Treasure Under Saddam's Feet

As the waters of the Tigris rise and the world awaits war, archaeologists fear for priceless ancient marvels of the first great empire

By Andrew Lawler|Tuesday, October 01, 2002

Joined by a clasp in the shape of entwined animal heads, this finely worked gold necklace is one of six retrieved from a tomb containing the personal items and remains of two Assyrian queens. A total of 157 objects, including a gold anklet weighing more than two pounds, were found in the tomb, one of three discovered during an excavation at a palace in the ancient city of Nimrud in Iraq. The tombs, which are thought to date from the eighth century B.C., contained an astonishing amount of riches—more than 50 pounds of gold and semiprecious stones.
Photograph courtesy of the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, Baghdad/Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum Mainz.

You are drifting down the sluggish, muddy Tigris River on a reed raft, headed for a prominent spur of rock rising from a broad plain. Upon the rock stand the massive walls of brightly painted temples. Just behind them soars a brilliantly colored temple tower, or ziggurat, nearly 200 feet high, with a pair of smaller ziggurats in the background. Beyond sprawl the roofs of vast royal palaces housing magnificent reception halls and sealed underground tombs.
    As the boat docks, sunbaked sailors and stevedores unload goods and tribute, everything from African ivory to Anatolian metals to Afghan lapis lazuli. Traders, donkeys, pilgrims, horses, artisans, priests, and diplomats pass through the dozen gates above. This is bustling Assur, a town of perhaps 30,000, one of the most dazzling sights in Mesopotamia and in the entire ancient world.
   Assur was the birthplace and spiritual center of Assyria, the mother of all empires. At its zenith in the seventh century B.C., Assyria's rule stretched from the southern borders of Egypt to the Persian Gulf and north to the Turkish highlands. Although largely forgotten, Assyrians assembled the first truly multicultural empire, built the first great library, and designed some of the first planned cities. They were the first to divide the circle into 360 degrees and gave the world technologies ranging from aqueducts to paved roads. The Assyrians also laid the foundation for the more famous Persian, Greek, Roman, and Parthian empires.
    Today Assur is nothing more than a desolate mound. Countless seasons of rain and desert wind have eaten away at the mud-brick ziggurat, and 19th-century Ottoman barracks cover the once-holy promontory. Nonetheless, this is a troubling site. Although there is great promise of archaeological treasure beneath the rubble here, the area faces even greater obliteration. The Iraqi government is planning to complete a massive dam downstream on the Tigris. Within four years, the ancient metropolis—the oldest and most revered site among a chain of Assyrian cities—will become a muddy stump of an island in a vast lake. And Assur's hinterland—the cities and towns and villages that are buried nearby—will be sunk, their wealth of artifacts left to dissolve. All of which has German archaeologist Peter Miglus in a state of despair. He and his team have waited years, through the Gulf War and its aftermath, to resume digging at Assur. Now he looks sadly across the Tigris valley and says: "This is the core of Assyria, and we have far more questions than answers about life here."
   Were a dam to threaten a well-known ancient site like Pompeii, the international outcry would be compelling. But Iraq's status as an international pariah, not to mention Assur's obscurity, has so far doomed efforts to seek the empire's roots. The desperation among Assyrian scholars over the impending loss is made only more acute by the recent spectacular discovery of tombs in the newer Assyrian capital of Nimrud. That find—which includes the skeletons of the consorts to the most powerful Assyrian kings as well as caches of finely worked gold and precious stones—rivals even the 1920s discovery of King Tut's tomb and the royal graves of Ur. The Nimrud tombs, along with new texts, translations, and computer simulations of Assyrian palaces, provide a look at what might soon be lost in Assur.
