I Spy with My Little Eye…

One of the most amazing aspects of Buddhist murals condition survey is that it does not get boring. We are constantly discovering more details and quirks. While a regular, sharp-eyed museum visitor can see many of these details, some are impossible to truly appreciate without being fifteen feet tall and two feet from the mural. Take for example the design on the instrument being held by a female figure to the left of the Buddha in Tejaprabha and Assembly (C492).

Pipa Girl

Anyone can see there is a pattern on its surface, but this Chinese lute (also called a pipa) is simply too high off the ground for anyone to discern the small and intricate design.

Lute Design comparison

Left: Detailed close-up image of the pipa in C492.
Right: Digital illustration of the design.

However there are many other details, some right at eye level for many of our visitors, which go unnoticed due to the overwhelming nature of the murals. Towards the center of C492 the tiered base on which the Buddha sits has what appears to be a winged monk incorporated into the design

Monk in Base comparison

Left: Close up image of the design as visible on the base of the seat of the Buddha in C492. While a figure is clearly visible, some of the detail is not clear due to deterioration.
Right: The same image as to the left with the clearest lines highlighted.

This could be a human-headed bird referred to as a kalavinka or karyobinga. There is similar imagery depicted in a related mural at the Royal Ontario Museum.

C:Scratchpad 056

This section of The Paradise of Maitreya wall painting on exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto includes a kalavinka as part of the heavenly scenery.

Fabrics worn by the figures in these murals were also meticulously executed. They could easily be simple solid colors and no one would consider them less than ornate, yet in many cases there are layers of clothes that are decorated as if to represent embroidered fabric. If you look closely you can see a figure and a lion in the example below from Bhaisajyaguru and Assembly (C688).

Griffin illustration comparison2

Left: Close up of a general’s robe in the lower left portion of C688.
Right: Digital illustration of the remaining original lines.

So next time you are in the Rotunda, take a longer look at the little things. You may find something that even we haven’t noticed yet!

Acknowledgements: Work on the Buddhist Mural Conservation Survey in supported by the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation and Michael Feng and Winnie Chin Feng.

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Looking for a good book this summer?

“There is a temperate zone in the mind, between luxurious indolence and exacting work; and it is to this region, just between laziness and labor, that summer reading belongs.”

-Eyes and Ears, 1862
Henry Ward Beecher

Now that the summer vacation season is upon us, it is time to draw up a summer reading list for those sun-drenched days at the beach or for those random afternoon thunderstorms. Since there are so many books out there and so little time, I asked the staff, keepers, and curators of the museum for some recommendations. They did not disappoint! The following list includes both fiction and nonfiction books and all are related to the fields of archaeology and anthropology.

Naomi Miller a Consulting Scholar in the Near East Section offered a few great classics from Agatha Christie alongside some other entertaining works of fiction an non-fiction.


  • Murder in Mesopotamia, by Agatha Christie, a classic roman à clef
  • They Came to Baghdad, also by Agatha Christie, which has more Middle East atmosphere than MiM
  • Come Tell Me How You Live, for Agatha Christie fans, her memoir.
    [As most archaeologists know, AC was married to Sir Max Mallowan, Near Eastern archaeologist, and she accompanied him on digs]
  • Gilgamesh, the King, by Robert Silverberg (about a guy who thinks he’s a god, but he’s not crazy)
  • Guests of the Sheikh, by Elizabeth Fernea, described by a colleague as a memoir about what goes on in a harem (that’s an oversimplification, but still…)

DM_motelStephen Lang, the Lyons Keeper of Collections in our Asian sections enthusiastically added, Motel of the Mysteries by David Macaulay.  From reading some reviews, this book sounds like a hilarious novel that follows an amateur archaeologist who, in 4022, finds a “sealed” hotel room from 1985 that he interprets to be a burial chamber, complete with an inner chamber (or bathroom).


Jane Hickman, editor of Expedition magazine, suggested a recent publication of the Women’s Committee. Culinary Expeditions: A Celebration of Food and Culture which used the museum’s collections as inspiration for the recipes. As a cookbook that nourishes both the mind and the belly, it delves into the ancient history of familiar dishes like hummus, succotash, spring rolls, and more!

