Archaeology for a Young Future: the New Syrian Life of the Ancient City of Urkesh
For some three millennia, Urkesh was a Hurrian city. It was, in fact, one of the earliest cities in history, having come into existence around 4000 B.C. It then lay abandoned for another three millennia until excavations began, three decades ago, to bring it back to life, a life that projected it onto the stage of modern Syrian history.
The winds of war have dramatically accelerated this process. The awareness of a visible shared past has served as a trampoline to give people near the site a new sense of belonging, precisely at a time when archaeology had become the target of perverse fanatic attacks. Thus the archaeology of Urkesh presents a new face of Archaeology writ large: an archaeology that is embedded in public awareness, not in spite of, but rather in virtue of precisely its deeper scholarly claims. Such is the story of our project.
From Mozan to Urkesh
Tell Mozan was a tell like many others in Syro-Mesopotamia: a cultural hill, with no visible distinguishing features. Excavations started in 1984 and brought immediately to light the rests of a Temple dated to about 2400 B.C: the early date was especially significant because the Temple stood at the very top of the tell, some 25 meters above the plain level. A monumental stone staircase was particularly well preserved, and showed at the bottom the remains of a much earlier similar stairway, and during the last season when excavations were possible, in 2010, we began to uncover the traces of a structure dating to 3500 B.C. that was almost certainly the much earlier antecedent of the later Temple. It will be an urgent task when excavations resume, to complete the work here, in the expectation to of obtaining much more information on these most ancient levels of the city.
While the staircase gave evidence of an ascensional trend in Hurrian religion, at a lower level not far from the base of the staircase we found a deep shaft that could safely be interpreted as a Hurrian abi, a place where the deities and spirits of the Netherworld could be summoned to foretell the future by means of a medium. This was an exclusive trait of Hurrian religion, in marked contrast with southern Mesopotamia, where any attempt at possibly contacting the world below were seen with fear and abhorrence.
A large royal palace gave us a quantity of inscribed seal impressions, from which we learned the name of the ancient city and those of its kings and queens. The figurative art of Urkesh is particularly impressive because of the great realism with which it renders its subjects. There are also figures in the round and in relief, in clay and stone: one, in particular, describes an episode of the epic of Gilgamesh, which had come to be at home also in the Hurrian world, where we know from later texts that it had also been translated.
These were impressive results, generally transparent in their monumentality and fine artistic sense, but especially because they opened a window onto the heretofore unknown world of Hurrian civilization in the third and possibly even the fourth millennium, something that was well beyond the established horizons of the historiography about ancient Syro-Mesopotamia. It was not just the discovery of an ancient city. It was also the discovery of the earliest stages of urban life as represented by a civilization quite distinct from that of its main southern counterpart, the Sumerians. There was the exhilarating sense of uncovering not just new pieces of a well known puzzle, but in fact a whole new puzzle, new layers of history that had escaped our scholarly attention until then.
From Urkesh to Mozan
The modern setting of the site is not much different from what it was six millennia ago. Mozan is a small village at the foot of the ancient city; several other villages dot the landscape around the tell. Nearby there is a small agricultural center, and at about half an hour distance a larger city, with an airport and important oil fields in its general area. Folk traditions are rich and animated, but there is no familiarity with a past so remote in time. Could these pieces of a broken past come to have any real meaning for the people who saw us, the archaeologists, as more or less aliens, not only because foreigners, but also because interested in something of no apparent consequence to any of them? If Mozan had given us ancient Urkesh, how could we re-embed Urkesh in the public awareness of the Mozan villagers and their neighbors? Or – was it even worth trying?
We came to a resoundingly positive answer without ever really even posing the question. In other words, we did not embark on a project of public archaeology because we wanted to make a case for this particular approach. We came to it through a series of common sense experiments that simply arose from our desire to share the values we were gradually coming across, over the years. If it was exciting in terms of human history for people of other continents, how could it not be exciting for the people who have their feet today solidly on the same ground where the ancients trod? There is indeed a secret kinship between people and their soil and subsoil. It is not just a poetic metaphor. It is a matter of deep and real sensitivities: yes, we had to offer them ancient Urkesh as we found its traces in the ground, but, in some mysterious way, they also had to offer us Urkesh as they lived it by treading that same ground. There is a loyalty of history to the territory where it has unfolded, a loyalty which we may learn as archaeological newcomers, but which the local inhabitants have absorbed by growing up there. They are stakeholders because they truly have a stake in the territory and its history.
