Panel of glazed bricks from the capital city of Assur, showing the Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser (1114-1076 BC)

The first ever conference to focus on the provincial archaeology of the Assyrian empire took place at Cambridge University last month. A key theme was the recent opening up of the Kurdish Autonomous Region – once at the hub of the empire – to archaeological enquiry.

There is a huge amount to be learnt about the Assyrian civilisation from investigation of the thousands of Assyrian sites in north east Iraq, which was the hub of the empire.

Dr John MacGinnis, Research Fellow, McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research

Later this week Dr John MacGinnis, a specialist in Assyrian civilisation at Cambridge University’s McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, will fly to the city of Erbil in north east Iraq.  En route he will stop off in Turkey where for more than a decade he has been involved in the excavation at the Neo-Assyrian site of Ziyaret Tepe, the ancient garrison town of Tushan.

The capital city of today’s Kurdish Autonomous Region, Erbil is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world and has retained its name (variously as Urbil, Arbil and Irbil) for more than 4,000 years. At its centre is a mound or tell that dates back more than 7,000 years. Such mounds, made by the continuous building and rebuilding of mud brick structures, are characteristic of the sites of Assyrian and other ancient near eastern cities.

In Erbil Dr MacGinnis will launch his latest book Erbil in the Cuneiform Sources, a work documenting the history of this extraordinary city from the first references dating to the third millennium BC up until the time of Alexander the Great. He will also take part in meetings with archaeologists working for the Kurdish Regional Government which is investing substantial effort in re-establishing the cultural and social identity of a region that was for many years closed to outsiders under the Saddam regime and subsequent political upheavals.

“There is a huge amount to be learnt about the Assyrian civilisation from investigation of the thousands of Assyrian sites in north east Iraq, which was the hub of the empire.  These sites reflect every aspect of the civilisation – from royal palaces to centres for worship, from farming settlements to fortifications. Some are well known to local people, others have yet to be identified,” says Dr MacGinnis.

The opening up of the Kurdish Autonomous Region – a region roughly half the size of Wales that stretches from the River Tigris to the Zagros Mountains – to archaeological enquiry was one of the key themes to emerge from a conference held at Cambridge University last December. It was the first international conference ever to focus on the provincial archaeology of the Assyrian empire.

The emergence of the Kurdish Autonomous Region brings with it the possibility of the discovery of forgotten kingdoms and lost languages. “I hesitate to mention Indiana Jones – but the excitement that accompanies the chance to explore the archaeology of the area is tremendous,” says Dr MacGinnis.

“In some cases, it’s a question of looking at sites that we know exist and carrying out surveys and other fieldwork. In other cases it’s a question of looking for sites mentioned in cuneiform texts and seeing if we can locate them on the ground. Sometimes, as with Erbil, the ancient name may be preserved in the modern name. In still other cases, it’s a matter of discovering entirely new sites which have never been explored before.”

The Assyrian empire rivals those of the Romans, Egyptians and Babylonians in terms of its extent, ambition and organisation. Archaeologists have been working on the history of this great civilisation ever since the scholar and traveller Claudius Rich, Resident of the East India Company in Baghdad,  measured the towering mud brick walls of Nineveh in 1820, thus laying the foundations for the exploration of Assyria.

Cambridge has a distinguished history in the discipline with some of the most famous names in the field coming from the university. They include CHW Johns, who from 1895 held the University’s first post in Assyriology and went on to become Master of St Catharine’s College, and Professor David Oates, who worked on some of the greatest excavations of the 1950s and 1960s.

The current Eric Yarrow Professor of Assyriology, Professor Nicholas Postgate has worked extensively on the decipherment of Assyrian cuneiform texts as well as directing some of the leading field projects of the past few decades. Dr Augusta MacMahon, the University’s Senior Lecturer in Middle Eastern Archaeology, is another key scholar in this tradition, while Dr Martin Worthington is revolutionising the study of Mesopotamian literature by applying principals of textual criticism of the sort which have been applied to classical manuscripts for generations but hardly applied to cuneiform texts at all.

