A conference on the Rise of Parthia taking place in April 2020
The Parthian empire is by far the least understood of the great empires of antiquity. Until recently our knowledge has been both hazy and Euro-centric. In recent decades, however, new approaches have been adopted and these, together with new archaeological discoveries, are changing our preconceptions. Recognising this, in April 2020 the British Musuem will host leading international scholars presenting their most recent research on the history, culture and archaeology of the early Parthian Empire. Set against the complex political scenario of Iran, Mesopotamia and Asia Minor in the 2nd-1st centuries BC, speakers will address a wide range of issues on the rise of the empire and the relationship of the early Arsacids with their neighbours. Contributions will include re-evaluations of historical sources, analyses of material datasets, numismatics and reports on new work in the field. Specific themes addressed will include diplomacy, religion, sculpture, painting, chronology, ideological motifs, warfare and trade. This will lead to the promulgation of new models and a new understanding of the social, economic and political systems leading to the emergence of the Empire.
The conference will run in conjunction with two British Museum exhibitions – Rivalling Rome: Parthian coins and culture (April – September 2020) in the Museum itself; and the touring exhibition Ancient Iraq: New Discoveries, travelling to Nottingham and Newcastle (March-November 2020).
For details about the conference, including how to register, please visit the page on the British Museum website:
Sebastien Rey, Director of the British Museum’s Tello/Ancient Girsu Project and Lead Archaeologist for the Iraq Scheme, provides an introduction and overview for the Tello/Girsu excavations and their place within the Iraq Scheme.
The Iraq Scheme is a programme funded by the UK government, through the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, directed by Jonathan Tubb (keeper of the ME department), and delivered through the British Museum, with the aim of building capacity in the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage by training Iraqi archaeologists in cultural heritage management and practical fieldwork skills. The training is intended to provide participants with the expertise and skills they need to face the challenges of documenting and stabilising severely disrupted and damaged heritage sites in preparation for potential reconstruction. The training consists of two months based in London at the British Museum followed by two months hands-on training on site in Iraq. This practical training takes place at the two field projects of the Iraq Scheme, in the south of Iraq at the site of Tello, and in the north at the Darband-i Rania in the Kurdish Region of Iraq.
Tello, the modern Arabic name for the ancient Sumerian city of Girsu, is one of the earliest known cities of the world together with Uruk, Eridu and Ur. In the 3rd millennium BC Girsu was considered the sanctuary of the Sumerian heroic god. It was the sacred metropolis and centre of a city-state that lay in the south-easternmost part of the Mesopotamian alluvium. Pioneering explorations carried out between 1877 and 1933 and the decipherment of the cuneiform tablets discovered there revealed to the world the existence of the Sumerians who invented writing 5,000 years ago and may have developed a primitive form of democracy or polyarchy well before the ancient Greeks.
Like the recently liberated Assyrian capitals of northern Mesopotamia, Nimrud or Nineveh, Girsu is a mega-site extensively excavated in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with a similar topographical layout shaped by huge excavation pits and spoil heaps. It includes fragile remains of monumental architecture excavated before World War II such as the Bridge of Girsu – the oldest bridge as yet brought to light, which is the focus of site conservation. Tello is therefore a site of the first order, ideal for delivering the training for the Iraqi archaeologists in the context of a fully-fledged research programme.
The story of the renewed field-work at Tello-Girsu, after some eighty years of interruption, is a palimpsest of archaeological layers spanning five thousand years which reflects superimposed or overlapping destinies of gods, demons, and men.
The central protagonist is the mighty god Ningirsu, the tutelary deity of the city who battled fiercely with the demons of the primordial Mountain where both the Tigris and Euphrates originate, and, thus, made possible the introduction of irrigation and agriculture in Sumer. Ningirsu was the god of the thundershowers and floods, and was envisaged originally as the thundercloud. The demigod or demon Imdugud (Anzû), the thunderbird, perceived as a giant lion-headed eagle, was Ningirsu’s avatar or hypostasis, and the emblem of the city.
