News Release

Field Museum 'reuniting' scattered collections from ancient Iraq site

$100,000 grant allows scientists to virtually regroup archaeological materials from Kish, one of world’s first cities Archival video footage of 1928 excavation released for 1st time ever

Peer-Reviewed Publication

Field Museum

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CHICAGO--The Field Museum is embarking on a two-year project that could help bridge cultural and scientific barriers exacerbated by the Iraq war.

With the support of the National Endowment for the Humanities, the museum recently began to study, catalog and reconcile the scattered but priceless collections of materials from the famous 5,000-year-old archaeological site of Kish, 50 miles south of Baghdad. Kish is one of the world's oldest cities and site of the earliest evidence of wheeled transport.

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The museum plans to create a digital catalog of the more than 100,000 Kish artifacts held in Chicago, London and Baghdad. The catalog will be made available in English and Arabic on the Internet and in print. Also, a more complete database of all the objects will be created and made available on the Internet. "This project will make possible, for the first time, a true reckoning of the site's historical and archaeological significance," said William Pestle, Field Museum Collection Manager and one of the principal investigators on this project. "It will also serve as a model for intellectual repatriation of exported archaeological collections."

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Reconciling the past
From 1923 to 1933, archaeologists from The Field Museum and Oxford University's Ashmolean Museum explored several of the 40 mounds at the 9-square-mile Kish site located in the floodplains of the Euphrates River. The artifacts found were divided between the two excavating museums and the Iraq Museum in Baghdad. Ever since, the collections have remained divided, effectively precluding the production of a full site report for this crucial Mesopotamian city and hindering a full understanding of its historical and archaeological significance.

Click here for a high resolution photograph.

The $100,000 NEH grant will allow The Field Museum to:

  • Catalog uncataloged objects;
  • Reconcile the entire collection with excavation records and field notes;
  • Reconcile numbers assigned to the objects in the field with museum numbers;
  • Stabilize at-risk objects;
  • Scan and/or photograph important objects and records, correspondence, etc.
  • Disseminate the information to scholars and others around the world.

Work has already begun with The Field Museum's and Oxford University's collection. Once political and security risks are resolved in Iraq, the work will continue at the Iraq Museum, which was heavily looted at the start of the war.

"The lack of a final, complete site report stands as a significant gap in the archaeological record of Mesopotamia," said Ben Bronson, Field Museum Curator of Asian Archaeology. "When completed, this catalog will facilitate researchers' access to all three Kish collections.

"Furthermore, it will directly benefit the Iraqi people by providing detailed information on the state, condition and interconnectedness of this important portion of their cultural patrimony, some of which was exported 80 years ago," Bronson added.

During the third millennium B.C., Kish was Mesopotamia's dominant major regional power. As such, it set the stage for the development for a long succession of important Mesopotamian seats of power, including modern day Baghdad and ancient Babylon (just 7 miles to the west).

The Field Museum holds about 32,000 objects from the Kish excavations, including cuneiform tablets, cylinder seals, stone tools, pots, sculptures, figurines and metal implements. Original field cards will be used to determine the archaeological context of many of these objects, which is vital to understanding their use and meaning.

The Field Museum also holds 1,740 photographs and 1,200 feet of film taken during the excavations showing vivid images of the work being conducted by teams of up to hundreds of people. The excavations were lead by Ernest Mackay, Stephen H. Langdon and Louis Charles Watelin and included the participation of Henry Field. Henry Field was a Field Museum Assistant Curator of Physical Anthropology and a nephew of Marshall Field, the department store magnate who helped start The Field Museum and after whom the museum is named.

Initial excavations at Kish centered on the Uhaimir mound, the location of a famous ziggurat, which is a temple tower in the form of a terraced pyramid of successively receding stories. Later, workers turned to a cemetery, where they uncovered Kish's famous chariot burials, wherein chariots pulled by teams of live oxen were buried alongside high status individuals to provide a means of transport in the afterlife.

After The Field Museum-Oxford University work from 1923 to 1933, no excavation occurred at Kish until the 1990s, but that work has been halted due to the war.

"The Kish collections remain a largely untapped archaeological, cultural and historical resource," Pestle said. "Before any further interpretive or scholarly work can be performed, including applying new analytical tools and techniques to these materials, it is essential to organize and reconcile the disparate collections."

B-roll available:
The Field Museum is proud to release for the first time ever archival video footage from the Kish expeditions. This footage taken in 1928 is about 5 minutes long and covers various aspects of the work including: large work crews excavating the site and assembling a temporary railway to haul away debris; monumental architecture; payday; and painstaking excavation of 5,000-year-old treasures. Video footage courtesy of The Field Museum.

Digital images available:

  • Wheels
    Henry Field and Dimna, an excavation specialist, examine a four-wheeled chariot, two wheels of which are exposed, during the 1927-28 expedition. The first wheels (for transport) anywhere were found at Kish; two are in the Field Museum's collection.
    Photo (59632) courtesy of The Field Museum.

  • Waxing
    Eric Schroeder waxing the skull of a wild ass found with the four-wheeled chariot during the 1927-28 expedition. This was done to preserve the bone.
    Photo (59629) courtesy of The Field Museum.

  • Workers
    Workers clearing a palace at Kish during the 1923-24 expedition. Some crews numbered more than 100 and included women and children working barefooted.
    Photo (52793) courtesy of The Field Museum.

  • Trenches
    This view of excavating trenches gives a good idea of the monumental scale of Kish. Taken during the 1928-29 expedition
    Photo (67093) courtesy of The Field Museum.

  • Railway
    Workers constructed temporary railways to haul away the debris. Here they were clearing a large temple during the 1923-24 expedition.
    Photo (508) courtesy of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford University.

  • Staff
    Staff at the 1923-24 expedition (left to right): Ernest Mackay, excavator; Stephen H. Langdon, director; and Col. W.H. Lane, topographist.
    Photo (213) courtesy of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford University.

    Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this release do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.


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