Professor Tony Wilkinson, who is the … maybe the best landscape archaeologist, maybe in the world, right, let’s say. So he actually encouraged me to study the waterway in the south of Mesopotamia. And we agreed. So I started my PhD project on studying the waterways of southern Mesopotamia.
Can you tell us about waterways in Iraq? What types are there and why are they important?
So when I say the waterways, I mean several things, like a general term of water running in the surface, let’s say. But we have natural river, for example, the natural river of Euphrates and Tigris. And we have artificial or anthropogenic canals. So when people dig canals. This is the second type. The third type <is> actually the road; when you drive your boat in the marshes, then we have hollow ways. Is also a waterway. And we have the trenches when we have trench and then people use the same trench for irrigation or draining water. So you see I mean waterways are several types here in southern Mesopotamia.
And why waterways I study them in the south of Mesopotamia, not in the north of Mesopotamia. In the north we have little waterways, because the irrigation there depends on the rain. We have like a continuous rain there. But in the south, we don’t have that much of rain. Then the people, the farmer always rely on the surface water, which is the only two main rivers–Tigris and Euphrates. So that’s why the waterway or the water, actually, the surface water, let’s say, is really important in the south of Mesopotamia.
The second reason that I, you know, selected the south of Mesopotamia? Because I live there. I live in the south Mesopotamia, in Babylon. And like a member of staff in Al-Qadisiyah University. It’s also in the southern part of Iraq. Of course, I from time to time, I have a friend in the north, let’s say in Diyala, or in Tikrit, in Anbar, in Mosul. I did my undergraduate there in Mosul. But the landscape or the feature is different.
What new information can we learn from this then?
And you know, the other thing is that waterways is endless: endless type or endless finding of waterways. So even scholars started 50 years ago, now maybe 100 years ago, they started studying Tigris and Euphrates. But every time, every scholar when studying the waterways, he or she will find lots of new types, or sometimes new kind of waterway. For example, when the excavations started in south Mesopotamia in the 1970s, and 1980s, people studied waterways, the ancient Tigris, ancient Euphrates, and the ancient irrigation system. But when I came actually, in 2012, when I started my PhD, I discovered lots of ancient irrigation system, and also ancient courses of Tigris and Euphrates.
People came after me actually and studied the south of Mesopotamia. They also found several types of waterways. My students, actually I have two or three students now working on the construction of irrigation system in southern Mesopotamia, and in different parts of southern Mesopotamia. When they started studying the landscape, they found different types, or different courses that I didn’t discover in my PhD.
The last thing may be is that I use waterways to discover archaeological sites. Because I trained my eyes, when I see or look at the satellite image, I can pick up the trace of ancient river or ancient canal. Then I do zoom or focus on the canal or the river. And then I will find lots of archaeological sites associated with a river or canal. So you see it’s a tool to discover new sites. And I’m always teaching my students that if you spot or if you find any type of ancient river or ancient canal, then you try to search or try to discover sites, because in the southern Mesopotamia, it’s like a rule: when you have a river, you will find archaeological site. When you find archaeological site, you will find a river, because there is no river without a site and vice versa. It’s different from the northern Mesopotamia. Sometimes we have a site without a river close to it. Or sometimes we have a river without a site close to it. But in southern Mesopotamia, always we have a river, then we have a site close to it. So for example, this rule, let’s say, I’m always explaining, let’s say in Arabic, I’m always doing a talk and you know, teaching my undergraduate and postgraduate this method. So it’s so easy they you can use satellite image to recognise or to reconstruct the ancient waterways. I taught them how to discover that. Then when they go to the field, actually, they can recognise the ancient canal or ancient river. And then they can walk over the trace. And they discovered actually lots of sites. So they call … they call me or they sometimes, you know, write to me that okay, Jaafar, we we follow your rule, we discover the river, and then we searched for the site, and we discovered several sites.
You know, discovering a new site, the Ministry of Culture, or the SBAH, the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage in Baghdad, if you found the new site, they will give you a reward. So people are actually here in Iraq starting to follow my, let’s say, my rule to discover more archaeological sites. It is not like a theoretical study, when we study in office and then do something and keep it on the shelves in our library. It’s practical things. You don’t need a high sophisticated technique or high sophisticated devices. You can only use your mobile. If you install Google Earth or another app like Maverick, you will have like a high resolution satellite image. Then you can discover or you can see the ancient waterways clearly in your mobile. And you can search around it to discover to sites. It’s as simple as done. The southern part of Iraq is filled with sites. Then it’s so easy for everyone. Not everyone, I mean, but for the experts, let’s say the archaeologists who are belong maybe the university or the State Board of Antiquities to discover sites.