Other dominant figures of the excavations include the sovereign Gudea who ruled Girsu four-thousand years ago and who, throughout his reign, never ceased to pride himself in his abundant commemorative inscriptions for his zeal in religious behaviour and of having undertaken and completed the construction or renovation of magnificent temples to serve as abodes to the pantheon of Girsu. Adad-nadin-aḫḫe was an enigmatic Babylonian potentate, perhaps the lord of a fiefdom of the fading Seleucid Empire. He built a palace two thousand years after Gudea on the ruined sacred city of Girsu and, truly fascinated by the past, perpetuated the old Sumerian rituals of burying foundation deposits, stamping bricks with his name, in both Aramaic and Greek, and, also, collected Gudea’s statues as holy antiques and embodiments of ancestral kings. Ernest de Sarzec was the last archaeologist-consul of Mesopotamia. Two-thousand years after Adad-nadin-aḫḫe, he resurrected Girsu and its gods only thanks to his fierce desire and determination paying for it with his life.
That Tello/Girsu has a strong connection with the British Museum is proven by the abundant artefacts on display, including a truly unique statue of the ruler Gudea.
Although the god Ningirsu is not represented herein, at least in his anthropomorphic form, the Sumerian galleries are nevertheless charged with his overwhelming divine aura. Many votive artefacts, foundation tablets, and copper figurines of gods were indeed dedicated to the tutelary deity of Girsu. The god appears en majesté in his pre-human form of the tempestbird on the Ninḫursag temple relief from Ubaid, and a votive mace head from Tello, both depicting the lion-headed eagle grasping stags or lions, i.e., mastering the Mesopotamian wilderness. The British Museum also holds the very first rediscovered statue personifying the charismatic ruler Gudea found by William Loftus in 1850 at the site of Tell Hammam which also represents the first Sumerian sculpture to have reached Europe together with the reliefs of the genii accompanying the winged bulls from Khorsabad.
Excavations in the autumn of 2016 and spring of 2017 at Tello were carried out in the heart of the sacred district of Girsu, at Tell A, also-known as the Mound of the Palace. They led to the discovery of extensive mudbrick walls – some ornamented with pilasters and inscribed cones – belonging to the Ningirsu temple constructed and several times renovated by Sumerian rulers, including Ur-Bau and Gudea. This temple called Eninnu: The-White-Thunderbird dedicated to the heroic god was considered in antiquity as one of the most important sacred places of Mesopotamia, praised for its splendour in many contemporary literary compositions. The search for the Eninnu has mesmerized generations of Assyriologists. Known until now only by cuneiform texts and a plan carved on a statue of a worshipping Gudea, its discovery represents a significant milestone in the history of renewed archaeological research in Iraq.
Of this four-thousand-year-old religious complex, were exposed during the first two seasons what appeared to be the central part of the sanctuary: a decorated entrance featuring buttresses, a peripheral ambulatory with in situ cones, the cella composed of an offering altar facing the podium for the divine cult statue, and passageways marked by colossal inscribed stones.
The results of the last autumn 2017 season were extremely successful. In the Mound of the Palace, we continued to excavate the monumental sacred complex belonging to the god Ningirsu. The main highlights were the discovery of the South gate flanked by two towers and the temenos wall which included a foundation box.
The box was unusually big, 9 courses high, with a large Gudea brick as the cover with the inscription face down. Under the cover, a well-preserved impression of a reed mat in bitumen. The box unfortunately had been opened in antiquity and the copper foundation figurine removed. But, at the bottom of the box, we found the stone tablet still in situ. A white square tablet with the inscription in two columns. The tablet was oriented towards the cella and the podium for the divine cult statue. It was buried in a deposit of pure sand and was placed on a small reed mat. Samples of bitumen and soils from the ritual box have been brought back to the British Museum to be analysed.
More than fifteen inscribed cones were found in situ in the walls of the temple. The recording of the exact location of each cone reveals that they were laid in a complex pattern; we are currently analysing this pattern to establish whether it encodes information of magical/religious significance.
Excavations under the temple also led to the discovery of two superimposed monumental platforms, the oldest of which, made of red mudbricks and built in two steps, may be dated to the beginning of the third millennium BC. This is an important discovery since this proto-ziggurat, a precursor to the legendary Tower of Babel, would therefore predate the earliest-known Mesopotamian stepped-terrace by a few hundred years.
Four new soundings were opened in Tell L, situated at the edge of the ancient city in the vicinity of the city wall. They also yielded important results. We have uncovered mudbrick walls, and another foundation box made of fired bricks, unfortunately empty. We have reasons to believe, however, on the basis of inscribed cones in secondary context and others scattered on the surface, that this mound (Tell L) and the one adjacent to it (Tell M) formed a large complex, perhaps a temple gate dedicated to the goddesses Inanna and Nanshe. This new excavation was closely connected to the extensive survey that was carried out in the western residential area, between the Sacred city and Tell L, which yielded important new information on the domestic quarters of the city of Girsu.
