Dr Pinar Durgun discusses the context and background behind her innovative new handbook presenting ‘recipes’ for teaching about the ancient world.
How did the book come about?
The world has changed so quickly and so drastically around us in 2020. So has our teaching: online and open-access resources have often been the only way students and educators can access and share information, when libraries, schools, and cultural organizations have been closed for much of the year, and in many cases remain so. Even when they have re-opened, educators have been forced to teach in entirely new or hybrid formats.
Now that many of us are required to teach over digital platforms, can we expect our students to listen to us lecture for two hours and give us their undivided attention? The instructional designers I work with in preparing my online courses suggest that online lectures should be 10 minutes maximum. So do many other educators. This is how long your students can focus on your lecturing voice and your ‘floating head talking’ video. In the physical classroom, the maximum is around 15-20 minutes. So how do we communicate information and teach content for longer stretches of time while still enabling students to interact and engage?
Interactive classroom activities make learning undeniably more engaging and fun, in addition to providing students with physical dexterity, collaboration, critical-thinking, problem-solving, and analytical skills. There are very creative educators among us who have been teaching about the ancient world in exciting ways using hands-on, project-based, and experiential activities. I wanted to use these activities in my classes. And based on dozens of activity exchanges with my educator friends, I was sure that other educators were also looking for new strategies to engage their students with the ancient world. This is why I created An Educator’s Handbook for Teaching About the Ancient World.
What is in the book?
The initial idea was to format the lesson plans into a cookbook, with teaching ‘recipes’, which include the materials, budget, preparation time, and level of students so that any educator could replicate these recipes in their classes. Some of these activities require materials, some do not. Some need to be prepared before class, some require no preparation. Some of the activities are very much tied to the culture, time period, or place, but some can be applied to any content. Some of the activities were written by a single educator, and some are a product of collaborative teaching. All of the activities, however, are tested in the classroom and peer-reviewed by other educators. More importantly, all activities are engaging, hands-on, immersive, and/or experiential. They are only a small portion of the endless possibilities of making teaching and learning about the ancient world fun, meaningful, and informative.
In addition to these teaching recipes, this book also addresses some important issues in ancient world pedagogy: Why should we publish educational resources as open access? How can we effectively make use of museums and ancient objects in our teaching? Why should our research and pedagogy be collaborative? Our teaching has broader implications. These essays address such implications and provide great examples and case studies for educators to apply these methods and ways of thinking to their own teaching. I hope this book will be a resource where we can learn from each other about ancient world pedagogy regardless of the time periods, cultural or geographical areas, and subjects we teach.
Who is this book for?
Educators teaching about the ancient world. Students and parents learning how to teach about ancient world. Anyone who is interested in the ancient world and pedagogy. The activities in this book can be implemented online or in-person, in school, university, library, museum, or home classrooms. Every activity specifies the age/grade level of students for which the activity is appropriate. Many activities also have optional steps to make the activity work for other ages/levels. The activities and essays were written by school teachers, university instructors, and museum educators who teach about ancient objects, materials, peoples, and cultures.
Some of the activities were also written in different languages. Contributors and educators Leticia Rovira and Cecilia Molla from Argentina, who wrote their activity both in English and Spanish, say that this book is:
“a novel contribution to the didactics of ancient societies’ teaching. The main objective is challenging and enthralling: to go beyond the thresholds of academy and reach another very important audience –students at different levels- and try to capture their interest, drawing their attention towards our fields of study through a wide diversity of appealing didactic proposals.”
One of the goals of this book was to open up the conversation about ancient world pedagogy and create a hub for more collaboration. I encourage you to try out the teaching activities and share your photos and observations with other educators: https://pinardurgunpd.wixsite.com/teachancient/gallery
Dr Pınar Durgun is an art historically-trained archaeologist with a background in anthropology, cultural heritage, and museums, passionate about outreach and education. She received her Ph.D. from Brown University and has been teaching for about a decade in universities, museums, and school classrooms about archaeology and the ancient world. As a dedicated public scholar and educator, Dr Durgun hopes to make academic information about the ancient world accessible, fun, and inclusive. Find out more about her work here: https://pinardurgunpd.wixsite.com/pinardurgun
Grab it and spread the word!
