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April 2015

Faculty Archaeologists defy Isis militants by finding new antiquities

(17 April 2015)

Archaeologists from the School of Arts, Languages and Cultures (SALC) are continuing to make significant new discoveries near the ancient city of Ur despite efforts by Islamic State militants to ‘culturally cleanse’ Iraq of its ancient relics.

The team, directed by Professor Stuart Campbell, Dr Jane Moon and Dr Robert Killick, has just returned from three months of fieldwork operating in non-Kurdish Iraq.

During their time in Iraq, Islamic State militants destroyed ruins at the ancient Assyrian capital of Nineveh and are reported to have bulldozed an Assyrian palace at Nimrud and the classical city of Hatra, as well as wrecking museum artefacts in Mosul.

Despite this, the archaeologists discovered, among other things, 50 new documents written in Babylonian, and found evidence for a scribal school operating at the settlement which dates to around 1500 BC. These were in a public building the size of a football pitch, and of an unprecedented format, believed to be an administrative complex serving a capital city of the Babylonian empire.

Professor Campbell said: “We found practice texts in the form of lists of exotic animals, and of precious stones, also evidence for the making and recycling of clay tablets. The whole complex dates to the 'Dark Age' following the fall of Babylon and the disintegration of Hammurabi's empire.

“For a time when this key area of Babylonia was thought to be de-urbanised and chaotic, we have evidence of sophisticated administrative mechanisms and large-scale distribution of grain and other commodities.”

The team described their Iraqi colleagues as resourceful, innovative and resilient, even when times were bad.

Dr Moon said: “Everyone is quite rightly expressing outrage at the destruction in and around Mosul. The sad fact is there is very little one can do to prevent deliberate vandalism by well-armed fanatics. But if the militants think they can erase history we are helping to make sure that can't happen: it is the information that is important and not the objects. Our project is actually doing something positive for the Iraqis, and that is appreciated.”

Before returning to the UK, the archaeologists deposited 300 new artefacts in the Iraq Museum and set up a temporary exhibition in Baghdad, as well as visiting universities that teach, or are planning to teach, archaeology.

“What we can do is make new discoveries to be proud of and help our Iraqi colleagues and the rest of the world to understand and appreciate what the antiquities actually tells us,” concluded Dr Moon.