MC_timelineJim Mathieu, who does too many things here at the museum to list, added Timeline by Michael Crichton as recommended summer reading.  In addition to being a thriller with a complex plot, Timeline plays with concepts of experimental archaeology and time-travel that allow archaeologists to “witness” the ancient events they study.


Shawn Hyla, our resident “IT guy” who just finished a degree in archaeology at Penn, reflected on all of the books he read in pursuing that degree and offered, Skull Wars: Kennewick Man, Archaeology, and The Battle for Native American Identity. Shawn chose it because the book offers a detailed look inside the archeological process while tackling a complex and controversial topic.

Finally for my reading list! Since my background is in history, I am not well versed in the methodology of anthropology or archeology. So I’ve searched out a few “crossovers” for myself this summer. I tried to identify books that will bridge my interests in food and cultural history with anthropology and archaeology.

    • RE_dayscloseAt Day’s Close: Night In Times Past by A. Roger Ekirch.  Because a history of the Western world’s troubled past with the nocturnal hours is utterly fascinating.
    • The Comanche Empire by P. Hämäläinen. I read, actually I skimmed, this book in grad school, but was so impressed by the depth of research and methodology that it deserves a more thorough read.
    • The Noodle Narratives: The Global Rise of an Industrial Food into the Twenty-First Century by F. Errington, T. Fukikura, and D. Gewertz.  This book is about the development of instant noodles and the cultures that created, adapted, or adopted them to satisfy their own circumstances, either as symbols of poverty, modernity, or transformation.

So if you follow our recommendations or choose your own, let us know.  Leave a comment on what you thought or what other books you are reading!

Happy summer reading to all!

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Archives Photo of the Week: Mustache.


Portrait of George Byron Gordon, Museum’s first full-time director from 1910-27.
Penn Image #162272

The Penn Museum Archives is home to the archival collections of the directors of the museum. As you might guess, we have quite the fondness for them. None are more dear to me than George Byron Gordon and for one reason: that glorious, magnificent, noble mustache.

Director of the University of Pennsylvania Museum from 1910 until his death, Gordon joined the staff of the Museum in 1903 as Assistant Curator of the Section of General Ethnology. He oversaw the largest period of growth in the history of the Museum:  three wings were added to the original 1899 Museum building, including the Harrison Rotunda, the Coxe Egyptian Wing, and the Administrative Wing. The collections saw a multifold increase, as well as the Museum’s involvement in the field. He organized many expeditions worldwide for the Museum. Gordon was the first to establish regular courses in Anthropology at the University. He also established The Museum Journal.

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Dispatches from Iraqi Kurdistan: Banahilk

Hello again from Iraqi Kurdistan! It’s been almost two weeks since my last post. In that time, we’ve been very busy getting the project started. When people think about archaeology, they don’t envision archaeologists sitting in government offices and drinking tea. However, this is a common and necessary activity across all digs in the region, especially when a dig is just beginning. Each year it’s necessary to visit all of the important people, make sure that everything is in order, and set-up the house before the rest of the dig staff arrive. Since RAP is only in its second year, we’ve had more than our fill of these activities. We’ve been hard at work finding a house, buying equipment, and taking care of our residency cards. Although the process can sometimes be exasperating, we’ve gotten quite a few good stories out of it. However, Daniel Patterson, a fellow Penn team member, has written a post for this blog on these adventures, so I won’t steal his thunder.