The eBook version of my book is FREE to download in Open Access. To download the free eBook or to purchase a printed hardback copy, please click on the cover image below:
Sincerest thanks to Dr Durgun for writing this article for the Archaeopress Blog. To submit an article, please send your proposal to Patrick Harris: email@example.com
Professor Howard Williams, University of Chester, introduces his co-edited volume stemming from the 2nd University of Chester Archaeology Student Conference, April 2017.
How should communities be engaged with archaeological research and how are new projects targeting distinctive groups and deploying innovative methods and media? In particular, how are art/archaeological interactions key to public archaeology today?
There remain surprisingly few edited collections in the field of public archaeology. Building on recent work, including the edited collection from 2015 Archaeology for All: Community Archaeology in the Early 21st Century edited by Mike Nevell and Norman Redhead, and Gabriel Moshenska’s edited collection: Key Concepts in Public Archaeology, this new book helps to extend and expand critical discussions. It provides an outlet for an original and distinctive mix of fresh perspectives and approaches, specifically addressing art/archaeological intersections in public archaeology’s theory and practice. Our book focuses on UK perspectives and practices in public archaeology, although we feel many of the themes addressed are of global significance.
How did it come about?
Following the 2nd University of Chester Archaeology Student Conference, 5 April 2017, Dr Caroline Pudney and I teamed up with former student Afnan Ezzedin to take the research presented forward to publication. We have crafted a proceedings which combines distinctive and select contributions from (undergraduate and Masters) archaeology students together with a range of original investigations and evaluations from academics and heritage practitioners.
There are 22 contributions all told by 26 authors; many chapters are supported by colour illustrations.
Sara Perry writes an insightful and personal Foreword, using her own experiences as a means on reflecting about how we write critical public archaeologies which take our practices in new directions. Following this, there are two chapters by me. The first is an introduction which surveys pertinent themes and issues in public archaeology and art/archaeology interactions in particular, and the second, written to showcase the student presentations incorporated into the book as well as those that were not, reviews the conference and the development of the book.
The main body of the book is split into 3 sections. ‘The Art of Engagement: Strategies and Debates in Public Archaeology’ contains 8 chapters exploring different ways in which strategies are being deployed in public engagement and how we evaluate our practices. For example, I have co-authored a chapter in here which draws on the conference paper and essay by Rachel Alexander; we evaluate the much-lauded Operation Nightingale’s dialogues with early medieval warriors.
The second section – ‘Arts in Public Archaeology: Digital and Visual Media’, incorporates 6 chapters, each exploring different means of public engagement and evaluating their potential and challenges. My chapter in this section, for example, critically reviews my Archaeodeathblog from its inception in 2013 to the end of 2018.
The third and final section – ‘Art as Public Archaeology’ – has 4 chapters, considering different visual media as subject and strategy for public and community projects.
The Afterword by Dr Seren Griffiths identifies that all archaeology should have a ‘public’ dimension, and that creativity and playfulness must be key ingredients of good public archaeology.
Libraries at least should definitely have physical copies to complement the online ones I think! Also, in case you weren’t sure, archaeology books as Christmas presents are definitely a thing!
I duly acknowledge the hard work of the students and colleagues in facilitating the conference. I also recognise the help and camaraderie of my co-editors Caroline and Afnan, the enthusiasm and contributions of the authors, the generous guidance of so many of my fellow archaeologists, the critical insights of the peer-reviewers, and the steadfast support of Archaeopress. Together this team has shown commitment in creating a high-quality peer-reviewed academic publication with no funding and sparse other support. I’m therefore very proud that these conferences and their publications are recognised as a positive thing: it was great to receive the 2019 Educate North Teaching Excellence Award as a result.
The book is dedicated to the memory of Dr Peter Boughton FSA, Keeper of Art for West Cheshire Museums who had worked hard to facilitate the conferences taking place at Grosvenor Museum as public free day conferences in the heart of the city of Chester.
