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New Archaeological Exploration of Assur

drone photo
Facing north, the location of the 2023 excavations in the New Town of Assur, with the white excavation house and the ziggurat of the Aššur temple visible in the back. Drone image by Jens Rohde.

In April 2022, the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage granted permission to a Leibniz Award-funded research project with the title “Excavations and Geophysical Exploration in Assur as well as Restoration of the Andrae House”, jointly headed by Karen Radner and Prof. Dr F. Janoscha Kreppner (WWU Münster). The work plan consists of three parts:

  1. Restoration of the excavation house of Walter Andrae, severely damaged in late 2016 as the result of ISIS occupation and its capture through Iraqi state forces;
  2. Geophysical prospection of Assur by means of magnetometer and electrical resistivity tomography (ERT);
  3. Archaeological excavations focused on the southern extension of the city (“New Town”).

(1) Restoration of the excavation house constructed by Walter Andrae

As part of the excavations of the Deutsche Orient-Gesellschaft in Assur headed by Walter Andrae, the construction of the house started on August 14, 1903, and continued for a year. Andrae built the northern wing of the house, including the Great Hall. When the German mission had to leave at the onset of World War I in 1914, the Ottoman police authority took over the building as their local headquarters (qishla). It served in that function until 1920, and afterwards became the administrative centre of Sherqat district. Once the district headquarters were moved to the town centre in 1929, the Andrae House stood empty and gradually decayed, with most of its ceilings and walls collapsing.

In 1978, the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage (SBAH) of Iraq initiated a project to resume research in Assur. The Andrae House was renovated and enlarged by constructing the southern wing in order to serve as a base for all local and foreign missions working at Assur. It also became the headquarters of the Sherqat SBAH office and continued to serve as such until 2008 when a new building was constructed outside of the city wall, close to the entrance to the archaeological site.

In 2015, an ISIS terrorist cell occupied the Andrae House and used it as military barracks to operate in the Sherqat region. When the Iraqi armed forces attacked late in 2016, the terrorists stripped the building of everything of value, including all furniture, doors, windows, electricity cables and water pipes, and smeared the walls with offensive and obscene graffiti. The recapture of the house resulted in severe damage to the Great Hall’s roof and the destruction of one of the palm trees in the courtyard.

The shell of the building stood empty until September 2022, when the restoration of the Andrae House was initiated by Karen Radner in close collaboration with the Sherqat SBAH office headed by Salim Abdallah, drawing on the restoration expertise of Kamal Rasheed Raheem and Akam Omar Ahmed Al-Qaradaghi. With the work completed in January 2023, the Andrae House served as the base of new LMU-WWU excavations in the first campaign in February and March 2023.

For financing the photovoltaic system, which has been supplying the excavation house with solar power since August 2023, we would like to thank the Bavarian State Ministry for Science and Art, represented by Minister of State Markus Blume, and the Austrian Embassy in Baghdad, represented by its charge d'affaires ad interim, Dr. Andrea Nasi, for their quick and effective help.

andrae house
The Andrae House before and after renovation. Photos by Akam Omar Ahmed Al-Qaradaghi.

(2) Geophysical prospection of Assur

A LMU team headed by Prof. Dr. Jörg Fassbinder has resumed the magnetometer prospection of Assur, which was inaugurated in 1989, for the first time in Iraq, under the direction of Prof. Dr. Barthel Hrouda (LMU Munich / Bavarian Academy of Sciences and Humanities) and which came to a premature end because of the outbreak of the first Gulf War. The geophysical work at that time was conducted by Dr. Helmut Becker and Jörg Fassbinder (both Bayerisches Landesamt für Denkmalpflege, Munich), who surveyed two hectares in the residential area of Assur.

In February 2023, Fassbinder continued this work with the support of Jean-Jacques Herr, Lena Ruider and Marco Wolf, by embarking on a targeted programme of magnetometer and electric resistivity tomography (ERT) prospection. During ten days of intensive fieldwork, we conducted a large-scale and high-resolution magnetometer survey of the entire area of the New Town of Assur (ca. 250 x 500 m) as well as further parts of the city's residential area. The supplementary ERT measurements provided details on the depth of selected archaeological features.

Jörg Fassbinder and Marco Wolf during the magnetometer prospection, with the Andrae House visible in the back (left-hand side). Photo by Karen Radner.

(3) Archaeological excavations focused on the southern extension of the city (“New Town”)

The aim of the new excavations at Assur is to unravel the settlement history of the southern extension of the city of Assur ("New Town") by using modern archaeological technology and documentation and sampling methods. So far, excavations in the New Town have been relatively limited: Walter Andrae worked here in his Search Trenches 11 to 16 during his residency in Assur from 1903 to 1914, and further work was undertaken in 1989 and in 2002 by the SBAH that remains largely unpublished. We identified a location in the New Town on a hilltop near the Tigris, close to the southern city wall, as particularly suitable for new fieldwork, immediately adjoining the area “New Town 4” of the SBAH 2002 excavation. There, the Iraqi team uncovered Neo-Assyrian residential architecture underneath Parthian architecture and Parthian tombs, and thus the depth of the individual occupation layers could be particularly well assessed. While the results of this work have not yet been published, preliminary reports and some parts of the field documentation were kindly made available to us by SBAH Sherqat, courtesy Salim Abdallah.

