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The excavation of Kish, circa 1926. Photo © Newcastle University. The Gertrude Bell Archive      

Credit for the discovery of the past of ancient Mesopotamia and modern Iraq goes to Western travelers and diplomats during the 17th, 18th and especially the 19th centuries. Curious about sites and places mentioned in Biblical accounts, these amateur scholars and diplomats wrote letters about the dilapidated mounds and crumbling ruins they saw at a time when interest among Arab scholars about the origins of their ancient past had waned during the long period of Ottoman rule in the Near East.

Not until the 19th century did the fast-developing discipline of archaeology finally train its focus on Mesopotamia.

19th Century Exploration. During the decline of the Ottoman Empire and the growth of European political interest in the Middle East, explorers and adventurers were among the first to generate public interest in the ancient Near East. Men such as Claudius Rich (who explored Babylon, Nineveh and Persepolis as Resident of the British East India Company in Baghdad) exhibited the artifacts he had collected during his travels at the British Museum during the first quarter of the 19th century and soon brought Mesopotamian antiquities to European attention.

Rich's explorations were quickly followed by the French consul at Mosul, Paul Émile Botta, whose excavations at Nineveh (1842) and Khorsabad (1843) greatly expanded the collection of Mesopotamian antiquities at the Louvre.

Not to be outdone, the English amateur archaeologist Austen Henry Layard’s excavations at Nimrud, sponsored by the British Ambassador in Istanbul, resulted in superb exhibitions of Assyrian reliefs, texts, and sculpture at the British Museum. It was Layard who uncovered many of the great sculptures at Nimrud (Kalhu) and Nineveh with the help of an able assistant: Hormuzd Rassam, an Iraqi of Assyrian Christian heritage. But compared to today's standards and techniques, Layard's excavations were little more than treasure hunting. Even so, Layard's best-selling book Nineveh and its Remains (1849 and 1851) further ignited the European public's excitement in ancient Mesopotamia and a veritable flood of new European excavations followed: J. E. Taylor at Ur and Eridu, Victor Place at Nineveh, William Kenneth Loftus at Uruk and Larsa, Jules Oppert at Kish, and Henry Creswicke Rawlinson at Borsippa.

Deciphering the Cuneiform. Meanwhile, growing academic interest in the script and languages of Mesopotamia led to a remarkable discovery. The inscribed tablets and bricks that were also being discovered at sites in present-day Iraq did not generate much interest because the language could not be read. The key to deciphering them, as with the Rosetta Stone in Egypt, depended on finding a bilingual or (better still) a trilingual inscription with three languages, from which syntax, proper names and other features might be identified in the known scripts and used to crack the unknown one. Next came the discovery of the Behistun trilingual inscription, on a high almost inaccessible rock face in western Iran, where the Achaemenids (6th-5th century BC) had written a lengthy message in Persian, Elamite and Akkadian cuneiform. These inscriptions, copied by British army officer Henry Rawlinson in the mid 19th century, made it possible to assign specific meanings to various cuneiform signs. By 1857, when an inscription from a baked clay cylinder was submitted to Rawlinson and three other cunieform specialists, their independent translations were nearly identical: the long-lost cuneiform writing system used in hundreds of thousands of tablets for more that 1000 years had finally been solved.

The discovery of the Mesopotamian Flood myth in 1872 from a collection of cuneiform texts found at Nineveh increased interest in the ancient Near East, spurring more excavations: between 1878 and 1882, just one of these early explorers, the Iraqi Hormuzd Rassam managed to dig at Nineveh, Nimrud, Balawat, Babylon, Borsippa, and Sippar.

In the 1870s, the French began digging at Telloh, discovering the distinctive Gudea statues, which, along with the discovery of texts, led to the identification of the Sumerians as a distinctive civilization. The Germans began excavating, and their two greatest contributions were their focus on the early pre-historic sites such as Halaf and Samarra, and higher new standards of Mesopotamian excavation, based on precise stratification and accurate architectural drawings and maps—as some had been trained as architects. American universities such as the University of Pennsylvania became involved.

Site Looting Begins. With the allure of the past, however, came the dark side of archaeology: the new business of looting Mesopotamian antiquities to sell for profit. As early as 1888, the British Museum was concerned enough to send investigators to Baghdad to confirm the sudden appearance of cuneiform tablets on the local art market. The Museum's detective purchased several tablets and confirmed the source: the site guards and excavators who had worked with Hormuzd Rassam years earlier.

The Rise of Scientific Archaeology. Not until the Deutsche Orient-Gesellschaft excavations at Babylon in 1899 can archaeology in Mesopotamia begin to take a truly scientific approach. Robert Koldewey, who led the German team, pioneered the technique of excavating the primary construction material found in Mesopotamia — mud brick architecture. Koldewey was the first to focus serious attention to stratigraphy (the analysis of remains in strata, or layers), which later became synonymous with German archaeology.

