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Kurdistan Offers an Open Window on the Ancient Fertile Crescent

By Andrew Curry

At the center of Erbil–one of the largest cities in northern Iraq and the capital of the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan–is a reminder of its roots: an ancient citadel on an imposing mound containing a layer cake of ruins from millennia of occupation. Pottery fragments found on the slopes of this mound, or tell, show that continuous settlement stretches back at least 7500 years. Even Erbil’s name has endured: Tablets from about 2200 B.C.E. mention the city of Irbilum.

This week, archaeologists from around the world will gather in Erbil to discuss the long history of the city and the wider region–and the promising future for archaeological research in Iraqi Kurdistan. Even as nearby countries such as Syria and Turkey curtail archaeological efforts, this once off-limits area within Iraq has begun welcoming outside scientists eager to probe its past. At the meeting, for example, several groups will describe how landscape surveys and digs are already painting a new picture of the Assyrian empire, which expanded from northern Iraq about 3000 years ago. Their findings suggest that northern Iraq, once the core of the Assyrian empire, had a dense population and an elaborate infrastructure, likely constructed by conquered populations resettled there.

Iraqi Kurdistan is at the heart of the Fertile Crescent, the region where farming and settlement first arose, stretching from the Mediterranean across modern-day Turkey and through Iraq to the Persian Gulf. Some of history’s greatest civilizations–not just the Assyrians but also the Babylonians, Sumerians, and Hurrians–reigned over the rolling hills and valleys of Iraqi Kurdistan. “It’s a crossroads of cultures in all periods,” says Jessica Giraud, head of the French Institute in the Near East’s mission in Erbil. “It’s vital to answering all kinds of questions, from the domestication of plants and sedentarization to the birth of civilization.”

Due to Iraq’s tumultuous recent past, though, this part of the Fertile Crescent is practically a blank slate. Decades of war with Iran and a guerrilla uprising against Saddam Hussein’s regime devastated the region and kept out archaeologists. “This is really virgin territory. It’s never been thoroughly studied,” says John MacGinnis, an archaeologist at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom.

The region has been relatively peaceful and stable since the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has gained a high degree of autonomy from the central government in Baghdad. Abubakir Zainadin, head of KRG’s General Directorate of Antiquities and a former guerrilla fighter, has actively encouraged an influx of researchers to help identify and preserve the region’s heritage. “Since 2007, we have opened the gates for all foreign archaeologists,” he says. Iraqi Kurdistan has signed contracts with 30 foreign universities and made contact with 15 more. Just since 2012, more than a dozen excavation missions led by foreign
scientists have begun.

At the same time, conditions for research in other parts of ancient Mesopotamia have deteriorated (Science, 18 May 2012, p. 796). Civil war has forced archaeologists to abandon long-running projects in Syria. In Turkey, red tape and an increasing reluctance to give permits to foreigners has led many to look elsewhere. Nowadays, says Raija Mattila, director of the Finnish Institute in the Middle East and a conference co-organizer, “Kurdistan is pretty much the only possibility.”

The region still poses many challenges, from uncleared minefields left over from the Iran-Iraq War to labor costs inflated by an oil boom economy. Archaeologists must also artfully negotiate their excavation contracts–typically signing an agreement with KRG officials and getting oral confirmation from the antiquities ministry in Baghdad. “Without that, people who want to go on working in southern Iraq would have problems later,” says Konstantinos Kopanias, of the University of Athens, who organized a conference looking at archaeology all across Iraqi Kurdistan in November.

In Erbil this week, Harvard University archaeologist Jason Ur, who works with Giraud, will describe preliminary results from a survey of the countryside around the city. After identifying promising spots using satellite imagery–some of it taken by U.S. spy satellites in the 1960s–Ur and colleagues have started going into the field to identify ancient settlement sites. They’re on the trail of the Assyrians, who often relocated vanquished populations back into the empire’s core. “200,150 people, great and small, male and female, horses, mules, asses, camels, cattle and sheep without number, I brought away … and counted as spoil,” Assyrian emperor Sennacherib boasted in an inscription from the 7th century B.C.E.

Ur thinks the Assyrians forcibly resettled this “spoil” in the arid plains around Erbil, building networks of irrigation canals to support the new settlements. In some of the areas that Ur’s group surveyed, there were signs of habitation every square kilometer. “It’s an extraordinarily high density of archaeological remains, the densest archaeological landscape documented yet in Iraq,” he says.

Neighboring surveys support the idea of an empire expanding north with ambitious urban engineering. The Land of Nineveh Archaeological Project, focusing west of Erbil and run by Daniele Morandi Bonacossi at the University of Udine in Italy, has identified major canals–one 80 meters wide and 20 meters deep–and five early aqueducts in Kurdistan, all apparently built by the Assyrians.

Morandi Bonacossi’s team also found hundreds of previously uncharted settlements, with pottery dates all starting in the Assyrian period. “They’re tiny rural villages, or even farmsteads,” he says. “It makes sense only if the landscape was highly engineered and cultivated with local irrigation. It was all meant to transform Nineveh’s countryside into a densely populated area.”

Other excavators are targeting smaller, older sites, such as Kani Shaie, a 2-hectare tell not far from Suleimaniyeh. In September and October, a Portuguese-U.S. team uncovered what may be a Sumerian colony. One find is an elaborately decorated clay tablet, roughly 5300 years old, covered with a complex seal impression and a numerical mark, possibly evidence for an elaborate administrative system.

Archaeologists are not only revealing the past, but also helping local authorities assess how best to protect it, especially from new construction projects. The research boom, however, sometimes stretches the local infrastructure: With archaeologists uncovering tons of potsherds each summer, there’s still no place to properly store them. “We don’t have good museums to accept and store objects,” says Dlshad Marf, an archaeologist from Iraqi Kurdistan now studying at Leiden University in the Netherlands. “Right now, it’s too much activity–we’re not ready for all this.”

As surveys chart the landscape of northern Iraq, adding hundreds of sites each season to the list of known settlements and paving the way for future excavations, archaeologists are anxious to dig deeper. “What’s happening now is really basic exploration,” MacGinnis says. “It’s clear this wave of exploration is going to lead to new understandings of complex civilization.”

From: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/344/6179/18.full