In the Field: Tell Abu Tbeirah

For this issue, Franco D’Agostino and Licia Romano bring us the latest news from the field at Tell Abu Tbeirah, where they are uncovering new evidence of the transition from the Early Dynastic to the Akkadian period in southern Mesopotamia.

By Dr. Franco D’Agostino and Licia Romano

Tell Abu Tbeirah (also spelled Ishan Abu Tbeirah) is located 16 km north-east of Ur and 6 km south of Nasiriyah. The tell is 43 hectares wide and is crossed by an old channel running SE-NW, and by a pipeline running from south to north. As can be seen on the images from the satellite CORONA, taken in 1968, this pipe-line was installed through the site after the ‘60s. In 2014 a request from the Iraqi Oil Company to start the installation of a new conduct in the tell was rejected by the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage (SBAH), due to the archaeological activity of the mission. The pipeline is not the only anthropic activity that damaged the tell: the north-western part is now completely missing due to the exploitation of the soil for industrial purposes, and in the north-eastern part several pits have been excavated by the Iraqi army in order to host anti-aircraft gun emplacements during the First Gulf War. Nevertheless, no traces of intentional looting have been detected on the site.

To date five excavation campaigns have been carried out and three areas have been excavated so far. The first project was a survey of the site, carried out in 2012. Pottery and other cultural materials are not particularly abundant on its surface, with the exception of the northern mounds and some isolated spots in the other sectors. Several waste areas, visible on the surface as isolated clusters of overfired and warped ceramics, were individually mapped.

A stratigraphic trench has been excavated using one of the army pits: the pottery discovered so far spans from the Akkadian (perhaps Ur III) period to the Early Dynastic III period, but the virgin soil has not yet been reached. The sixth campaign is ongoing, and you can follow the mission’s work in progress through our social media.

Area 1: South-east

Most of the mission’s activities have been focused on the south-eastern area, chosen from the very beginning on the base of satellite imagery that was put at our disposal through the kindness of Professor Elizabeth Stone (Stony Brook University), showing the planimetry of a huge building.

The salty crust has been removed for an area of 750 square meters, highlighting several graves immediately under the surface that belong to the last phase of occupation of that part of the site.

The Cemeterial Area and the last activities on the site

The last activities in the area documented so far by the excavation are related to a series of garbage pits as well as to several graves, in all probability belonging to a cemeterial area.

The graves excavated so far show a singular variety in the inhumation procedure. Two graves, excavated next to each other, might belong to the same kin group, because of the large distance between the area occupied by these two tombs and all others. Moreover, inside one of them a large group of commingled bones has been discovered over the feet of the first female occupant. The anthropological study revealed that these bones belonged to a male adult, while the two bodies showed a common malformation of the humerus (a small hole that would not have resulted in any symptoms during the lifetimes of these individuals, and which is due either to a genetic characteristic or to physical stress), proving that both individuals belonged to the same lineage (or, less probably, carried out the same kind of work).

Thus, it can be argued that the body of the man was exhumed after the death of the woman, and that his bones have been recomposed at and over her feet after her inhumation (first the head and the other bones over that). Inhumations in sarcophagi, sometimes robbed and partially destroyed in antiquity, have been also unearthed in this area.

Building A was probably only partially visible when the graves were excavated, as is demonstrated by the fact that some of the burials overlie pre-existing structures: in one case, a burial cut over one room and destroyed the two tannurs inside it.

Building A, phases 1 and 2

To date several rooms of building A’s first phase have been excavated. Due to the abandonment of the building, the excavated rooms did not contain much pottery in situ. Nevertheless, the sampling strategy (micro-archaeological with heavy residue analysis) that we are applying as of last year will clarify the functions of the different spaces in the building. Indeed, the micro-archaeological and heavy residue analysis are aimed at the functional analysis of rooms and open areas, in order to understand the use of space by Sumerian individuals in the third millennium BC.

The first phase of Building A has been investigated in eleven rooms. Of the walls only one course of mud-bricks is preserved, though it is heavily eroded: only 30 cm of soil separated the upper part of the wall from the superficial salt crust. The dimensions of the dark yellowish-brown mud-brick seem to have been of 30-35 cm by 15-17 cm, although the measurements are not accurate due to the brick’s poor state of preservation. The walls were erected over pre-existing structures, using a strata of clay to uniform and stabilize the base of the new walls.