New conservation work was initiated on the Bridge of Girsu, discovered and excavated at the end of the 1920s and early 1930s. The preliminary condition assessment of this unique monument of Sumerian architecture, left exposed for 80 years, stressed the urgency of carrying out a larger and more ambitious conservation programme, including preventive excavations.
Since excavation, the site has remained open and exposed, with no identifiable conservation work to address long-term stability or issues of erosion, and no plans to manage the site, or engage with a local or wider audiences.
The objectives of the 2017 autumn season at the bridge site were therefore to understand the structure, record its condition and to test conservation options, as the first steps towards developing a comprehensive conservation plan, with the Iraqi archaeologists involved at every stage.
Excavations to establish the condition and stability of this construction led to the discovery of exceptionally well-preserved deposits of the prehistoric Ubaid period, including painted pottery and uninscribed cones, which yield a wealth of information on the origins of Girsu and consequently the birth of urban centres in Mesopotamia.
All the important finds from these excavations have already been safely delivered to the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, while a column base from the Ningirsu temple will be displayed in the nearby museum of Nasiriya.
Tello-Girsu Autumn 2017 team & Iraqi participants: Sebastien Rey, Fatma Husain, Jon Taylor, Ashley Pooley, Angelo Di Michele, Joanna Skwiercz, Faith Vardy, Elisa Girotto, Ella Egberts, Dita Auzina, Dani Tagen, Andrew Ginns, Luke Jarvis, Thea Rogerson, John Darlington, Zahid Mohammad Oleiwi, Ali Kamil Khazaal, Toufeek Abd Mohammad, Qasim Rashid.
With Special Thanks to Vice Minister Dr Qais Hussein Rasheed, State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, Iraq
Contacts and website
Iraq Emergency Heritage Management Training Scheme
For more information on the Iraq Scheme, contact the Director of the Scheme, Jonathan Tubb (Head of the Middle East Department of the British Museum). Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Tello-Ancient Girsu Project
For more information on the work at Tello, contact Sebastien Rey (Director of the Tello-Ancient Girsu Project). Email email@example.com
Featured image: Aerial view of the main complex of archaeological mounds of Tello (Tello-Girsu Project, Iraq Scheme, The British Museum)
Sincerest thanks to Sebastien Rey for providing this blog post. Sebastien’s book For the Gods of Girsu: City-State Formation in Ancient Sumer (2016) is available now in paperback and eBook formats. English and Arabic editions available.
St John Simpson introduces the BP exhibition ‘Scythians: warriors of ancient Siberia’, open at the British Museum from 14 September 2017-14 January 2018
On 14 September a major new exhibition opened at the British Museum and creates a unique opportunity to see the world of the Scythians, warriors and nomads, in an atmospheric setting and with hundreds of stunning objects. This was organised with the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, from which most of the objects have been very generously loaned, and includes other important loans from the National Museum of the Republic of Kazakhstan, the Ashmolean Museum and a magnificent portrait of Peter the Great lent by Her Majesty the Queen.
This exhibition was devised four years ago to mark the British Museum’s contribution to the past year of exhibitions and events celebrating Russian art and culture in the UK. The British Museum team was led by St John Simpson, with Svetlana Pankova of the State Hermitage Museum co-ordinating her colleagues in the Departments of Archaeology, Ancient World and Russian Culture: together they have co-edited the sumptuous catalogue published by Thames & Hudson to go with it.
The exhibition is attracting 5* reviews and is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see these objects together. The exhibition begins with some of the first Scythian gold objects to be discovered in the early eighteenth century as explorers during the reign of Peter the Great set out to explore and map newly conquered territories in present-day southern Siberia. These were found in burial mounds and excited huge interest in Russia at the time: they are shown here alongside early eighteenth century watercolours commissioned in St Petersburg, and astonishingly this is the first time they have been exhibited together.
The exhibition continues with a stunning digital panorama based on late nineteenth century Russian watercolours showing parts of the route taken by the Trans-Siberian Railway as it passes through Siberia. They evoke the scenery and show that Siberia is not just the place of hardship, cold and forest that is mentally conjured up in most peoples’ minds but the southern portion was a grassy corridor which connected China with the edge of Europe.
