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Riddles in time and space

München, 02/09/2018


Page 2: From satellites to sieves
The remote-sensing campaign revealed that the site at Gird-i Shamlu was once densely settled, and detected previously unknown archaeological features. Surface finds of pottery recovered during field surveys have indicated that the oldest material dates from the 3rd millennium BCE. Mühl is now exploring the mound itself. The geomagnetic detection of manmade structures within the mound was a significant find. In the Ancient Near East, villages were constructed of baked clay bricks, and people built their dwellings on top of the ruins left behind by earlier generations. Gird-i Shamlu is 12 m high and occupies an area of several hectares, which indicates that it conceals the remains of structures that were erected over a period of thousands of years. Indeed, the material recovered from the lowest levels date to the 4th and 3rd millennia BCE, while the pottery near the top of the mound originates from the 1st millennium BCE.

Typological studies of the pottery excavated at the site also reveal clear evidence for a change in the material culture of the settlement: “At one point in the sequence, there is a distinct change in how the pottery was actually made. The standard technology at the time involved the use of a potter’s wheel. But all of a sudden we find ceramic wares that were made by hand and decorated with simple incisions. The patterns look as if they mean something, and are reminiscent of highly stylized representations of mountains and their fauna.”

This sudden appearance of a distinctive type of ceramic falls within the period for which no written records are known. Moreover, the handmade pottery does not displace the wheel-thrown type. Both occur in the same stratigraphic levels. Strikingly, most of the handmade vessels take the form of pot-like containers, while the wheel-made ware is much more varied, and includes dishes, jugs and bowls. “That may mean that there was a change in culinary traditions,” Mühl says, while emphasizing that the ceramic evidence alone is insufficient to permit any reliable conclusions on this point. In order to be sure that such changes reflect the presence of a social transformation, diverse types of evidence need to be integrated with one another. “Fitting different pieces of the puzzle together, this change in pottery style may indeed signal a dramatic break in the history of the settlement at Shamlu, perhaps involving the abandonment of the site and the incursion of migrants from elsewhere,” says Mühl. Very often it is a combination of factors – political, economic and climatic – that lead to large-scale migrations, she adds. At all events, the original idea that the inhabitants of the Shahrizor plain at that time followed a nomadic lifestyle can now be rejected. They were farmers, who lived in sturdy houses built of mud-bricks and floored with reed mats.

Digging in dangerous terrain
The results of Mühl’s extensive surveys of the Shahrizor plain show that it was dotted with a large number of settlements, which could provide points of comparison with the finds made in Shamlu. This is not true of the outlying areas. “My guess is that one would have to explore the mountain valleys across the border in Iran.” However, this zone of the Zagros Mountains has long been an archaeological terra incognita, Simone Mühl says. “The political turmoil in the region has made it impossible for archaeologists to work there for many years.” And even today, she needs to stay up to date with the latest information on the security situation in Kurdistan before deciding whether field work is possible at all – “also for the sake of my students’ safety,” she says.

Two years ago, when the militants of Islamic State attacked and took control of the city of Mosul, she had been informed early on of the ensuing destruction of the city’s cultural heritage by her personal and professional contacts. This prompted her to set up an association dedicated to the protection of Iraq’s cultural legacy. “I believe I have a personal responsibility to the people who live here, who support my research and who work with me.” This feeling of solidarity with her hosts may in part be attributable to the hospitality she has always experienced in the region – “from which Germany could learn a lot,” she adds. She knows that this goodwill is a prerequisite for the success of her efforts to collect further evidence that sheds light on the human history of the Shahrizor valley during and prior to its mysterious dark age.

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The Institute of near Eastern Archaeology at LMU will host the “11th International Congress on the Archaeology of the Ancient Near East (ICAANE)” on 3-7 April 2018. In addition to the program of specialized lectures, a panel discussion on “Cultural Heritage and the Current Situation in the Near East” will take place on April 5th.