Outside the building, a big jar decorated with wavy incisions has been recovered in association with a tannur. Here, a big grave was found with three different inhumations of one subadult and two children. At least 261 fragmentary drinking vessels have been uncovered in the three graves (more than 200 in Grave 5 alone), and are clearly related to the funerary banquet.

The second phase of the building has been investigated in three rooms, where the circulation system was different from that of the later phase 1. The construction technique anticipated the use of dark yellowish brown mud-bricks, of 30×15×15 cm (as is the case also for phase 1, however the dimensions of the mud-bricks were irregular even in the same wall). The adobes were arranged in rows, alternating between two stretchers and one header, and as usual clay was used as mortar.

Area 2: North-east

The second excavated area is located to the north-east, and has been chosen, in agreement with the local SBAH authorities, due to the discovery of equipment from several graves eroding out of the surface. The excavations revealed a complex system of pits and drainages and at least three graves belonging to the last phase of occupation for this part of the site, dated to the Akkadian period on the basis of the pottery.

Among the anthropic activities for the drainage discovered in the middle of the excavated area, a pit clearly distinguishes itself, not only for the pottery recovered inside it (in particular a boat clay model and a jar with a depiction of a stylized bull-head), but also for the discovery of the complete skeleton of a dog. The pit very probably represents a grave destroyed by later activities on the spot.

Immediately under the salt crust that characterizes Abu Tbeirah’s surface, the complete skeleton of a donkey, in a poor state of preservation, was recovered in a pit. The animal was resting on its left side with tightly flexed limbs (especially the front ones), but the head was positioned in an unnatural way, lying on its right shoulder as if the neck had been forcedly broken or cut, in a characteristic way found also at Abu Salabikh. The morphology of the teeth indicates asinine features rather than those of hemiones or horses; the animal was probably a male of about 5-5.5 years.

The graves and the drainage system overlay a housing area: two buildings with a narrow street between them have been found but only partially excavated.

Of Building B, a courtyard and a small room have been highlighted so far. In the courtyard there was a row of three tannurs; the walls surrounding the courtyard were literally ‘melted’ and the pavement has been completely cleared by the flowing of water, because this part of the north-eastern area is crossed by several gullies excavated by seasonal rainfalls. Among the few objects and pottery found here are a diorite door-socket and fragments of a stone vessel. Apparently, the building lies on top of a previous structure.

Only one room of Building C has been excavated: the building located in the highest part of the area was not affected by the flowing of water, and some pottery was found in situ on the room’s pavement Also in this case lower structures were visible under the building.

Conclusions

In its last phases, Abu Tbeirah seems to have witnessed a reduction and impoverishment of the settlement. The buildings discovered so far were poor and edified with walls made of badly shaped bricks and covered with reed roofing, like in contemporary buildings of the Ma’dan of the Iraqi Marshes. The settlement in this phase seems to have been shifted to the north-eastern part, which shows a longer continuity of habitation, as demonstrated by pottery belonging at least to the Akkadian period. Further excavations will surely contribute to our understanding of this intriguing and complicated period of transition from the Early Dynastic to the Akkadian period in southern Mesopotamia.

Acknowledgments

Our work in Southern Iraq is made possible by the invaluable help of many friends and colleagues who have facilitated our work and life from the very beginning. Beyond our good friend Dr Abdulamir Al Hamdani, who was the first to introduce us to Abu Tbeirah, Ali Kadhem, Wussal Jasim, Wasan Isa, Amjid Al-Musawi and all the members of the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage of Dhi Qar supported us in every possible way with enthusiasm and competence, and the same is true of the archaeological authorities in Baghdad, HE Dr Rasheed H. Qais, Dr Ahmed Kamil, Dr Haider Al-Mamori and the entire staff of the former Ministry for Tourism and Archaeology.

The Italian Embassy in Baghdad and the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation are actively and firmly supportive of our archaeological and cultural activities.

Both Amir Doshi, journalist and man of culture at Nasiriyah, and Jasim Al-Asadi, Director of Nature Iraq in Chubaish, are close friends of ours whose knowledge of the cultural and natural heritage of the area is a true inspiration for us. Finally, we want to mention here Amir, Haider, Nghamesh, Ahmed, Ghali, Takleef and all the wonderful workers who dig with us at Abu Tbeirah.