The Renaissance of Archaeology in Iraq and its Kurdistan Region
The 2014 ASOR Annual Meeting was held in sunny San Diego this year. It was a nice break for the staff from the encroaching cold weather in Boston. The meeting had many great events and presentations, and this year we were lucky enough to have Jason Ur give the Plenary Address. His talk, “The Renaissance of Archaeology in Iraq and its Kurdistan Region,” was both gripping and informative. We hope you’ll watch and enjoy the video of his talk below. After his presentation, Jason answered several questions from the audience. You can read the transcripts of the questions below the video.
After an absence of over two decades, foreign archaeology has returned in earnest to one of the “cradles of civilization.” Two wars, international sanctions, and internal unrest had together brought archaeological research nearly to a standstill; only a few under-funded Iraqi teams and a handful of intrepid Europeans attempted fieldwork following the first Gulf War of 1991. Following a decline in political violence that began in 2008, archaeologists have returned to the Republic of Iraq. The resumption of fieldwork in the southern “heartland of cities” has been significant but slow and hampered by internal politics. In the autonomous Kurdistan Region, however, foreign research has expanded rapidly and continuously, in partnership with local archaeologists and institutes. This presentation will review these new developments, discuss how the new discoveries are challenging long-held ideas and filling blank spaces on the archaeological map, and suggest some new directions for the future of Mesopotamian studies.
Q&A After the Presentation:
Q: As an Egyptologist, I had just a little kind of a sidelight that the lists of firsts in Mesopotamia may no longer possibly include writing since in Egypt we have things like the labels … and the things of that period and not in the concrete 920 period.
Jason: You will probably understand given the context of my talk how may have no gotten into all of the kind of the fine minutia’s of some of these arguments, but your point is taken.
Q: How much time did you have to cancel your season?
Jason: I had 48 hours. I was scheduled to leave out of Boston on August 8th and August 6th is when Isis seized Gwer and Makhmur. Gwer is about 5 km from the edge of my survey area so I had 48 hours to decide. If they had done this a month earlier, I probably would have had my field season, because the region has returned to some semblance of normalcy. But there are teams that work in Erbil right now and there is even a team that went and did some work in Makhmur.
Q: How much overall has the current political situation impacted on your work?
Jason: I had cancelled my 2014 survey on the Erbil plain and a number of other surveys in Dohuk and Erbil also cancelled the Shanader, the British Shanader excavation was cancelled. But in terms of going forward, I continued to be a bit optimistic in moving forward. I actually considered trying to do a survey in January since things have returned to a better state, but teaching responsibilities prevented that. So I view the current situation as a bit of a setback for working the Kurdistan region obviously any fieldwork in the northern parts of Iraq. In Nineveh provinces for example are in a much more dyer situation as long as they’re under Isis control.
Q: Do you have any comment or do you know anything about Isis destroying these sights. I’ve seen various reports that they’re actually very active in selling antiquities to help fund themselves and in others as you know say that that’s not true at all. Do you have any knowledge on that?
Jason: I have probably read as much as you have about this. I have no contact within ISIS. The only thing I imagine that this is in fact the case. … We’re all empirical people here. I think we should try to proceed with actual knowledge of what’s going on. And here is where I’ll say no more because I simply don’t know.
Jason Ur is the John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Social Sciences in the Department of Anthropology at Harvard University. He specializes in early urbanism, landscape archaeology, and remote sensing, particularly the use of declassified US intelligence imagery. He has directed field surveys in Syria, Iraq, Turkey, and Iran. He is the author of Urbanism and Cultural Landscapes in Northeastern Syria: The Tell Hamoukar Survey, 1999-2001 (2010). Since 2012, he has directed the Erbil Plain Archaeological Survey, an archaeological survey in the Kurdistan Region of northern Iraq. He is also preparing a history of Mesopotamian cities.
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