Iraq – Tulul al Baqarat (Al-Kut)


Italian Archaeological Expedition at Tulul al Baqarat

Tulul al Baqarat (Al-Kut)
Carlo Lippolis

The Italian archaeological expedition organized by the CRAST and directed by C. Lippolis, started its work in the archaeological area of ​​Tulul al-Baqarat in November 2013. ​​Tulul al-Baqarat is located in the Iraqi governorate of Wasit, about 25 km southwest of the modern city of Kut. The Italian team is supported on the field by Iraqi colleagues, archaeologists and officials from the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage of Baghdad.  

The area of interest extends for about 5 km in the north-south direction and consists of a series of archaeological mounds that are different in shape, dimensions and chronology. The Italian expedition, which was strongly encouraged and explicitly requested by the Iraqi authorities following the widespread illicit diggings that seriously damaged the site, is focused on the study of this area, still poorly known from the archaeological and historical point of view and not frequently investigated before, through excavation and survey activities. Only the excavation of the main tell of the area (TB1) had been previously carried out by the Iraqi archaeologists between 2008 and 2010; their investigations brought to light the impressive remains of a religious complex that was last occupied during the Neo-Babylonian period, but that presents more ancient cultural levels dating back to the Early-Dynastic period at least.

Tulul al-Baqarat is a modern toponym referring to an archaeological area that counts up to 10 currently visible and irregularly scattered mounds, maybe originally belonging to a same anthropic settlement that might have shifted over the centuries; this shifting pattern could be seen as a consequence of the continuous course changes of rivers or distributaries of the Tigris. The tells are now partly eroded and obliterated by farming activities.

An extensive surface survey was carried out on the TB1, TB2, TB3, TB4a-TB4b, TB5, TB6, TB7, TB8, TB9, TB10 tells during the first archaeological campaign (November-December 2013). The collection of surface finds and pottery sherds shows a very interesting picture as it seems to point towards a continuity in the settlement pattern of the area from the fourth millennium BC to the Islamic period.  

In addition, during the same campaign, three soundings were opened on TB1, TB4a and TB4b respectively, with the aim of studying their stratigraphy and the ceramic material in its context. Sounding 2 on TB4a proved to be extremely interesting as a Scarlet Ware jar sherd characterized by geometric decorations in red, yellow and black emerged from the excavation. According to the finds, the last occupation phase of the structures here identified can be preliminarily dated to the Early-Dynastic period. It is possible that TB1 and TB4, now isolated, were once part of the same settlement area as it would appear from the homogeneity of their materials, belonging in both cases to the third millennium.

The second campaign (October 2015) confirmed the archaeological relevance of this area and clarified that the first phases of human occupation date back to the fourth millennium BC at least. The investigations were focused on TB7, a 7 hectare tell located about 700 m to the south-southeast of TB1 and on TB1, where the archaeologists tried to reconstruct the stratigraphy connected to the already excavated religious complex through the opening of new soundings.

The work on the field included an intensive surface survey on TB7 and TB8 (hypothetically belonging to the same settlement because of the homogeneous surface finds), through a division of the area into squares with 50 m sides. Pottery, stone and terracotta objects were collected and analysed in their spatial distribution in an attempt to identify the presence of underlying architectural structures through the observation of specific concentrations of archaeological materials on the surface of the mounds. The collected material confirmed an occupation of the tells between the Uruk phase and the beginning of the Early-Dynastic; however, the presence of some pottery sherds belonging to the Ubaid culture could indicate an earlier frequentation of the area.

Several fragments of stamped baked bricks bearing neo-Babylonian royal inscriptions emerged from some of the surveyed sectors; it is possible that they were reused during a later phase of partial resettlement, from the first millennium BC onwards.

Three soundings were opened in different areas of TB7 after the end of the survey. S1 and S2 were located on the central relief, the highest point of TB7, hypothetically identifiable with a high terrace or platform originally supporting an important building such as a temple.

