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Dig Houses and Archaeological Supremacy: the case at Nuffar

Updated: Oct 11, 2021

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.

FIG 5 The expedition house was built by American archaeologist between 1890-1900 on top of the ancient ziggurat. “The Room of The USA archaeologists at ancient Site of Nuffar”, Hanaa Malallah, digital print, 2018.

The original Ziggurat ‘’was the temple E-kure (Mountain House) at Nippur, at the northern edge of Sumer, and Enlil is often called (Great Mountain)’’ (Bienkowski & Millard, 2000, p105), built around 2100BC by the Sumerian King Urnamma, is now crudely ‘claimed’ by the US archaeologist’s expedition house. And that changed not just this ancient mountain house’s structure but its history and surroundings, in the name of science. The ancient (Iraqi) sacred monument now becomes physically and visually ‘dominated’ by this construction by the American plundering expeditions; it becomes an additional type of plundering, not only the transfer of physical artefacts abroad, but also denotes the transfer (change) of identity and changing ownership of the site from the local to the American. It enacts a physical manifestation of a power relation: a dominant nation (US) atop an ancient (Sumerian/Iraqi), one which was enabled under a complicated political situation in the 19th century, one which still has repercussions in contemporary events in this land. It also reflects the belief of Western archaeologists at that time: ‘’The historic treasures, with their indisputable links to biblical history, challenged, however, the reigning Classical aesthetic norms and values. Archaeologists found strange objects and unreadable scripts. Yet, somehow these scholars and later the public sensed some affinity because they believed these artefacts were integral elements of their own heritage. This sense of belonging is evident in the fact that it was popularly considered necessary to bring the objects ‘back home’ ’’ (Bernhardsson, 2005, p29-30).

For contemporary Iraqis this ancient past is a sort of identity that gives us legitimacy and the right to exist as an urban society with deep roots in an ancient civilisation, and not just as “wandering nomads” (Bedouins) (Fig 5), as considered by the Western excavators during the earliest excavations in Mesopotamia. Conversely, ‘’the antiquities were one of the primary reason Westerners were interested in the region. The local people were perceived as unfortunate and irritating occupiers of sacred space who could only hinder or obstruct any major activity” (Bernhardsson, 2005, p33).

Like many Iraqis, those who live in this land, Malallah and the Iraqi team of this project including Fatimah Jawdat, consider their past to be the concrete base from which they might imagine a possible future for their identity which has been throughout recent history continuously plundered by dominant Western nations. They therefore approach the site from a personal basis; this allows an encounter with their own desires and histories – as insiders -, to ask questions of this past within the present by identifying with this site in the now. What is more, this tangible past: the actual artefacts and remaining ruins at these archaeological sites, work as actual evidence. We are not concerned here with a relationship to the past as a nationalistic construct, but rather with a phenomenological relationship to the landscape itself (Zainab Bahrani, 1998). So, as we now look at the identity of the ziggurat, it is no longer an ancient ziggurat but, rather, it now serves as a base (plinth) for the dominant building (expedition house) for USA archaeologists. This act of changing the structure of this ancient site is a performative act of plundering and transformation of that ancient identity, parallel to the smuggling of artefacts from their original sites to a re-location behind glass vitrines and storage rooms in the prestigious museums of Europe and America. The combination of this ancient ruin dominated by the recent expedition building (1890’s) exemplifies the lack power in relation to identity, and ownership of that identity, as well as its discursive definitions of scholarship. It thus stands as an example of how this land has been appropriated into western histories and identities, at the expense of local inhabitants. Mesopotamian antiquities presented as the origins of Western civilization and the excavations that took place were a part of the colonialist enterprise with its narrative of ‘the progress of civilisation’ and the aims of a ‘civilising’ imperial mission (Zainab Bahrani, 1998). Such antiquities were therefore regarded as belonging to the history of those ‘civilised’ cultures who eagerly removed them to new sites (National and Imperial Museums in the West) which were considered as to more capable of appreciating and preserving these artefacts. Ancient Mesopotamian culture was particularly prized in the West as it was regarded as ‘the cradle of civilisation’ and the original garden of Eden. Mesopotamian archaeological artefacts, objects and texts were seen as having universal importance and thus better placed in museums where they could belong to civilized nations rather than belonging to local inhabitants or the lands of their origin (whom they considered, at that time, to be disinterested in this heritage). Though this situation has changed since the formation of an Iraqi state, nevertheless the evidence of this imperialist plunder remains starkly present in both of these two excavation buildings at Nuffar. We are considering here what future might be possible for Iraqis to claim through this Mesopotamian heritage and what it is to a be descendants/inheritors of this Mesopotamian civilization.