   Assyrians appeared relatively late on the Mesopotamian stage—around 2000 B.C.—by which time the great city-states of Sumer and Babylonia had already emerged. By the 13th century B.C., they had firmly established themselves as a regional power. With the help of a growing professional military equipped with swift horses, chariots, and iron swords and lances, Assyria secured and expanded its trade routes. Paved roads—a novelty—provided easy transport year-round for traders and soldiers alike.
   By 800 B.C., the lands under Assyrian control came to embrace a far larger territory than any previous empire. Assyria's great cities—Assur, Nimrud (then known as Calah), Khorsabad, Nineveh—were unrivaled in size and magnificence. Aqueducts watered gardens for palaces covering grounds the size of a football field. Massive walls—stretching seven miles long at Nineveh—protected tens of thousands. But in 614 B.C., a coalition of Babylonians from the south and Medes from the Iranian plateau to the east swept through, laying waste to Assur and damaging Nimrud. Two years later, the combined armies destroyed Nimrud and laid siege to Nineveh; after the battle, Nineveh was burned.
   Still, some ancient treasure remained. In 1988 Iraqi archaeologist Muzahem Hussein noticed that bricks on the floor of a palace room at Nimrud looked out of place. While putting them back into position, he discovered that they were sitting on top of a vault. When he looked for an entrance, he found a vertical shaft and a stairway that led into a tomb. After two weeks of hauling out dust, he caught a glimpse of gold jewelry. "I couldn't believe my eyes," he recalled. Muzahem, a lean and quiet man who grew up in nearby Mosul, didn't then realize he had made one of the most spectacular discoveries in archaeological history.
   By the time the Gulf War began, in 1991, Muzahem had uncovered three additional tombs, each with its own collection of skeletons, gold jewelry, and personal items—the richest find from the ancient world since the heady days of the 1920s, when Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon opened Tutankhamen's tomb in Egypt while Leonard Woolley excavated the royal graves in the southern Mesopotamian city of Ur.
   "In terms of sheer spectacle, there has been nothing like this in Mesopotamian archaeology" since Woolley's finds, says Joan Oates, a British researcher who worked at the site in the 1950s along with Agatha Christie, who was married to the excavation's director. The finds include a finely wrought gold crown topped by delicately winged female figures, chains of tiny gold pomegranates, dozens of earrings of gold and semiprecious stones, even gold rosettes that decorated the dresses of the deceased.
   The war, however, interrupted further study, and for the past decade Iraq's political position has made excavation nearly impossible. Then last year, the government gave permission for foreign scholars to excavate. But any archaeologist working here must contend with much more than the blistering heat and biting flies. Armed looters roam the desert, and local archaeologists—those who didn't die in the Iran-Iraq war during the 1980s and who didn't flee in the aftermath of the Gulf War—routinely carry rifles while at dig sites. And while most Iraqis treat scholars with great respect, some Western practices, such as photography, are looked upon with suspicion. This is a land where, in the words of one foreign archaeologist, "anyone with a camera is either a spy or stupid."

