Despite Iraq's troubles, archaeologists are back

Tue Feb 18, 2014 2:50am EST
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By Alistair Lyon

UR, Iraq (Reuters) - Ur's palaces and temples lie in ruins, but its hulking Ziggurat still dominates the desert flatlands of what is now southern Iraq, as it has for millennia.

Climbing the Ziggurat's baked-brick stairway to its wind-scoured summit, you gaze over the royal cemetery excavated 90 years ago by Leonard Woolley, a Briton who recovered treasures rivalling those found in Tutankhamen's tomb in Egypt in 1924.

Very little work has been done here since, but British archaeologists are now back in the area despite the insecurity in Iraq that had kept them - and all but the most adventurous tourists - away from one of the world's oldest cities.

Brushing the caked dust from their clothes, Jane Moon and Stuart Campbell arrive back in Ur from another day of digging in a smaller settlement at Tell Khaiber, 20 km (13 miles) away.

"We have some idea of what we've got. It's very large, it's got to be a public building, perhaps a temple," says Moon, who first worked in Iraq fresh from university in the mid-1970s. "The next thing is to understand how it works."

Moon, co-director of the dig with Campbell and her husband Robert Killick, says the structure dates to the early second millennium BC. Pottery shards indicate that people occupied the site 1,000 or even 2,000 years before that.

In his day, Woolley marshaled hundreds of laborers to lay bare Ur, a city built and rebuilt over millennia, relying on his knowledge of architecture and pottery for guidance.

His successors at Tell Khaiber employ only 16 Iraqi workers, but use satellite images, environmental analysis and geophysical surveying - tools Woolley would have relished.   Continued...

People stand on the steps of the Ziggurat of Ur ruins near Nassiriya, 300 km (186 miles) southeast of Baghdad, January 23, 2014. REUTERS/Ahmed Saad