This part of our story began with the urge to preserve not only the monuments, but also the more minute and more modest aspects of the city we were bringing back to light. It was a “broken” city because the three millennia occupation had brought about all sorts of intrusions into earlier levels, producing a most complex stratigraphy so typical of Mesopotamian sites. I set out, then, to conserve from one season to the next everything that we had been excavating, and in particular I developed a simple system of protection for the mud brick walls, consisting of localized shelters made of iron trellises and burlap panels. One advantage of simplicity was that local resources were plentiful and inexpensive, but another was that the system could be maintained with no need of advanced technologies. This proved to be fundamental during the war: it was, at its simplest, the most basic model of sustainability. And this not only technically (resources and skills were entirely local). But also perceptually: people could identify with what they were conserving because the result of their work was immediately perceivable. They could also suggest improvements that fit perfectly well with their skills and sensitivities. In any case, it worked: mud brick walls are in as good a state of preservation today as they were when first excavated some thirty years ago (with a few exceptions, which we have well documented and for which we have isolated the causes).
The other pillar of our approach was education. And here, too, the method developed organically, for we were not facing an audience similar to that of a classroom environment. If education is never just communication of information, but rather a sharing of values, it was all more so in our case, when our audience had not chosen to come to us: we were in some ways invading their territory, mentally as well as physically. Maieutics was the word that kept coming to mind. If what I perceived in the ground was a set of abiding human values, then my current audience was as ready to share them as any other on a campus or a conference hall. I only had to be loyal to my perception of values. From weekly “lectures” to our workmen (in some seasons numbering more than one hundred and fifty), to extensive and diversified signage (with the equivalent of more than two hundred pages scattered throughout the site), to exhibits that brought together the essential results of the our research – all of this contributed to establishing a two way street for the sharing I mentioned. Two way: because indeed the questioning that was being elicited gave me ever fresh insights into the very substance of the narrative I was piecing together for my own use.
The Theoretical Dimension
There is, in this story, a deeper significance that affects archaeology at the core. The story is certainly not unique to our site, but it finds here a special setting because of the context of war in which it has developed in its latest stage. The laceration has been so sharp that it has laid bare more dramatically the ultimate question as to the why of it all. Beyond the very practical aspects of a project struggling to preserve cultural heritage in the midst of aggressive destruction, we have been led to reflect, almost paradoxically, on the theoretical dimension that in fact pervades the effort. Yes, we were rushing to salvage the scattered pieces of an already broken past, doing so because of an innate sense of the value of these documents. But in so doing we discovered deeper loyalties and allegiances. Here lies the research interest of an enterprise that could, at first blush, be viewed as merely a rescue operation: we can begin to think of a theory of community archaeology. Let me articulate a few salient points that may serve as pointers, relating them to our experience in Syria.
Definition. – Paradoxically, we may say that there is no such thing as public or community archaeology. We cannot in fact properly see it in contrast with something like private or individual archaeology. By its very nature, archaeology is public and it involves the community. Hence we cannot define “public” or “community archaeology” as something different from archaeology tout court. If a project does not undertake to relate to the public and to the community, it relates anyway by its very inertia: it conveys the sense that the past is irrelevant. – Take the Syrian example: where no conservation and interpretation program was in place, this amounted in effect to a public statement, one that said that it was OK to loot. There was public archaeology, one that communicated very clearly the non-existence of values. And this was the voice that was heard.
A systemic approach. – We must instead acknowledge that the public dimension of archaeology is part and parcel of the effort from the very first moment of excavation, that it must therefore be inscribed in the strategy of excavation. It is not a matter of turning it over, at best, to an outside professional who will choreograph what the archaeologists have exposed. Instead of such an extrinsic view, we must embed the sensitivity for the public dimension at the very core of archaeology. Archaeology is public before we even start to dig: as soon as we set foot on a given territory, the inhabitants of that territory are as much part of our horizon as those who inhabited this territory ages ago. – Our experience at Tell Mozan was very much inspired by these principles: we cared for conservation from the very first marks that our tools made in the ground, we cared for sharing our understanding even as this understanding was still in the making during the gradual progress of excavation and interpretation. Hence the concern, for instance, to preserve sections as well as walls, and to explain the fundamental role they play towards the understanding of the site’s history.
Upholding scholarship. – We were sharing, indeed, uncertainties as well as firm conclusions. There is no reason, in an effort to engage the public, to pretend full clarity on all issues and at all times. We must indeed eschew any tendency towards flattening the complexity of the archaeological universe. We are not looking for slogans and sound bites. Think of the perverse uses of public archaeology: the loud display of wanton destruction by the so-called Islamic State was a form of public archaeology; but so was, and is, the more subtle colonialist attempt to eradicate the tangible and intangible heritage of a people, to eradicate their loyalty to their territory, through less violent, but no less destructive means. In all of these cases there is not even a hint of consideration for scholarly arguments: public archaeology is simply placed in the hands of political propaganda. – A case in point from our project was the belief that Urkesh was an ancient Kurdish city. As such it had become a rallying point for local Kurdish communities. We had to disabuse them of this belief, while at the same time stressing that it was as if the city had been Kurdish, or Arabic, or Armenian, for that matter. It belonged to their shared territory.
