Thousands of archaeological sites in Iraq, birthplace of the world’s most ancient cities and earliest writing systems, may soon be threatened by one of the oldest scourges known to man: war. At the invitation of the Pentagon, American archaeologists have supplied military strategists with information about ancient sites to minimize collateral damage. Concern also remains high about postwar looting: Following the Gulf War in 1991, mobs raided nine of Iraq’s 13 regional museums. Over the past decade, numerous items from Iraq’s ancient archaeological sites have appeared on the market. Here are some vulnerable sites.
At Risk!: Ancient Sites in Iraq
Possibly the home of the biblical patriarch Abraham, Ur flourished during the reigns of Ur-Nammu (2112–2095 B.C.) and his son Shulgi. The restored remains of the ziggurat completed during Shulgi’s reign—and excavated by British archaeologist Leonard Woolley (above) in the 1920s—largely escaped damage during the Gulf War (some brickwork was hit by shell fire), but bomb craters still pock adjacent areas. Woolley uncovered magnificent treasures in Ur’s royal cemetery, including this 17-inch-tall statue of a ram caught in a thicket (below), which probably served as a burnt-offering stand.
Another ziggurat erected by Ur-Nammu at the end of the third millennium B.C.—topped by a house built by American excavators a century ago—overlooks the southern Iraqi site of Nippur (above). Nippur was the most important Sumerian religious center, containing a temple dedicated to Enlil, the head of the Sumerian pantheon and god of the air.
Famed home of the Tower of Babel, the Hanging Gardens and Hammurabi (the 18th-century B.C. king who instituted the law codes carved on the lower portion of the 7-foot-high stela shown here), the southern Iraqi city of Babylon arose on the banks of the Euphrates nearly 4,000 years ago. Modern reconstructions of the monumental gates, promenades and palace of King Nebuchadnezzar II (604–562 B.C.) recapture Babylon’s Iron Age splendor.
The impressive array of Mesopotamian, Greek, Roman and Sasanian architecture still standing in this caravan city in northern Iraq has led UNESCO to designate Hatra as a World Heritage site. (A first-century A.D. temple built in the Roman style can be seen above.) The city’s mile-long perimeter wall originally had more than 200 towers. Saddam Hussein embarked on an extensive restoration project at Hatra in 1990, using building stones shaped to resemble the originals—all incised with his initials.
The capital of the Assyrian kings Sennacherib (704–681 B.C.) and Ashurbanipal (668–629 B.C.), Nineveh was badly plundered in the 1990s. A large, intact relief of Assyrian archers was removed from one of the walls of Sennacherib’s throne room during that period; in 1996, nine fragments from that relief, including the one shown above, appeared on the international art market.
Some of the earliest surviving examples of Islamic architecture are found in Samarra, 70 miles north of Baghdad. The city’s mid-ninth century Great Mosque, with its freestanding spiral minaret (above), a caliph’s residence, a palace and ancient tombs lie near one of Iraq’s main chemical plants. The north-south highway serving the city was bombed during Operation Desert Storm.
The magnificent audience hall (above) of the third-century A.D. Sasanian palace at Ctesiphon developed cracks from nearby explosions in 1991; it was reportedly repaired by Iraqi archaeologists. The great arch, more than 100 feet high and 75 feet wide, is the broadest non-reinforced brick arch in the world. Ctesiphon is 20 miles southeast of Baghdad on the banks of the Tigris River.
Watch on the Rhine
Roman Tower Uncovered in the Netherlands
Dutch archaeologists recently uncovered the foundations of a wooden watchtower built by Roman soldiers along a former course of the Rhine River, near modern Utrecht. Dating to the reign of the emperor Claudius (41–54 A.D.), the structure was buried under a Roman road built in the mid-second century.
The ruins have helped archaeologists identify other watchtowers along the Rhine’s old riverbed. According to Erik Graafstal, the city of Utrecht archaeologist directing the excavation, towers were built a quarter-mile to a mile apart and were used to monitor marauding barbarians.
The tower was originally 10 feet square and 16 feet high. Sharpened wooden stakes, a moat and a low wall encircled the building (see photo below and drawing above), offering some protection against local Germanic tribes, known to the Romans as the Batavi.
The Roman historian Tacitus (55–120 A.D.) describes one encounter between Roman soldiers and Batavi tribesmen in the marshes of Holland: “The (Batavi) leapt lightly through the well-known shallows, and frequently, quitting the front, hung on the rear and flanks of our army.
“It was neither the close nor the distant fighting of a land-battle; it was more like a naval contest. Struggling among the waters, or exerting every limb where they found any firm footing, the wounded and the unhurt, those who could swim and those who could not, were involved in one common destruction” (Histories 5.15).
