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.
The idea of excavation in Iraq often evokes a sense of romance. We imagine the thrill of discovery: what amazing objects will appear from beneath the sand—actually, more likely, mud—for the first time in thousands of years? It is true for foreign teams that visiting Iraq and working at a site can be incredibly exciting. And for anyone there is a real buzz about being the first person to learn something new about the subject you study. But excavation has to be about much more than that.
In the last few years, countless foreign archaeological teams have returned to work in Iraq. Today we hear about work of one of them, operating at the site of Tell Surghul in the south. We learn about what a modern excavation involves, from planning, through work on site, to what happens next.
This episode, our guest is an archaeologist with many years’ experience working on sites in the Middle East. He cares deeply about the Middle East, and reflects here on what it means to work ethically in Iraq today.
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, Jon. Thank you to you for the invitation.
Could you tell us please: who are you, and what do you do?
Yes, sure. I’m Davide Nadali. I am an archaeologist and I work at the University of Rome La Sapienza. I worked actually in Syria since 1998 until 2010, when then the political crisis of Syria started. And since 2014, I started a new archaeological project with a colleague of mine, Andrea Polcaro, from University of Perugia. And we are now working in southern Iraq in the site of Tell Surghul in the province of Dhi Qar of southern Iraq.
Now we’re going to talk a bit about your work at that site. Could we start with a brief introduction to the site and its history, please?
Yeah. So the site of Tell Surghul is a known site. I mean, we know the ancient name of the site. The actual name is the Sumerian site of Nigin. And Nigin was part of the ancient state of Lagash; it was quite a powerful state in the third millennium BC. So the site of Nigin and the city of Nigin was part of this state. And it was particularly important during let’s say, mid-third millennium BC and the end of the third millennium BC, so during the Mesopotamian period of the Early Dynastic Period, and then during the Gudea kingdom, and the final years of the third millennium BC during the kingdom of the Third Dynasty of Ur. So the site of Tell Surghul is quite impressive, because it’s 70 hectares large. It is characterised by two mounds. That is quite surprising in southern Mesopotamia, because usually, sites are quite flat. While we have these two mounds that were already excavated at the end of the 19th century in 1887, by the German archaeologist, Robert Koldewey who, after that moved to Babylon, and he discovered the ruins of the ancient city of Babylon. So we have still evidence of his excavation in the site. He made mostly small soundings on the top of the two mounds and a few scattered other soundings in other parts of the site.
So mostly the site is intact. And we started these excavations in 2014, concentrating in understanding that, let’s say the morphology and the shape of the site. Trying to figure out the chronology, of course, the periods of occupation, and when and where in fact the site was occupied. Particularly also looking not only at the archaeological aspects, but also the environmental and geomorphological aspects. So for example, we now know that the area was in fact covered by water. The modern sea coast of the Arabian Persian Gulf was, of course, not in the same position where we see it today. But it was much more northern. And in fact, the site we can say it was within a marsh environment,. These marches that are also quite present today in Iraq, particularly in the southern region in the Anbar region or towards the city of Basra.
But in fact, this era was already present, at least in the Holocene period. So during the historical occupation of the Ubaid. And in fact, one of the surprising aspects we found in our excavation was that we found in fact, an Ubaid occupation in the minor mound of the site. That gives us immediately the perception and the possibility to understand that, in fact, that area was already occupied since the most ancient period of the history of ancient Mesopotamia. So the idea was to combine archaeological aspects, but also the understanding and study and analysis of the environment, the geomorphology, and particularly the environment connected to the presence of water: water from the sea, marshes, and then the works that are known from the Sumerian inscription of the rulers of the dynasties of Lagash concerning the works about the digging of canals that were particularly important for not only, let’s say, the ideology of the Sumerian kingship, but also for the organisation of the work, and particularly for agriculture.
So southern Iraq is covered in ancient sites. How did you choose this one in particular to work at?
In fact, I can say it was not by chance, of course, because when we decided to move, me and Andrea, to southern Iraq, we had, of course, an historical question in mind. So our idea was to focus specifically on the third millennium BC. So let’s say on the Early Dynastic Period. We were both coming from excavations in Syria. So we, let’s say, grew up in Ebla, Tell Mardikh. And so we had no specific knowledge on the archaeological landscape and the archaeological sites of Mesopotamia, unless, of course, the knowledge we had from our studies.