Art Works Related to The First Dig House

Our first response to that which has been observed at the site regarding the expedition house on the top of the ziggurat was artistic, also mixed with an imaginative archaeological response spurred by what has been described as a ‘’desire to loosen the constrains of concepts such art, archaeology… and (forensic research) to explore their respective overlays and intersection’’ (Russell & Cochrane, 2014, p146).

We seek, in contrast to those early archaeologists, to acknowledges these ruins as symptom and substance of history’s destructive forces, not as capitalist plundering – which is evidenced here in the debris left by these two Dig Houses - but rather to attend to these fragments as traces of the violence done by these plunderings. We approach this site as imperial ruins, and address the processes of ruination to which this project is directed. In so doing we intend to seek new associations, constructing our own histories and differing identifications living alongside this archaeological debris which now overlaps with more recent traumas: further ruins created by the recent wars in Iraq perpetrated by that same imperial imperative (as plunderers) a century later.

As artists, and as local inhabitants of this land and this culture, our artistic intentions turn not just to the political aesthetics of ruins but to the ongoing lived experience of those sites and their histories lived out in the bodies and psyches of this group of artists as products of such ruination. We intend to re-think and assert those forms of knowledge that inevitably evade and refused those colonial mandates.

We consider all our documents related to researching the house as artworks because ‘’contemporary art can not only inspire but also transform the interpretive potential of archaeological research. (And call) for liberation of the interpretive realm of archaeology to allow less deterministic and fixed interpretation of things’’ (Russell & Cochrane, 2014, p146).

We utilize technologies such as a drone, camera and mobile phone to produce artistic responses. But this same technology is an instrument of power that current archaeologists use. Conversely, we use this technology as a form of critique and intervention, in order to reclaim this antiquity. We also consider all the documents related to our researching the houses as artworks. We see these artworks as a form of intervention that can transform and liberate the ancient site from the disciplinary constraints of archaeology and its limited interpretations.

The video work Sound of Mesopotamia Sedimentation (SMS) (Fig 6), is a collaborative work between Malallah and Jawdat. A drone had been used purposely to film, document and observe the house as thoroughly as possible. Also, the drone circumambulation around the house was controlled in order to show as much as possible the details that led to our new form of imaginative archaeological research. The drone is also a repurposing of a technology that current western archaeologists use in Iraq, and which is directly tied to military technologies.

FIG 6 Sound of Mesopotamia Sedimentation (SMS). Still from drone video: Malallah & Jawdet, 2019.

From the video one gets the feeling that the house looks like an unsettled, floating brick tent deposited on top of the fragile corroded ancient ziggurat (Fig7); that was a different feeling than the one when we experienced it physically, as the house looked very solid. The video shows that there is no harmony or dialogue between the materials, times, purposes and stories represented in and between these two buildings. Rather, it performs a contestation for ownership and supremacy at the site. The metamorphosed Nuffar Ziggurat is evidence that the westerner archaeologists felt that they were ‘returning to their infancy – to their ‘’cradle’’- and they started to dig into the earth to find traces of those roots, they somehow naturally felt the need to relocate those artefacts to their current home’ (Bernhardsson, 2005, 34). Failing that, erecting their building atop the ziggurat transforms the site to serve this purpose of ownership. Furthermore, the house looks like a lid or a ceiling to suppress (restrain) the ziggurat and the natural progress of its history, as well as to transform it.

FIG 7 Sound of Mesopotamia Sedimentation (SMS). Still from drone video: Malallah & Jawdet, 2019

Another observation we made when being there was that when we visited the site after two rainy days, we saw that a large number of ancient artefacts had risen naturally to the top of many mounds, but not at the ziggurat; the ziggurat was now dead, its future ‘capped’. This kind of natural occurrence of artefacts makes it clear that the people of the land have always been aware of the presence of antiquities, despite the claims of Western archaeology that they had no relationship to the past and that it was the Western archaeologists who uncovered it for the first time.

