Archaeologists hope to resume work at Ur

The buried antiquities of Ur, Biblical birthplace of Abraham and one of the cradles of civilisation, could one day outshine those of ancient Egypt, archaeologists and workers on the site believe.

With Iraq ravaged by war and strife since the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, Baghdad’s struggling government has had greater priorities than funding large-scale digs at Ur, where only small teams have been working since 2005.

“When the (large-scale) excavations restart, tons of antiquities will see the light of day, filling entire museum wings,” enthused Dhaif Moussin, who is in charge of protecting a site that has been prone to looting.

“This site will become perhaps more important than Giza,” he added, referring to the plateau outside the Egyptian capital of Cairo where some of mankind’s most treasured antiquities have been unearthed, including the Sphinx and several notable pyramids.

That may not be just an idle boast.

In the early 1900s, American archaeologist Charles Leonard Woolley made some stunning finds when he unearthed 16 tombs of Ur’s elite.

Inside he found some of the greatest treasures of antiquity, including a golden dagger encrusted with lapis lazuli, an intricately carved golden statue of a ram caught in a thicket, a lyre decorated with a bull’s head and the gold headdress of a Sumerian queen.

Those treasures have been compared to the riches from the tomb of the Egyptian boy-king, Tutankhamun, but they excite archaeologists even more because the graves at Ur are more than 1,000 years older.

Archaeologically, the most astonishing find of Ur has been a remarkably well-preserved stepped platform, or ziggurat, which dates back to the third millennium BC, when it was part of a temple complex that served as the administrative centre of the Sumerian capital.

To date, hardly 20 percent of the site has been excavated, mainly by American and British archaeologists.

“Some archaeologists estimate it will take more than 30 years to dig out the entire city,” said Moussin, surveying the site. Ur lies near a US air base just outside the southern city of Nasiriyah, a major battle ground of the American invasion.

“It is certain that much more material remains to be discovered,” said Steve Tinney, professor of Assyriology at the University of Pennsylvania which, together with the British Museum, sponsored Woolley’s excavations between 1922 and 1934.

Ur of the Chaldees, as it is mentioned in the Bible, was one of the great urban centres of the Sumerian civilisation of southern Iraq and remained an important city until its conquest by Alexander the Great a few centuries before Christ.

It is thought to have reached its apogee under King Ur-Nammu, an accomplished warrior and founder of Sumer’s third dynasty, who is believed to have lived between 2112 and 2095 BC.

During his rule, the Sumerian capital boasted paved roads, tree-lined avenues, schools, poets, scribes, and stunning works of art and architecture of the kind discovered by Woolley and his team.

The kingdom was governed by a real administration and code of laws. Sumerian script, called cuneiform, is the earliest known writing system in the world.

Tinney said he hoped for the discovery of texts that would shed light on the culture and polytheistic religion of the Sumerians.

“We do not have literature on Ur-Nammu and his successors, the Sumerians or their rituals,” Tinney said.

The site would be unequalled in the world if it proves to be the birthplace of Abraham, revered by Jews, Christians and Muslims alike, said Moussin.

Woolley wanted to prove that Abraham had lived in Ur, after discovering Abraham’s name on a brick unearthed there.

But for all of its former glory, Ur is likely to remain buried under the site that is protected by a fragile barrier and some guards, lost in a country rocked by violence and more worried about rebuilding its present capital.

“Much remains to be done, and an endeavour must be authorised together with the central government if Iraq wants to benefit from its enormous potential as a Mecca of tourism,” said Anna Prouse, an Italian diplomat in charge of a regional rebuilding team in the Iraqi province of Dhi Qar.

In addition to Ur, the province has 47 other sites “of great archaeological value,” she added.

The provincial authorities do not have the budget to start titanic archaeological excavations because they are focusing on restoring electricity, sewerage systems, schools, roads, and drinking water for their war-ravaged population, Prouse said.

From AFP

British Museum and Iran do battle

The discovery of fragments of ancient cuneiform tablets – hidden in a British Museum storeroom since 1881 – has sparked a diplomatic row between the UK and Iran. In dispute is a proposed loan of the Cyrus cylinder, one of the most important objects in the museum’s collection, and regarded by some historians as the world’s first human rights charter.

The Iranian government has threatened to “sever all cultural relations” with Britain unless the artefact is sent to Tehran immediately. Museum director Neil MacGregor has been accused by an Iranian vice-president of “wasting time” and “making excuses” not to make the loan of the 2,500-year-old clay object, as was agreed last year.

The museum says that two newly discovered clay fragments hold the key to an important new understanding of the cylinder and need to be studied in London for at least six months.

The pieces of clay, inscribed in the world’s oldest written language, look like “nothing more than dog biscuits”, says MacGregor. Since being discovered at the end of last year, they have revealed verbatim copies of the proclamation made by Persian king Cyrus the Great, as recorded on the cylinder. The artefact itself was broken when it was excavated from the remains of Babylon in 1879. Curators say the new fragments are the missing pieces of an ancient jigsaw puzzle.

Irving Finkel, curator in the museum’s ancient near east department, said he “nearly had a coronary” when he realised what he had in his hands. “We always thought the Cyrus cylinder was unique,” he said. “No one had even imagined that copies of the text might have been made, let alone that bits of it have been here all along.”