November will see the 100th title released in the Archaeopress Access Archaeology imprint where all titles are available as free-to-download pdf eBooks or in printed paperback.
Here at Archaeopress we are fond of what we call a ‘bath idea’. In 2014 it was a bath idea that led to our first experiments with Open Access publishing, and in 2015 we began to conceive of a new publication model – a side-line to our more regular publishing endeavours – designed to function outside the parameters of the accepted wisdom of academic publishing.
Archaeopress is owned and run by archaeologists, and this has always influenced our perspective on what constitutes a useful publication. We receive many proposals that, following traditional publishing models, would not be commercially viable. But that is not to say they are not academically valuable, containing unique data, rare catalogues, intriguing synthetic analysis etc.
Access Archaeology evolved as a model to support many types of archaeological publication including PhD dissertations, smaller conferences and symposia, research projects, and commercial archaeology from parts of the world where funding is limited. It also supports publications that fall between conventional models: too long perhaps for a journal article, but too short for a traditional monograph.
All Access Archaeology titles are available as free-to-download pdf eBooks and in print format. The free pdf download model supports dissemination in areas of the world where budgets are more severely limited, and also allows individual academics to access the material privately, rather than relying on a university or public library. Print copies, nevertheless, remain available to individuals and institutions who need or prefer them.
Dr Boyd Dixon, Senior Archaeologist for the Cardno GS office in Guam and the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands (retired), explains how the model afforded greater outreach in the local area:
‘Our recent volumes about Yellow Beach 2 and Afetna Point have found a receptive audience in the public, and in secondary school and community college on Saipan.
I feel it is the caliber of Archaeopress publications and photographs and maps, with their open access to a broader public that makes [the] volumes of particular interest.’
By asking authors and editors to take a greater role in the production process and by making use of the huge improvements seen in recent years in print-on-demand technology, the books are typically made available in print and online formats, including the free download option, at no cost to the author/editor. Howard Williams, Professor of Archaeology at the University of Chester and co-editor of two forthcoming Access Archaeology titles, Public Archaeology: Arts of Engagement(due November 2019) and Digging into the Dark Ages, explains:
‘I’m a relatively experienced academic editor (having edited the Royal Archaeological Institute’s Archaeological Journal for 6 volumes over 5 years, and edited/co-edited special issues of the journals Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History, Early Medieval Europe, Mortality and European Journal of Archaeology.) In this context, I was happy I could maintain high academic standards and take on editing and typesetting supported by the friendly and helpful Archaeopress team. Access Archaeology allows the latest research to be published as both print-on-demand and open-access online without a cost to the contributors. This was especially important for me given the books develop from student conferences and include a mix of student pieces with those by more established heritage professionals and academics.’
Gina L. Barnes, Professor Emeritus at Durham University and co-editor of the 2019 publication TephroArchaeology in the North Pacific, notes the free download and on-demand model offers considerable flexibility regarding colour content and page count:
‘The format allowed for considerable freedom in presenting the material, without word limits or restrictions on illustrations; colour pictures were possible for both the digital and print versions… I have been very pleased with the process throughout, through encouragement by David Davison in commissioning the work, communication with the team about formatting problems, assistance in the peer review process, and getting the document out in a timely manner…’
‘I found Access Archaeology to be the ideal publisher for the specialist, data-heavy manuscript I had prepared from my doctoral thesis. The editorial staff were very helpful and enthusiastic, and the production process was impressively fast once I had submitted my text according to the formatting instructions. Within two or three months, an open-access PDF and a high-quality paperback, including colour illustrations, were both available. I’d recommend Access Archaeology to anyone looking for an efficient way to publish specialist, data-driven monographs.’
‘So many people encouraged us to publish a Proceedings volume after our Invisible Archaeologies conference, but I wasn’t really sure how to go about it. Archaeopress were super helpful and their Access Archaeology range meant that it wasn’t out of reach, even for an impoverished student conference. Traditional publishing is often so slow and restrictive, and it is fantastic that our authors will have digital access to their own work immediately!’