The overlaying of two kind of sounds in this video: the wind and the noise of local people at the nearby market (Al-Qadisiyah/ Al Diwaniyah), is a signifier for the viewer of the artwork to infer the identity of the ancient site. Wind is an aspect of Enlil who was an ancient Mesopotamian god associated with the wind (4). We consider the sound of the ancient landscape as a fundamental factor; here, the wind represents the enduring presence of Enlil at the site, and the ephemeral nature of life. There is a Mesopotamian fable which says: ‘’Mankind’s days are numbered; all their activities will be nothing but wind’’. To collage together the sound of wind with that of local people in their everyday activities, indicates that these who are there are significant, and this site is their heritage and their identity. The site offers an artistic response for the artist researchers, one of a re-negotiation with such heterogeneous places where memory and history are enduring and embedded in the site itself.

We also respond with several photographs and illustrated images to elaborate on such instruments of power. (Figs 8 & 9)


Art works related to the second Dig House

The second Dig House was constructed in 1964 as residential house for the excavators, and contains several rooms. From first visit to this Dig House (the expedition residential house) (Figs 2 & 3) in December 2018, we were amazed, tantalized, and moved by two things inside the second Dig House. Firstly: a fireplace in what looks a first/front reception room (Fig 10).

FIG 10 Video still from ‘’Inside the US Archaeological Room/ Power of Operation’’, Malallah & Jawdet, 2019

And secondly: a painting on the wall of a second reception room. (Fig11)

FIG 11 Video still from ‘’Inside the US Archaeological Room/ Power of Operation’’, Malallah & Jawdet, 2019

and Jawdet produce a documentary video ‘’Inside the US Archaeological Room/ Power of Operation’’ as well as several photos to archive that moment of an encounter with these two significant things in the house which represent for them the evidence of power and control of the site. The fireplace had been constructed using ancient bricks bearing cuneiform writing (Fig12). Many questions arise about these cuneiform incised bricks used to construct this hearth for the fireplace; why would the US archaeologists use such archaeological artefacts for their everyday activities at the site? Who gave them permission to reuse such artefacts? And why? Such a response again indicates how colonial power operates.

FIG 12 Ancient bricks incised in cuneiform constructed the fireplace. Photo: Hanaa Malallah, 2018

We see how this act of creating a hearth for their personal dwelling needs revokes an original history of these bricks. The US archaeologist have diverted the artefacts (the cuneiform bricks) original historical progress for their own interest; their significance as ancient Mesopotamian artefacts is reduced to decorative function on this fireplace. They are metamorphosed in its history, knowledge, functionality and identity; unlike Westerners, Iraqis they do not use fireplaces in their everyday lives; this particular displacement of these ancient artefacts performs another ownership by the Dig House builder (6). Malallah and Jawdet use a hand-held camera to made their artistic response to this extraordinary encounter. The hand-held camera now allows the viewer of the artwork a new perspective - a witness account to such violation - and invites a response which shares the artist’s encounter of fascination, an alternative gaze which might subvert that of abstract objective scientific enquiry. Intentionally, the sound hadn’t been edited but kept as an indication of abandonment.

This video also documents the wall painting in the second communal room. Our attention now is to question who is depicted here and by whom this painting has been done. Our research suggests that they depict Mr. James Knudstad, Dr. Robert Biggs, McGuire Gibson, and Miss Diane Taylor, part of the archaeological dig in 1964 (7). One of the Iraqi archaeologists who accompany this research visit to the site suggests that the man with wings flaying over the site in the painting is Mr James Knudstad. Here it is; he is in the dominant position (the “owner” of this site). (Fig 13)

FIG 13 Detail of mural on Dig House wall. Photo: Hanaa Malallah, 2018.

The local artist Fatimah Jawdet responds by inserting herself and a picture frame onto the scene depicted on the wall (Figs 14 & 15). Her artistic response allows a possibility for a negotiation of one’s own place in that history; a re-owning of this site – a taking back from this history of the colonisers. It allows the possibility of going beyond the ravages of the chauvinistic structures of knowledge of these 19th and 20th century colonisers. Past and present are now put in flux, allowing new approaches to the legacy of this past. The photos now destabilize those attempts by the archaeologists to claim and fix the history of this ancient cultural site, to propose new and different engagements which might promote a dialogism, a tension between the past and the present. A different excavation is made evident here through this negotiation; Jawdet assimilates her own identity, her own embodied experience as a local inhabitant into this complex history.