The interpretation of the excavated structures was complicated by heavy water erosion phenomena; however, the abundant presence of terracotta cones and cylinders and the identification of mud brick fragments with painted geometric designs in red, black and white confirmed the importance of these architectonic features as these elements are usually associated with the decoration of public buildings.  

The third sounding (S3) was opened at the north-western edge of the site, an area affected by illicit diggings, where concentrations of stamped bricks with Neo-Babylonian inscriptions were visible on the surface. Portions of mud-brick walls and some installations connected to household activities, possibly belonging to a residential building, were exposed just below the surface; these structures were later cut by a drain made of reused Neo-Babylonian bricks, some of which were superficially visible.

As an extension of the investigations carried out on TB1 in 2013, the stratigraphic excavation of Sounding 1 was aimed at removing the Neo-Babylonian levels in order to explore the most ancient occupation phases of the area. Some collapsed walls were identified during these operations.

TB1 certainly represents one of the most interesting archaeological mounds of Tulul al Baqarat, not only because of its continuity of settlement (unlike the other sites that were only occupied for a limited period), but also because of the presence of the central temple. In fact, this building stands out for its dimensions and for the several stamped bricks bearing the inscriptions of some of the most important Mesopotamian kings (such as Naram Sin, Shulgi and Nabucodonosor) that were retrieved in the area; these elements combined would suggest the dedication of the religious complex to a prestigious deity, possibly Nin-ḫur-saĝ.

Several research activities were carried out in the Baqarat area during the third archaeological campaign (April-May 2016). The tells around Baqarat (within 15 km more or less) were investigated through a field-walking survey in the attempt to reconstruct the role of the Baqarat settlements in the context of their surrounding environment. As already mentioned, not much concerning this area is known from the historical and archaeological point of view.

A limited surface collection of pottery sherds was carried out on the 22 tells (T1-22) visited by the archaeologists. According to these data, it was possible to establish a preliminary chronology for the occupation phases of these sites. The resulting picture would indicate that this area, that had been peripherally surveyed by R. McC. Adams, is more ancient than estimated in his volume Heartland of Cities (1981).

The investigation of the structures excavated in 2015 on TB7 (Sounding 3) continued during the third campaign. New rooms were identified and they confirmed the residential nature of the building that was then hypothetically identified with a sort of big subsistence or semi-subsistence farmhouse characterized by the presence of several installations related to household activities. It cannot be excluded that its facilities were intended for the benefit of the community as well.

In addition to everyday implements, the structure (named Building A) returned valuable finds such as a stamp seal and some small painted jars. The nature of this building makes it very interesting study material since the current knowledge of the Mesopotamian rural houses and community buildings is extremely limited. According to the pottery and the identified occupation phases, the building can be preliminarily dated between the Uruk and the Jemdet Nasr periods.

As for TB1, it was interested by several operations on the field. In the first instance, an extensive survey was carried out in order to localize with precision the numerous baked bricks scattered on its surface and to register their dimensions and the eventual presence of stamped royal inscriptions. The ultimate purpose was to deduce the existence of structures that were not preserved on the surface of the tell and their plausible chronology. Furthermore, new soundings were opened: the first, located in the religious complex area, in the proximity of the hypothetical ziggurat, was aimed at gaining a better understanding of the cultural phases of the temple (S2). A second sounding (S3-4) was opened in the northern square, an open area connected to the temple through staircases made of plano-convex bricks, already partially investigated by the Iraqi expeditions; the stratigraphy here was difficult to interpret because of the phases of destruction that interested this area. However, significant finds came from this sounding, including some fragments of Neo-Babylonian cuneiform tablets, two fragments of an inscribed stone object with a dedication by King Shulgi and a baked brick with the royal inscription of Ur-Namma of Ur. These inscriptions, even if fragmentary, show how some of the most important Mesopotamian kings promoted construction works in Baqarat, attesting to the importance of this religious complex.