Click on the image to enlarge (30k)
In 1500 B.C., Assyrians controlled only local lands (dark green), but over time various rulers extended the empire's reach. Assyria assembled the largest standing army ever seen in the Mediterranean, equipped with chariots, metal armor, iron lances, and battering rams. By the seventh century B.C., the Assyrians had created one of the largest of the ancient world's empires. Ultimately, they fell to neighboring Babylonians and Medes.
Graphic by Matt Zang

   The importance of the sites in Iraq became public only this spring when Muzahem and other Iraqi archaeologists presented the contents of four tombs at a London conference. The first tomb held a still-sealed sarcophagus, with the remains of a woman of about 50 years old and a collection of exquisite jewelry of gold and semiprecious stones. The second, found less than 300 feet away, proved more sensational. Two queens—consorts to kings rather than rulers in their own right—were laid to rest here, one on top of the other in the same sarcophagus, wrapped in embroidered linen and covered with gold jewelry including a crown, a mesh diadem, 79 earrings, 30 rings, 14 armlets, 4 anklets, 15 vessels, and many chains.
   The second tomb included a curse, threatening the person who opened the grave of Queen Yaba—wife of powerful Tiglath-pileser III (744-727 B.C.)—with eternal thirst and restlessness. The curse specifically warns against disturbing the tomb or placing another corpse in it. Strangely, despite this curse, the second corpse was added after Yaba's death. Forensic specialists determined that both women were 30 to 35 years old; the cause of death is not clear. But the evidence indicates that Yaba was buried first. At some later date—20 to 50 years after the first interment—the second corpse was placed on top of the first.
   On the upper body was a gold bowl with the inscription "Atalia, queen of Sargon, king of Assyria," who ruled from 721 to 705 B.C. Another bowl mentions "Banitu, queen of Shalmaneser V," who ruled from 726 to 722 B.C. Because the second corpse was placed in the sarcophagus last, researchers assume the remains are those of Atalia. But what of Banitu? An alabaster jar in the tomb contains organic material that some archaeologists suspect may be Banitu's remains.
   Oxford scholar Stephanie Dalley proposes an explanation for the two corpses and three names. She suggests that Banitu and Yaba are the same woman—yaba being a Western Semitic word meaning "beautiful," while Banitu is a name in Akkadian, the language from which Assyrian is derived. Moreover, Atalia may be a Western Semitic name, indicating that both women may have been foreigners married to the Assyrian king. The theory remains controversial with scholars.
   Atalia's presence poses an additional riddle: The body was apparently dried or smoked at temperatures of 300 to 500 degrees Fahrenheit for several hours. This could have been a burial practice or an effort to preserve a body for a long trip. Whatever its function, it provides the first evidence of mummification in ancient Mesopotamia.
   A third tomb, uncovered in 1989, is even more mysterious. The main room had been robbed in antiquity, but an inscription named it as the resting place of Mullissu-mukannisat Ninua, queen of Ashurnasirpal II and mother of Shalmaneser III. The grave robbers missed the antechamber, packed with three bronze coffins containing human remains and jewelry. One contained bones of six people, including a young adult, three children, a baby, and a fetus. A second coffin contained a young woman—most likely a queen, given the magnificent gold crown she wore—as well as a child. A third coffin held five adults, including a man 55 to 65 years old in unusually good physical condition at the time of his death. A golden vessel with the name of Samsu-ilu, an illustrious field marshal who served under at least three kings, was found in the third coffin. Some, if not all, of the bones in the coffin appear to have been buried elsewhere and then reinterred together later. Why and when remains a mystery. Multiple burials are not common in Assyria.
   Fearing looters would get wind of the finds, Iraqi archaeologists had to excavate so quickly that fragile clues such as textiles and pollen were lost. But German forensic specialists, working with what is left of the human remains, have turned up some hints about the health of royal Assyrians.
   The five adults with dental remains had healthy teeth, probably reflecting the better nutrition and softer foods available at the top of the Assyrian social structure. Only one, Atalia, suffered from cavities. Yaba and Atalia, however, also suffered from dental abscesses at some point in their short lives. In addition, all the adults suffered from chronic sinus infections.
   Five out of eight skeletons showed signs of health problems ranging from high fevers and infections to poor nutrition. And out of seven skeletons that could be studied for changes in the skull, six—including Yaba and Atalia—showed telltale areas of thickened skull, indicating they had survived a bout with meningitis. "The Assyrian queens have just begun to speak to us," says Michael Müller-Karpe, a German archaeologist. "And we are looking forward to more answers—especially to those which can be expected from DNA analyses." That will include finding out if they were daughters of distant kings or native royal Assyrians. Or if Atalia is the daughter of Yaba.

The royal tombs at Nimrud contained spectacularly crafted gold objects. Among the most impressive are (A) a mesh diadem with tigereye agate, lapis lazuli, and a fringe of tiny gold pomegranates; (B) a child's crown decorated with vine leaves, grapes, and winged female deities; (C) a pouring vessel showing scenes of hunting and warfare; and (D) a bracelet inlaid with semiprecious stones and held in place by two pins.
Photographs: A, C, and D, courtesy of the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, Baghdad/Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum Mainz; B, courtesy of D. Hansen/the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage.