During the first field campaign, Salim Abdallah, Amer Mohammad Jasim, and Sakhar Mohammad Ajaj were the SBAH representatives. Other SBAH staff members were Omar Leith al-Lawi and Muthanna Ahmed Issa. The field season was divided into four stages that overlapped in time:

In the first stage, the survey network in the coordinate reference system WGS 84/UTM Zone 38 North was set up for the excavations and geophysical prospection and marked in the field. To this end, Janoscha Kreppner arrived in Sherqat together with Cajetan Geiger, Jan Heiler, Jean-Jacques Herr, Jana Richter, Jens Rohde, Andrea Squitieri, Kamal Rasheed Raheem and Akam Omar Ahmed Al-Qaradaghi on 8 February 2023.

In the second stage, geophysical prospection and sediment coring were added as tasks from 13 February to 25 February in order to prepare the excavations. The geophysical prospection was carried out from the south of the New Town towards the north and reached the southern parts of the inner city. In addition, eight sediment cores were taken from the area chosen for the new excavations to the west, to a maximum depth of 5m. For this purpose, Karen Radner arrived in Sherqat with Mark Altaweel, Jörg Fassbinder, Christoph Forster, Lena Ruider and Marco Wolf on 12 February 2023.

The third stage started on 18 February and lasted until 23 March. Archaeological excavations were carried out with the associated processing of the pottery and small finds. Ellen Coster, Veronica Hinterhuber, Susanne Weber and Tarik Willis joined the team on 17 February 2023, and sometime later on 9 March 2023, Hero Salih Ahmed. The field team included 15 workers from Sherqat and Sdera, including Mahjub Mohammad Jar as expert excavator (“Sherqati”).

The fourth stage lasted from 25 to 30 March 2023, during which time the final documentation was completed, and the handover of the samples and finds selected by SBAH for the Iraq was prepared. The team left Iraq on 31 March 2023.

team on roof
The 2023 Assur team on top of the Andrae House. Drone photo by Jens Rohde.

In the course of the 2023 excavations, a total area of 120 sqm was investigated. Our work yielded a stratigraphic sequence from the site surface (162.97 m above sea level) to the virgin soil (159.08 m above sea level). First, starting from the 2002 excavation, a 2 m wide and 20 m long test trench was dug towards the west. At the western end of this, a 10 m long and 2 m wide test trench was connected to the north. A planned trench to the south was not opened after the discovery of a large Parthian-period chamber tomb; instead, the east-west section was extended in order to completely expose the tomb, which covered 46 sqm.

The 2023 excavation area and the nearby SBAH 2002 excavations. North is at the top. Drone photo by Jens Rohde.

The first campaign was able to achieve significant new results. The virgin soil was reached, which means that the beginning of the settlement history in the Assur New Town can be further investigated in the future. Deposited directly above the virgin soil were encountered fragments of carinated bowls and beakers with elongated bodies and nipple bases, with good comparisons known from Middle Assyrian sites in the Assyrian heartland and the Syrian Gazirah. This likely indicates settlement activity in Assur’s southern extension already in the Middle Assyrian period. Puzur-Aššur III of Assyria (mid-2nd millennium BC) claims in his inscriptions to have founded the New Town but archaeological material dating to such early times was hitherto lacking. In addition to the ceramic material, three brick fragments of Adad-nerari I of Assyria (1305-1274 BC) were found in a secondary position within the walls of the Parthian-period chamber tomb, two of which can be assigned with certainty to bricks commemorating his building the quay wall of Assur. To excavate on a larger scale the oldest building phase, encountered above this material, promises new insights into the occupational history of Assur in the late second and early first millennium BC.

The walls of this first occupation phase, as well as Grave 5, which contained a glazed miniature vessel that is closely comparable to another piece from Assur found by Andrae in a Late Neo-Assyrian tomb, are sealed by a floor that belongs to a building of the second occupation phase, which we can confidently assign to the Neo-Assyrian period, as the associated pottery corresponds in ware and form to the typology of that time. Further exploration of the second building phase promises deeper insights into the function and organisation of the New Town in the Neo-Assyrian period.

Closely below the site surface, building remains were recorded that belong to the third and youngest occupation phase. The floor of Room 2 is cut by the pit of Tomb 3, whose sarcophagus of the Stülpwannen-type is incised with an alphabetic inscription with the date 159/158 BC (= Year 153 of the Seleucid era), thus providing the sequence with a chronologically absolute fixpoint; a second such sarcophagus found nearby was without inscription. Further exploring this phase is particularly exciting, as the dating terminus ante quem 159/158 BC guarantees new insights into Assur's material culture and history during the barely known time between the Neo-Assyrian and Parthian periods, which the work of Andrae brought so vividly to light.

The sarcophagus of the Stülpwannen-type, with some of the team pointing at the incised alphabetic inscription giving its date. Image by Ali Saad.

The building of this third occupation phase was cut by the Parthian-period vaulted chamber tomb, whose vaults, walls and floors were damaged already in antiquity. Over a dozen skeletons were retrieved, piled up in different parts of the structure. Analysis of these and the human remains from the earlier burials will provide new insights into the identity of Assur’s inhabitants across time.

chamber tomb
Facing east towards the remains of the vaulted chamber tomb. Drone photo by Jens Rohde.