As a centre for scholarship, Cambridge made an excellent base for the first ever international conference to focus on the provincial archaeology of the Assyrian empire. The meeting brought together researchers from Europe, the Middle East and North America to share their knowledge of a wide range of fields.  “Feedback suggests that the conference came at exactly the right time in fostering renewed interest in this aspect of archaeology,” said Dr MacGinnis.

“We were especially honoured to have the participation of Dr Ali Jaboori from the University of Mosul who is directing field work at Nineveh and who was able to tell us about the resumption of excavation at Kuyunjik, the great palace mound of this imperial metropolis.”

The Assyrian empire expanded by swallowing up smaller kingdoms and installing provincial rulers. At its peak from the 9th to 7th centuries BC, the empire encompassed a huge swathe of territories. It was an empire characterised by a strict military hierarchy, with the tiers descending from the king at the top down to foot soldiers at the bottom. Its dominance was based on a mastery of metal weaponry, and its authority was feared. As the empire expanded, so did its needs for raw materials such as people, horses, wood and grain.

How these resources were controlled and allocated was recorded by the Assyrians in inscriptions written in cuneiform script incised into clay tablets. Extensive libraries of these tablets – which also record many other aspects of life – were found both at Nineveh and also at other sites scattered across the empire. Many are now in the British Museum. Deciphered by scholars they provide an extraordinarily detailed account of the organisation of the Assyrian empire.

Archaeological investigations have unsurprisingly focused on some of the great cities of the Assyrian empire, among them Nineveh and Nimrud, both of which were capitals at different times and which have yielded huge amounts of information. Provincial settlements are also interesting for their diversity and, in many respects, tell a different story, each one reflecting regional differences as Assyrian rulers embraced aspects of local culture – such as religious beliefs. A good example here is the discovery that in the northwestern part of the empire there was a tradition of ‘cremation burials’, a practice not found in the Assyrian heartland.

Dr MacGinnis is best known for his work as a field director at Ziyaret Tepe (site of the provincial Assyrian city of Tushan) on the northernmost border of Assyria (an area that is part of modern day Turkey). Some 12 years of survey and excavation at Tepe have revealed the layout of this provincial capital with its palace, administrative centre, streets and outer walls.

A development highlighted by the conference is the growing use of ‘overhead’ imagery (satellite and aerial photographs) in the detection and mapping of the region’s archaeological remains. Such imagery can both improve our understanding of a site and lead to the discovery of previously unknown sites – and not just settlement sites but other features such as road networks, river beds and irrigation systems. Such material can be irreplaceable as the imagery from earlier decades may preserve evidence which no longer exists on the ground.

A tablet found at the site in 2009, and deciphered by Dr MacGinnis, proves to be a list of women whose names appear to indicate the existence of a previously unknown language; this is likely to be either Shubrian, the indigenous language of the people who lived in the area of Tushan prior to the Assyrian arrival, or perhaps a language spoken by deportees taken from the Zagros mountains which now form the border between Iraq and Iran.

Dr MacGinnis says: “Our discovery of this latest tablet at Ziyaret Tepe was thrilling as it suggests that there is so much more to be learnt – there will be exciting discoveries for generations to come. The conference held at Cambridge last month represented a real step forward, bringing together scholars from across the region – everyone made new friends and contacts. It came at the perfect time, pooling the knowledge and understanding won over past decades in order to feed into and inform this resurgence of research in Iraq.”

On 15 February Dr MacGinnis will be giving a public talk on ‘Ziyaret Tepe, exploration of a lost capital of the Assyrian Empire’ at the Ancient India and Iran Trust, Brooklands House, 23 Brooklands Avenue, Cambridge, CB2 8BU. The lecture starts at 5.15pm and is open to all. On 19 February he will be giving a lecture to the Anglo-Turkish Society at the Unus Emre Institute, 10 Maple Street, London W1T 5HA, at 6.30pm. In early March Dr MacGinnis will be in America, speaking at the Cotsen Institute in Los Angeles on 1 March, the University of California at Berkeley on 4 March, and addressing alumni at the gathering of Cambridge in America in New York on 9 March.

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