Archaeologists Revisit Iraq

One of the first American archaeological teams to work in Iraq in 20 years has recently returned from a dig on the outskirts of Ur. Team leader Elizabeth Stone discusses the team's findings, and what the artifacts tell us about life in the region thousands of years ago.

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This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. One of the first teams of American archaeologists to visit Iraq is nearly two - in nearly two decades has just returned from a dig in the southern part of the country. Archaeologist Elizabeth Stone and her team were excavating a site about four miles from Ur. That's the home of the biblical figure Abraham, and it's a region that hasn't been explored very much. Here to talk more about what it's like to travel and to work in Iraq and a tool that - toll that looting has taken on the county's archeological legacy is Elizabeth Stone. She is an archaeologist and professor of anthropology at Stony Brook University. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

DR. ELIZABETH STONE: Hi. How are you?

FLATOW: Two Stony Brooks in one hour.

STONE: I know.


FLATOW: Tell us what it was like there. Set the scene for us. Where did you go? What did you do?

STONE: Well, I think one of the really cool things was when we arrived, and this was pure happenstance, as we drove from Basra to Nasiriyah, we passed the last American convoy going out.


STONE: So last military leave, and the first scientists go in, which was...

FLATOW: Was that scary?

STONE: No, it was great. I think it was great. I mean, you know, we had Iraqi security, and, you know, Iraqi security is actually much more low-key than American security. I actually like it better. I mean, this - none of this would have happened if I didn't have an Iraqi graduate student who comes from that area. And, you know, he convinced us that the area was safe and we could - we went and checked it out the season - last summer.

FLATOW: Right.

STONE: And we had nothing, but everybody was just wonderful. Everybody fell over backwards to be helpful, friendly. We've had absolutely no negative...

FLATOW: Yeah. Did you have a certain destination and a place you wanted to explore?

STONE: Yeah. I mean, we were working in a site called Tell Sakhariya, which is not sexy. But before, one was never able to get a permit to dig a small site. You had to dig one of the really big cities. And I was kind of - I'd been working with satellite imagery, which suggested that small sites weren't as simple as one might think. And I was especially interested in looking at one that was close to a major city because then you can make the connections between what's happening in the small satellite site and the central one.

And then the site also was in a military area, so it was secure. And I have to say, we didn't entirely find what we expected. We visited the site last summer, and we had found a historical inscription that would date to the early second millennium B.C. and then surface ceramics that date to the later part of the second millennium B.C. And everything we knew said that the entire south had been abandoned for the period in between. So, that all looked fairly promising. When we got there, we found a lot more historical inscriptions, and it's clear that this was a very important place in the late third and early second millennium B.C. And we found a big platform.

But, you know, when you dig down and hit a platform, it's not actually very edifying. And we have to get - we have to come in again with remote sensing to really figure out how big and how broad that platform is. It was probably holding up a temple. And there is a place called Gayesh(sp) where kings from Ur would go and have a big party once a year. So I think that probably is where it was.

FLATOW: So you have a lot more work to do.

STONE: Yeah. But I think the thing that was really interesting about it was, on top of that, we found evidence of a temporary settlement, probably a summer settlement for the ancient Marsh Arabs, which dates to exactly that period when we've no evidence of anybody living in the south before. And I think, you know, we've known that there were people in Mesopotamia who were living in the marshes from art and bits and pieces of written records, but nobody has ever dug one up before.

And so, they, you know, they're eating very different animals. They're not living in houses. And one of the things we had is we had about nine very distinguished professional Iraqi archaeologists working with us because they've been cut off from knowing much of anything, you know, from any kind of the advances in archaeology for at least - probably more like 30 years because Saddam wasn't very big on that either.


STONE: And, I mean, they were just stunned by this site. They said they never worked on a site that you don't - in Iraq that you don't dig for 10 minutes and hit architecture. And we didn't.



STONE: Which kind of disconcerted us, too. So, as I say, it's not sexy, but it's a really very, very different collection of animal bones, for example, which we began to analyze. And a different collection of plot remains, we expect.

FLATOW: Is there a bureaucracy now set up to host, you know, archeologists and take care of them and...

STONE: Yeah. There always has been. I mean, there's always been the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage. So it's, you know - and when Iraq reverted back and got independence after the occupation formally ended, it just kind of went back to all of Saddam's old rules, which is slightly disconcerting. So yeah, it's now a country where you still have to get exit visas whereas most ex-Soviet satellites have moved on but Iraq hasn't because it had this great hole in its life for all these years.