Finkel must now trawl through 130,000 objects, housed in hundreds of floor-to ceiling shelving units. His task is to locate other fragments inscribed with Cyrus’s words. The aim is to complete the missing sections of one of history’s most important political documents.

The Iranians have been planning to host a major exhibition of the Cyrus cylinder ever since MacGregor signed a loan agreement in Tehran in January 2009. I was in Iran with the museum director, reporting for BBC Radio 4 on his mission of cultural diplomacy.

Six months before pro-democracy protests were met with violence in the wake of the presidential election, tea and sweet pastries were offered to the British guests at the Iranian cultural heritage ministry. MacGregor was there to meet Hamid Baqaei, a vice-president and close ally of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Their friendly discussion was a significant diplomatic breakthrough at a time when tensions between Britain and Iran had been strained to breaking point after the expulsion of British Council representatives from Tehran. The recent launch of the BBC Persian television service had also been interpreted as a provocation by London.

With even the British ambassador in Tehran struggling to maintain a dialogue, MacGregor was the sole conduit of bilateral exchange in January 2009. The sight of a miniature union flag standing alongside the Iranian flag on the table between the British Museum boss and his Iranian counterparts boded well for an amicable meeting. In previous weeks, the only British flags seen in public in Tehran were those being burned on the streets outside the embassy.

MacGregor’s objective was to secure the loan of treasures from Iranian palaces, mosques and museums for the museum’s exhibition on the life and times of 16th-century ruler Shah Abbas. Discussions over the loan of treasures relating to one great Persian leader prompted the suggestion that another – Cyrus – could play a part in a reciprocal deal.

MacGregor may have been put on the spot by Baqaei, but he agreed to a three-month loan by the end of 2009. A year later, Baqaei’s tone towards MacGregor is not so friendly. Quoted by the Fars news agency in Iran, he accused the museum of “acting politically”. Further “British procrastination” would result in a “serious response” from Iran.

The Cyrus cylinder remains a compelling political tract more than two and half millennia after its creation. Accepting her Nobel peace prize in 2003, the Iranian human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi cited Cyrus as a leader who “guaranteed freedoms for all”. She hailed his charter as “one of the most important documents that should be studied in the history of human rights”.

In 2006, the then foreign secretary, Jack Straw contrasted the freeing of Jewish slaves by Cyrus with Ahmadinejad’s “sickening calls for Israel to be wiped from the face of the map”.

David Miliband, the current foreign secretary, has yet to reflect on the contemporary resonance of Cyrus in a country in which human rights have been violently curtailed of late. But a spokeswoman for the Foreign Office said: “It is a shame that the British Museum has felt compelled to make this decision.” She added that “we share the British Museum’s concern that this would not be a good time for the cylinder to come to Iran” owing to the “unsettled” situation in the country.

Last week MacGregor presided over a launch, at the British Museum, of the History of the World in 100 Objects, his collaborative project with the BBC. The director is presenting a 100-part series on Radio 4, in which the story of mankind is told through individual artefacts. The Cyrus cylinder was considered for inclusion, but did not make the final hundred.

Some guests at the launch, when told how the discovery of the new fragments had delayed the loan of the Cyrus cylinder, were suspicious. “Fancy that, what a stroke of luck,” said one. “That gets Neil out of a jam for now.”

The director himself says he is determined that the cylinder will eventually be lent to Tehran, along with the newly discovered fragments, to tell a better story about Cyrus. He says he can understand the frustration and anger in Tehran, but it will be worth their wait.

They may well be getting more than they bargained for. To the Ahmadinejad regime, the cylinder is an iconic object, one that fuels collective pride in national heritage. But to those who are fighting for freedom of expression in Iran in the face of violence, the return of Cyrus could offer a potent new rallying point.

From The Observer

Editor's Choice: Zombies throughout history!

Anyone who knows me, knows of my deep seated obsession with zombies.  I’ve taken every zombie survival quiz on Facebook, sat happily through countless Romero marathon’s and keep my headshot skills honed with an occasional late night nerd binge of Left 4 Dead.  Any chance I get to combine archaeology with zombies is a rare blessing.  So while wandering the aisle of my local bookstore, I was introduced to this little wish come true:

The Zombie Survival Guide: Recorded Events

Holy Anglo-Saxon buried gold, Batman!  Max Brooks, author of the epic novel World War Z and The Zombie Survival Guide has just released a new book entitled The Zombie Survival Guide: Recorded Attacks.  This beautifully illustrated graphic novel chronicles major zombie attacks from the dawn of humanity; on the African savannas, against the legions of ancient Rome, on the high seas with Francis Drake, and right on up to the present day.  Brooks cleverly pits historical peoples against the flesh munching plague of the undead in some truely remarkable ways.  The book opens with a story from Central Africa circa 60,000 B.C.:

60,000 B.C., Katanda, Central Africa

I don’t want to spoil too much, but I will say I have a new theory on the origins of the handaxe.

While the stories are brief, the artwork is exceptional and even those less familiar with the graphic novel format can slip easily into this read.  So with Halloween fast approaching, I have no choice but to highly recommend this unique book that re-imagines some of history’s most fascinating time periods by throwing the walking dead into the mix.

You can pick this up at your local Barnes and Nobles or Border’s bookstore, but I highly recommend snatching it off Amazon and saving a few dollars on the price.