Returning to Iraq: new discoveries at Kobeba

St John Simpson, senior curator and archaeologist in the Department of the Middle East at the British Museum, offers a report from Winter excavations in southern Iraq

Kobeba? It is hardly a well-known name in the archaeological literature but is a site which has already produced important discoveries and featured twice on Iraqi state TV. In October 2021 I took a small team to southern Iraq, and returned there in November this year. Kobeba is actually a small cluster of mounds, not far from the town of al-Rifa’i in Dhi Qar governorate, midway between Baghdad and Basra.

Systematic surface survey along transects on Kobeba 1

This is a region filled with sites of all periods, many badly affected by looting in 2003, but still only partly surveyed. There are many teams working in Iraq, including this region, but almost all of these are concerned with the beginnings of urban civilisation and focus on the city sites of the Sumerian and early Babylonian periods. The problem is that these are the exception: the landscape is filled with small and medium-sized sites, these are the ones most at risk from development, and we know almost nothing about them. This applies even more to the so-called ‘late periods’ of the Achaemenid, Seleucid, Parthian and Sasanian periods, and very little attention has been paid to any sites of the Islamic period here either.

Beginning open area excavations on Kobeba 1

The work at Kobeba is starting to address this imbalance and has produced some wonderful discoveries. It was first occupied at the beginning of the third millennium BC, a key transitional moment at the inception of urbanism and writing. This is known as the Jemdet Nasr period but much remains to be understood about it. During this period Kobeba was producing pottery, and among the debris in the potters’ quarter were purpose-made tools for scraping the insides of jars before they fired, the base of a solid-footed goblet with the accidental impression of the cord used to cut it off the hump as it was thrown on a wheel, and the remains of another which had been discarded before firing. The lower part of a gypsum vessel carved in low relief shows part of a reclining animal and belongs to a style of carved stone vessels typical of this period but hitherto known exclusively from the city-sites of Ur and Uruk to the south. The fragment of a pottery jar carefully incised after firing carries part of a pictographic inscription, preceding the later development of cuneiform. These two finds prove that literacy and the minor arts were not confined to the urban elites even at this early date.

Ceramic ring scraper and the scraping marks on the interior of a pottery jar
Pottery from the Jemdet Nasr period
Potsherd with part of a pictographic inscription of the Jemdet Nasr period

Kobeba was occupied and abandoned at intervals through the millennia which followed, a much more typical and dynamic pattern of settlement than the continuous occupation of the cities. A fragment of a polished calcite vessel found on the survey attests an import from eastern Iran: found in large numbers in the ‘Royal Cemetery’ at Ur, such luxuries have not been recognised at small sites, and it gives another hint of the unintentional bias affecting our understanding of the circulation of such goods.

The site was finally occupied in the Sasanian and early Islamic periods. The excavations have produced one of the few sequences from these periods, with a large assemblage of stratified pottery which already challenges the traditional dating of some of the most recognisable types used as ‘type fossils’ on archaeological surveys. Glazed wasters indicate that pottery continued to be made here during the Sasanian period. There is also a large amount of glass from the latest period, mostly open bowls and small plain bottles. This occupation dates to the eighth century and it was then that a small mudbrick mosque was built in an open area between rows of houses connected by narrow alleys and passages. The mosque was simple, unadorned, with a mihrab and a single door, and housing no more than 22 worshippers at once. This is a rare chance to see Islam in the local community, far from the big congregational mosques of the cities like Kufa or Wasit, yet an equally tangible expression of the need to build a dedicated place of prayer.

Trench 8: tannur and other features contemporary with a post-Sasanian structure (left) with the latest early Islamic level being excavated at the top

During this latest period, Kobeba continued its role as a centre of production, doubtless supplying smaller villages in the surrounding countryside. However, the core activity now was not pottery but grinding stones made by firing blocks of clay at up to 1200 degrees C, and then chipping and flaking away the corners and tops into the required circular shape, leaving great chunks of useless debitage discarded close by. This industry has a long history in Iraq, beginning at least by the early second millennium BC, when this so-called ‘synthetic basalt’ served as a hard-wearing local substitute for imported stone. Producing these must have required huge amounts of fuel, doubtless bushes or reeds gathered from all around, and also great care and skill to work the blanks into their final form. Fragments of such grinding stones are found at all of the Sasanian and early Islamic sites that I have visited in this region, but their production limited to a smaller number of places like Kobeba.

But why was Kobeba finally abandoned? Complete objects, including a copper alloy ladle, seals, coins and a cosmetic mortar, were found lying on the floors, suggesting that this may have been quite a rapid process. The result of civil war? Or disease? Either is historically possible, but there is a third possibility that also chimes with the present, namely lack of water. In hot regions such as southern Iraq, permanent occupation is completely reliant on the availability of fresh water for agriculture as well as drinking and washing. There is a massive water crisis in Iraq today as its upstream neighbours divert rivers into dams and irrigation schemes of their own, once fertile areas are abandoned, and processes of desertification are already underway in marginal areas.

Copper alloy dipper ladle in situ
Re-enactment of men at prayer in the excavated mosque

The forthcoming analyses of the plant and zooarchaeological remains will undoubtedly shed light on the food economy of Kobeba. The survival of pollen in core samples also offers a possibility for creating a detailed environmental reconstruction for the site. This is particularly exciting as geoarchaeological sections dug near the site show big changes in the soil sequences, with palaeo-marsh deposits contemporary with the latest period at Kobeba being replaced by dry clay. The effects of climate change are all around us today but it looks as if Kobeba may have suffered from environmental changes even earlier.

There is much to be done on the analysis of the results from Kobeba, but they offer new insights into everyday life in a Mesopotamian market town from the beginning of writing to the transition from Late Antiquity to the early medieval period.

Excavations and recording in progress of a refuse layer in ancient marshes surrounding the site; the low mound of Kobeba is in the background

Archaeopress books by the author include:

Sasanian Archaeology: Settlements, Environment and Material Culture (2022)

Masters of the Steppe: The Impact of the Scythians and Later Nomad Societies of Eurasia (2021)

Softstone: Approaches to the study of chlorite and calcite vessels in the Middle East and Central Asia from prehistory to the present (2018)

Sincerest thanks to Dr Simpson for providing this blog post. His latest book published in December 2022 and is available now in paperback and PDF eBook formats: Sasanian Archaeology: Settlements, Environment and Material Culture

Paperback: £75.00

PDF eBook: from £16.00

Download free sample PDF