So the first thing that we did was to be in touch with Iraqi colleagues, and I will say with an Iraqi friend, Abdulamir Hamdani, who made extensive research in southern Iraq, specifically in the region of the Dhi Qar. And so we asked him a suggestion. So we explained him what we had in mind, which were our main goals, historical questions, and he suggested us to ask to the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage of the Republic of Iraq, to give us permission for archaeological excavation and studies at the site of Tell Surghul, so the ancient city of Nigin. So in fact, our choice was suggested by Abdulamir Hamdani, so we followed his suggestion, and we can say today that we are very happy to have followed his suggestion. And so we started with this in mind, and we arrived thanks to him to start the archaeological investigation of the site.
You’ve mentioned some of the topics you were interested in. What specifically did you want to achieve in this project?
Yeah, in particular, I mean, the idea was, and still is, because, as you know, archaeological investigations are longer and sometimes, I will say most of times, it takes time to achieve answers to our historical questions. But initially, so the idea was to investigate a site, a settlement of the third millennium BC. And not only of course, to recover temples or palaces, as it is usually in the legacy of Mesopotamian archaeology, but to understand in fact, the morphology of the city. So the urban planning. And this was quite interesting to do in Nigin, because thanks also to the combination, as I said, of the geomorphological, hydro-geological studies, we could achieve, in fact, to understand how the city, let’s say, grew up during time, and how it was organised. So it was surely occupied, since the Ubaid period, so since the mid-fifth millennium BC. But it was, of course, not occupied entirely on the entire surface of the settlement.
So the idea was to understand when the city was occupied, and how it was occupied during this long period. Specifically, understanding the third millennium BC, so the starting of the beginning of the second urban revolution, so the system of urbanisation in a region that was in fact, poorly investigated, except, of course, the magnificent work made by the French expedition in Girsu and the short excavations made by the Americans at Lagash, that are the other two cities of the ancient state of Lagash.
So luckily enough, when we started our work in Tell Surghul, I will say in the same year, the British Museum started the project at the site of Girsu and immediately after the University of Philadelphia started a project at Lagash. So today, we have the three main cities of the state of Lagash, that are currently under excavation. So the goal is not only to understand the history, and the, let’s say, comprehension of each single site, but to understand in a more comprehensive way, the history of the entire state of Lagash. Because we know from the cuneiform inscriptions, that the three cities were, of course, linked one to another, not only from the historical and political and cultural point of view, but they were specifically and I would say, physically, linked by the landscape and the presence of a canal. So one of them is the one built or rebuilt indeed by Gudea, that was the canal going to Nigin. So starting from Girsu, crossing the area of Lagash, al-Hiba, and reaching, in fact, the southernmost site of the state that was in fact Nigin.
So our goal was, and still is, as I said, the understanding of the sequence of occupation of the site. Specifically, I will say in the third millennium BC, but as I said, we surprisingly found an occupation dating back to Ubaid period. And this is even more important for the analysis of the complexity of the occupation of sites in southern Mesopotamia since such ancient periods.
Are you able to share any of the results of your work so far? What have you learned during the last few years?
Yeah. So for example, as I said that, we now know that the part of the site was surely covered by water. So we can even say that Tell Surghul, at least in Ubaid period, was a kind of island, floating in the water. Was it a turtleback settlement, as it has been suggested? Probably. Or it was probably made of different spots inside this waterscape of ancient southern Mesopotamia. And during the third millennium BC, for example, the situation changed. So we have the works made by the rulers of the first dynasty of Lagash. And so you know, working in digging canals and so, the situation of the landscape and also of course, of the environment changed. And I can anticipate you that in fact in this very last season that we have made in October, November 2021, we in fact found evidence of an occupation of the very beginning of the third millennium BC in the lower city, next, probably, to a canal that was crossing, in fact, the settlement. So we have this now evidence of a widespread and large occupation of the site in the third millennium BC, starting indeed, from the very beginning of the third millennium.
The focus on the landscape and on the environment is not only, let’s say, something that belongs to contemporary archaeology, so archaeology today, I think, has to do and has to deal not only with the material culture, but let’s say also on the material landscape and environment. And this is quite important if we think that the main goddess of the ancient city of Nigin, was the goddess Nanshe. Nanshe was a Sumerian goddess, daughter of one of the most important gods of the Sumerian pantheon; that was Enki. And Nanshe, in fact, was a deity linked to this waterscape and water environment, because she was, in fact in charge of protecting the fish and birds. So she was, I think it is quite interesting today to speak that there was a kind of climate interest by the Sumerians in using this goddess that was, in fact, charged with the protection of these animals leaving in this waterscape. So I think that religion then and cult can be also understood or better understood, if we take into consideration not only what we know from texts and what we know, for example, from the images of this goddess, but also if we take into account in fact that this was the specific environment and landscape where the Sumerian city was, in fact, created.