Gird-i Dasht

Gird-i Dasht

In addition to running around, we’ve also begun excavations at two sites: Gird-i Dasht and Banahilk. Gird-i Dasht, a large mound in the Diyana Plain near Soran, is the primary site that we’re here to excavate. So far, we’ve only been there two days, so I’ll have more to say about that later. Alongside Gird-i Dasht, we’ve been working for a week at Banahilk at the request of the Soran Directorate of Antiquities. Patty Jo Watson previously worked at the site over the course of 10 days in 1954 as part of the Iraq-Jarmo project. Her excavations uncovered pottery and other remains from the Halaf period, which dates to the 6th millennium BCE. People have also been living and working there much more recently. During the British Mandate (1928–1932), the British built an airbase nearby, which was also used by the Iraqi Army after Iraq achieved independence. During Watson’s work in 1954, occupation around it was more sparse. However, during our visit to Banahilk last year, we discovered that almost all of the site is now under houses. Further, some of it had been bulldozed in order to level it out for further construction. This year, we were asked to work around the edges of the site in order to determine the depth of deposit and where to prohibit further construction.

The remains of a bulldozer cut at Banahilk

The remains of a bulldozer cut at Banahilk

We currently have one operation active at Banahilk, a 3×4 meter trench on the north side of the mound. This trench is in an area where the mound was bulldozed, removing later occupation from the 2nd and 1st millennia BCE. Beneath the surface debris, we’ve spent most of our time digging through a series of Halaf trash deposits rich in pottery, chipped stone (including obsidian), and bone. The Halaf period is well-known for its painted pottery, which can be both very fine and elaborately decorated. The material from Banahilk does not disappoint. There is a range of both monochrome and polychrome decoration, including different types of cross-hatching and diamonds with dots within them. The pottery is even more impressive when one realizes that all of it was made by hand. Wheel-made pottery doesn’t appear in the region until the 4th millennium BCE.

Like Watson, our time at Banahilk will not be very long. Only the one operation is planned for this season. However, there is the possibility that a joint project between Salahaddin University in Erbil and the University of Barcelona will return to Banahilk to more thoroughly explore what remains of the site. This is fortunate, because our excavation and survey in the area indicate that parts of the site are still relatively intact. Hopefully we’ll be hearing more soon about the light that this site can shed on life in early villages along the hilly flanks of the Zagros Mountains.

The excavation team at Banahilk

The excavation team at Banahilk

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Are We Hard Wired To Collect?

Deer, Parrot, Chief, and Owl <em>katsinam</em> in the Wolf collection.

Deer, Parrot, Chief, and Owl katsinam in the Wolf collection.

When talking to school kids visiting the Museum, I love to ask them if they collect anything?  Their hands fly up in the air and they eagerly describe their personal treasures of rocks, key chains, Pokemon or baseball cards, bottle caps, and state quarters.

When I was a kid I collected stuffed octopi.  Seriously – I couldn’t have made that up.  Each June my great aunt Louisa gave me one for my birthday.  I had seven of them and in the morning before school I arranged them carefully – one by one on by bed, so their legs weren’t touching.  Years later my son Bengt’s first stick collection lived in the back of my Saab.  Believe me, I had no hand in it!  His collection grew and grew, and each stick held a story.  I was happy when he made the move to Zuni fetish carvings, and I definitely supported his interests.

As  Curator and Keeper of one of the world’s most impressive collections of American Indian material culture, I think about collecting a lot.   Penn Museum’s American Section houses 300,000 things of everyday life made by the Indigenous peoples of North, Central, and South America.  I like to compare it to a library – each thing has a number, a detailed catalog description, and best of all a detailed story.  Find its number and shelf location, and you’re in business.

Visitors often ask “where did you get all this stuff?”  Of  course, collecting is a big part of the answer and at the heart of the idea of museums more broadly. We’re definitely hard wired to collect.  People like to gather things together.  Things tell our stories and hold our dreams as individuals, and as nations in the form of museums.   Collecting, as we museum people know it, began as a scientific endeavor as a way to catalog and understand our world.  Thomas Jefferson, Lewis and Clark, Alfred Barnes, Frederica de Laguana, and George Heye, just to name a few, wanted to expand their knowledge.  They also wanted to preserve.  And it’s still going on today.  The Penn Museum systematically gathers collections and information with deliberate goals of recording, understanding, comparing, and preserving the peoples, histories, and complexities of our world.