For millennia, the assyrians have been remembered through the legends of their enemies. The biblical prophet Isaiah railed against "the king of Assyria's boastful heart, and his arrogant insolence." The prophet Nahum speaks of the "unrelenting cruelty" of Assyrian leaders. And the second Book of Kings warns that "the kings of Assyria have exterminated all the nations, they have thrown their gods on the fire." According to John Malcolm Russell, an art historian and archaeologist at the Massachusetts College of Art, "it's like a history of the United States written by the Ayatollah Khomeini."
   Yet what British and French explorers found nearly two millennia later seemed to confirm that image. Stone friezes from Nimrud and Nineveh depict war chariots trundling over the bodies of enemy soldiers, women and children deported from their homes, and an Assyrian king and his queen relaxing over wine and fruit in a verdant garden while an enemy leader's head swings from a tree nearby. The repetitive carvings of muscled, bearded, and warmongering princes that appear on the friezes have remained the best-known emblem of Assyrian society.
   Russell, however, views the images as carefully positioned propaganda. While working at Nimrud and Nineveh in the 1980s, he noted that images of plunder, brutality, and war are reserved largely for the reception and throne rooms, where foreign diplomats and leaders met the Assyrian king. "The reliefs are at their shrillest in the public rooms," he says.
   In rooms reserved for the king and his retinue, the walls are covered with less intimidating figures. These emblems, says Russell, may be designed to ward off evil spirits. In the king's own bedchambers, there are no images at all, merely cuneiform inscriptions asserting the ruler's sovereignty. Russell speculates that the writing may have served as a protective talisman for a vulnerable Assyrian leader. A few rulers, like Sennacherib, were known to have died at the hands of relatives in palace coups.
   "I don't think the Assyrians were any more bloodthirsty than their contemporaries," says Nicholas Postgate, a professor of Assyriology at Cambridge University. "Mind you, I would rather not have been on the other side."
   Like those who ruled the Roman Empire, Assyrian kings welcomed subjects who were willing to become part of the empire. Those who resisted were conquered. The men were often killed, while the women and children were sometimes abducted and relocated to distant regions. Joan Oates and her archaeologist husband, David, have found tablet inscriptions that say displaced civilians were equipped with food, oil, clothes, and shoes. Refugees were also encouraged to marry. "Under the Assyrians, the entire area became a vast experiment in cultural mixing," writes Washington State University historian Richard Hooker.

The excitement among Assyrian scholars about the reopening of Iraq to archaeological excavation is tempered by concern about the damage to Assur should the dam be completed. Iraqi officials have discussed building a giant wall to surround the site or taking steps to prevent the waters from rising above a certain height, but Peter Miglus is skeptical.
   "You can't save Assur if it's in the vicinity of a dam," he says. The clay underneath Assur will wick up water, he believes, destroying what lies below, even if the surface is above water.
   That solution also ignores dozens of other sites in the valley never examined by archaeologists. The best that can be hoped for, says Miglus, is a quick Iraqi call for international help or that senior Iraqi officials—perhaps Saddam Hussein himself—will halt or delay the effort. The Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research, Humam Abdul Khaliq A. Ghafour, backs the creation of an Assyrian research center in Mosul to draw international scholars and encourage a new generation of Iraqi researchers. Drowning Assur could prove internationally embarrassing. "We will do our best to hinder, or at least delay, the inauguration of this [dam] project," he said recently in his Baghdad office. "We don't want the slightest damage to Assur."
   The dam, however, is under the control of the powerful Irrigation Ministry, and work is well under way. Foreign help is unlikely, given the growing fears that the United States will wage war against Saddam. All Miglus can do is wait and organize another season of digging before the waters rise.

Visitors to the University of Buffalo Virtual Site Museum ( can walk through a re-creation of the ninth-century palace of Ashur-Nasir-Pal II in Nimrud. Quicktime software is required.

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