I’d like now to turn to some of the practicalities of the excavation. Could you tell us how a modern excavation works? What does the team look like? And what does each of these people do?
I think that today, an archaeological team is really a complex system to organise and to also roll out. So of course, we have archaeologists. So we have PhD students, and already doctoral students with us, that cover specific aspects of the archaeology of ancient Mesopotamia. So from Pottery, to architecture, remote sensing, and geomorphology. But as I said, since our goal, and our project encompasses different aspects of not only archaeological, but other aspects. So we are working in a team, where there are, of course, geologists working with us, architects, and of course, an epigraphist, who is looking at the cuneiform documents that we so far found at the site. And he’s also collecting the information from the inscriptions and the already known cuneiform sources of the rulers of the First Dynasty of Lagash.
So we can in fact, say that an archaeological team now, an archaeological expedition, is made of different specific people that have specific targets. But the idea is that we have to work complimentary. So it’s not that we are alone. And we are just working alone with pottery, alone with architecture, alone with the cuneiform sources, or alone in looking at the geomorphology. But all these aspects must be connected to each other. So I think that one of the main characteristics, I would say the need, of archaeology today is a dialogue. So a dialogue within each team and dialogue within teams working, for example, in the same region.
We are, I think, lucky today that we can work in an area where the British Museum is working in Girsu and the University of Philadelphia is working in Lagash. So we can have also a crossing dialogue. So understanding not only the history of each site, but the history of a region in fact. So I think that to answer your question, but also I would say to answer the question of history and what we want to know from the past, we need to be open minded and to have people that are interested in not only in studying their own single stuff, but in studying to collect and connect the single information as to draw up and to picture in fact, an image of the history and historicity of that area.
We’re familiar with archaeological excavations in the Middle East, largely through the media: various movies, or Agatha Christie plays, for example. That’s not quite what it’s like on an excavation today, is it? Could you describe what a typical day on a modern excavation looks like, please?
Yeah, sure. I think in fact that for certain aspects, we are not so far from what was the picture made from Agatha Christie’s novels or from the movies. So let’s say Indiana Jones or whatever. Also, let’s say now we are less adventure, but we are looking for and looking at something more concrete, let’s say. But, in fact, working in the Near East, and working today in Iraq, you have also to deal with the, for example, weather conditions. So for example, you have to choose the perfect month when to go to Iraq and start your excavation, and usually are the period of heat, so it is very hot to work there. And so for example, our day starts every day, except Friday–that is a holiday–at half past four in the morning. So we usually leave from the expedition house at five o’clock in the morning. So arriving to the site, after half an hour by car, and then we work there until twelve, half past twelve.
Then of course, the day is not finished, so is finished the work in the field. But then, of course, at the expedition house, you have to deal and to study with all the materials that you have excavated day by day. So preparing and filling our journals, cards, drawing some pictures, preparing the matrix for the excavation, and whatever. So every day you have these, let’s say archaeological work divided into two parts. Let’s say an experimental part in the field, where you are working, in fact, with the local workers and our Iraqi colleagues from the State Board of Antiquities. And then in the afternoon, we are working at home. But it is not let’s say a less important work. It is again an important part of the excavation, because you need to make all data clear and available.
The other thing that I usually say to my students, as I said that I teach in Rome, so many of my students also have archaeological experience initially, specifically in Rome. And it is quite easy to work in Rome, I would say, because the site is here. So you can have access to the site every day. So you can for example, go today; tomorrow, you don’t go, but after tomorrow, you go back and you can make new drawings, new pictures. You have the materials at your disposal nearly every day. But working outside and working in a region like the Near East, as for example, the Syrian crisis, I think is telling us quite clearly, you have to be very careful in documenting every aspect. Because you don’t know in fact if the day after you can come back. Now we know also for the Covid situation. So you need to be very prompt in excavating very clearly. But at the same time, you have to collect all the information. You have to present to the Iraqi colleagues all the information. You have to deliver the objects and all of the information that you collected to the Iraqi Museum in Baghdad. So everything must be ready when it’s time to come back to Italy for us. So I think that it is not easy to make this clear, for example, to students that have probably in mind this Mesopotamian adventure.