In addition to building our collections and knowledge through anthropological research and excavation, we rely on the generosity of individuals to expand our holdings.   With the recent opening of our Native American Voices exhibition, one of our newest collections that is getting a lot of play behind the scenes exemplifies the important role of individual donors in the growth of our Museum.

A few years ago, we received a call from Richard Wolf, a talented gentleman who makes his living composing music.  Moving to a new home, he asked if the Museum might like his contemporary Hopi kachina (or as the Hopi say, Katsinam) collection, and invited us to come and take a look.  Given the paucity of modern examples in our collection, we eagerly crossed the Walt Whitman Bridge and knocked on his door.

For many summers Richard and his wife Pat traveled to the Southwest to vacation and visit friends and colleagues in Arizona and New Mexico.  Combining their knowledge, keen interest, and terrific eye, they added a new katsina carving to their personal collection each year.  In time, they assembled a stunning pantheon of contemporary carvings by named artists.

Katsinam are Hopi spirit beings.  They represent supernatural entities like animals, stars, and clouds, for example, that bring blessings to our world.  Hopi men create wooden carvings in the likeness of the spirit beings, and on important occasions give them to their young children as gifts.  Hung in their homes, katsina carvings teach children about relationships and their responsibilities in the world around them.  Some Hopi artists also make katsinam for sale.   Thanks to Richard’s thoughtful generosity, his collection is now preserved in the Penn Museum where it is being used to teach our Philadelphia audiences about Native American and Hopi communities today.

Many collections are offered to the Museum each year.   Curators and Keepers review donation proposals carefully, and the Museum selectively accepts items of the highest quality that augment our collections and support our institutional goals in meaningful ways.

If you have a passion for an aspect of material culture, learn more about the people who made or continue to make it today and consider building and documenting a collection of your own.  And by all means, continue to encourage your kids on their paths of collecting – who knows, those quirky early interests might some day surprise you and play a role for future generations.

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Ur of the Chaldees Digitization: May 2014

Combining Maps and More at Ur
Spotlight on matching maps, satellite imagery, and aerial photos
Observing connections in spatial data with Geographic Information Systems

I’ve been in Iraq for the past two weeks. Part of that time has been spent teaching Iraqi archaeologists from Mosul University some of the latest techniques in analysis of archaeological data, and I’ve been using sample data from my work on Ur to do this. I’m accomplishing multiple tasks in this way: demonstrating the use of Geographic Information Systems and analyzing the site through the notes and maps that Sir Leonard Woolley created. GIS takes spatial data and displays patterns as well as quantifies connections in that data. We’re not yet to the point in our grant where we will be tackling the spatial element in full, but I’ve made an exploratory foray into it to pave the way, to show the power of GIS, and to help teach others.

The first step is collecting the maps to be analyzed. I’ve been analyzing these for some time, and I’ve made several blog entries about them. One thing I’ve found in reanalyzing my work and gathering them for the GIS is that I make mistakes (not that this was shocking to me; let’s just hope I can catch them in continued reanalysis). I was wrong when I said that the grid on Woolley’s maps wasn’t placed there until the 50s or 60s. It was there in the final map drawn at the end of the season in 1931. But this is the earliest indication I can find and it seems to have been placed there by the architect putting all of the maps together into one larger one of the entire site, rather than the way we would do it today, by setting a grid even before excavation begins. The notes almost never reference this grid—almost. The final Ur season shows the only indication of reporting finds to square on the site grid, and then only in the widely spread area known as CLW, the city wall. There are references to smaller grids Woolley sometimes put within a large building, but the larger site grid is another matter. I’ve also found that my estimation of original excavation house numbers may be slightly off, especially as concerns House number 7 (one I thought to be securely located). As we dig deeper into old records, we often find our first indications were wrong. The way to progress is to own up to these errors and move on with the new, more accurate assessments.

The next step is geo-referencing the old maps and photos. Geo-referencing places a map on the globe by linking identifiable points on it to their UTM coordinates. I’ve used a QuickBird satellite image taken in 2010 to help me with this, with the additional assistance of Google Earth.

