I have been co-directing archaeological work at Nokalakevi, as part of a wonderful collaborative team, for almost 20 years. My work in Georgia began, completely by chance, when I worked with Nick Armour at the Cambridge Archaeological Unit in autumn 2001. He had just returned from Nokalakevi with Ian Colvin and a handful of Cambridge students after the inaugural season of the Anglo-Georgian Expedition, and could talk about little else. It sounded amazing and I couldn’t resist the opportunity to get involved. I travelled to Georgia in 2002 expecting it to be a fun and exciting busman’s holiday, supervising students in a new trench at Nokalakevi before starting my PhD at Southampton. I was simply unprepared for the impact that Georgia was to have on me. Evidence of its deep, proud, but not always easy, history seems to be in every corner of its stunning landscape, written across the Colchian plain, along the towering Caucasus mountains, and in the DNA of its people. Back then Georgia was only just recovering from the first difficult years of independence. The dig house bore the scars of automatic weapon fire, and we would occasionally hear gunfire and explosions. The local governor provided armed security to ensure our safety. But actually those aren’t the aspects that made the greatest impact, it was the immersion in Georgian culture. Its food, while of course demonstrating some external influence, is uniquely and undeniably Georgian; and its wine, the grapes and the vines that bear them, seem to have an unbreakable, sacred bond with every Georgian. There is something magical about a country that wears its heritage so openly, and in which intangible cultural heritage is so vibrant and alive, but the warmth and hospitality of the Georgian people also had a profound impact on me.
How has the ‘Anglo-Georgian Expedition to Nokalakevi’ lasted so long?
There are certain magic ingredients that give some field projects longevity. One is undoubtedly that we operate a funding model that gives us independence from the whims of funding bodies, so the project lifespan is not determined by the usual three year grant cycles. Our longevity is determined by the quality and scale of the archaeology at the site, not by the subjectivity of committee decisions. The other factor is that our expedition is genuinely underpinned by friendships. It’s not something that you can plan for, but from the point at which Ian Colvin and Davit Lomitashvili first discussed the idea of an Anglo-Georgian Expedition to Nokalakevi, it has gone from strength to strength because of mutual respect, shared ideals, and friendship. Today, as well as Ian and Davit, I am fortunate to work alongside Nikoloz Murgulia, Besik Lortkipanidze, Nino Kebuladze and many others who are friends as much as they are colleagues.
What was the rationale for establishing a Georgian Archaeological Monographs series?
Until the pandemic impacted on our (and everyone’s!) plans, we had been working towards publication of our second expedition monograph, reporting on excavations at Nokalakevi from 2011-2020 and discussing some of the key research themes from our work. Of course our 2020 field season was impacted, along with the opportunity to meet in person and talk through the chapters. In the meantime I had also been thinking about finding a route for publishing the proceedings of a session on the archaeology of the region that I’m co-organising for September’s EAA conference, and it occurred to me that having a dedicated monograph series would make the perfect home for these publications, and for all those who are working on the archaeology of the region at various career stages, alongside the opportunity to provide researchers from the South Caucasus the opportunity to publish in a western language. One of the challenges of writing up research on Georgian archaeology can be the accessibility of source material if you don’t read Georgian or Russian. I have been incredibly fortunate to work collaboratively with Georgian specialists who provide English translations of relevant excerpts of Georgian scholarly work and references, and of course also bring their expert knowledge of Georgian academic traditions and the theoretical frameworks that this work inhabits. Generally, however, western academics are only able to access a small percentage of the published work on any given site, and without much of the supporting context. I want this series to start bridging this divide.
It seems to me that the South Caucasus is sometimes treated as rather liminal by western archaeologists – a place where the more studied empires and civilisations enact change, or leave evidence of their economic and military activities, but perhaps not an area deserving of study in its own right. Its higher profile in the west today probably owes as much to conflict in Syria and Crimea, which has forced a range of international projects to relocate to more favourable locations, as it does to greater awareness. The archaeology of the South Caucasus, however, is more than deserving of its own spotlight and I really hope that this monograph series can provide a stage.
The Archaeopress series announcement is below, or can be downloaded as a PDF here. The series homepage carries brief details for the first volume, Nokalakevi – Archaeolopolis – Tsikhegoji: Archaeological Excavations 2011-2020 (forthcoming)
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: email@example.com
Tello-Ancient Girsu Project
For more information on the work at Tello, contact Sebastien Rey (Director of the Tello-Ancient Girsu Project). Email firstname.lastname@example.org
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.