Separate sections in the exhibition then set out to answer common questions with carefully selected objects set against massive landscape backdrops with succinct text panels printed on cloth banners and illustrated with contextual images and accurate reconstructions. Some of the earliest tattoos and a beheaded chieftain’s head illustrate personal appearance and body art. Trousers, a fur-lined coat, exquisite gold dress appliques, an embroidered shoe and a tall woman’s headdress bring home a sense of style. Mirrors, manicured fingernails, a false wig and pouches filled with black hair dye show that vanity is not a modern concept and these men and women were careful to show themselves to best effect. A portable lifestyle meant that possessions had to be easily transported, and people of status wore their wealth on their bodies. Oversized gold buckles demonstrate this in one way; massed rows of miniature gold dress ornaments show it in another and mark the beginning of a very long Eurasian nomad tradition.
A reconstructed miniature tent and a brazier with hemp seeds confirms a famous passage by Herodotus that Scythians appreciated the effect of consuming cannabis in a confined space and enjoyed “hot boxing” so much that they “howled with pleasure”. These nomads moved according to the seasons and the availability of water and pasture, but exhibiting ancient nomads is tough when they leave a light footprint in the landscape. Fortunately they buried their essentials as well as their status items in tombs for an anticipated afterlife. Exceptional preservation in the permanently frozen subsoil beneath these mounds in the Altai mountain region has meant the preservation of all the organic remains: a sable fur bag, leather, wood, felts, rugs, horse harness and even lumps of cheese, labelled with a “best before” date of 300 BC.
Life was tough though and evidence for weapons and trauma on excavated human remains shows that there must have been considerable competition over resources. Showcases contain deadly aerodynamic arrowheads, fired from the famous Scythian bow described by Greek authors, an efficient pointed battle-axe with its original honeysuckle wood handle, wooden shields, armour, a bronze helmet and a serried rank of daggers and short swords. And of course there is the horse-tack: not just bronze horse-bits but complete bridles with leather straps and carved wooden ornaments, and another Scythian invention: the soft saddle, stuffed with straw and deer hair and covered with an extraordinary decorated cover.
Fittingly, the largest object in the exhibition is a super-sized perfectly preserved log coffin from Pazyryk which weighs a third of a ton! Digital media show frozen tombs like this being excavated and how the interiors were encased in solid ice which had built up over centuries inside. Even so, the Pazyryk tombs were robbed in antiquity so although the organics are spectacular there is precious little of intrinsic value: that is where the exhibition has drawn on late eighteenth and nineteenth century tomb finds from the northern Black Sea region (all from the State Hermitage and the Ashmolean) and very recent discoveries in southern Siberia and neighbouring Kazakhstan.
The exhibition closes by looking at life in southern Siberia after the Scythians. Although even the names of the tribes are unknown, the excavated tomb finds show increasing complexity and long-distance connections: the remains of a composite bow, colourful beads imported from the Mediterranean, a scrap of Chinese silk reused along the hem of a toy quiver. The archaeology of the Scythians and other early nomads of Eurasia is a very active field and there are many surprises. New scientific research carried out at the British Museum answered some questions we had about gold objects from the Siberian Collection of Peter the Great, and in fact there is more scientific research on show in this exhibition than in any ever before at the British Museum! One of the last things a visitor sees is the CT-scan of a (post-Scythian) man’s head concealed beneath his painted death-mask and what this brand new piece of Russian research shows is that he has a carefully stitched up scar on his left cheek and the hole where his left temple had been trepanned as part of an embalming ritual.
The subject of continuing new discoveries is the topic of an exciting three-day archaeological conference to be held at the British Museum this coming 27-29 October. This will bring together scholars of all ages and nationalities to share the results of their research projects, latest archaeological discoveries and new scientific research. Many of these results are presented here for the first time and they evoke the world of the steppe: a natural open corridor without borders which connected Russia with Europe, the Middle East and China. There will be papers on Scythians, Hephthalites and other Eurasian nomad economies, tombs, burial rites, gold-working, human remains, the invention of trousers, early Scythian dyes, “Animal Style” art, rock art, connections with China, and some tantalising if not gruesome answers as to where the Scythians got their leather for their bow quivers! This conference is being generously supported by the ERC and the British Museum and is part of the public programme associated with the exhibition. Booking is via the British Museum box office.
A conference, Scythians and early nomads from Siberia to the Black Sea, will be held in the BP Lecture Theatre at the British Museum from 27-29 October 2017. This major three-day conference is open to all. It will include the latest research on early nomads of Eurasia with papers on horseriding, warfare, technology and many other topics. It will also include results of recent archaeological excavations and new scientific research, and poster displays. Click here to view the conference programme.