Three images of Ur to be linked to global coordinates

Three images of Ur to be linked to global coordinates

Overlay of pictures can be accomplished in programs like Photoshop, but true connection to global coordinates cannot. Furthermore, accurate scaling in the many directions to compensate for potential warping at the edge of old camera lenses or slight errors in map grid-lines would also be very difficult in such a program.

Once I have a base map that’s keyed to the globe as accurately as possible, I can then add many other maps, as well as aerial photos taken while excavation was underway and other spatial data from notes and publications. This assists me and all archaeologists and historians who want to know more about Ur and the way it was excavated in many ways—especially in locating the earliest trenches. Woolley didn’t map these in, but he often tells us that something was found, for example, in TTA or TTB. These are references to Trial Trench A and Trial Trench B, the first he excavated, and we have an aerial photo taken in 1922 that shows both.

Overlain images with outline of original Trial Trenches

Overlain images with outline of original Trial Trenches. TTA is in the south.

But there’s so much more that can be done with GIS that it almost boggles the mind. I’ll make another post at the end of June about some of the other capabilities; since I’m in Iraq, it may have to be short. Unfortunately, I’m not at Ur, since it’s still politically difficult to get permission as an American to go to southern Iraq. I’m in the northeast, the Kurdish controlled area, but I hope to go to the Sulaimaniya Museum to see their objects from Ur at some point while here.

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A Light Gone Out

Indian Country lost a legend this month with the passing of Billy Frank Jr. (1930-2014).  Arrested for fishing on more than 50 occasions during his life time, Frank stood firmly for Civil Rights.  A man with clear vision and staunch determination, Frank walked with humility, strength and extraordinary kindness.

During the “fish wars” of the 1960s and 70s, and first when he was just 14 years old, Frank repeatedly reminded authorities that in the 1850s his tribe ceded two million acres of land in exchange for the right to fish the rivers of Washington State.  In 1974, Judge G.H. Boldt ruled with startling and historic force that Frank and the tribe were correct – that Indian people had a right not only to fish for salmon, but that they should become co-managers of the fisheries, with the state.  The Supreme Court’s support of that ruling transformed fishing in the Northwest Coast.

I am so glad that Billy Frank is featured in our Native American Voices gallery.  Stop by and listen – you can find him on the tower.

Read his New York Times obituary here:


Billy Frank Jr., Nisqually Tribe (1930-2014).

Billy Frank Jr., Nisqually Tribe (1930-2014).

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The Cosmos in Storage

 I know I’m not alone when I say that I get excited on Sunday nights to sit down and watch Cosmos. The re-envisioned Carl Sagan classic airs on Fox on Sunday nights with Neil deGrasse Tyson as host. I’m not going to gush about how he’s been my favorite astrophysicist since I basically learned what an astrophysicist was, but lets just say we’re glued to the TV when this show comes on each week.

This past week opened with a lot of great objects featured while he discussed not only Mesopotamia in general, but Enheduanna in particular. This screen shot features objects I work with every day–from a variety of places in ancient Iraq. I thought I’d take the chance to show off our awesome collection.

Ubaid columns, Enheduanna, and jewelry from the Royal Cemetery at Ur

Ubaid columns, Enheduanna, and jewelry from the Royal Cemetery at Ur

 The first thing you really see is that beautiful inlaid column. Its from the site of Ubaid, excavated by Leonard Woolley on behalf of our museum and the British Museum. We have one, and the BM has one as well. Ours was recently loaned to an exhibit in Spain, and it was such a great addition, that their head of exhibits and I posed with it when finished.

La Caixa's head of exhibits Carles, Katy Blanchard (NE keeper), and Anne Brancati (loans registrar) pose with the Penn Museum's Ubaid column

La Caixa’s head of exhibits Carles, Katy Blanchard (NE keeper), and Anne Brancati (loans registrar) pose with the Penn Museum’s Ubaid column

I can see what led the Cosmos designers to include it in their fictional Cosmos world. While shown indoors in the program, we know they were found on the exterior of a building, likely flanking the top of a grand stairway. The columns would have originally stood outside the entrance of the Ninhursang Temple at the site of Tell al Ubaid. Dating to about 2400-2250 BCE, they are made of small pieces of shell, pink limestone, and black shale cut into shapes. They had a small wire on the back of each one that was set into a layer of bitumen which covered the log at the center of each column.