We are very proud of how the Access Archaeology imprint has developed from a bath idea to a thriving publishing model. We hope it offers a unique path to publication within the academic publishing landscape for research that might otherwise struggle to find a wider audience. The range may well continue to evolve over time, but its ambition will always remain to publish archaeological material that would prove commercially unviable in traditional publishing models, without passing the expense on to academics, be they author or reader.
Publish in Access Archaeology
If you have a proposal you think fits within the scope of the range we would be very pleased to hear from you; simply complete our brief submission form and send by email to Archaeopress editor Dr David Davison: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Download / Buy Access Archaeology Publications
See the full list of Access Archaeology publications on our website, all available as free PDF downloads or to purchase in paperback editions.
Commercially driven copies are conventionally considered to lack relevance to heritage because they are of recent origin and lack heritage values. But for others, including us, heritage should be valued in relation, not to its origin, but to its function in society. In the past, research on cultural heritage has centered on material things which can be catalogued, listed, conserved. In the last decade, heritage has been redefined as an area that is concerned primarily with people. Heritage is now theorized as a range of cultural practices in which people invest meanings to things and ascribe values to them (Smith, 2006; Filippucci, 2009). Heritage is a process which creates new meanings and values, and the cultural meanings of heritage are validated through linkage to the past (Smith 2006). To date, research on the interactions of people, material things and relevant cultural processes is frustratingly scarce (Wells 2015).
These issues can be illuminated further by the case of Tianducheng (Sky City), a simulated heritage site in Hangzhou, China. The city is a large suburb, which is designed to incorporate a selection of very prominent architectural heritage features from France including a 1:3 scale but nevertheless imposing copy of the Eiffel Tower in Paris (fig. 1). It is one of many suburbs in China that resemble far-away places and include copies of foreign historical landmarks, reflecting Chinese imaginations of the Western lifestyle (Boskar 2013, Piazzoni 2018). These suburbs are commodities that originated in a specific economic and cultural framework of contemporary China. As such, Tianducheng is part of the cultural heritage of early 21st century China. But questions are also raised about the relationship to the original heritage sites in France which Tianducheng evokes.
Arguably, more important than age is the experience of pastness which has been defined by Holtorf as the quality for a given object to be ‘of the past’. The presence of pastness is not related to age but specific to a particular perception situated in a given social and cultural context (Holtorf 2017a: 500). The Eiffel Tower in Hangzhou may not fool anybody about its recent age. But it plays on pastness insofar as it matches exactly people’s expectations of French 19th century architecture and the history that connects that architecture with the present-day city of Paris. We can therefore, in this case, speak of simulated heritage. It simulates the pastness of Paris’ heritage in another city, Hangzhou in China. We suggest that a strict distinction between simulated and non-simulated cultural heritage is not particularly helpful in any attempt at understanding either; instead we should be looking at what they share with each other (see also Holtorf 2017b).
Tianducheng was initiated by the real-estate company Guangsha Group which started this enormous project in 2001. It was a pioneering project back then, for this corporation wanted to build a self-sustained satellite city around Hangzhou and contended to lead the urbanization process in China. On the webpage of this property, it advertises itself as “taking France culture as its city culture” while “setting ‘business, tourism, residency and education’ as its pillar industry in this city” (http://www.guangsha.com/index.php/newsinfor/23/3682). The Eiffel Tower and the nearby park were finished before the apartment buildings were sold. They present a clear image of French culture to attract people to buy properties and settle down in Tianducheng (figure 2).
Interestingly, the construction of both the original and the Chinese Eiffel Towers were hotly debated. Opened in 1889, the French tower was widely criticized by the cultural elite at the time but became a huge popular success. Intended to be dismantled after 20 years, the 324m tall tower became a valuable asset for the city and has not only been maintained until the present day but also copied several times at other locations in the world (Wikipedia n.d.). Built in 2007, the 108m tall Chinese Eiffel Tower went through a similar controversy. On 20 November 2010, Guangsha Group started to dismantle the tower without notice, which caused a backlash among residents (Chen 2010). Many residents called the media to report what was going on and hung protest banners on the tower. After negotiation, the company decided to cease dismantling and returned the tower to its original condition.
