Ancient Iraq revealed: Harvard illuminates ‘richest archaeological landscape in the Middle East’

Jason Ur, the John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Social Sciences, earlier this year launched a five-year archaeological project—the first such Harvard-led endeavor in the war-torn nation since the early 1930s—to scour a 3,200-square-kilometer area around Irbil, the capital of the Kurdish region in northern Iraq, for signs of ancient cities and towns, canals, and roads.

Already, Ur said, the effort is paying massive dividends—with some 1,200 potential sites identified in just a few months, and potentially thousands more in the coming years.

“What we’re finding is that this is, hands down, the richest archaeological landscape in the Middle East,” Ur said. “Due to the history of conflict and ethnic strife in this region, there was no work done in this area at all, so it really is a tabula rasa, so it’s a very exciting time.”

Unfortunately, he said, that blank slate is quickly being erased by development.

“One of the challenges that comes with this project is that it can only be done for a limited time,” Ur explained. “For the sort of landscape work that I do—I’m interested in finding individual places, but I’m also interested in the space between them, the physical traces of agriculture, and the roads and tracks that connect those places—those are the sort of ephemeral features that development will wipe clean. We’re coming in now at exactly the right time, because the economy in Kurdistan is booming and development is exploding across the region.”

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