But I think that today, we have to be very clear with them that our work, of course, is amazing and is fascinating. And these, these are also thanks to Iraq and the Iraqis that made this possible. But at the same time, I think that we have a responsibility, a responsibility in collecting the information and in presenting them then, not only let’s say to scientists congresses, but also to the Iraqi colleagues and to the Iraqi people. And for example, we have these with the workers, so that work with us. So we usually have dialogue about, for example, how they perceive the importance of their cultural heritage and how they perceive these in working, for example, with us on these aspects. So I think that this is a, I would say, a new responsibility. But, in fact, we should say that it should be a responsibility, not new. So it was part of our work. But today, I think that this responsibility must be even more present and pressing probably.
Anyone who wants to better understand the history and archaeology of ancient Iraq could do a lot of work without even leaving their desk or leaving the library. And then there’s lots of survey work, remote sensing and site preservation, for example. Can you say something about why excavation as a technique is still important at this time?
Yeah, I think that I mean, excavation is important. Because, yes, you’re right. And I think that the situation today, if we think of the political situation in the Near East, sometimes Iraq, for example, for a long time, it was impossible to go working there, at least for us. But we have not to forget that the Iraqis were working there, and that they made a wonderful job in protecting and in trying to protect the cultural heritage. So in fact, we could, to a certain extent, make archaeology virtually. So from libraries, from our desk. You from UK, me from Italy. And in fact, it is possible to do this. But why going there?
I think it is important because you need, of course, to have a concrete and physical proof of your ideas. And I think that any time you start an archaeological project, you should have or you must have in mind historical questions. And to find the correct answers, you need to go to test them in the field, because only after you have excavated the site, you can in fact prove that you were right or, for example, that your data that you are excavating, and so the data that are coming out, can give you the possibility to change, of course, your mind, to change your historical question and to find a new answer to any historical problems that was not solved in the past.
At the same time, I think that the excavations give the possibility not only to bring to light material culture, architecture, and the importance of the archaeological heritage, but then these have to be displayed in museums. So we have, I think, today the important responsibility of the public archaeology. This is probably a label that has been too much used, or I can say abused, sometimes. But I still believe that public archaeology is an important task of our work. So it is not just to go in there making excavation enjoying and just publishing wonderful material. But then we need to explain and to make this public, in museums, in exhibitions, for example, with school projects that can be made in Iraq, thanks to the collaboration with the Iraqis.
And so I think that archaeology is still important, because it gives really the idea on how we were, so we can understand really our past. And I still believe … probably I’m too optimistic, but I still believe … that studying the past is so much important and fundamental to understand the present and to plan the future. So if we know from where we are coming from and how the world worked in the past, we can in fact understand our present and then plan and explain new possibilities for the future. So I still believe that archaeology is not just an adventure or something that is seen by people … I remember and still today it happens, when you say that you are an archaeologist, the first reaction is, let’s say a wow effect. And then immediately after people … and you can perfectly see in their eyes … they are asking themselves “Okay, but wonderful, amazing. But is it useful or is it useless?”
So I’m still believing that it is useful, not only because I am an archaeologist, and I’m doing this job, but because I think that it depends mostly on how we deal with archaeology today and how we think our aims and goals are today in the archaeological discourse, and in the archaeological, let’s say, theoretical background. So it is working, it is understanding the past, but it is also making the past available. And in doing this, you need also to protect this cultural heritage. So you have to protect these memories. And if we achieve to build up then a common shared memory, that could be not only that you perfectly identify with the past, but you understand even the differences with the past, I think that it is much important for the new generation.
Okay. You’ve already answered what was going to be my next question about sharing the results. Can we move then to what happens next? So once the project is finished, you’ve achieved your goals, the funding has run out, you’re left with a big hole full of vulnerable mudbrick architecture. What happens in terms of conservation and preservation of the site?
This is a really hard task, I have to say. For example, in Iraq, after the excavation, we usually cover the excavation areas. But I still believe and I’m convinced that the covering and the protection that we are doing is not enough. Or at least I think that it is enough for the protection or temporary protection of the mud brick structures.
But then if you wanted to make this area public, so let’s say that people, for example, we have in our village nearby the site of school. So if we wanted that, for example, children from the schools are going to visit the site, they need to perceive and I would say to feel the importance of what we found. If they only see areas covered, yes, they can perceive that underneath there is something important and something archaeologically important. But they do not perceive specifically the shape of how, for example, an ancient Sumerian house was. So I think that we need to improve the protection.
