New excavations of the ancient complex of Girsu in Iraq, led by the British Museum, have the potential to rewrite accepted histories of the development in Mesopotamia, according to archaeologist Sebastien Rey, after findings from the project have come to light.
For decades, historians have believed that the Sumerians' mastery of irrigation — or the ability to have regular and stable access to water — moved them from subsistence towards the extraordinary feats they are known for: writing, temple complexes, grouping into cities.
Now, the Girsu Project's discoveries suggest that irrigation was not the cause of these changes after all. But the question remains: what was it?
Rey, who is curator of Ancient Mesopotamia at the British Museum, was the lead archaeologist on the project. Girsu, or present-day Tello in southern Iraq, is a city and temple complex erected by the Sumerians in about 3000 to 2000 BC. A paper on the subject will be published later this year, and the British Museum has mounted the exhibition Ancient Iraq: New Discoveries, in Nottingham in the UK, to recontextualise existing artefacts from their collection that come from Girsu and other Sumerian cities.
Rey and his team used new technologies to understand the development of the city, flying drones over the vast, 250-hectare site. The images they gathered show the extent to which the irrigation system was embedded throughout the city and its surrounds.
Heavy rainfall, a product of climate change, also washed away the top layer of the soil, making the outlines even more apparent.
Working with archaeologists from five universities in Iraq, led by Jaafar Jotheri of Al Qadisiyah, the British Museum team dug out shells and other material from the bottom level of the canals to be carbon-dated. The results were startling: the canals seem to have been dug in the fifth millennium BC. .
“The big surprise is that the largest irrigation canals date to the prehistory of Mesopotamia. That means they are much, much older than the birth of the city, by about 1,000 years," says Rey. "Traditionally, what you read is that development in Mesopotamia begins at the end of the fourth millennium, around 3300 BC. That’s when there was an important transition from pre-urban to urban and the invention of writing.
"But the canals that we have dated recently sets the date back to the fifth millennium, which means that irrigation is not the key, the spark that triggered the urban construction and the invention of writing. And that's a really important discovery.”
Before, archeologists believed that once the ancient Sumerians learnt to irrigate their crops, they were able to move from subsistence farming to the social and religious hierarchy that the elaborate temples of Girsu attest to.
But the Girsu Project’s discoveries, which Rey has written up for a paper that has passed peer review but which is still to be published, show that the Sumerians were living with well-watered plains for a full millennium before they began to build the temple complexes.
What changed? What moved the needle towards a more complex society?
Rey speculates that the shift was unrelated to the environment but rather owed to the pattern of thinking of those living in Girsu: an ideological transformation. Temples and administrative buildings allowed the powers ascribed to the gods to reside in one site, which was embedded into a larger social and political structure.
“It was a domestication of the power of the gods,” Rey says, in an adaptation of the phrase usually used for Sumerian development of the domestication of water.
Girsu is accessible at last
The last time Girsu was excavated was in the 1960s, when now-standard technologies and archaeological practices were not in place. Sumerian scholars have been working off that era’s imperfect knowledge since then, as the US invasion in the 1990s and the ensuing unrest forestalled any archaeological excavation of the site.
In addition, particularly since the 2000s, Girsu had been badly looted. Cones, statues and other votive objects can be found on the black market across the world. In 2018, for instance, the British Museum returned symbolic cones that were used in the Sumerian temple of Girsu. They had been found as part of a raid on a London antiquities dealer.
When the archaeological team arrived last year, they found Girsu pockmarked, with depressions in the soil where looters dug up items. The looting has given the excavation team an added responsibility. Their goal was both to research the site but also to practice what Rey calls “forensic archeology”, treating the dig like a crime scene.
“We are trying to rescue the site from looting but also from late 19th century and early 20th-century excavations,” he explains. “And we are using Girsu as a case study to teach, and to learn also for ourselves, a method that will help the Iraqis restore their heritage first of all.
“By re-excavating the robber holes, you can find evidence of what the looters left behind — a trail you can work on for provenance, so that when Border Force in the UK contacts us and says we found these objects in a suitcase in Heathrow, we will have a data set to know which objects came from Girsu.”
Looters tend to take unbroken objects, which fetch the highest amount on the market. These undamaged artefacts account for roughly a 10th of all the cones, votive sculptures and artefacts that have lain in the ground for thousands of years.
By scrutinising the Sumerian inscriptions on the cones that have been left behind, however, archaeologists can make connections to those that have been taken, even if they are not fragments of the same object.
The Girsu Project in context
The Girsu Project also had another goal: training and mentorship. Working in partnership with Iraq’s State Board of Antiquities and Heritage and five partner universities in Iraq — Mosul, Hillah, Al Qadisiyah, Al Simawa, and Dhi Qar — the project aims to train Iraqi archeologists and conservators and teach them the principles of surveying techniques, excavating artefacts and processing finds.
The two-year scheme, funded by a grant from the Getty, follows on from the British Museum’s previous Iraq Scheme, which likewise emphasised training. The five-year project, funded by the UK government, took place from 2016 to 2021, with an extra year because of Covid delays.
This aspect of the project is key, because in many ways little has changed in the archaeological landscape since the first age of European excavation, which began under colonialism in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Most of Iraq's archaeological digs are still organised by Western countries, funded by Western countries, and then the information disseminated in Western journals — rarely, if ever, being translated into Arabic for the local Iraqi population to learn about the discoveries made on their watch.
Even the terms of archaeology — discovery, development and an emphasis on an object-based culture — are embedded in a European system of thought, as extensive academic work in the field of decolonising archeology has demonstrated.
Within this context, one of the most laudable elements of the Girsu Project is its ethical standards.
Jotheri, an eminent professor of geoarchaeology at Al Qasidiyah University who worked on the Girsu Project, highlights the importance of mentorship for Iraqi archeology. At Girsu, newly uncovered objects such as votive sculptures, figurines and carved cylinder seals, were conserved as they were being excavated, which gives trainee Iraqi archaeologists a chance to study the objects, rather than a situation where the knowledge gained from the site flows to European laboratories and archeologists. The objects were then given to the Iraq Museum in Baghdad.
“We have two sides: we have the internationals and we have the Iraqis,” says Jotheri. “From the Iraqi side, the archeologists require equipment, laptops, the training, accommodation and houses, and salaries. Unlike others, the Girsu Project actually engaged more Iraq universities, the local community. They did lots of workshops and attended conferences. They provided counterparts to the experts from the British side.”
However, Jotheri says, this is not the norm. In fact, for Iraq, where the State Board of Antiquities rarely enforces equal partnerships, there remains a two-tier situation for archaeology.
“From the international side, typically, they want everything,” he says. “It’s like colonialist times, they need Iraqi silence. We are their cheap slaves with no voice. They take everything. They treat the archeological site as an oil field. An oil field when the barrel is cheap.”
The Girsu Project might be making groundbreaking discoveries about the development of civilisation in Mesopotamia 5,000 years ago. But the project, and the Iraq Scheme before it, also shed light on the present, and are a reminder that some of the historical practices of archaeology might not be as far in the past as one might think.
Ancient Iraq: New Discoveries is on show at the Djanogly Gallery, Lakeside Arts, Nottingham, UK, until June 19. The exhibition recontextualises older works from the British Museum collection in the light of the Girsu Project's new findings.