Amesbury Archer & Son
Buried Near Stonehenge, Born in the Alps
New tests on the 4,300-year-old bones and teeth of the Amesbury Archer, whose rich grave was discovered a year ago just three miles from Stonehenge (see “The Amesbury Archer,” AO 05:06), reveal that he died a long way from home.
Oxygen isotopes in the middle-aged archer’s tooth enamel suggest that he came from the Alpine region of Switzerland, Austria or Germany.
It also turns out that he wasn’t alone. This past winter, the Wessex Archaeology team that excavated the archer’s bones uncovered the skeleton of a 25- to 30-year-old male—perhaps the Archer’s son—buried nearby. Like the archer, the younger man was interred with gold hair tresses or earrings; the jewelry was found lodged in mud inside his jaw (below).
How did scientists determine that the archer hailed from the Alps? Different ratios of oxygen isotopes form on growing teeth in different parts of the world—and the oxygen content of the archer’s tooth enamel suggests that he grew up in a climate colder than Britain’s.
Villa of the Papyri Reopens
For the first time in nearly 2,000 years, Herculaneum’s Villa of the Papyri, the sumptuous seafront retreat of Julius Caesar’s father-in-law Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesonius, has reopened its doors to visitors. But only a small portion of the 30,000- square-foot villa (at least four levels of the structure remain unexplored) will be accessible to the public.
Covered by volcanic debris following the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. and by another eruption in 1631 A.D., the villa housed the finest library of its day. The only known writings of the Epicurean philosopher Philodemus have been discovered among the 1,800 papyrus scrolls—many of them charred—recovered at the site.
The Poems of Posidippus
An Amazing Find: Ancient Epigrams Written on a Mummy’s Cartonnage
Like so many stories in which the antiquities market has played a part, this one has its beginnings in uncertainty and rumor. In the early 1990s, looters in the Fayum region of Egypt unearthed a mummy whose chest had been covered with a papyrus scroll adorned with images of winged griffins. The scroll then disappeared, presumably onto the black market. During this time, a few photographs of the scroll were distributed, and rumors about its contents circulated among classical scholars. Eventually, the scroll found its way to Italy, with the University of Milan purchasing it in 1992 for approximately $1 million.
The so-called Milan Papyrus (see photo above) is a collection of poems probably written by the third-century B.C. poet Posidippus, who hailed from Pella in Macedonia. The scroll’s 112 epigrams—short, pithy poems just a few lines in length—cover a variety of subjects. They sing of the glories of luminous gemstones (a mother-of-pearl necklace is described as “a shimmering cube of light”); they recount the horrors of shipwrecks; they praise works of art (“the bronze you’ve shaped / to Alexander’s form has fire in its eyes”); and they herald the aspirations of the Ptolemaic rulers, who inherited Egypt after the death of Alexander in 323 B.C.
Posidippus was previously thought to have been the author of just 20 epigrams, two of which appear on the Milan Papyrus (hence the attribution of the entire work to Posidippus).
Besides providing 110 new poems by Posidippus, the scroll also seems to be the earliest example of a book-length collection of poetry. Why would Posidippus want to produce an anthology of his works, at a time when poems were not read in books but rather sung aloud by bards? According to Kathryn Gutzwiller, a professor of classics at the University of Cincinnati, the reason probably has to do with a new interest in books (or scrolls) sparked by the building of libraries. “In the third century B.C.,” Gutzwiller told Archaeology Odyssey, “scholars, such as the ones working at the library at Alexandria, wanted to preserve collections of earlier Greek poetry, for example works by Sappho and others. These scholars arranged the poems in scrolls and in books. The poets of the day wanted to arrange their own work in a similar fashion, as part of an aesthetic process. It was now thought to be exciting to physically hold one of these books in one’s hands.”
One aspect of the Milan Papyrus that has puzzled some scholars is the absence of erotica in its contents. Most of the 20 known epigrams already attributed to Posidippus are bawdy, containing frequent references to sex and drinking. Gutzwiller suggests that the Milan Papyrus may have included a group of erotic poems at the end of the scroll, which has not 019survived. She also raises another possibility: Since the Milan Papyrus includes poems about the Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt and political concerns, Posidippus may have thought it an inappropriate context for erotica.
Boston University classicist Frank Nisetich, who is currently translating all 112 epigrams into English (for a forthcoming volume that Gutzwiller is editing), observes that the new poems just have a more subtle eroticism. Several of the new poems create “an erotic atmosphere … as effective as the eroticism of the old Posidippus,” Nisetich told Archaeology Odyssey. One of the new epigrams, for example, describes a gemstone: “Timanthes carved it—this sparkling lapis lazuli / rayed in gold, this semi-precious Persian stone / for Demylos, and for a tender kiss the dark-haired / Coan Nikaia [wears it] now, the gift [of desire].”
