Skip to main content


Tracking Lost Empires

A New Database Documents Iraqi Sites

By Emmett Berg and Louisa Woodville | HUMANITIES, November/December 2004 | Volume 25, Number 6

In 140 B.C.E. the Greek poet Antipater of Sidon composed a list of seven architectural wonders. He included the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and the city's impregnable walls, fortifications so broad that there was "room for a four-horse chariot to turn," according to the historian Herodotus.

Now another list is being compiled by the World Monuments Fund, a nonprofit that works to safeguard and preserve endangered historical sites. Its project will catalog more than ten thousand Iraqi locations, including Babylon, which the seventh-century B.C.E. ruler Nebuchadnezzar made famous and that Saddam Hussein recently reconstructed; Nimrud, site of the ninth century B.C.E. Palace of Ashurbanipal II, with reliefs showcasing the king's might; Samarra, which houses Malwiya, a mid-ninth century minaret that spirals seventeen stories up to the sky; Erbil, an ancient city in Iraqi Kurdistan whose citadel has been continuously inhabited for six thousand years; and Uruk, site of the world's earliest surviving ziggurat.

Many Iraqi sites such as Assur, Nineveh, Khorsabad, Nimrud, and Hatra in the north and Ur, Uruk, Eridu and Borsippa in the south date from the Sumerian, Assyrian, and Babylonian empires, civilizations that flourished four-thousand years ago. Ziggurats from this time still stand at Ur and Nippur, including those built by the Sumerian king Ur-Nammu around 2100 B.C.E.

"This fertile flood plain and surrounding mountains gave birth to agriculture, to writing, to cities, to laws, to twenty-four hours in a day, and many more things we take for granted," says archaeologist Francis Deblauwe, echoing the view of scholars in the field. "The urban revolution represented by the formation of the cities of southern Mesopotamia must be looked upon as one of humanity's defining moments," adds Joan Aruz, Curator in Charge of Ancient Near Eastern Art at the Metropolitan Museum in New York and editor of the exhibition catalog, Art of the First Cities: The Third Millennium B.C. from the Mediterranean to the Indus.

Conditions and locations of all these cities and sites will be entered on to an Arabic-English database for use by specialists, an effort supported by the NEH.

"The system will supply satellite maps and topographic maps," says Stephen Savage, the project's GIS specialist. GIS, or geographic information systems, creates a virtual map which allows a user to click on a city, monument, or mosque site, read information about its history and condition, and view photographs. "Once you extract from the database all the projects in an area of potential impact, the database will tell you what kinds of archaeological resources are endangered by development, and whether there are ancient sites where no archaeological survey work has been done before," he says.

Conservation specialists, says project director Gaetano Palumbo, also need to know what characterizes a site as a cultural resource and what might threaten its integrity, in addition to its location and condition. "If the information can also include the relationship of the project to past or present research or conservation projects, or a way to indicate where, when, and what type of threat can damage the property, then this specialist will have the key for informed decisions to be taken for that property," he explains.

The Iraqi landscape is peppered with historically significant sites, and many are in jeopardy, according to Bonnie Burnham, president of the World Monuments Fund. "Many crucial ancient sites in Iraq are severely damaged, and some are threatened with extinction," she says, citing how looting after the first Gulf War, coupled with sanctions, stymied international preservation efforts in the early nineties. More recent hostilities, she continues, have devastated the ancient cities of Larsa, Isin, and Fara, and the great Sumerian city of Umma.

War, development, and neglect continue to threaten Iraqi sites. Gunfire damaged the 2100 B.C.E. ziggurat of Ur, and a third century ruin at Ctesiphon, a palace and brick archway complex near Baghdad, which was damaged in 1991, may collapse if bombing occurs nearby. The twelfth century Minaret of the Great Mosque of Nur al-Din in Mosul, too, is in a precarious position. "It's like the Tower of Pisa," Palumbo said. "It's bent and in great risk of collapse."

Looting undermines conservation efforts. "An urgent task is stopping the relentless pillage of archaeological sites inside Iraq," reports journalist Roger Atwood, who visited Iraq in May, 2003. "Every ancient site I saw was under assault. In Nimrud, professional looters had chiseled out carvings from the stone walls of the palace of King Ashurnasirpal II," he adds, referring to the Assyrian leader who ruled from 883 to 859 B.C.E. "Since then, I understand a thirty-man security force has been created at Nimrud, so it's got a proper security arrangement that can face down these antiquity hunters. But it's a big job. There's a lot of pressure, and not a lot of law and order."

Palumbo says the project will address this concern by developing a methodology for assessing risks and threats. "You can look at this problem of looting, and map where it's occurring. Then you can coordinate with police agencies and perhaps predict where looting may happen next," he says.