After World War I, all European and American archaeologists had begun to adopt "the German method" — the earlier practice of searching for tablets and display-quality artifacts was replaced bya desire to understanding the evolution of a site over time, and the context in which artifacts are found.

If a single person can be credited with the spread of these new professional standards in archaeology in Mesopotamia, that person would be Gertrude Bell. After World War I, when the provinces of the old Ottoman Empire were placed by a League of Nations under control of the victorious powers, Bell played a pivotal role (as the Oriental Secretary of the British Embassy) in the creation of Iraq from the three former Ottoman provinces of Basra, Baghdad, and Mosul. Bell also directed the Iraqi Antiquities Service under the British , and became a driving force behind the founding of the Iraq National Museum in Baghdad. (Link) At Bell's insistence, archaeologists were compelled to adopt rigorous standards, excavation permits limited archaeologists to work only as a single location, and the majority of finds of finds would henceforth remain in Iraq, at the national museum.

These new standards were perhaps best exemplified by C. John Woolley, whose excavations at Ur during the 1920s and early 1930s again drew the public's attention to ancient Mesopotamia. Wooley's most sensational discoveries came from the Royal Cemetery at Ur and what came to be known as the "Great Death Pit". Woolley also played a role in assembling the chronology of Mesopotamian prehistory. His work at Tell al Ubaid, Seton Lloyd's work at Samarra, Mac Mallowan's work at various sites (Chagar Bazar, Arpachiya, Nineveh) Ernst Herzfeld at Hassuna and Stephen Langdon's excavation at Jemden Nasr and Max von Oppenheim's work at Tell Halaf established the pottery-based linkages upon which our modern understanding of the cradle of civilization before and during the Early Dynastic period is based. Researchers during the 1930s from the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago played a significant role in these discoveries. And the implementation of a strong Iraq Antiquities Law in 1934 mandated that discoveries not leave the country without official permits. An apparatus for establishing the provenance (find-spot and chain-of-custody) of individual pieces that later generations could rely upon was born.

After World War II. During the mid-20th century, scientific advances in other fields, such as the 1949 invention of radiocarbon dating, spurred a series of interdisciplinary investigations by the Oriental Institute's Robert Braidwood at Jarmo on the transition to agriculture and urbanism. Large-scale archaeological survey techniques introduced by the Oriental Institute in the 1930’s managed to reconstruct the ancient built environment and changing patterns of settlement at specific sites and entire regions stretching over hundreds and thousands of years.

Post-WWII, the "Golden Age of Iraq Archaeology". The 1950’s through the early 1980s were the most fertile peiod of scientific discovery in Iraq at sites both historic and pre-historic: Uruk, Aqar-Quf, Eridu, Abu Salabikh, Tell es-Sawwan, Nimrud, Khorsabad, Yarim Tepe, and many others.

Then the political upheavals began. In 1979, the Iranian Revolution closed that country to foreign archaeologists, who redirected their efforts toward excavation of sites in Iraq, which continued intermittently even during the Iran-Iraq war (1981-88).

With the August 1990 invasion of Kuwait, the subsequent international response (Operation Desert Storm) and more than ten years of UN-mandated economic sanctions against Iraq (1991-2003), foreign participation in archaeological excavations in Iraq ground to a virtual halt. As a result, new technologies — such as GPR (ground penetrating radar), magnetometry, satellite imaging and GIS mapping and database systems — have not yet been attempted on an archaeological site in Iraq. Instead, use of technologies at sites in Syria and Turkey (regions previously considered peripheral to our understanding of Mesopotamia) have been used to reinterpret discoveries already made in Iraq, for example, at Uruk.

Archaeology in Iraq in the New Millennium. After more than a decade of site looting in the wake of more than ten years of UN-mandated economic sanctions, followed by the March-April, 2003 Coalition invasion of Iraq, the fall of Baghdad (April 9, 2003), the looting of the Iraq National Museum (April 10-12, 2003), and burning of the Iraq National Archives, thousands of artifacts and associated knowledge representing nearly 150 years of archaeology in Mesopotamia have been lost. Beyond the losses to the Museum itself, the looting of archaeological sites, particularly in southern Iraq, may have a disastrous impact on the future of archaeological research in Iraq.

A Hopeful Future? As new and better archaeological techniques of survey, excavation, and data collection and analysis are developed, the amount of potential information that could be recovered from previously excavated sites, and even some looted sites, increases a little each year. With tens of thousands of archaeological sites in varying states of preservation (from intact to destroyed), Iraq still has much that waits to be discovered. The intact evidence of that still undiscovered past offers unimagined knowledge and insight — but only if the sites are not destroyed by continued illegal excavation and looting.