Dig Houses and Archaeological Supremacy: the case at Nuffar

Updated: Oct 11

Hanaa Malallah & Mo Throp

In December 2018, Hanaa Malallah and Fatimah Jawdet make a research visit to the ancient site of Nuffar, ancient Nippur, (1) in southern Iraq, with local Iraqi archaeologists and academics, all of whom have witnessed the destruction of their cultural heritage, the looting of their ancient sites, and disintegration of their country.

Team of our project in Al-Qadisiyah (Al Diwaniyah) the outskirt of Nuffar site in December 2018. Photo: Hanaa Malallah

The party are immediately struck by the conspicuous remains of two ‘Dig Houses’ (Figures 1 and 2) still standing in relatively good condition amongst many amorphous mounds at the site. The two Dig Houses had been constructed on the site by the American archaeological expedition which started to excavate in Nuffar in 1889 (2). They not only attracted artistic responses and attention but raised many questions for Malallah and Jawdet beyond those of traditional archaeology intent on revealing the truths of the past; here was an opportunity for an encounter where their own desires and experiences as ‘insiders’ might be made possible. Here is an opportunity to ask questions of this past – in the present; to re-own and take back this history from the colonisers, to transcend time and cultures by negotiating one’s own place within it to create new stories.

These two houses now formed the basis of their research at this site inspiring the production of video works, photographs, illustrated images, and this research paper in order to share their responses. The construction of these Dig Houses on this ancient site now raise the immediate question us of how ‘’… archaeology and politics are often interconnected in Iraq, especially in relation to foreign intervention or interference. Ultimately, the demolition of much of Iraqi archaeological heritage was emblematic of the ruinous and violent politics of recent Iraqi history’’ (Bernhardsson, 2005, p3). Our encounter with these two Dig Houses now raises the problematic question of how they came to denote an ownership of the ancient sites by those western archaeologists. This paper seeks to address not only the ongoing battle for ownership of these sites but how these houses come to exemplify the impact of past (and more recent) colonial intrusions into the identity of the inhabitants of this region. Who owns this history and how have such colonial occupations, redefinitions and plunderings impacted the country, or the people who actually live here?

FIG 1 First Dig House, the structure built by USA archaeologists in 1890’s on the top of the original ancient Ziggurat of Nuffar. Photo: Hanaa Malallah, Dec 2018

FIG 2 Second Dig House, the USA archaeologists residential house, built 1964. Video still from ‘’Inside the USA Archaeological Room/ Power of Operation’’, Fatimah Jawdet, January 2019.

FIG 3. Inside the second dig house. Video still from ‘’Inside the USA Archaeological Room/ Power of Operation’’, Fatimah Jawdet, January 2019.

First Dig House (expedition house): investigation, documents, artwork and illustrated images.

The most conspicuous construction at the Nuffar site was the ancient ziggurat, grotesquely topped by the expedition house constructed in the 1890s (FIG 1) during the excavation seasons that included John Henry Haynes (b. 1849, d.1910) ‘’ the business manager and photographer for the University of Pennsylvania-affiliated dig at Nippur’’ (3). The original structure (FIG 4) was dedicated to the city god Enlil and is now grossly disfigured by the addition of the expedition house by US archaeologists (FIG 5). The image of the constructed ziggurat now denoting two distinct histories and two distinct nations.

FIG 4 Original Ziggurat of temple of Enlil. “Our ruins”, Hanaa Malallah, digital print, 2018.