From Discovery Magazine; Archaeology of anci

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Posted by Jeff from ( on Friday, September 27, 2002 at 5:45PM :

.... Enjoy. All rights reserved to the magazine in question.

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I am retyping parts of it here, because it's so informative.

All Rights Reserved... I give them all the credit. Let's hope they don't sue as well.

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Treasure Under Saddam's Feet
As the waters of the Tigris rise and the world awaits war, archaeologists fear for priceless ancient marvels of the first great empire
By Andrew Lawler

You are drifting down the sluggish, muddy Tigris River on a reed raft, headed for a prominent spur of rock rising from a broad plain. Upon the rock stand the massive walls of brightly painted temples. Just behind them soars a brilliantly colored temple tower, or ziggurat, nearly 200 feet high, with a pair of smaller ziggurats in the background. Beyond sprawl the roofs of vast royal palaces housing magnificent reception halls and sealed underground tombs.
As the boat docks, sunbaked sailors and stevedores unload goods and tribute, everything from African ivory to Anatolian metals to Afghan lapis lazuli. Traders, donkeys, pilgrims, horses, artisans, priests, and diplomats pass through the dozen gates above. This is bustling Assur, a town of perhaps 30,000, one of the most dazzling sights in Mesopotamia and in the entire ancient world.
Assur was the birthplace and spiritual center of Assyria, the mother of all empires. At its zenith in the seventh century B.C., Assyria's rule stretched from the southern borders of Egypt to the Persian Gulf and north to the Turkish highlands. Although largely forgotten, Assyrians assembled the first truly multicultural empire, built the first great library, and designed some of the first planned cities. They were the first to divide the circle into 360 degrees and gave the world technologies ranging from aqueducts to paved roads. The Assyrians also laid the foundation for the more famous Persian, Greek, Roman, and Parthian empires.
Today Assur is nothing more then a desolate mound. Countless seasons of rain and desert wind have eaten away at the mid-brick ziggurat, and the 19th century Ottoman barracks cover the once-holy promontory. Nonetheless, this is a troubling site. The Iraqi government is planning to complete a massive dam downstream on the Tigris. Within four years, the ancient metropolis – the oldest and most revered site among a chain of Assyrian cities – will become a muddy stump of an island in a vast lake. And Assur’s hinterland – the cities ands towns and villages that are buried nearby – will be sunk, their wealth of artifacts left to dissolve. All of which has a German archaeologist Peter Miglus in a state of despair. He and his team have waited years, through the Gulf War and its aftermath, to resume digging at Assur. Now he looks sadly across the Tigris valley and says: “This is the core of Assyria, and we have far more questions than answers about life here.”
Were a dam to threaten a well-known ancient site like Pompeii, the international outcry would be compelling. But Iraq’s status as an international pariah, not to mention Assur’s obscurity, has so far doomed efforts to seek the empire’s roots. The desperation among Assyrian scholars over the impending loss is made only more acute by the recent spectacular discovery of tombs in the newer Assyrian capital of Nimrud. That find – which includes the skeletons of the consorts to the most powerful Assyrian kings as well as caches of finely worked gild and precious stones – rivals even the 1920s discovery of King Tut’s tomb and the royal graves of Ur. The Nimrud tombs, along with new tests, translations, and computer simulations of Assyrian palaces, provide a look at what might soon be lost in Assur.
Assyrians appeared relatively late on the Mesopotamian stage – around 2000 B.C. – by which time the great city-states of Sumer and Babylonia had already emerged. By the 13th century B.C., they had firmly established themselves as a regional power. With the help of a growing professional military equipped with swift horses, chariots, and iron swords and lances, Assyria secured and expanded its trade routes. Paved roads – a novelty – provided easy transport year-round for traders and soldiers alike.