What’s the relationship between archaeological sites and waterways?
Yeah, actually, you know, the egg and the chicken. So who is first? The site or the river? When we have a river close to the site, then actually, we start questioning which one is first. And sometimes, you know, we have like a canal, or a river, ancient river, let’s say. And we have a site. So how many occupation period in this site? 10 occupation periods? Let’s say this site started from Ubaid period, 4000 or 5000 BC, and then ended in the Sassanian period in the first millennium AD. So you see, we have a wide range of occupation there–more than 6000 years. Did the river stay in the same place? Did the river flood or did people dig the river? How many times? The issue of rivers in southern Iraq, actually they are not running in the same place for a long time. So rivers in southern Iraq <are> always changing their course.
I’m always giving an example about southern Mesopotamia looks like a football stadium, when the players can move everywhere and the square. So Tigris and Euphrates actually are free to move within the whole southern Mesopotamia. Tigris–you can see it now–Tigris is the east of Iraq, and Euphrates to the west. But imagine sometimes in the past, Euphrates actually went to the east. And of course, Tigris sometimes can go to the west. They are not stable in the same place. So when we see a site close to the river, we should study the relationship between them. Because the river is not only a source for the fresh water, river can be used for ritual things, for irrigation. And sometimes they use it for war, when they break the levees and flood the town or the cities of the enemies.
So there should be a relationship between the river and the site. During the excavation, scholars, or the excavators, or the archaeologists, let’s say, they should not only digging the sites and finding architecture, graves, cuneiforms, potteries on the site, but they also should take in the river to see its age, how long it has been running, or how many courses. Did the river flood dry or stable? Did the will people dig the river or it’s natural one? So lots of stories can we extract from rivers.
I read lots of cuneiform mentioned how people dealt with river or canals. So because it’s part of their life, you know cuneiforms of course documenting everyday lives of the, let’s say, ancient people. So some of cuneiforms actually mentioned, how people dug the river, how many workers, how did they plan to dig or construct a canal? How long does it take? Who did order the digging of the canal? And why they dug it? Maybe because it’s for, let’s say, irrigation purposes or for defensive or for drain the water or just to protect their cities from flooding. All of this information actually has been written in the cuneiform tablets. That’s why I call every assyriologist to have a wide knowledge about canals or rivers because you know, it was mentioned in the cuneiform tablets.
So I know lots of assyriologists who have a good background about landscape archaeology, geomorphology, geology, and they actually wrote more about the ancient waterways. Why? Because first, they are assyriologist, so they know how to read and analysis and explain and describe cuneiform tablets. And second, because they have good background about the movement of the river, how people used or dig the canals. They have some information about the farm. How did people do farming in the past? So they can actually produce good paper. I’m always following Stephanie Rost, because she’s an assyriologist and also have a wide range of knowledge about the landscape archaeology or irrigation system. She is just an example of assyriologist who have a knowledge in, you know, ArcGIS using satellite image, and of course, has lots of information about the irrigation system.
How do you do this kind of work?
We call ourselves as off-site archaeologist or off-site scholars. Because the river and the canal and the farms actually are all outside of the mound. So when I go to the mound, I just have a look about geomorphology of the site. I then ask the archaeologists to give me an idea about how many occupation period in the site. And then I go to do my work, which I love actually–discovering new rivers and new canals and new irrigation system, new farms. I go outside of the mound … of the site, and then starting discovering the site. I start with remote sensing using satellite image–high resolution satellite image. Like the one in Google, for example. And I also sometimes use Corona satellite image–not Corona the virus, but the ancient satellite image dated back to the 1950s. You know, why I use Corona satellite image? Because it can show me the landscape before any destruction, any change. In the 1950s we don’t have that much of irrigation project or farming projects or even the urbanism.
So using high resolution satellite image and Corona image, and of course with the ground truthing then I can easily discover the ancient farm, the ancient canal, the ancient river close to the site. I don’t need lots of people around me. But I need them when I decide to dig, when I find the canal or the river, I need to dig a section to discover the layers, the bed of the canal, of the ancient river. We do like a six metre long trench. The width should be like one meter and a half. And we dig as deep as we can. In some trenches, we dug up to three meter. Why we dig across the canal? Because we need to see how many courses in this canal, when it was dug, and its dimension–I mean the width of the length and the depth. And also you know we need to date these canals. So that’s why we should dig.