New soundings were opened on TB1 during the fourth archaeological campaign (November-December 2016). The new trenches were located on the top of the mound and in the underlying square. S5 and S6 were opened near the temple in order to excavate the structures belonging to the Early-Dynastic occupation phase, later obliterated by the Neo-Babylonian reconstruction. S7, instead, was adjacent to S3 and S4; the disturbed stratigraphic context returned archaeological material to be dated between the Neo-Babylonian and the Parthian periods. No walls were brought to light. Furthermore, the entire tell and the temple structures in particular were scanned with the laser scanner in order to realize a complete and accurate reconstruction of their archaeological features: this operation was even more fundamental since the progressive deterioration and the erosion phenomena on the site will make the crude brick structures illegible in a few years.

The fifth archaeological campaign (September-November 2017) focused both on TB1 and TB7. A total of 4 soundings were opened on TB1. S8, in the proximity of the temple, did not produce any architectonic evidence or finds more ancient than the 1st millennium BC. The two soundings S9 and S11, located on the eastern side of the temenos surrounding the sacred area, in the northern sector of the mound, were characterized by traces of baked plano-convex bricks and, although the structures were strongly eroded, confirmed the presence of an enclosure around the supposed ziggurat area.

The Italian team decided to extend the excavation area on ​​Building A to the south and the west. New rooms characterized by the presence of several installations related to household activities (important fire installations were identified in a peripheral open area) and some pit graves (two adult burials and one child burial) supplied with interesting grave goods (painted jars and variously shaped stone vessels) were investigated during the excavations. Despite the large size of the building (21 rooms have been excavated up to now), its external limits have not been identified yet.

Training courses intended for 22 Iraqi students and officials from the University of Baghdad, the SBAH and the Iraq Museum were organized during the campaign, within the framework of the EDUU European Project (led by the University of Bologna and the CRAST). The training activities, which lasted 10 days and were carried out both on the field and at the Italian mission house in Noumaniya, consisted of theoretical lectures and practical trainings about topography, excavation methodologies (opening of Sounding 10 on TB1), survey and drawing, cataloguing and documentation of the archaeological material.

The sixth archaeological campaign (March-April 2018) involved a more in depth study of TB7; specifically, the team decided to continue the excavation of Building A and to open a new sounding on the central relief, already object of investigation during the 2015 expedition.

For what regards Sounding 3, the outer limits of the excavated area were extended southwards and westwards; on the southern side it was possible to identify the imprint left by the ancient walls, now completely lost as a consequence of the progressive sloping of the ground and some pit burials that seem to be similar to those investigated during the previous expedition both in their structure and in the typology of grave goods. In the western area, the exterior limits of the dwelling were identified.

Moreover, owing to the soil moisture following the heavy rainfalls, it was possible, through aerial photographs taken with a drone, to detect and register the presence of more structures separated by a road and clearly identifiable as alignments of the surface. A residential destination can be hypothesized for them. With the new sounding (S4), opened on the south-western slope of the central relief, the limits of the high terrace/platform were identified; here the walls, strongly degraded by erosion agents and by the flowing of small wadis, are only preserved at foundation level.

During the seventh archaeological campaign (November 2018) the work on the site was repeatedly interrupted by continuous heavy rainfalls. As a consequence, the ground wetness hindered the stratigraphic investigations which, during this expedition, were focused on TB7; here, part of the Italian team worked on Sounding 3 and part on the central relief.

For what concerns Building A, taking into consideration the fragility of the structures, the archaeologists decided not to expand the excavated area but rather to examine in depth some of the already excavated sectors. Specifically, some of the burials that had already been partially exposed in the previous campaigns turned out to be extremely relevant for a better understanding of the funerary practices adopted during the occupation phases of the building.

Secondly, the investigation of one of the inner open areas that had been partially excavated during the 2016 campaign was resumed; the area presented several evidence of household activities (such as fire installations, diffused ash concentrations and animal bones) as well as a further burial.

As for the central relief, Sounding 4 was enlarged and a new sounding was opened on the south-western margin of the central relief (S6) with the aim of continuing the investigation of the walls belonging to the facade and the access way to the central high terrace.



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