Arguably, Tianducheng fulfills some of the same functions of heritage in Hangzhou as the original sites fulfill in France, in relation to place-making, for example. According to Laurajane Smith (2006: 79), place is “not only a space where meaningful experiences occur, but is also where meanings are contested and negotiated.” Indeed, place “provides a profound centre of human existence to which people have deep emotional and psychological ties and is part of the complex processes through which individuals and groups define themselves” (Convery et al. 2012, p. 1). People’s sources of meaning and experience as well as their environments all contribute to place-making (Harvey 2001). In the case of Tianducheng, as of course with the French original, local residents construct their sense of place from the iconic tower, its magnificent view during daytime and the light show on display at night, as well as from various leisurely activities around the tower. At daytime, it is relatively quiet. When the night curtain falls, it is lively, and can indeed be difficult to find parking spaces. Many people come here to enjoy square dancing with friends, to visit restaurants, and enjoy the tower light show. What is most important is not the question of whether or not the architecture has been copied, but how each site contributes to the local residents’ lives and their sense of place.
We spoke to some of the local population living in Tianducheng. More and more people choose to settle there, and the majority of them seem to enjoy the place very much. A shopper we spoke with stated that “of course we know we are not in Paris, everybody knows that. But we still enjoy the view and relaxing atmosphere.” On a web forum of local residents, many others expressed their appreciation of the site, too. There are also visitors going there, taking photos to “pretend” that they are in Paris and subsequently posting them on WeChat moments (similar to Twitter). This applies in particular to wedding pictures. The tower serves as a widely known symbol and icon. When people want to meet somewhere or when they want to locate a certain place, they tend to use the tower as a reference point. One of our interviewees is a member of the local Yixing jogging group. Among other activities, the group meets every morning underneath the tower to start a jog around the city. Ma Gangwei, the interviewee, said, “I like it here. But I don’t have any particular thoughts about this France thing. …I’ve never been to France. I don’t know what it is like to live in Paris. But I like the surroundings here. It might not have much to do with the architectural style. It’s about the park, the mountain, the environment here.”
Tianducheng is both French and Chinese. Some of the shops in the associated commercial district express an emerging hybrid heritage. One restaurant is called “Champs Elysees Noodle Restaurant”, but it serves local food, a kind of noodles from a city in the Zhejaing province (figure 3). Whereas the simulated Eiffel Tower may represent the power of cultural globalization, the local businesses and their customers appropriate the attractiveness of the iconic structure to enhance the practice of their own traditions. In that sense, we may see in Tianducheng a case where “global forces create conditions for local traditions to survive” (Reisinger 2013: 41). Somewhat ironically but hardly surprising, there are likely some Chinese restaurants in walking distance from the French tower, too. Many seemingly clear distinctions between the French and the Chinese versions of “Paris” and the “Eiffel Tower” thus fade away on closer inspection. What emerges is a common heritage value of the Eiffel Tower materialized on opposite sides of our planet in hybrid forms.
Places like Tianducheng simulate heritage, but at the same time they provide real heritage value in society and should therefore not be dismissed. In cases such as this, we may see some glimpses of a future of heritage that contradicts and replaces familiar concepts of cultural heritage bound to place and time. Tianducheng challenges us to think carefully about the possible character of future pasts and their benefits in society (Holtorf 2017b). It raises some profound questions: will there soon be many more suburbs around the world that simulate the past of other places? Should heritage experts and historians welcome them in the same manner as local communities do, appreciating their qualities? Does China lead the way towards the future of the past?
Boskar, Bianca (2013) Original Copies. Architectural Mimicry in Contemporary China. Hongkong: University of Hongkong Press and Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.
Chen, Xiang (2010) The landmark of Tiandu city is gone. Morning Express.November 22nd, 2010, A0003
Convery, I., Corsane, G., & Davis, P. (Eds.). (2014). Introduction: Making Sense of Place. In Convery, I., Corsane, G., & Davis, P. (Eds.). Making sense of place: Multidisciplinary perspectives. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press.
