Dispatches from Iraqi Kurdistan: The Rowanduz Archaeological Program 2014

May 13, 2014

This summer, faculty and students from Penn are excavating at the site of Gird-i Dasht and burned settlements around Sidekan in Iraqi Kurdistan. Pictured: Dr. Brad Hafford (bottom left), Dr. Richard L. Zettler (top left), Darren Ashby (bottom right), Marshall Schurtz (top right). Not Pictured: Katherine Burge, Daniel Patterson.

May 10

Like swallows returning to San Juan Capistrano, archaeologists are once again arriving at excavations all over the world. This summer, Penn students and faculty are back in Iraqi Kurdistan for the second season of the Rowanduz Archaeological Program (RAP). As a field director, I’m one of the first to arrive and one of the last to leave. Throughout the season, I’ll be blogging regularly about our excavations as well as daily life on an archaeological dig.

Our project seeks to shed light on the history and archaeology of Erbil Province, part of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). For over a century, warfare and political strife have limited archaeological exploration in the region. However, in the past few years archaeologists from many countries have started research projects in the KRG in cooperation with their Iraqi colleagues.

Rowanduz Gorge

RAP is headquartered in Soran-Rowanduz, two cities located in the mountain valleys to the northeast of Erbil. Nestled among the snow-covered peaks of the Zagros Mountains, Soran and Rowanduz differ strikingly from the Iraqi cities along the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers further west. During much of the year, the countryside is verdant with tall grasses and trees on the hillsides. In Rowanduz, people’s homes overlook deep gorges cut by mountain streams over millennia. Just over the hill, Soran sits in a river valley at the point where the river enters the Rowanduz Gorge. As the district capital, Soran has grown over the last decade, merging with the neighboring city of Diyana, which has a substantial Christian population.

This year, we’re pursuing two related goals. First, we’re continuing to excavate at the site of Gird-i Dasht, a mound located along a stream just outside Soran. The site consists of both a fortified high mound, which rises 20 meters above the plain, and a low mound that surrounds it. Last summer, we briefly excavated at both the top and the bottom of the high mound. Material recovered from these areas indicates that people lived at this site at least as far back as the 2nd-millennium BCE and as recently as the 19th-century AD. This summer we will work on both the high and low mounds in order to learn more about when people lived at Gird-i Dasht and what they were doing.

Gird-i Dasht

Second, we will work on a series of burned settlements in and around the town of Sidekan, located near the Iraq-Iran border. At the end of last summer, two settlements were uncovered during road construction. More recently, the construction of a bank in Sidekan led to the discovery of more burned remains. We’re very excited about the potential for these sites. Archaeologists love burned remains, because they often contain materials in their primary contexts. If your house is on fire, you’re unlikely to take much if anything before you flee, so remains found in burned deposits are often where they were used or stored rather than where they were thrown away. For the archaeologist, who wants to reconstruct the past, these types of deposits are very important. Additionally, we think that all of these burned sites might be the result of an attack by the Assyrian king Sargon II. In 714 BCE, Sargon II invaded the mountain kingdom of Musasir, plundering the countryside and sacking the capital city. This attack has been known about for a long time thanks to Assyrian inscriptions; however, the exact location of the kingdom is unknown. Some scholars have suggested that the area around Soran and Sidekan was once Musasir and the scant material recovered from these settlements so far dates to the right time period for this kingdom. Whether or not these remains belong to Musasir, their excavation will do much to clarify our understanding of occupation in this area.

As the start of the season finally arrives, we’re all very excited to be back in the field. Part of the appeal of archaeology is the feeling that each pull of the trowel could reveal something you never expected.

***RAP is sponsored by Boston University, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Cambridge, Ludwig-Maximilians Universit√§t M√ľnchen, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Dr. Michael D. Danti (Boston University) is the General Director. Dr. Richard L. Zettler (Penn) serves as the Associate Director.***

Map of northeastern Iraq