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Iraq: Archaeological Expedition Mapping Ancient City Of Uruk

By Charles Recknagel
German archaeologists working in Iraq have made a partial map of the ancient site of Uruk and discovered that some of its features are just as described in a famous Sumerian epic poem -- "The Song of Gilgamesh." The findings come as archaeological work has virtually stopped in Iraq over the past decade due to the crisis between Baghdad and the international community.

Prague, 3 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Little archaeological work has been done in Iraq over the past decade due to the ongoing international crisis over Baghdad's weapons programs and the economic effects of sanctions.

But periodically, foreign academic institutes continue to carry out field work among Iraq's ancient Mesopotamian sites, which include the vestiges of some of the world's earliest cities. At times, the expeditions continue to produce startling results.

That is the case with an expedition sponsored this past winter by the Deutsches Archaeologisches Institut (German Archaeology Institute) in Berlin. The institute sent a team of researchers to make a partial map of a buried Mesopotamian city using a magnetometer. The sensitive instrument is able to detect the presence of man-made objects beneath the soil and reveal the remnants of walls, canals, and residential districts.

The site the team chose is the well-known city of Uruk, immortalized in a famous Sumerian epic poem -- "The Song of Gilgamesh." The poem, which today is the earliest surviving work of literature, tells the story of a Sumerian hero, Gilgamesh, whom many researchers believe may have been one of Uruk's early kings.

The archaeologist in charge of the project is Margarite Van Ess. She told our correspondent by phone from Berlin that the location of Uruk has long been known but that much about the city -- including how its neighborhoods were laid out -- is still poorly understood.

One reason Uruk has remained so mysterious is the ancient city's vast size, which dwarfs efforts by archaeologists to learn about it through excavations. The city, located some 100 miles north of Basra, covers some 5.5 square kilometers. It thrived from the beginning of the fifth millennium B.C. until the end of the third century A.D., when it finally declined and was abandoned. Today, its ruins lie under many centimeters of desert sand with no new construction above them.

Van Ess says the city is described in very general terms in "The Song of Gilgamesh," which scholars mostly agree comes to us from the end of the third millennium B.C. based on older oral, or now lost written, versions. According to the poem, Uruk was very wealthy and bustling with trade, with distinct areas for temples, gardens, and homes.

"The problem of the poem is that, despite the fact it deals mostly with the city of Uruk, it doesn't describe it quite clearly. So, we only know that [Uruk] has its city wall. But all the other features, that is, that one-third of the city is a garden, and one-third is a sanctuary (for temples), is so general it could be true for other cities, too."

The archaeologist says that the expedition's partial mapping of the city has now confirmed much of the poem's general description of its layout and added new details that were previously not known.

"With our work, we are now able to show that there were indeed gardens. [But] for me, the more astonishing thing [we learned] is that they used water canals to move through the city and not big streets or something else. This was not described [in the poem]."

Uruk's canals were filled with water from the Euphrates River, which passed near the city in ancient times. The course of the Euphrates has varied many times over the millennia, leaving the site dry today.

Van Ess says the team also found a man-made construction in the midst of what was once the riverbed of the Euphrates. The construction could correspond to verses in the epic poem that say Gilgamesh was buried near the city in the Euphrates. However, she says, an excavation of the spot would be necessary to identify whether the structure is a tomb or something else.

To make the partial map of Uruk, the scientists walked back and forth over the city's ruins with a hand-held magnetometer for 10 days both this winter and last. The instrument -- which measures the magnetic field of objects -- can clearly distinguish between soil and buried bricks because baked clay contains minerals with unusually strong magnetism. That enables surveyors to trace the foundations of houses and city walls without having to excavate them.

The magnetic mapping was done by Joerg Fassbinder and Helmut Becker, two geophysicists with the Bavarian State Conservation Office in Munich. Fassbinder describes the painstaking work of mapping the site this way: "First, we start by laying out a grid system of squares, which are each 40-by-40-meters large. And then we walk systematically [over the squares, making a new pass] every half meter. So, to measure one square, we need to walk about 1.6 kilometers with our instruments. And, of course, the instrument is not so easy to carry. Its weight is about 20 kilograms together with the batteries, so it's a hard job."

So far, the surveyors have covered a total of 100 hectares and converted the data into detailed maps using computers in Germany.

Scholars say Uruk thrived for millennia because it was one of the chief Mesopotamian cities participating in the ancient sea trade which linked the Mediterranean, the Gulf, and India. But its prosperity came to an end at the end of the third century when the area was conquered by a Persian dynasty that deliberately sought to shift trade to inland routes instead.

Van Ess: "The Euphrates and Tigris through the millennia were always principal trading routes...but when the Sassanians, an Iranian dynasty, conquered Mesopotamia at the end of the third century A.D., they tried to focus on their own trade centers in Iran and to strengthen the [overland] trade routes [that passed] through Iran to China."

Today, archaeologists are eager to study Uruk and other Mesopotamian cities, but doing so has been severely complicated by the Iraq crisis. That crisis began with Baghdad's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, followed by the Gulf War the next year. The country remains under UN sanctions and their lifting depends on arms inspectors confirming that Baghdad has destroyed all its weapons of mass destruction.

Van Ess says that she did no work in Iraq from 1989 until 1996, in part because the economic sanctions made obtaining supplies for expeditions, including food and gasoline, difficult. But she says expeditions have become more possible as economic conditions have improved in recent years. She credits the improvement to the UN-approved oil-for-food program that has allowed Baghdad, since 1996, to sell oil to buy humanitarian supplies.

Still, many archaeologists continue to regard Iraq as an uncertain workplace due to the continuing international crisis surrounding it. Baghdad and the UN remain in a standoff over the return of weapons inspectors, with the two sides meeting in New York this week to discuss arms monitoring and other disputes.

U.S. President George W. Bush earlier this year branded Iraq part of an "axis of evil," sparking widespread media speculation that Washington will use force to ensure Baghdad cannot continue its weapons programs.

U.S. officials have recently said privately, however, that no military campaign is now likely to take place before spring 2003 and that any action could depend on progress in readmitting arms monitors and reducing tensions over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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