The next thing I really notice is her jewelry. One of our most famous set of artifacts is the jewelry of Queen Puabi. While Puabi is indeed a queen and has more jewelry than any other person excavated at the Royal Cemetery, her grandeur really gives you an idea of the types of materials found on the buried individuals.

Queen Puabi's burial jewelry includes more than 10 pounds of gold and lapis on her head.

Queen Puabi’s burial jewelry includes more than 10 pounds of gold and lapis on her head.

Our Cosmos-imagined Enheduanna clearly doesn’t have all this. One of the graves at Ur, PG1237, is known as The Great Death Pit. In this one grave, 74 bodies were found, most of which were women. They were dressed as “hand maidens” and would have included a muted version of Puabi’s jewelry. So you see a hair comb, which is made of silver as well as three flowers of gold, paste and shell. You see that she wears a single wreath of gold leaves. She wears two large lunate earrings. Around her neck, you see what is affectionately called a “dog collar“: a band of interlaced lapis and gold triangles worn tight against the neck. Below that? You see lovely strands of beads, made of carnelian, lapis, and gold–all imported materials. We date Puabi as to the time period slightly before the Ubaid column, from about 2600-2450 BCE.

And we can’t forget Enheduanna herself! She’s lovely in her traditional flounced skirt, seen below on the disk that bears her name,  as she writes her poetry. Enheduanna was indeed a real person, discussed fully by my colleague Brad Hafford, here on the blog. Our disk dates to about 2300, so we date her dedications to about that time.

Enheduanna is third from the right on this disk that bears her name (on the back). Her face is still preserved

Enheduanna is third from the right on this disk that bears her name (on the back). Her face is still preserved.
Museum Object Number: B16665


All in all? Cosmos did an amazing job this week, using real objects almost in their correct context, and dating close enough to the same date that I would love to have seen them all together, kind of like this.

All of the objects featured on Cosmos this week, can be found in the storeroom here at the Penn Museum.

All of the objects featured on Cosmos this week, can be found in the storeroom here at the Penn Museum.

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How We Do What We Do

“Can you please explain what you’re doing?”

is a question we hear daily. From a visitor’s perspective it doesn’t look like we’re doing much. Basically, we observe and document. A thorough condition report is the first step in any conservation treatment; we need to know what we’re dealing with. These murals are so large that a written document consistently describing the location and details of each condition would be too long and arduous to read, let alone write. So instead of written documentation, we use high resolution digital images and Adobe Photoshop.

Buddhist Blog Project Photo

This is a shot from the scissor lift. Cassia Balogh is visible in the bottom right corner working on a lower portion of the mural.

The first step of the Buddhist mural condition survey was photography. Architectural photographer Joseph Elliot worked with Cassia Balogh to take digital images of every section of each mural. Each photo is typically of a panel (or two). We then set ourselves and our computers (with images of the mural) in front of the corresponding areas of the mural with the help of a ladder and the scissor lift. We have fifteen different conditions and each one has been assigned a specific color. We have organized these conditions and their respective colors as separate layers on Adobe Photoshop, this way each condition can be edited and viewed separately from the others.


This image details how Photoshop layers can be viewed separately and together. We chose three layers to detail out of the total of fifteen.

The different layers can be separated into three categories: previous restoration, structural conditions, and issues pertaining to the original painted surface. In the previous restoration layers we look for areas that may have been patched or painted. These areas differ in texture to the original surface.

The structural conditions vary between each panel; some have hardly any. These layers mostly show where there are cracks and where the original surface is delaminating from the supports behind it. There are several layers of support behind each panel, including metal frameworks, and so one of the layers is “Metal Detection.” Check back for a post that details our metal detecting process.

Most of the conditions affecting original painted surface describe areas of paint loss and actively flaking surfaces. However, one layer indicates graffiti; there are Chinese characters in both red and black inks that were written on the murals.