And for example, what I’m trying to do … just this year, it started this project … is to think of a project about what I call the “eco-architecture”. So in using, of course, new materials, eco-compatible materials, for the protection, for example of the mud bricks. I remember when we were working in Syria, at Ebla, we started the restoration project. For example, the ancient mud brick walls, they were protected and covered by new mud brick walls that they were made with the same soil of the site. So I think that this, it is not, of course, the best solution. But I think this could be one of the solutions we can approach and we can use in making then the site available and visible. But without, of course, resorting to, for example, reconstruction of the ancient building. But just to make them clear and perceivable by the people that can, let’s say, see the sketch and the plan of a building, just protecting the ancient mud brick of the site.
But it is a really hard job, because it then needs not only a project and the plan to do it, but you need then a project and the plan to let’s say, repair it every year. Because if you cover, for example, ancient mud bricks with new mud bricks, of course, you preserve the ancient structures. But as we know, mud bricks, they are not so strong, so after heavy rains, snow, wind, they collapse or they can be ruined by the weather conditions. So you need also then to repair the restoration. So you have to make the restoration of the restoration. So I think it is a job that we have to do. We need to do.
I think this is also part of our responsibility again. But for this, I think we should make a clear plan and an affordable plan. And when I say this, I also think, of course, because it is everything seems very easy and wonderful. But to do this work you need, of course funding. And so you have to collect also sources that give you the possibility to make such a project. And to make such a project, let’s say, lasting, at least for a certain period of time.
Before you get to dig any holes in a site in Iraq, you need a permit from the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage. Recently, Dr. Jaafar Jotheri of the University of Al-Qadisiyyah circulated a ten point list, which had come out of discussions that Iraqi colleagues had been having about ways in which the situation around excavation licenses could be improved. I was wondering, you know, as the director of a foreign expedition in Iraq, did you have any thoughts on that list?
Yeah, I saw the list made by Jaafar. And I also, I was in touch with him, because I said that I was completely in agreement with him. So I definitely agree with him about this list. And I think it is very important, very, very important that this list comes from Iraqi colleagues. As I said, we are all responsible. But they are the first responsibles of their own cultural heritage. I think that it is important, for example, one of the point when he said the foreign expedition should ask for permission of archaeological sites, but they have to deal with the request of the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities. And this reminded me immediately how we started our excavation in Tell Surghul, that, in fact, we asked an Iraqi colleague, so Abdulamir Hamdani, where we could do this project. And which were in his opinion, of course, the needs where to go to start such a project in Iraq.
So I think that it is very important, it should probably be already in the mind of archaeology asking for an archaeological permission. But if this becomes a rule, I think it is very important. What I was suggesting [to] Jaafar is that I think that these kinds of lists should be the result, I think, of a workshop, that should be done in Iraq. Since one of the points was probably … I don’t know if it was a provocation; at least it was important to propose and to bring to light this aspect … was the decolonisation of Near Eastern archaeology. And probably, we should also start stopping to speaking of Near Eastern archaeology. Because of course, it is the Near East, because it is looked at from the European point of view. So even the .. I mean the definition is, in fact, the result of a colonisation of that area.
So I was suggesting him, yes, it is important, but I think it is important to do in Iraq. So I really warmly suggest him to organise a workshop in Baghdad, in his university in Qadisiyyah with the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, with all the expeditions working today in Iraq. And with Iraqi colleagues working in the State Board, in the universities. Because I think that we should arrive to a list, that is, of course, the answer of their desires. But at the same time, I think that with all our experience, and so working in a really cooperation, we can arrive to understand for example, if in fact all the ten points can be done immediately. Or if, for example, we can start with the first seven, and then we have the result of the other three, that can be, let’s say, naturally coming if the first seven have been achieved.
So I think that it is important to keep on this dialogue. But his ten points list is definitely important, and it is definitely, I think, an urgent question that we need to deal with al, Iraqis and foreigners that are working today in Iraq. And if I can say not only probably in Iraq, but let’s say in all the area. Because I think that the he really points out something very important that I think can be perfectly applied not only in Iraq, but even in, I mean, Jordan, Turkey and in the other regions, where we usually work in archaeology in the field. So I think this was important since it is the current debate of archaeology. I think what he really tried to suggest, but I would say, not only to suggest, but really to plan, because it’s not just a suggestion. So I really appreciate the effort of Jaafar not just to make a suggestion, but to really make a plan. And so I think that we need to respect this plan and to work together with them to make this plan, as I said, really real and affordable. Sometimes it is easy to make a list because you just wrote notes. But then the important thing is to translate this list in reality. And I think that we need to work with them to make this possible, because they gave us the possibility to work in Iraq. And I think that our responsibility now today is to make this plan real.
Thank you very much.
You are very welcome. Thanks to you really for this dialogue and conversation on Iraq and on archaeology.
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