Friday, July 25, 2014

New archaeology survey maps Iraqi Kurdistan

Until recently the Kurdish region of Iraq was one of the most neglected area of the Near East. A guerilla war of Kurds against the central Iraqi government precluded any archaeological activities for several decades. After 2003 only three northeastern provinces of Iraq, controlled by former Kurdish guerillas, offered any semblance of safety and conditions that could allow fieldwork to take place. These opportunities have only really been exploited since 2010.

The Upper Greater Zab Archaeological Reconnaissance (UGZAR) project, launched in 2012, is one of several projects aimed at creating an archaeological map of the region as a pilot programme for archaeological exploration and heritage management of Kurdistan.


The Kurdish region of Iraq is now controlled by former peshmerga (Kurdish guerillas) after the region gained autonomy, and in contrast to the remaining part of Iraq, offers safe conditions for fieldwork.

An international conference held at Athens. Greece, in November 2013, demonstrated that there are presently more than 30 international archaeological projects under way in Iraqi Kurdistan. The survey coverage of the entire region in now an objective of primary importance.

Old Iraqi archaeological maps list only about 20% of actual sites, and provide information that is far from accurate. Many of those sites are now either damaged or lost to the rapid development of Iraqi Kurdistan; for example the area of the city of Erbil has increased 30-fold since 1970s, and is still rapidly expanding. Without an archaeological map of the country no reasonable heritage management is possible.

The UGZAR project, carried out by a team from the Institute of Prehistory, Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, Poland, is one of several projects focusing on preparation of a precise and up-to-date archaeological map.

3000 square kilometres of survey

The work permit covers an area of c. 3000 km2 located on both banks of the Greater Zab river. It encompasses various landscapes: deforested mountain ranges up to 2000 m a.s.l. high, and adjacent highland areas, mountain oases around springs hidden in deep valleys, rolling plains cut by numerous seasonal and a few perennial streams, the eastern part of the alluvial plain of Navkur, and the valley of the Greater Zab with recent and ancient river terraces. Historical remains in the region  consist of settlement mounds up to 30 m high, with settlement record covering several millennia, urban sites reaching 30 ha in area, as well as small prehistoric tells and flat settlement sites, castles, churches, monasteries and rock art.

The first phase of the work on the project scrutinised variable sources for information on already identified archaeological sites, and to enhancing this list by sites visible on the available satellite imagery.

Very little research has been previously done in the UGZAR area. The rock art at Gunduk was visited and copied by Austen Henry Layard in 1853, Walter Bachmann in 1914, Mahmud al-Amin in 1947 and, most recently, by Julian Reade and Julie Anderson in 2011.

Beside that, two caves and two flat sites in the area were visited by Robert Braidwood’s prehistoric mission in 1954 and 1955. The main source of information was “Atlas of Archaeological Sites in Iraq” published in Baghdad in 1976, providing archaeological maps covering nearly the entire area of Iraq. However, a study of the imagery of the CORONA spy satellite program (of 1967, kindly provided by Dr. Jason Ur, Harvard University, and of 1968, available at the web site of the CORONA Atlas of the Middle East, a project by the University of Arkansas) allowed to increase the number of likely sites more than twofold.

Provisional listing of sites

Having a provisional listing of archaeological sites at hand, the team embarked on the first field season in Kurdistan, but it soon become obvious that while the information from the “Atlas of Archaeological Sites” was in most cases accurate, quite a number of provisional identifications made on the basis of CORONA imagery was wrong. This was mainly because the monochrome imagery of the CORONA program proved to be more problematic on rolling plains and heights typical for the UGZAR area. Some of the topographic shadow signals turned out to indicate natural heights, while most of signals of the soil colour marked the presence of pebbles of eroded conglomerate rock, and not, as expected, layers of decomposed clay of dried bricks from ancient structures.

In this situation, the survey team had to rely on more traditional methods in the field, as interviews with local population, and field walking. Both turned out to be extremely efficient and led to the discovery of a number of sites, especially flat ones. As a result the number of known sites in the area surveyed in 2012 increased from 12 to 37, and in 2013, to 63 (in the area surveyed in 2013, which partly covered the alluvial Navkur plain, satellite imagery was considerably more efficient than other ways of identifying sites).

During two seasons of fieldwork about one third of the work permit area was surveyed, revealing more than 100 archaeological sites, 99 of which were fully recorded. The sites cover a wide range of periods from pre-Hassuna and Hassuna to pre-Modern (19th – early 20th century AD), providing an overarching timespan of approximately ten thousand years of the settlement history of the area.

Rock art of Gunduk

Some of the surveyed sites proved to be of much interest and potential for further research. The first among them is the site of rock art at Gunduk. Three panels were carved on the rock face on the left of a large rock shelter/cave opening in the side of the mountain range above the village. On the stylistic grounds they are dated to Early Dynastic III period (c. 2600-2350 BC – according to conventional Middle Chronology), being thus the most ancient example of this kind of monument in Mesopotamia. Unfortunately, two out of three relief panels fell victim to looters in 1996, who blew up the rock face, seriously damaging one of the representations, and entirely destroying the other.

The UGZAR team discovered two fragments of the completely shattered panel. On the basis of the recovered fragments and the drawings executed by earlier scholars, it was possible to reconstruct the whole scene, as well as to verify the accuracy of the drawings , allowing to disregard two of them as being far from precise. The destroyed scene depicted was probably the creation of human kind by gods Enki, Nintu and Ninmah.

It is all the more pity that the rock art has been destroyed as illustrations of mythological subjects are extremely rare in Mesopotamian iconography. The partly destroyed relief shows a person, possibly a ruler responsible for the execution of the work, hunting an ibex. The third panel depicts a seating deity and animals: a lion, an ibex, the Anzu bird, and an unidentified mammal feeding. It seems likely that the seating deity is Sumuqan/Šakkan, the lord of the mountain, protector of wild animals. The scene is unusual, though its elements are typical of the Mesopotamian art of the mid- 3rd millennium BC.

One of aims of the project was the evaluation of damage to heritage monuments in the UGZAR area and possible further threats. In contrast to other parts of Iraq, Kurdistan avoided disastrous looting which affected most of the large sites in the south of the country. Pits dug by looters were encountered on a few of the 99 surveyed sites, and appeared to be several years old.

Development threat

Very few sites suffered from installations of military character. However, a greater threat is posed by human activity to the sites located in the villages. These are usually cut or levelled to provide more space for new structures raised in the vicinity. In the most extreme case of site S055 (Girdi Keleke 3) the entire site, reputedly 3 m high, was levelled to make space for building three houses. Some higher sites in the vicinity of Daratu, on the western bank of the Greater Zab, which are located at a distance from settlements have suffered as a result of digging for clay. There is no doubt that the Kurdish authorities should increase efforts to monitor archaeological sites, and especially to raise the awareness among the local societies about the importance for preserving those places for the future.

The Project

Two out of three provinces of Iraqi Kurdistan are presently surveyed by four teams cooperating in the framework of the Assyrian Landscape Working Group: the UGZAR project (Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań); Erbil Plain Archaeological Survey, directed by Dr. Jason Ur (Harvard University); Eastern Habur Archaeological Survey, directed by Professor Peter Pfälzner (Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen); and Land of Niniveh Regional Project, directed by Professor Daniele Morandi Bonacossi (the University of Udine). The group share similar research methodology, chronological determinations and reference collection of sherds used for identifying cultural periods in the aim to obtain easily comparable results.

Kolinski, Rafal. 2014. “New archaeology survey maps Iraqi Kurdistan”. Past Horizons. Posted: June 16, 2014. Available online:

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