This screenshot shows a lower portion of the mural with a single visible


This screenshot shows the same lower area of the mural as the image above and how multiple layers can be viewed simultaneously. Each color corresponds to a specific condition.


Once we have examined every centimeter of every panel of the mural and all of the photos have been marked up, we compile the photos and their layers into one giant photo-mosaic that depicts the entire mural and the conditions. This provides us with a big picture (literally) of just how the various conditions are concentrated on the mural and how the conditions vary from panel to panel.

Acknowledgements: Work on the Buddhist Mural Conservation Survey in supported by the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation and Michael Feng and Winnie Chin Feng.

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Dispatches from Iraqi Kurdistan: On the Road Again

May 14

Driving in the United States does little to prepare you for the fluidity, and occasional terror, of driving in the Middle East. In major cities, like Cairo, Damascus, or Tehran, traffic ebbs and flows independent of the restrictions of lane designations and traffic laws. These exist, but they often appear to serve as guidelines rather than rules. The experience is similar outside of the cities. Because there is less traffic, everybody drives faster. However, most of the roads are two-lane, which leads to a lot of leap-frogging as faster drivers pass their slower compatriots. At times like this, traveling cross-country is its own special thrill.

As part of RAP, I spend a large amount of time on the road at the start of the dig. We enter Iraq in Erbil, but we work in Soran, about two hours away. Since Erbil is the capital of the Kurdish Regional Government, we try to handle most of our bureaucratic necessities at their source. However, the wheels of the bureaucracy grind slower here than elsewhere, so we often have to travel back and forth between the two cities to get everything resolved. As of this writing, I’ve made the Erbil-Soran trip twice, with another planned for tomorrow.

The route between Erbil and Soran

The route between Erbil and Soran

The trip itself is pleasant and provides a great snapshot of the diverse topography of the region as well as its rapid economic development. I’ve produced a short video of our first trip into the mountains to give you an idea of what it entails. You start on the crowded streets of Erbil. From there, you head northeast through growing suburbs into the foothills of the Zagros Mountains. You continue on this track, going up over ridges and back down into valleys, until you arrive in the Harir Plain, where the road turns to the northwest. During the Neo-Assyrian Empire, this plain was the end of Assyrian control in the area until the last century of its existence.

The road runs northwest across the plain until it turns back to the east at Spillek Pass. The top of the pass has a dominating view of the plain, which makes it a great place for brigands. In the early twentieth-century, the British built a fort at the top of the pass, which is still present. Unsurprisingly, a modern KRG military outpost is in front of it.

From Spillek Pass, the road leads to Khalifan. This town sits at the west end of the Rowanduz Gorge, which towers majestically over it. For most of history, the path through the gorge consisted of little more than narrow dirt tracks. In the early twentieth-century, A.M. Hamilton built a road through the base of the gorge that leads to Soran. Later, Saddam Hussein built a high road that leads directly to Rowanduz in order to improve the access of his tanks. The gorge and the towns around it are now popular tourist destinations. The waterfall at Gal-i Ali Beg, featured on the 5,000 Iraqi dinar, is particularly well-known.

The falls at Gal-i Ali Beg

The falls at Gal-i Ali Beg

Rapid economic development is visible all along the road between Erbil and Soran. Unfinished cinder-block buildings sit side-by-side with tall, modern-looking hotels. Tourism and oil exploration are driving much of this development. The pace of the construction is quickly destroying the natural landscape that makes this area so popular as well as destroying cultural heritage. However, the population in the area is only likely to increase. A road system with tunnels through the mountains is currently under construction that will cut forty-five minutes off of the trip to Soran. This development will undoubtedly lead to better economic conditions for locals, but the environmental and archaeological repercussions of this development are hard to calculate.

Construction near Shaqlawa

Construction near Shaqlawa

Tunnel construction on the north side of the Harir Plain

Tunnel construction on the north side of the Harir Plain

**Read all of Darren’s posts from his field work in Iraqi Kurdistan**

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