Hermeneutics. – It is important to recognize that there are several ranges of understanding. Just as an orchestra translates the written score of a symphony (understandable to few) into the audible perception for the broad public, and just as the orchestra conductor has a different ear for the whole ensemble than the individual players or the audience, in a similar way the hermeneutic effort at an archaeological site ranges through several different levels. One of the communities involved is the scholarly community: the site should be seen as a form of publication for them as well, where “publication” echoes the notion of “public” archaeology in more than an etymological sense. Archaeology is public also because it has the duty to present at the site itself the full process of excavation and stratigraphic recovery: hermeneutics builds only on grammar, meaning that the full documentary dimension, including the visible record at the site, ought to be made meaningfully available. – In Mozan, blending the concern for conservation with an intent to show the original data to visiting archaeologists contributed greatly to our appreciation of what hermeneutics ultimately is.
Communities. – Thus the notion of “community archaeology” does not propose a definition of a special type of archaeology. It focuses rather on a target, or, in fact, on a multiplicity of targets. There are in fact, in most cases, different “communities” that archaeology addresses, at times even in conflict with each other. – We, the archaeologists, were the ones who were at times in conflict. Besides the notion of Urkesh not being an ancient Kurdish city, there were the cases where we could not recommend approval of building permits, or had to remove existing modern cemeteries. Our approach was coherent in that we upheld unpopular choices but carefully explaining at the same time the reasons. What developed was a sense of discovery of new values, which could be accepted even when they interfered with the prospect of immediate gain. What came into existence was a real dialog where the various communities, including our own as archaeologists, could interact with an ultimate sense of loyalty to the territory and the depth of its history.
Archaeology for a Young Future
Instead of sapping away the foundations of this kind of public or community archaeology as we carried it out at Tell Mozan, the war has strengthened our resolve and pointed in the direction of new developments. It was most interesting to see how the project had by now achieved an inner life of its own that transcended the new and unexpected obstacles. The physical distance was bridged by a firm realization of the even greater closeness of intents. The technical problems that emerged in relation to the implementation of our program were a cause of inventive new solutions that emerged from the sharing of alternatives over one or the other of the communication systems that were open to us from one time to the next. The simplicity and reliance on local resources that had characterized our approach since the beginning allowed us to remain realistically grounded in an effective operational mode. No sense of fatigue or impotence ever developed: at each step of the way, there was the sense we cold together work towards a solution.
I will adduce here only one example of a successful interaction regarding a larger issue of public archaeology at Mozan, one that presented problems that we were able to work out in these very last few weeks: the notion of an eco-archaeological Park around the site. The goal is to protect the landscape around the site over a large area that includes more than twenty villages, but at the moment it is impossible to set up the proper legal framework for the effective implementation of the idea. In studying how to obtain our intended goal of protecting the landscape of what would have been the larger metropolitan area of Urkesh in antiquity, which in turn would make it possible to develop a niche tourism in the future, we have decided to promote a series of lectures in each of the villages, where the project would be explained and questions answered; we would also help enhance the sense of belonging to the potential Park area by organizing bus tours to the exhibits that we plan for the neighboring city; establishing small libraries in each of the villages, which will eventually become points of reference not only for the local residents but also for visitors to the Park; and creating a fund to offer scholarships to young men and women from the villages to attend the University. When I say “we” I mean precisely that we the archaeologists from afar are so closely interacting with our colleagues on the ground that we know we are acting in full concord in the service of a clearly stated common goal.
The title chosen for the Shanghai Archaeological Forum, “Archaeology for a Young Future,” intends to convey the full sense of the rich potential that is enshrined in the Urkesh project. We speak at times of dead cities, dead languages, dead civilizations. Urkesh is all of this. And yet it is, more truly, none of this. It is a springboard of life and action not because it inspires a fantasy, but precisely because it is rooted, in a solid archaeological perspective, in the awareness of the people who live in its territory, from the narrow confines of the site and the Park to the wider ones of Syria. It is, truly, an ancient Hurrian city that lives a new Syrian life. Here are the roots of its ” young” future: it is young because so many of our co-workers are indeed young in age. But it is, even more importantly, young because it has all the vigor of an endeavor that lives a life of commitment to a shared ideal. Under the dark clouds of war, and against the violence of fanaticism, the Urkesh project has emerged as a small point of light, as a small fulcrum of ideals. Public community archaeology at its best.