Header image: Landscape in Southern Siberia courtesy of V. Terebenin.
Sincerest thanks to St John Simpson for providing this latest post for the Archaeopress Blog. We are actively seeking new content for the blog; articles on all aspects of archaeology and related heritage topics will be considered. Perhaps you would like to highlight a small find on an excavation that won’t be fully reported until years from now; an opinion piece; summaries of local activity; introductions to new and ongoing exhibits; conference reports; the list goes on. Articles should be approximately 2,000 words in length with 4-8 accompanying illustrations, but please note this is just a guide and both shorter and longer articles would be considered. Please submit blog proposals to Patrick Harris at firstname.lastname@example.org
Josef Mario Briffa SJ introduces his new volume: Catalogue of Artefacts from Malta in the British Museum (Archaeopress, 2017)
Some books are born of serendipity: being at the right place at the right time, finding something you weren’t looking for. This book is one of them.
It started quite simply and unexpectedly. Some ten years ago (2006/7), I was conducting research at the British Museum on letters written by Father Emmanuel Magri SJ to Dr E.A. Wallis Budge. Chatting – as you do – with the duty curator that day (Dr St John Simpson, now Assistant Keeper in the Department of the Middle East), who was responsible for taking care of visiting researchers, and in my case bringing over the volumes of correspondence that I needed to consult, the conversation fell, naturally on Malta and Maltese archaeology. St John asked whether I knew of the British Museum artefacts database (online here), which I didn’t … so I was introduced to Merlin, as the database is called, and merely out of curiosity, we searched for “Malta”. A quick scroll through the results, and I was quite positively surprised, and felt there was potential for this project. Somewhere, I must still have the first list that St John emailed me, with an Excel extract from Merlin.
I realised immediately that such a project would have been impossible for me to handle alone: firstly, I felt that I lacked the experience to start with, and, secondly, I was busy with my studies to the priesthood as a Jesuit (then in theology in London), such that I would never have managed to finish it at all. Very early on, I roped in Dr Claudia Sagona, who I had known through the archaeological excavation at Tas-Silġ, and whose experience with catalogues of material I knew could bring important expertise to the project. Looking back, it was the most important decision I could take, and without Claudia’s significant contribution, the book would probably still be very much in the realm of ideas.
The book has been slowly cooking away on the back burner. Ten years, with many trips to the British Museum, its departments and storage facilities, by both Claudia and myself. Thousands of photos taken both in preparation for publication, as well as to help in the study of the material. Not to mention the drawings of the various items, and the detailed descriptions, and introductions to each of the collections. And many emails, phone conversations, as well as numerous drafts. I must say that after ten long years, seeing the book in print has something surreal about it.
I cannot imagine the book to become a major best seller. Catalogues of material aren’t exactly designed to be. But I hope that in its own way, this catalogue may shed some light on the history of archaeology in Malta, and make some material from historical excavations more immediately accessible to researchers in Malta and worldwide.
The catalogue is published by Archaeopress.
viii+326 pages; illustrated throughout in colour and black & white.
Paperback | 9781784915889 | £50.00
eBook | 9781784915896 | from £16.00 (+VAT if applicable)
Josef Mario Briffa SJ is Lecturer at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome, and a Roman Catholic priest. He has recently completed his PhD at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London on The Figural World of the Southern Levant during the Late Iron Age. He also holds a Licentiate in Sacred Scripture from the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome. His research has included the history of Maltese archaeology, with a focus on the work of Fr Emmanuel Magri SJ (1851-1907), pioneer in Maltese archaeology and folklore studies. He has excavated in Malta and Israel, and is currently a staff member of The Lautenschläger Azekah Expedition.
Claudia Sagona is Honorary Principal Fellow in the Centre for Classics and Archaeology at The University of Melbourne. Her research has taken her from the islands of the Maltese Archipelago, to the highlands of north-eastern Anatolia and the Caucasus. She has written a number of books concerning Malta’s ancient past, including a comprehensive volume for Cambridge University Press, The Archaeology of Malta: From the Neolithic through the Roman Period (2015), another on the Phoenician-Punic evidence, The Archaeology of Punic Malta (2002), and has delved into the Mithraic mystery cult, Looking for Mithra in Malta (2009). In 2007, she was made an honorary member of the National Order of Merit of Malta (M.O.M.).