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Lagash Archaeological Project

Curatorial Section

Near East

Research Discipline



2019 - 2022

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The Lagash Archaeological Project (LAP) focuses on the early Bronze Age site of modern Tell al-Hiba in southern Iraq. The site is one of the largest in southern Mesopotamia, and is one of three sites making up the city-state of Lagash during the third millennium BCE. Research at the site focuses on understanding the structure and the organization of one of the world’s first cities. Previous excavations revealed temple and royal architecture. The Penn Museum excavations focus on the role of craft production in early cities in the marshland of southern Iraq.

Project Summary

Archaeological exploration at Tell al-Hiba dates back to the late nineteenth century when a German expedition excavated three separate areas around the highest part of the site. In 1968, a joint project of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University, led by Donald P. Hansen greatly expanded our knowledge of the site exposing two temple complexes (the Ibgal of Inana and the Bagara of Ningirsu), an ED III administrative complex, and extensive ED I temple remains. The Penn Museum contributed financially to those excavations and in return received lithics and ceramics for the collection. In 1990, the Penn Museum sponsored the participation of Prof. Holly Pittman in the last season of the NYU-Met excavations. Following the death of Professor Hansen in 2007, Dr. Pittman directed a project to produce the final reports of these excavations.

With the completion of the publication of the legacy excavations, Prof. Pittman requested and received a five-year permit (2019-2024) from the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage (SBAH) to initiate a third campaign of work at the site. For the initial season, the Penn Museum engaged Dr. Zaid Alrawi as the project manager and Pittman invited Prof. Augusta McMahon of the University of Cambridge as field director, and the Penn Museum. The team worked for a one month in March 2019 with the general aim of complementing Hansen’s focus on monumental and elite institutions with investigation into the relationship between the complex ecological setting and the development of an enormous population center during the era of the rise of the world’s first cities, focusing specifically on the pivotal third millennium BCE. Effort was primarily dedicated to remote sensing, using drone UAV photography to record visible features on the surface of the mound, radio magnetic gradiometry to detect features beneath the surface, geological coring to assess the ancient patterns of hydrology, and limited excavations to explore potential areas of craft production were opened in Area H.

2021 and 2022 Excavations

The COVID-19 pandemic delayed returning to the field, but the hiatus allowed the team to refine the research remit as a field- and lab-based project to examine craft production in households and workshops across neighborhoods throughout the ancient city. In October 2021 a small team returned for three weeks to extract further geological cores, to complete drone photography necessary for an accurate topographic map. In March and early April 2022, a full team returned to Lagash. The collaboration with University of Cambridge was expanded to include the University of Pisa. Prof. Sara Pizzimenti shared the role of field director. Three additional trenches were opened in Area H which greatly expanded our grasp of both the mechanics of ceramic production, and its integration into the areas of habitation. We continued our remote sensing work through drone photography; drilled a 25 meter deep core that records the complex and constantly changing history of water and land, and initiated a new systematic surface survey that was able to cover 60 percent of the site. Through heat maps generated off the survey data, we can now confidently identify areas of pyrotechnic craft production (through the presence of slags), lapidary industry, shell industry, as well as the probable location of a cemetery.

Location Information

The site of al Hiba, ancient Lagash flourished in the mixed ecological zone of fertile alluvial fields and verdant marshes teaming with resources for food and building. During the fourth and third millennium, large urban centers, including Ur, Uruk and Eridu developed at the same time as Lagash in a system of marshes and alluvial fields. Communication both within these cities and between them was by boat.

Time Period Studied

The site of Lagash was occupied from at least the 5th millennium through the 3rd millennium BCE. The largest area of occupation is during the Early Dynastic period (2900-2300 BCE) when the site was more than 500 hectares. The city was destroyed when the canal providing it water was diverted during a military conflict. Later occupation was limited to much smaller sectors of the site.

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