Friday, May 10, 2013

Ur Project confirms massive building complex in southern Iraq

In what is now called Iraq some five thousand years ago some of the earliest civilisations were born. It is the land of great cities such as Ur and Babylon, home to the Sumerians, who are credited with one of the earliest formal scripts as well as organised and controlled urban living, and the later Babylonians, whose trading and military skills forged a mighty empire.

Beneath the arid sands of Iraq

Priceless information about mankind’s past still lies concealed beneath the landscape in the ‘tells’ – earth mounds – that are the remains of ancient towns and villages.

Iraq has a proud tradition of valuing and researching this unique heritage, but war has taken its toll. The image of the country’s ancient heritage has now sadly become associated with looting and destruction. Local experts have been working in isolation, struggling to stop pillaging, with little opportunity to benefit from interaction with the global community. But the time has come, where at last it is becoming possible to move forwards once more.

A new age of discovery

The Ur Region Archaeology Project has put together a team of Iraqi and international expertise to begin a new age of discovery, using the latest techniques to unveil and interpret a shared heritage.

The team, directed by Professor Stuart Campbell, Dr Jane Moon and Robert Killick, has already discovered a remarkable new structure. First spotted from satellite remote sensed images, the building complex is thought to be an administrative centre serving one of the world’s earliest cities.

After carrying out geophysical survey and trial excavations at the site of Tell Khaiber the team confirmed that the size of the complex measured around 80 metres square – roughly the size of a football pitch. It is made up of an arrangement of rooms around a large courtyard and lies only 20km from Ur itself.

The team contain the first British archaeologists to excavate in Southern Iraq since the late 1980s, working close to the ancient city of Ur, where Sir Leonard Woolley discovered the fabulous ‘Royal Tombs’ in the 1920s.

Professor Campbell said: “This is a breathtaking find and we feel privileged to be the first to work at this important site. The surrounding countryside, now arid and desolate, was the birthplace of cities and of civilization about 5,000 years ago and home to the Sumerians and the later Babylonians.”

One of the most striking finds at the site to date, is a clay plaque, 9cm high, showing a worshipper approaching a sacred place. He is wearing a long robe with fringe down the front opening.

“It has been off-limits to international archaeologists for many decades so the opportunity of re-engaging with the study of the earliest cities is a truly exciting one,” said Professor Campbell.

The team provisionally date the site to around 2,000 BC, the time of the sack of the city and the fall of the last Sumerian royal dynasty, based on the finds recovered and suggest the structure is probably connected to the administration of Ur.

A wider study

The team aim to analyse plant and animal remains found at the site to help reconstruct environmental and economic conditions in the region 4,000 years ago.

Marshy conditions are thought to have prevailed, with the head of the Gulf being much further north, so that maritime trading was possible in order to obtain vital natural resources from India and the Arabian peninsula.

Professor Campbell who has now returned from Iraq, added: “As well as offering unparalleled opportunities for redeveloping research in one of the most important areas of archaeology in the world, the project is also building partnerships with local practitioners and institutions.

“The aim is to help rebuild capacity in archaeological expertise and heritage management, working alongside members of Iraq’s State Board for Antiquities and Heritage, and to address the 20-year isolation from the international community.”

Past Horizons. 2013. “Ur Project confirms massive building complex in southern Iraq”. Past Horizons. Posted: April 8, 2013. Available online:

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