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A Brief History of Archaeology in Mesopotamia

Early Explorers

Although the ancient Mesopotamians themselves had a number of terms to describe the geographic environment in which they lived, the term Mesopotamia was first used by Greeks and Romans to describe the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in today’s Iraq. Scholars today have expanded the definition of the term to include parts of Syria, Turkey, and Iran, all tied to a uniquely Mesopotamian cultural sphere.

Whereas medieval Arab scholars like Ibn Khaldun (and indeed some ancient Mesopotamian rulers themselves) were concerned with questions of the origins of civilization in that area, that interest seems to have fallen off during the long period of Ottoman rule in the Near East. Descriptions of the dilapidated mounds of Mesopotamia were available to the western world only through the work of travelers like Rabbi Benjamin of Tudela in the 12th century, Pietro de Valle in the 17th century, and Carsten Neibuhr in the 18th century. It wasn’t until the 19th century, however, that archaeology began to develop as a scientific discipline.

Exploration in the 19th Century

During the decline of the Ottoman Empire and the growth of European political interest in the Middle East, explorers, adventurers, and diplomats began to rediscover the world of ancient Mesopotamia. One of the first to generate public interest in the antiquities of the Near East was Claudius James Rich, who explored the mounds of Babylon, Nineveh, and Persepolis as Resident of the British East India Company in Baghdad. His publications, Memoir on the Ruins of Babylon (1815) and Second Memoir on Babylon (1818), and an exhibition at the British Museum of the artifacts he had collected in his travels, brought Mesopotamian antiquities to European attention. The excitement that accompanied Rich's explorations was followed by the first excavations at Nineveh by Paul Émile Botta in 1842 and Khorsabad in 1843 as the French consul at Mosul. Not to be outdone by the expanding collection of Mesopotamian antiquities brought to the Louvre, Austen Henry Layard’s excavations at Nimrud, sponsored by the British Ambassador in Istanbul, Sir Stratford Canning, and furnished the British Museum with superb exhibitions of Assyrian reliefs, texts, and sculpture. Layard's Nineveh and its Remains (1849 and 1851) was an instant bestseller, and fueled the excitement of the European public ancient Mesopotamia. The early excavations by Layard and Botta at Nineveh, Khorsabad, and Nimrud spawned a series of excavations by other excavators: William Kennet Loftus at Uruk and Larsa, Jules Oppert at Kish, J. E. Taylor at Ur and Eridu, Victor Place at Nineveh, and Henry Creswicke Rawlinson at Borsippa. right|250px The early phase of Near Eastern archaeology coincided with an increased academic interest in the script and languages of Mesopotamia. It was Rawlinson, replicating the 1802 work of Georg Grotefend, who deciphered the cuneiform on the trilingual Bisitun Inscription in 1837, scholars spent the next twenty years analyzing the texts that were coming out of Nineveh and other sites. In 1857, Henry Creswicke Rawlinson, Edward Hincks, Jules Oppert, and William Henry Fox Talbot independently produced identical translations of a text from Ashur, and confirmed the decipherment of Akkadian.

The Crimean War brought a halt to archaeological work in the Near East, but the discovery in 1872 by George Smith of an Mesopotamian flood myth from the collection of texts from Nineveh brought a renewed interest in the ancient Near East. Between 1878 and 1882, Hormuzd Rassam, an Iraqi Protestant and student of Layard, excavated extensively at Nineveh, Nimrud, Balawat, Babylon, Borsippa, and Sippar. Ernest de Sarzec, the French vice-consul at Basra began a long program of excavation at Girsu in 1877. On behalf of the University of Pennsylvania, an American presence in Near Eastern archaeology was established by Hermann Hilprecht, J. P. Peters, and J. H. Haynes at the site of Nippur (modern Nuffar) in 1887. The public allure of Near Eastern Archaeology in the 19th century also brought about the new business of looting Mesopotamian antiquities to sell for profit. In 1888, Wallis Budge, was sent to Baghdad by the British Museum to investigate the sudden appearance of cuneiform tablets on the international art market. Over the next year, he purchased several tablets, most often from the guards and excavators who had worked with Rassam years earlier.

Archaeology Becomes a Science

In 1899, German excavations began at Babylon on behalf of the Deutsche Orient-Gesellschaft, and archaeology as a scientific discipline entered a new era. The work at Babylon was led by Robert Koldewey, who revolutionized the technique of excavating mud brick architecture, the primary construction material of Mesopotamia. At the turn of the 20th century, Koldewey, who later worked at Borsippa and Fara, and his successors, including Walter Andrae, who excavated Ashur, brought a scientific approach to archaeology in Mesopotamia, and garnered a reputation for meticulous attention to stratigraphy and architecture that became synonymous with German archaeology.

After a hiatus during which excavations stopped during World War I, European and American archaeologists returned to Iraq and began to adopt the systematic methods that had characterized German archaeology at the turn of the century. The technique of wantonly searching for tablets and attractive artifacts for display in a museum was replaced by one which aimed at understanding the development of a site over time, and the context in which material culture was produced. Much of this change in archaeological standards was the result of the influence of Gertrude Bell, who headed the Iraqi Antiquities Service under the British Mandate, and the formative figure in the founding of the Iraq Museum. Excavation permits were now explicitly restricted to single locations, required that archaeologists operate according to rigorous standards laid out by Bell and the Antiquities Service, and demanded that the majority of finds remain in Iraq’s national collection.