By 800 B.C., the lands under Assyrian control came to embrace a far larger territory than any previous empire. Assyrian’s great cities – Assur, Nimrud (then known as Calah), Khorsabad, Nineveh – were unrivaled in size and magnificence. Aqueducts watered gardens for palaces covering grounds the size of a football field. Massive walls – stretching seven miles long at Nineveh – protected tens of thousands. But in 614 B.C., a coalition of Babylonians from the south and Medes from the Iranian plateau to the east swept through, laying waste to Assur and damaging Nimrud. Two years later, the combined armies destroyed Nimrud and laid siege to Nineveh; after the battle, Nineveh was burned.
Still, some ancient treasure remained. In 1988 Iraqi archaeologist Muzahem Hussein noticed that bricks on the floor of a palace room at Nimrud looked out of place. While putting them back into position, he discovered that they were sitting on top of a vault. When he looked for an entrance, he found a vertical shaft and a stairway that led into a tomb. After two weeks of hauling out dust, he caught a glimpse of gold jewelry. “I couldn’t believe my eyes,” he recalled. Muzahem, a lean a quiet man who grew up in nearby Mosul, didn’t then realize he had made one of the most spectacular discoveries in archaeological history.
By the time the Gulf War began, in 1991, Muzahem had uncovered three additional tombs, each with its own collection of skeletons, gold jewelry, and personal items – the richest find from the ancient world since the heady days of the 1920s, when Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon opened Tutankhamen’s tomb in Egypt while Leonard Woolley excavated the royal graves in the southern Mesopotamian city of Ur.
“In terms of sheer spectacle, there has been nothing like this in Mesopotamian archaeology” since Wolley’s finds, says Joan Oates, a British researcher who worked at the site in the 1950s along with Agatha Christie, who was married to the excavation’s director. The finds include a finely wrought gold crown topped by delicately winged female figures, chains of tiny gold pomegranates, dozens of earrings of gold and semiprecious stones, even gold rosettes that decorated the dresses of the deceased.
The war, however, interrupted further study, and for the past decade Iraq’s political position has made excavation nearly impossible. Then last year, the government gave permission for foreign scholars to excavate. But any archaeologist working here must contend with much more than the blistering heat and biting flies. Armed looters roam the desert, and local archaeologists – those who didn’t die in the Iran-Iraq war during the 1980s and who didn’t flee in the aftermath of the Gulf War – routinely carry rifles while at dig sites. And while most Iraqis treat scholars with great respect, some Western practices, such as photography, are looked upon with suspicion. This is a land where, in the words of one foreign archaeologist, “anyone with a camera is either a spy or stupid.”
The importance of the sites in Iraq became public only this spring when Muzahem and other Iraqi archaeologists presented the contents of four tombs at a London conference. The first tomb held a still-sealed sarcophagus, with the remains of a woman of about 50 years old and a collection of exquisite jewelry of gold and semiprecious stones. The second, found less than 300 feet away, proved more sensational. Two queens – consorts to kings rather than rulers in their own right – were laid to rest there, one on top of the other in the same sarcophagus, wrapped in embroidered linen and covered with gold jewelry including a crown, a mesh diadem, 79 earrings, 30 rings, 14 armlets, 4 anklets, 15 vessels, and many chains.
The second tomb included a curse, threatening the person who opened the grave of Queen Yaba – wife of powerful Tiglath-pileser III (7440727 B.C.) – with eternal thirst and restlessness. The curse specifically warns against disturbing the tomb or placing another corpse in it. Strangely, despite this curse, the second corpse was added after Yaba’s death. Forensic specialists determine that both women were 30 to 35 years old; the cause of death is not clear. But the evidence indicates that Yaba was buried first. At some later date – 20 to 50 years after the first interment – the second corpse was placed on top of the first. On the upper body was a gold bowl with the inscription “Atalia, queen of Sargon, king of Assyria,” who ruled from 721 to 705 B.C. Another bowl mentions “Banitu, queen of Shalmaneser V,” who ruled from 726 to 722 B.C. Because the second corpse was placed in the sarcophagus last, researchers assume the remains are those of Atalia. But what of Banitu? An alabaster jar in the tomb contains organic material that some archaeologists suspect may be Banitu’s remains.

(This article is much longer. Part II will come later...)

-- Jeff
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