So there's a certain amount of bureaucracy you have to do from there, but the Department of Antiquities has been great. I mean, they gave us a permit. The head of the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage drove all the way from Baghdad for a day to visit us and then drove back again. We had two government representatives, which is typical, but one of them was the director of excavations, so the second most important person on the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage. We were just, you know, we were treated really, really well.

FLATOW: You know, we heard so much about the looting of antiquities right after the war started. Did you see evidence of that and has the stuff come back? And where did that stand now?

STONE: Well, you know, I think - I had done a study using satellite imagery where I kind of documented what was going on with looting. And it was really the worst kind of after the war until the end of 2003. And it has settled down to a certain extent since then. We did visit the site of Omar, which is one of the ones that was worst hit, both last summer and this winter. And in both cases, there were holes that had been dug that day. Yeah, you can see them because the dirt is still damp. And that's very discouraging. I mean, it's a situation where there are guards, but the guards are still part of the local community, and they've been looting the site now for, you know, nearly a decade, and they're not really going to stop. And it's a long way away from anywhere. It's a long way to get there.

So it is better, but the Iraqis at one point had an antiquities police that had vehicles and then they couldn't get fuel for the vehicles, and now a lot of them have been kind of redirected to guard, I think, more touristic sites and monuments and things. So there's a lot of kind of back and forth. The department of - the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage is not a very powerful one. And it gets kind of - it's a bit of a political football.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Talking with Elizabeth Stone, who is an archaeologist digging in Iraq for antiquities. Let's see if we have - oh, yes, we do have lots of folks. Carl(ph) in Columbus, Ohio. Hi, Carl.

CARL: Hi, Ira.

FLATOW: Hi, there. Go ahead.

CARL: Before I ask about the Baghdad Battery, I'd like to point out that it's nice to have a real scientist as opposed to a lightweight promulgator of fluff making up...

FLATOW: You have - do you have a question for this person here?

CARL: I do. Alan Alda was something of an offense to science. But my question in this context to a real scientist is the Baghdad Battery, apparently, a couple of - maybe one to 2,000 B.C., the Iraqis had electricity in the form of a wine, vinegar, iron, perhaps, copper solution. It was a primitive battery that might be use to electroplate. Was that found? Was that - is that in the possession of the authorities these days and when was it?

STONE: I'm trying to remember the Baghdad Battery. My recollection of it is that most people don't think it was a battery. I think it was found and it resembles other clay vessels that are probably used for rituals in terms of having kind of multiple mouths to it. And I'm truly trying to remember.

FLATOW: What would they have done with the battery like that?

STONE: I think it's not a battery. I mean, I don't think anybody who's, I mean, I think the people who argue it's a battery are not, you know, are not scientists basically. That it - there is some metal that is attached to it, but that happens when metal corrodes and is in contact with ceramics under those circumstances. So I don't know anybody who thinks it's a real battery in the field.

FLATOW: So it was just a piece of fluff comment there about it being a battery. OK. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. So what is - potentially, what would be the big find if you go back? What would you be looking for?

STONE: Well, we're in this actually - we're in this kind of nebulous position because the Iraqis actually were sorry for us, I think, because we weren't finding any architecture.


STONE: So they encouraged us to apply for a permit to dig at Ur again, which hasn't been dug since Woolley in the 1930s. And that permit has been granted by the minister of culture. There are some other kind of institutional hoops to jump over that might be more complicated and we, of course, have to get funds. So our inclination is to work at Ur for a longer season than the four weeks we had right now for the next few years. And - but also go back and do more things, especially get some remote sensing so we understand what's going on beneath the ground at (unintelligible) and try to go a little deeper so we understand the connection between this kind of marsh settlement and then what must have been an important earlier settlement, but it's deeper down than we were able to get in the time we had.

FLATOW: Yeah. Let's go to Mark(ph) in Oaksville(ph), Idaho. Hi, Mark.

MARK: Hello. How are you doing today?

FLATOW: Hey. How are you?

MARK: Better than I deserve, so doing good.

FLATOW: I wish I could say the same thing.


MARK: Hey, I got a quick question. I have recently been doing a lot of research and study on the - on spiritual religious concepts of that area, southern Iraq and that, particularly the pre-Christian timeframe. And I was just wondering if the archaeology over there had uncovered any new information, or with Iraq opening up archaeologist, can we look forward to some more information coming out from that area?

STONE: Well, yeah, sure. I mean, you know, if we can really figure out, for example, what this platform is - I mean, it probably was supporting a temple - and if we can get some more written information, we're going to get a better understanding of what is happening not just in the city. So the cities have these big major temples and then they have little temples and then they have shrines. And we have a pretty good understanding of how that worked and how people accessed them. But, again, one of the things I've been seeing on satellite imagery, which will record whether weather conditions are correct, architectural patterns beneath the ground, is a lot of the small fights and not scruffy little villages that you might expect. But they actually are kind of - just places that have temples, for example, or just places that have public buildings.