Filippucci, P (2009) Heritage and Methodology: A view from social anthropology. In Sørensen, M. L. S., & Carman, J. (Eds.). Heritage studies: Methods and approaches. London and New York: Routledge.
Harvey, Penelope. (2001) Landscape and Commerce: Creating Contexts for the Exercise of Power. In Bender, Barbara, Winter, Margot. (Eds). Contested Landscapes: Movement, Exile and Place. Oxford: Berg.
Holtorf, Cornelius (2017a) Perceiving the Past: From Age Value to Pastness. International Journal of Cultural Property 24 (4), 497-515.
Holtorf, Cornelius (2017b) “Changing Concepts of Temporality in Cultural Heritage and Themed Environments.” In: F. Carlà-Uhink, F. Freitag, S. Mittermeier and A. Schwarz (eds) Time and Temporality in Theme Parks, pp. 115-130. Hannover: Wehrhahn.
Piazzoni, Maria Francesca (2018) The Real Fake. Authenticity and the Production of Space. New York: Fordham.
Reisinger, Yvette (2013) Reflections on globalisation and cultural tourism. In: M. Smith and G. Richards (eds) The Routledge Handbook of Cultural Tourism, pp. 40-46. London and New York Routledge.
Smith, Laurajane (2006) Uses of Heritage. London and New York: Routledge.
Wells, Jeremy C. (2015). Making a Case for Historic Place Conservation Based on People’s Values. Forum Journal, 29 (3), 44-62.
Anthony Comfort and Michal Marciak have written a study of the upper Tigris in antiquity, published in August as How Did the Persian King of Kings Get his Wine? (Archaeopress Archaeology, 2018). This monograph examines an area which has been mostly inaccessible to scholars and looks likely to remain so – despite its great interest and strategic importance during the conflict between Rome and Persia.
The publication follows completion of the Ilısu dam, not far from the point at which the modern borders of Turkey, Iraq and Syria meet. When filled the reservoir created by the dam will do serious damage to the environment but also to the cultural heritage of the region; it is obliterating various sites along the river Tigris which are crucial to our understanding of the region’s history and archaeology.
Apart from the importance of the valley for river and road transport, there are also many rock reliefs which are described in the monograph. It is very sad that the current security situation in South-East Turkey makes many of these reliefs, as well as the sites along the river itself, inaccessible. In Iraqi Kurdistan the situation is better but the Tigris valley there is still difficult to visit for researchers and visitors.
At least now the world can have some idea of what is being lost as a result of the Ilısu dam and of what has already disappeared under the waters of the Eski Mosul dam in Iraq. But much of importance remains and needs to be studied further; The monograph provides an introduction to the region’s history and archaeology. The authors intend that it also promote further research in a notoriously difficult part of the world.
Header image: The old bridge at Hasankeyf in May 2006 (photo by Anthony Comfort)
About the Authors
Anthony Comfort is an independent scholar associated with the Centre for the Study of Greek and Roman Antiquity at Corpus Christi College, Oxford. After a career in the secretariat of the European Parliament, he completed a doctoral dissertation dealing with the roads on the frontier between Rome and Persia at Exeter University under the supervision of Stephen Mitchell. He is a specialist in the use of satellite imagery for archaeology in the Middle East but is now responsible for a project concerning the Roman roads of south-west France, where he lives.
Michał Marciak, PhD (2012), Leiden University, is an Assistant Professor at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków (Poland). He has published extensively on Northern Mesopotamia, including two monographs Izates, Helena, and Monobazos of Adiabene (Harrassowitz, 2014) and Sophene, Gordyene, and Adiabene: Three Regna Minora of Northern Mesopotamia Between East and West (Brill, 2017). He is currently also the Principal Investigator of the Gaugamela Project (in cooperation with the Land of Nineveh Archaeological Project of the University of Udine, Italy) which is dedicated to the identification of the site of the Battle of Gaugamela (331 BCE).
Sincerest thanks to Anthony and Michał for preparing this post for the Archaeopress Blog. Their new book is available now in paperback and PDF eBook editions:
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.