Fig 14 Putting Myself in the Picture I, Photograph. Fatimah Jawdet, January 2019

FIG 15 Putting Myself in the Picture II, Photograph. Fatimah Jawdet, January 2019


1 ‘Nippur. The site of the *temple of Enlil, one of the most important * Mesopotamian * god, Nippur was a major religious centre which benefited from construction projects and donation from *kings who wished to demonstrate their piety. Its ruins lie c.180km south –west of Baghdad, measuring 1.5 km across and 20m high. It was excavated by *Layard (1851), the University of Pennsylvania (1888-1900), and intermittently between 1948 and 1990 under various directors by Oriental Institute, Chicago (until 1952) jointly with Pennsylvania.’ Piotr Bienkowski & Alan Millard. Dictionary of the Ancient Near East, British Museum Press. UK. p214

2 “The Americans started to excavate in Nuffar 1888/95 and then in 1948.’’ According to Prof. Zainab Bahrani, Zoom meeting with Malallah on 30/03/2021.

3 In 1887, Haynes was appointed as the business manager and photographer for the University of Pennsylvania-affiliated dig at Nippur… During the first excavation season, he was accompanied by John Punnett Peters, who led the expedition, Perez Hastings Field, an architect, Daniel Noorian, who had worked with Haynes on the Wolfe Expedition, and two Assyriologists named Frank Harper and Herman V. Hilprecht. The first campaign ended in April 1889, mere months after the group arrived in Nippur, due to conflicts with local tribesman as well as clashes between Hilprecht and Peters.

In January 1890, Haynes returned to Nippur with Peters and Noorian, this time remaining for five months. Following this campaign, he returned to the site alone, acting as the director and for three years. In early 1899, Haynes returned to Nippur for one final season accompanied by his wife, Cassandra Artella Smith, and two young architects, Clarence S. Fisher and H. Valentine Geere. During this time Haynes also served as the first American consul to Baghdad from 1889-92.

Nippur, Temple of Bel excavation, 1896 / (6)

4 ‘’an ancient Mesopotamian god associated with wind, air, earth, and storms.’’

5 ‘This has been a season of beginnings. The new field house will permit the building-up of study collections and a reference library which has been impossible heretofore. A larger staff can be housed and still leave guest rooms for visitors. The feeling of optimism and permanence, reflected in the building of an expedition house, allowed the choice of the Ekur, the most sacred area in this holy city, as a site to be excavated. It is the most extensive program that the Oriental Institute has yet undertaken at Nippur’. Richard C. Haine, THE NIPPUR EXPEDITION,, P14.

6 ‘This sense of ownership was evident in that until World War I most sites that were excavated were ones somehow directly related to biblical history – a history perceived by the Europeans as their own, along with its artefacts, and a history of which they were the representatives.’ Magnus T. Bernhardsson, Reclaiming A Plundered Past, University of Texas Press, 2005, P34.

7 ‘Last November the Nippur Expedition returned to central Iraq for its ninth season of work at the large city-mound of Nippur. The staff consisted of Mr. James Knudstad as director and architect, Dr. Robert Biggs as epigrapher, McGuire Gibson as archaeologist and photographer, and Miss Diane Taylor as archaeological and epigraphic assistant. Tarik al-Janabi was the Iraq government representative; when he was called to do his term of army service, Miss Selma al-Radi was appointed in his place. The expedition had two objectives: the beginning of a systematic and complete excavation of the Ekur, a complex of buildings and courtyards dedicated to the city god Enlil, and the construction of a permanent headquarters’. Richard C. Haines, THE NIPPUR EXPEDITION,, P12


Bahrani, Zainab,“Conjuring Mesopotamia: Imaginative Geography and a World Past” in Archaeology Under Fire, London: Routledge, 1998

Bernhardsson, Magnus T. Reclaiming A Plundered Past, University of Texas Press, 2005

Bienkowski, Piotr, & Millard, Alan. Dictionary of the Ancient Near East, British Museum Press. UK. 2000.

Russell, Ian Alden, & Cochrane, Andrew. Art and Archaeology, Springer, New York, 2014

© 2021 Hanaa Malallah

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