Returning to the field – excavating in southern Iraq in a time of pandemic

By Mette Bangsborg Thuesen

As a dedicated field archaeologist, it has been difficult being on standby for the last two years. Due to the global pandemic, a high amount of research projects has been cancelled or postponed, and travel restrictions have made it challenging to conduct any study trips abroad. This has been particularly hard for us students, since fieldwork is an essential part of how we collect data for our research and because we need this experience to further our archaeological training. However, since summer last year, international teams have slowly started to return to the field, also in southwest Asia where my research is centred. This includes a new British-Iraqi excavation project of the late antique settlement Kobeba in southern Iraq, in which I had the opportunity to participate during the fall of 2021.

The site of Kobeba is close to the famous Sumerian city-site of Tello/Girsu, which has been investigated by the British Museum since 2016. Those investigations were initiated by the museum’s Iraq Scheme, which aims to help counter the destruction caused by Daesh (IS) to cultural heritage in the country by providing a training programme for Iraqi archaeologists. Kobeba was identified induring 2018 as a possible Sasanian and Early Islamic settlement, and it was decided to initiate a new excavation project here as these periods are archaeologically not well understood in this region. The first season at this site thereby began in October 2021.

The author registering finds during surface survey | Photo: © Dr. St John Simpson

Investigating Kobeba, a Late Antique settlement
Kobeba is located in the Dhi Qar province of southern Iraq, a region which is historically known for its ancient Mesopotamian settlements, such as Ur, Larsa and the aforementioned Girsu. However, less is known about the Late Antiquity and Early Medieval times of this region, which is why Kobeba proves a promising site. It is always exciting to be a part of a new project like this and our first step was to map the borders of the chosen site, which is usually done by looking at aerial photos and the distribution of artefacts on the ground. The first week of fieldwork at Kobeba was therefore spent surveying the entire site, which meant to pick up all diagnostic finds on the surface in systematically demarcated areas, in order to get an idea of how settlement patterns extend and to estimate the temporal framework of the occupational span. The collected surface finds included coins, fragments of glass vessels, ground stone tools and pottery sherds, which were all processed and analysed following the survey.

Based on the results of this survey, we then selected certain areas for excavation that had revealed a high find density, and shortly after the modern surface soil had been removed with shovels, historical architectural features have already started to emerge. These eventually revealed multiple buildings that all seemed to constitute a residential settlement, as well as pottery vessels and metal objects still left in situ among other artefacts. In some parts of the site, looting occurred throughout the 2000’s and it was also one of our aims of the fieldwork this season to document this. We therefore dug and measured some of these looting pits, as it can help get a sense of the extent of this problem for the local governorate and their management of the cultural heritage. The pits tended to be up to 2 meters deep and were a sad reminder of the troublesome time this country has gone through, forcing people to rob archaeological sites for a small income. While excavating these looting holes, however, we often found discarded canned sodas and plastic wrappings from candies and crisps. A small testament to the nutritious and balanced diet of modern civilisation!

Afternoon work at the dig house surrounded by lots of flotation sample | Photo: © Dr. St John Simpson

When coming home from the field after a long day of survey or excavation (some days in up to 44 degrees heat!) our afternoons were spent processing all the finds. This was done by washing, sorting, counting, drawing and registering every object. It may sound like a tedious and repetitive job (and mostly it was!), but it was also a rewarding experience whenever you suddenly found fragments of horse figurines or incantation bowls with magic inscriptions, hidden among the thousands of ceramic sherds that were brought from the site each day. Soil samples were also collected on site for flotation, which we processed in a water tank at the house in order to recover the microscopic archaeobotanical remains that were otherwise missed during excavation. The rest of our work time was spent filling out the necessary paperwork and our daily journals, where we would keep track of stratigraphic layers and try to grasp the meaning of what we were excavating. For leisure, we would have movie nights, just dance competitions and conduct various cooking experiments, which often occurred in the light of a flashlight, as power shortages are an everyday occurrence in this region.

Throughout the nine weeks we conducted archaeological fieldwork, an ancient residential settlement was slowly uncovered that has been dated to the late Sasanian and Umayyad horizon (7th to 8th century CE) based on the preliminary studies of pottery and coins, although earlier settlement activities were also recognised. A mud mosque was also revealed that could accommodate about 20 people and which made headlines on the national news, as it is one of the earliest of its kind to ever be excavated. As the overall findings are currently still in the process of being analysed, too much cannot be revealed at this stage of research. However, it can be stated that Kobeba has already revealed promising results, also indicating that the settlement served as an important production centre in regard to glass work and the manufacture of ground stone tools made of vitrified clay in southern Iraq during the Late Antiquity and Early Medieval periods.

Breakfast on site, always accompanied by the Iraqi military for security reasons | Photo: © Dr. St John Simpson

Connecting in a time of social distance
Although the excavation at Kobeba seemed in many ways to be like most projects before Covid-19, some things were certainly different compared to my previous experiences. Due to security reasons, we were not allowed to leave our house, when not excavating on site. For this reason, day trips were also strictly limited, but occasionally we would meet the other excavation team at Tello to share a nice meal and the news of the most recent results. We therefore mostly experienced Iraq from the confinement of our house, by looking over the walls of our courtyard and observing how the local life unfolded among our neighbours. Here we could see the children playing football on the street as their parents were watching, and the farmers that would walk everyday  their cattle home from the fields. There were also always wild dogs running around, waiting to eat our leftover food that was occasionally thrown over the wall. One of my favourite moments at the day was always to watch the sun set over the palm trees, painting the sky in bright nuances of orange, red, violet and blue. These small snapshots all provided a perspective on the everyday life of a rural settlement in Iraq.

Otherwise, interaction with the Iraqi people, besides the friendly and professional archaeologists working on our site, generally happened through the local workmen that helped out with the excavation. These were mostly young men, who needed the work to help provide for their families. Although they came from more difficult circumstances than us, they often generously shared their tea and food for breakfast, encompassing the kind and overwhelming hospitality which in many ways characterises the people of this region. The work with these guys, who barely spoke any English, also provided an excellent opportunity to brush up on my Arabic, although my strange pronouncing mostly just led to amusement among the workers. Particularly the fact that my vocabulary mostly consists of young and cool phrases, as I mostly learned the “street” way of talking from an Iraqi friend in high school. Although the pandemic is forcing us to social distance, we still manage to communicate and connect in this way, and it shows that returning to the field is not just a matter of following up on old and new research projects. It is most importantly also an opportunity to get grounded with the current societies of those countries whose past we study. Therefore, I also look forward to exploring more of modern Iraq and to meeting its people in a time where restrictions are less severe or hopefully non-existing. Someday in the not far away future, Inshallah!


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