And so I think that there is a kind of a new direction of research where we really need to think about what's happening in the countryside as well as what's happening in the cities as well, which we already understand pretty well.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let's go to Nick(ph) to Ann Arbor. Hi, Nick.

NICK: Hey, how are you?

FLATOW: I'm good.

NICK: Yeah, I just got a quick question about how easy it is to bring artifacts back from the site there. I know there are a lot of countries that are very protective of their cultural heritage, and I'm wondering what our relationship with Iraq is and if the occupation has changed that relationship in any way.

STONE: Iraq has had - actually, since the 1930s, which is why Woolley stopped digging at Ur, Iraq generally has had a, you know, no export of artifacts. And, you know, we had no expectation of that. So we draw them. We record them. We photograph them. We get all of the information from them when we turn them over to the Iraqis. What we can bring back are samples. So, for example, we were able, even in a short season, to get permission to bring back all of the animal bones that we found. So the materials that really need more technical analysis, we can take back.

And if we wanted to do, which we didn't, more technical analysis, say, on ceramics or other kind of materials, you could take samples. And so we were able to bring back the plant remains and the animal remains, and those are being analyzed here. And that's really pretty standard and doesn't bother me at all because I don't know what I would with the objects anyway. I mean, once you've recorded them, you've recorded them.

FLATOW: Talking with Elizabeth Stone, archeologist and professor of anthropology at Stony Brook University on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. But you don't know what you would do with them if you brought them back, is that what you said?

STONE: Well, I mean, I think, you know, museums might want them. Most of the things we found this season, I don't think they would want.


STONE: There are a couple of things they might like, but most...

FLATOW: Well, they're just old hat to you. You're...


STONE: Well...

FLATOW: A bone here or this there, but other people, hey, you know, look, that came from Iraq. Let's go to the museum and see that.

STONE: Well, sure. But, I mean, there are - I mean, there's lots of stuff in lots of museums. You can go to the Metropolitan, the (unintelligible) Institute in Chicago. I mean, some of the best stuff is the University of Pennsylvania Museum. There are lots places in the United States where you can see it. You don't have to take it out of the country.

FLATOW: Right. And they want - a lot of countries want this stuff back, don't they?

STONE: Well, that's more controversial. I mean, you know, I mean, I do believe in the statute of limitations. If you don't do that, you have real problems. So, for example, the Code of Hammurabi, which is in the Louvre, and every so often, Iraq kind of makes rumblings saying that they would like that back. That was stolen by the Elamites. It was found in Iran. I mean, it was stolen thousands of years ago from Iraq. So, you do have to have a statute of limitations. I mean, it was stolen long before there was an Iraq.


STONE: So I think, you know, there is the - UNESCO had a conference and - in 1970, and that's generally the date that people try to say you really can't take things out without permission.

FLATOW: Right. Let me get a couple of more calls in here because a lot of interesting questions. Let's go to Rebecca(ph) in Berkley. Hi, Rebecca.

REBECCA: Hi. I was wondering if we were going to have the chance to see any reports of these excavations in print any time in the near future.

STONE: I hope so.


STONE: I mean, we need to get the analysis - for what we found, the analysis of the plants and the animals are really important. The plants are now in Britain, and I think people are working on those, but I haven't had a report back. And the animal bones are being analyzed here and are - I'm not sure how far along we are, maybe a third of the way along through that. Once I've completed that, we'll put together an article and probably submit it to the Journal Iraq.

FLATOW: Let me go to Richard in Bayside, Queens, in New York. Hi. Richard, go ahead.

RICHARD: Hi there. Hi there. I wanted to know if your guest can distinguish between Sumerian and Akkadian and other Semitic languages. And...

FLATOW: OK. We got to go - get that question in quickly.

STONE: Sure. Yes. I mean, if you can - there are some situations where stuff that was written in Akkadian was written in Sumerian, but you can tell Sumerian from Akkadian pretty well. I'm not great at that. I can do a little bit, but the specialists can do it at a drop of a hat.

FLATOW: Well, you can. That's why you sit there and I sit here.


FLATOW: Thank you, Elizabeth Stone, for taking time to be with us today and good luck. You don't know when you're going back to (unintelligible)?

STONE: Well, we hope to be going back next February.

FLATOW: Next February. All right. We'll wait for another report.

STONE: OK. Thanks so much.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Elizabeth Stone is an archeologist and professor of anthropology at Stony Brook University.

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