The archaeologist who most exemplifies the new standards that were becoming commonplace in the 1920’s was C. Leonard Woolley’s. Just as Layard had sparked a public interest in the antiquities of Mesopotamia in the 19th century, Woolley’s excavation at Ur again drew the public’s attention to ancient Iraq. Between 1922 to 1934, Woolley excavated the Old Babylonian, Ur III, Early Dynastic, and prehistoric layers of the site. His most sensational discoveries came from the richly provisioned Sumerian Royal Cemetery, and its associated “Great Death Pit.”

Woolley also played a role in the piecing together of the chronology of Mesopotamian prehistory. His work at Tell al ‘Ubaid and Nineveh, along with that of a German team at Uruk, Stephen Langdon at Jemdet Nasr, Max von Oppenheim at Tell Halaf, Max Mallowan at Nineveh, Arpachiya, Tell Brak, and Chagar Bazar, Ephraim Speiser at Tepe Gawra, Ernst Herzfeld at Hassuna, and Seton Lloyd and Faud Safar at Samarra helped to establish the pottery-based historical sequence of Mesopotamia from the Halaf to the Early Dynastic period.

In the 1930’s the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago under the directorship of James Henry Breasted, sent a team to excavate several sites in the Diyala region of Iraq. Excavations by Henri Frankfort, Pinhas Delougaz, Thorkild Jacobsen, and Seton Lloyd at Tell Asmar, Khafaje, and Tell Agrab established a broad understanding of the Early Dynastic period. The period before World War II also saw continued work by Germans at Uruk, and a new interest in sites in Syria, including ancient Mari, excavated by André Parrot.

After World War II

In the mid-20th century, advances in all branches of the sciences proved useful for archaeologists. Radiocarbon dating, invented in 1949 spurred investigations of the Paleolithic and early Neolithic in the Near East. A pioneer of interdisciplinary investigations of the transition to agriculture was Robert Braidwood, whose investigations of Jarmo and other sites along the “hilly flanks of the Fertile Crescent” included analysis of plant remains and animal bones. In the 1950’s, Ralph and Rose Solecki identified even earlier occupations of this area at Shanidar Cave and the site of Zawi Chemi Shanidar.

The techniques of large-scale archaeological surveys, first introduced by the Oriental Institute team in the 1930’s were refined and enhanced by Thorkild Jacobsen and Robert McC. Adams in Lower Mesopotamia in the 1960’s. The success of this survey was apparent in the reconstruction of the ancient natural and built environment, and of changing settlement patterns in large areas over vast time scales.

Throughout the 1950’s, 1960’s, and 1970’s, work at the large historic and prehistoric sites of Mesopotamia continued. Excavations by foreign and Iraqi teams were ongoing throughout the post-war period at Uruk, Nimrud, Khorsabad, Aqar-Quf, Eridu, Abu Salabikh, Tell es-Sawwan, Yarim Tepe, and others.

By the end of the late 1970’s, archaeologists were focused more and more on salvage operations, excavating sites that were threatened with destruction from dam construction activities in Turkey, Syria, and Iraq. Time and monetary restraints required only limited excavations and a heavy reliance on intra- and inter-site survey. These projects have revealed a large number of small and large sites throughout upper and lower Mesopotamia along major portions of the Tigris, Euphrates, Khabur, and Balikh valleys.

Political Upheavals and Archaeology in Mesopotamia

In 1979, the Iranian Revolution closed that country to foreign archaeologists, who redirected their efforts toward excavation of sites in Iraq, even during the Iran-Iraq war, and surveys in Syria and southeast Turkey. Although Iraqi archaeologists have been excavating there over the past decades, since the start of the Gulf War in 1990, foreign excavations have been at a near standstill. The result has been an increase in work in Syria and Turkey and a new understanding of the independent development of civilization in what had previously been considered peripheral to developments in Lower Mesopotamia. The results of these new projects have been used in reanalysis of earlier work in Iraq and have been the basis of reinterpretations of significant historical episodes, such as the Uruk expansion.

Near Eastern Archaeology at the Turn of the Millennium

Technological advances in the past decades have played a significant role in the development of methodology, especially in the field of archaeological survey. Newly available satellite imaging and GIS software applications, along with subsurface survey tools such as ground penetrating radar (GPR), magnetometry, and resistivity have increased the potential of small- and large-scale surveys.

In 2003, following the Coalition invasion of Iraq, the highly publicized looting of the Iraq Museum resulted in the loss of thousands of documents and artifacts that had been the fruit of 150 years of archaeology in Mesopotamia. Beyond the losses of the museum itself, the looting of archaeological sites will no doubt have a disastrous effect on the future of archaeological research in Iraq.

  • Invernizzi, A. “Discovering Babylon with Pietro Della Valle.” Proceedings of the First International Congress on the Archaeology of the Ancient Near East, edited by Paolo Matthiae, Alessandra Enea, Luca Peyronel, and Frances Pinnock, 643–49. Rome: Dipartmento di Scienze Storiche, Archeologiche e Antropologiche dell’antichita, 2000.
  • Larsen, M. T. The Conquest of Assyria: Excavations in an Antique Land, 1840–1860. New York: Routledge, 1996.
  • Liverani, M. “Imperialism.” In Archaeologies of the Middle East: Critical Perspectives, edited by Susan Pollock and Reinhard Bernbeck, 223–43. Oxford: Blackwell, 2005.
  • Lloyd, S. Foundations in the Dust: The Story of Mesopotamian Exploration. 1947. London: Thames and Hudson, 1980.
  • Matthews, R. The Archaeology of Mesopotamia: Theories and Approaches. New York and London: Routledge, 2003.
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