Gavin McGuire considers the first phase of a photographic study of an archaeological excavation in Crete, highlighted in his book ‘Minoan Extractions – A Photographic Journey 2009-2016’
With the Sissi Archaeological Project, my seven year photographic study of the Bronze Age Minoan excavations under the auspices of the Belgian School in Athens, Université Catholique de Louvain, I have been offered an extraordinary opportunity to capture moments of human interaction during excavations as they interconnected with an ancient Minoan culture that stretches back millennia (2600-1200 BC). And there is more to come with the new dig campaign under way at a three hectare site which has been described as one of the most important Bronze Age excavations in Crete during the past decade.
The Minoan Extractions has also been a personal journey with the chance to pay homage to the work of influential photographers – in and out of the archaeological sector, including my mentor, the outstanding photographer – Harry Burton. During the 1920’s his iconic monochrome images of the Tomb of Tutankhamun, as well his work at other sites in Egypt, have fascinated people throughout the world, and yet only in recent years has there been a growing reassessment of his contribution to photography.
Of course photography within archaeology is not new – with its origins arising during the early nineteenth century and especially in 1904 becoming ‘official’ with Egyptologist Flinders Petrie’s manual ‘Methods and Aims in Archaeology’. For nearly 200 years in the Mediterranean and Near East in particular, photographers in conjunction with archaeologists have played a crucial role in pushing back the barriers of the ancient world for both scholars and for a demanding global general audience.
With the Sissi photographic project, at a unique coastal landscape about four kilometres from Malia palace in Crete, I have continued a proud photographic tradition that is once again facing a new era of major technological change – from digital to virtual, from handheld cameras to drones and to live excavation access. It is also the age of the smartphone – easy for anyone to use, producing high quality images and ultimately engaging a wide general audience.
Needless to say these changes are highlighting the importance of imaging, especially at this time as we are seeing wanton destruction of major archaeological sites in the Middle East and of general neglect and a lack of financing. Discovery may be an over arching goal for archaeologists, but the truth is rescue and preservation dominate excavation campaigns. The past is present but the present is a very fragile one indeed.
The photography at Sissi is simply being at the right place and at the right fleeting moment, making images that highlight motion and emotion from the 80 or so ‘players’ on the archaeological stage for their six week or so excavation during July-August. It is what the renowned French photographer and humanist, Henry Cartier Bresson, referred to as ‘The Decisive Moment’.
There are images of scientists at work – archaeologists, anthropologists, technical specialists, such as surveyors, local workmen digging (many proudly following in the wake of their forefathers) and restorers and conservators dealing with the thousands of finds housed at the apothiki or workshop.
Yet the Sissi Project encompasses not only the excavation period but includes images of the site throughout the year, showing, in part, the impact of the environment. Indeed if there is a favourite ‘out-of-dig-season’ photographic period then it must be autumn and winter, where the dominating Selinari mountain range and often violent seas and dark storms combine to conjure up a dramatic contrast to the Bronze Age remains. This is surely what the Minoans must have witnessed for more than nearly 1300 years.
I photograph in both colour and black-and-white but in recent years have preferred the latter, mainly because of what I see as the aesthetic qualities of the genre. It is a realism ensured through the subtle variations of contrast and light without the distraction of colour. In other words it comes down to getting the viewer to look into the image not at it.
The Sissi site is an ideal laboratory to test any camera and its paraphernalia – the near stifling heat, the dust, sea grit and water and general bashing about. In this respect I have stayed faithful to my favoured Olympus E-510 SLR and lately with the mirrorless OM-D E-M5 Mark II. Of the Digital ED lenses I prefer to use the 9-18 ultra-wide and 50mm. The one filter that has become indispensable is the HD digital protector screw-in filter. They are a godsend to protecting lenses from the damaging environment and I have certainly got through a few of those over the years. Post production is kept at a minimum.
I have certainly produced many hundreds of photographs at the site during the last seven years. There is never a daily schedule and time to prepare once there. My photography is on the run or more importantly on the sly – as I prefer subjects not to be aware of my efforts.
Looking back at what I would consider my favourite images I would say they reflect the work of the anthropologists in the cemetery with the excavated skeletal remains, highlighting memory, time and mortality and of their attempts to seek closure for such finds through the processes of DNA and isotopic study.
But I would also confess that the photographs that have proved particularly successful have been nothing more that opportunistic, often arising from one rapid shot, almost from the hip. It happens. Nothing planned but if the brain connects with the eye then you can walk away highly satisfied. Job done – at least for the moment, for as archaeologists well know the excavation is never over until the sound of the last shovel dies away. It is generally accepted that the last 48 hours of a dig is the period in which new and sometimes site changing discoveries are made – and so it has happened at Sissi. It makes this Bronze Age settlement worth photographing. So watch this space.
Gavin’s book will be available in July/August in paperback (£25) and PDF eBook (from £16). A special pre-order price of £20 is available for the paperback edition until 31/07/2017. To pre-order at the special price please e-mail email@example.com