If I can give you like a picture about how I can work with archaeologists. So I dig close to the site; they dig on top of the site, because the river and canals I mentioned, and farms, located out of the site. You see the picture now: geo-archaeologists, let’s say landscape archaeologists, they are dealing with the area around the site. If I can say it’s a new technique, so it’s not a traditional excavation or traditional way of survey, it’s a modern way. Because people used to dig or search or focus on only the site. But now you see, sometimes we have a full project dealing with archaeology, but not with the sites; only dealing with the irrigation system, farms, etc. For example, we have a good project funded by the BISI to discover the ancient farm around Eridu. So we didn’t go to Eridu, the site–Eridu <is> located to the south of Iraq, close to Ur–but we did our work around Eridu site. We covered the area by remote sensing, and we constructed or traced the ancient rivers and canals and farms. And then we do ground truthing, to see the reality of what we have reconstructed on remote sensing. We went there, we found the farms, we found the canals, we found the ancient rivers, and actually we dug trenches across these waterways feature. And we collected shell sample for radiocarbon dating to date these features. So this is how I conduct my work. Yeah.
You’re active in many different collaborations, aren’t you?
I think I did lots of contribution to the field of archaeology here in Iraq. I’m always like, approachable, so simple. Friend of everyone. I have lots of students. And you know, I have been teaching since 2004, imagine. So more than 17 or 18 years of studying in Al-Qadisiyah university. So each year we graduate lots of students and they go to get a job in the State Board of Antiquities, or everywhere in Iraq. I’m always insisted that I should keep contact with them in a social media or my phone number or my email. So when I have like a good news or something new, let’s say, I’m always trying to send it to them. So that’s why I’m connected with lots of archaeologists here in Iraq. Whenever I publish a new paper, I send it to them. Whenever they have a question about how they use GIS, how can they use the apps in mobile? Or how can they use, you know, the maps, the image in their survey? So I’m there. They know me very well. As I mentioned, I’m approachable. You know, of course, we do have lots of professors in the Iraq universities across the country, but not all of them approachable. Some of them build a barrier between them and their students. And, you know, students <are> sometimes afraid of approaching them or contacting them. But I’m a different academic.
The other thing, is that why waterways are important. You know, the international teams, let’s say the foreign team, who are doing some excavation in Iraq. They used to do just digging in the site. Most of them, they know me, maybe from the social media, or from a conference, or maybe we are in the same age or so. So when they came to Iraq, they contacted me: OK, Jaafar, we are here, if you come to see us to say hello. Then I go to them, and then maybe we can visit the site together. Then I started telling them about where is the waterways of the site? Of course, they have an idea about the waterways in the site, but they are not planning to do research about it. However, they rethink that OK, Jaafar, can you join our team and work with us, maybe in the next year, let’s say, to conduct the waterway investigation? And I accept the offer.
When the next year came, I go to the site with them and, you know, using remote sensing and ground truthing, digging, and we discover lots of ancient waterways. I did that in several sites in Iraq. For example, I mean, I did good work with the amazing team of the British Museum in Girsu. I also did some work about the ancient irrigation system or ancient waterway in Abu Tbeirah with the Italian team; they have a brilliant archaeologist. And they did a great job there. And I also joined Manchester University and work in Charax in Basra, north Basra. Yeah, so Girsu and Abu Tbeirah <are> archaeological sites located in Dhi Qar in the south of Iraq, and Charax is a site located in Basra, it’s just north of Basra. And I also joined the Russian team in Tell Deheila, also part of Dhi Qar in the south of Iraq. This is I mean, physically. Of course, I did lots of work with foreign team in remote sensing, I mean, online, I mean, not in the field. And we produced several research and articles. I’m lucky, I think, because I study the waterways. You see how Iraqis benefit from my specialty, and you see the foreign team, how they <are> eager to cooperate with me. Yeah. So I’m lucky to study this type of the archaeology in southern Iraq. Yeah.
You also put a lot of effort into communication, don’t you? You’re very active on social media, and you have a hectic schedule of public talks.
My way of studying archaeology, which is geo-archaeology, actually contributed a lot to the archaeology, heritage, and knowledge of southern Mesopotamia. So that’s why I have lots of, let’s say, followers on Facebook. I have around 5000 followers on Facebook and also on Twitter. And you know, I have endless, endless list of talk and meetings, WhatsApp groups.
Thank you very much.
You are welcome.
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