But did Posidippus actually write each of the poems on the papyrus? Some scholars have said no—arguing, for example, that the epigrams on gemstones and shipwrecks seem out of place in the context of third-century B.C. poetry. Both Gutzwiller and Nisetich, however, believe that a single author was responsible for the entire scroll. “There is a great deal of stylistic continuity throughout the collection,” according to Gutzwiller. “The papyrus is arranged in a way that isn’t at all haphazard, and it reflects an attempt to deliver a consistent thematic message.”
If the Milan Papyrus is indeed a collection of Posidippus’s works, it tells us much about the Macedonian poet’s life. Scholars already knew that he traveled widely, for his earlier poems include references to Greece and the Aegean islands, among other places. The new poems suggest that he was also a rather important person, having formed a close relationship with the Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt. He apparently received patronage from the court, and several of his epigrams celebrate the Ptolemies’ reign.
What will the Milan Papyrus do for Posidippus’s reputation? Where will he now reside in the pantheon of ancient Greek poets? That can only be determined by history.
How Bloodthirsty Were They?
In 80 A.D. the emperor Titus dedicated the Colosseum in Rome with 100 days of gladiatorial games that resulted in the slaughter of 5,000 wild beasts and 4,000 domesticated animals. Following his triumph over the Dacians, Trajan (98–117) organized 123 days of spectacles during which 11,000 exotic animals imported from North Africa and the Near East were killed. The bloodletting went on for centuries, causing the near-extermination of the Nubian hippopotamus, Mesopotamian lion and North African elephant.
Naples Archaeological Museum
First century A.D.
Calliope, the Greek muse of epic poetry, can once again be observed pensively awaiting inspiration—after being buried for nearly 2,000 years in the ruins of a Pompeian guest house. Almost three years after being discovered during construction on the Naples-Salerno highway and then painstakingly restored, the Calliope fresco is now on permanent display at the Naples Archaeological Museum. It originally decorated the main triclinium, or dining room, of the guest house, which was located just south of Pompeii.
Satellite Photos Reveal Ancient Roads
When archaeologists at the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute examined recently declassified spy photos taken by U.S. satellites during the Cold War era, they saw startling evidence of 5,000-year-old roads.
Scholars had long assumed that roads once linked the region’s ancient urban centers, which first arose in what are now Syria and Iraq during the third millennium B.C. Satellite imagery revealed meandering highways 200 to 400 feet wide. Traffic along these arteries compacted the roadbeds over time, causing them to sink as much as 2 feet below the neighboring terrain.
In the satellite photographs, the depressions left by Bronze Age roads appear as subtle changes in surface growth. For example, at the bottom left of the image below, roads can be seen radiating from the ancient walled town of Tell Beydar, Syria, through plowed fields and into the low hills at upper right.
These roads provide evidence of how much outlying cultivated land was needed to support a given settlement. Oriental Institute researchers estimate that some early Mesopotamian cities contained as many as 20,000 inhabitants, all of whom were supported by food and materials transported into the city along one or another ancient roadway.
Intact Tomb from Bronze Age Cyprus
But Why All the Dog Burials?
Casual table talk in a cafe in the southern Cypriot town of Episkopi led University of Cincinnati archaeologist Gisela Walberg to a rare find last summer: an unplundered Late Bronze Age tomb.
“There are always fantastic stories swirling around excavation sites, but my curiosity was piqued when I overheard some old-timers,” Walberg told Archaeology Odyssey. “They had heard from their fathers and grandfathers that an unopened tomb still remained in the cemetery area of Bamboula, the nearby Greek harbor town that had flourished between the 13th and 11th centuries B.C.”
Walberg returned to the cemetery site, which was first excavated in 1937, and paid special attention to spots with thick topsoil and lush vegetation: “After all, when you make a tomb, you dig up soil and heap it alongside the tomb.” Her team discovered the intact tomb visible at far left in the photo shown above.
In just two weeks, Walberg’s team excavated more than 200 artifacts, including a bronze fibula (safety pin), a gold earring, a signet ring and a jar containing human bones. A pottery sherd with an elaborate relief (above) depicting men and bulls was found in a nearby well.
The well yielded another, more macabre find: three dozen dog skeletons. “It’s a puzzle,” Walberg said. “The dogs were young and showed no signs of trauma. We don’t know why there were so many together in this spot. In fact, we don’t know much at all about the role of dogs in the Greek world.”
Thousands of archaeological sites in Iraq, birthplace of the world’s most ancient cities and earliest writing systems, may soon be threatened by one of the oldest scourges known to man: war. At the invitation of the Pentagon, American archaeologists have supplied military strategists with information about ancient sites to minimize collateral damage. Concern also remains high about postwar looting: Following the Gulf War in 1991, mobs raided nine of Iraq’s 13 regional museums. Over the past decade, numerous items from Iraq’s ancient archaeological sites have appeared on the market. Here are some vulnerable sites. At Risk!: Ancient Sites in […]