Henry Ng, executive vice president of the World Monuments Fund, says that his nonprofit has helped orchestrate protective measures. Massachusetts College of Art archaeology professor John Russell recently put a roof on Sennacherib's palace of 700 B.C.E., located in Nineveh. Excavations in the mid-1960s had exposed walls covered with Assyrian reliefs that a corrugated metal shed roof shielded from the elements. This roof was stolen in 1990, and a World Monuments Fund-Getty Conservation Institute grant enabled Russell to replace it in December, 2003.

Russell, familiar with the problems in Iraq, points out that computer and database programs need to fit into an overall organizational framework that responds to the needs of the museums. "In a vacuum where people aren't able to communicate effectively, outsiders come up with all sorts of ideas, but unless you can coordinate with people in the institution, they just remain ideas," he says.

Ng says the Iraqi database will help archaeologists and academics in this effort.

"I think it will give the Iraqi cultural heritage community a new capacity that they don't have right now to track projects and set priorities," says Ng. "It will be a great resource for professionals, scholars, and archaeologists to coordinate international efforts through Iraqi officials."

The project relies upon a technology that Palumbo and Savage developed in Jordan in the early 1990s. Called JADIS, or the Jordan Archaeological Database and Information System, this database contains more than twelve-thousand sites.

"The site is used exclusively by the Department of Antiquities of Jordan, although archaeologists can have access to the system if authorized by the director of antiquities. Two online versions of the system exist, but neither displays site location for security reasons," Palumbo says. Likewise, the Iraqi system will keep locations confidential.

For the time being, the World Management Funds team will use Jordan as a base of operations because wartime conditions preclude travel to Iraq. This November and December Palumbo will train seventeen Iraqis at the American Center for Oriental Research in Jordan in a four-week field session funded by NEH and UNESCO.

"They are archaeologists, architects, surveyors, and museum professionals," says Palumbo, adding that all are on the staff of the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage. The Iraqis will enter and update site-assessment information onto the database and learn how to maintain the system, assess archaeological conditions on the ground, and develop conservation plans.

This training is key. "The way information is added, analyzed, and distributed is important, because the exchange of information between field specialists, researchers, people in charge of potentially damaging development projects, law-enforcement officials, and planners must be done using systems that can be easily interfaced or consulted," says Palumbo.

When travel restrictions are lifted, Iraqis will conduct site-by-site assessments, and Savage will install database and satellite links in Iraqi Board of Antiquities and Heritage regional offices.

For now, the only site information available lies outside Iraq. "Since most of the paper records are in Baghdad, we will train the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage personnel in translating this information into records for the database. This will then be supplemented with information, both published and unpublished, held at various institutions in other countries, including the U.S.," says Palumbo.

The project will help Iraqi conservation efforts that have been stymied by a scarcity of funds, as well as the chaotic conditions caused by war and sanctions. "Iraqis have been living in a monetary vacuum for decades, and haven't had many resources to devote to archaeology," says David Gimbel, consulting archaeologist on the project and president of Archeos, an archaeological research and education nonprofit in New York City. "By the time of the Gulf War, they only had a handful of vehicles to cover all the sites in the nation. And they were short on cash.

"The focus has become, and I don't like this phrase, 'cultural resource management.' But it's what it is," Gimbel says. "You can't conserve everything. Archaeology today is also about utilizing a standardized process to make decisions about what you want to do. Archaeology has to balance human needs with needs of conservation."

Palumbo agrees. "The ethic has swung to preserving the status quo at ancient sites, and avoiding application of excessive amounts of chemicals and modern materials. But it's not that we want to freeze time at the site. We just want to manage it better than it has been in past decades."

Conservation is further complicated by the fact that early Mesopotamians didn't have stone with which to build and so used mudbrick, a material susceptible to disintegration and sometimes scarcely distinguish-able from the earth in which it is buried.

"Some sites existed only during a single period and are only one layer thick. But left uncovered to the elements, they become mud again, or are backfilled for development," says Gimbel. "It's the way they came into existence. In Urdu the mudbricks were stacked until there were fifteen or sixteen levels of habitation. The only way to get to the next one is tear down the buildings to get to the next one, so it doesn't happen very often."

Adds Russell, "Mudbrick is almost always unfired, and since it does rain occasionally, exposed mudbrick will deteriorate." Investing time and money in conservation, from restoring mudbrick to hiring guards who will protect the sites, is well worth the effort, archaeologists say.

"Innumerable material remains of steps on the path of humankind, from prehistory to the present, still lie buried in the soil. Some emerge just a little, like beacons, reminders of what once was. But, most still lie hidden beneath," says Deblauwe.

About the Author

Emmett Berg and Louisa Woodville are freelance writers.

Funding Information

The World Monuments Fund received $100,000 from NEH to develop a system to record and manage information related to the cultural resources of Iraq. The project is being developed in cooperation with the Getty Conservation Institute and UNESCO.