- Archaeological artifacts play an important role for the understanding of Mesopotamian civilization. All the cuneiform tablets, almost all architectural remains, all objects and artworks had to be retrieved from the ground. The exploration of the Ottoman Middle Eastern territories began in the early 19th century, in the wake of the Egyptian discoveries during the Napoleonic Wars. Diplomats and merchants connected to the East India Company and stationed in the Middle East explored the rural hinterland, mapped the countryside, and wrote about their adventures in the exotic oriental regions; they also visited and described the often extensive ruin mounds. Claudius Rich, for instance, even managed to identify the sites of Babylon and Nineveh.Systematic excavations were started by the French in 1842. Consul Paul-Emile Botta, stationed at Mosul, targeted the mounds of nearby Kuyunjik (ancient Nineveh) and Khorsabad where he hit upon the palaces of Assyrian monarchs. The huge winged bull figures that had guarded the ancient entranceways, as well as the fine carved limestone reliefs, caused a sensation when they arrived in Paris, and kindled a keen interest in further excavations. Austen Henry Layard, a British diplomat and explorer, chose to work at Nimrud, another Assyrian capital, and worked there from 1845 to 1851, as well as at Nineveh. His finds were sent to the British Museum, which had partly sponsored his excavations, and also to various private collectors who had raised funds. Until the promulgation of the Antiquities Law by the Ottoman government, many other Mesopotamian sites were dug up for their increasingly valuable antiquities by local people. From the 1870s onward, permits were needed and expeditions acquired a more scholarly remit.However, scientific excavation techniques adapted to the conditions of Mesopotamian soils developed only with the German missions to Babylon and Assur, conducted by Robert Koldewey and Walter Andrae from 1899 to 1917. They trained local workmen in the correct techniques of working with fragile mudbrick and made reliable records of find spots. After World War I, the Iraq Museum was funded by Gertrude Bell, and new regulations were drawn up that allowed foreign expeditions a share of their discovered artifacts.With Iraqi independence in 1932, all new findings became the property of Iraq, administered by the Directorate of Antiquities. International expeditions continued. At the southern site of Uruk, for instance, the Germans were engaged in a long-term project; Sir Leonard Woolley worked at Ur, the French at Telloh, and American teams at Nippur and the Diyala valley. Iraqi teams supervised by the British archaeologist Seton Lloyd dug at Eridu. The interwar period was the most productive era for Mesopotamian archaeology. The establishment of stratigraphic sequences of the most important sites facilitated the comparative chronology of otherwise undated artifacts. The Iraqi government under Saddam Hussein promoted excavations of pre-Islamic antiquities, which were accredited with ideological importance for the Iraqi nation. There was also strict supervision of sites, both well known and as yet unexcavated.Sanctions imposed on Iraq in the aftermath of the invasion of Kuwait in 1990 led to widespread looting, especially in the south, where the population was most affected by poverty. The American-led occupation of Iraq in 2003 contributed to even more extensive looting and ransacking of archaeological sites. The looting of the Iraq Museum resulted in the loss of more than 5,000 cylinder seals and items of jewelry, archaeological records, and larger artifacts. At the time of writing, few sites are adequately protected and illegal excavations continue to satisfy the demand for Mesopotamian antiquities. The loss for the scholarship is incalculable. Not only do objects disappear into private collections but sites are disturbed and contaminated by inexpert digging with heavy machinery, no stratigraphic sequences are established, and no recordings are made. While proper archaeological excavations in Iraq are largely suspended for the time being, various teams are working in the neighboring countries of Turkey, Syria, and Iran, and expand the knowledge of Mesopotamian sites in these regions.
Historical Dictionary of Mesopotamia. EdwART. 2012.
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