top of page

Dig Houses and Archaeological Supremacy: the case at Nuffar

Updated: Mar 17, 2023

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) 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 raises 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 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 2700BC, 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. 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 them 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).

FIG 6 From Archaeology to Spectacle in Victorian Britain, P55

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. ‘This positive stance reaffirms or redefines the Iraqis against themselves. Instead of proposing that ‘‘we are who we are by what we are not’’ the position asserts that Iraqis are ‘’who we are because of who we were.’’ The nation has been presented as a commemorative group of past achievements of people living on Iraqi soil’ (Bernhardsson, 2005, p7). So, as we now look at the identity of the ziggurat, it is not an ancient ziggurat any more, 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 performs as a plundering and rape of that ancient identity, similar to the smuggling of artefacts from their original sites to a re-location behind glass vitrines in the prestigious museums of Europe and America. The combination of this ancient ruin dominated by this recent expedition building (1890’s) exemplifies the lack power in relation to identity, and ownership of that identity. It also stands as an example of how this land belongs to western histories and identities. Antiquities become ‘international’, as a part of the colonialist enterprise directed at ‘the progress of civilisation’ – as were the aims of a ‘civilising’ imperial mission (Zainab Bahrani, 1998). Such antiquities were therefore regarded as belonging to those ‘civilised’ cultures who eagerly removed them to sites (National Museums in the West) which were considered as abler to appreciate and preserve these artefacts. Particularly prized by West abler culture, the Mesopotamian region was regarded as ‘the cradle of civilisation’ and the original garden of Eden. Archaeological artefacts were thought to be of universal relevance and better placed in museums rather than belonging to local inhabitants or the lands of their origin (considered at that time, to be disinterested in their 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 building 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

The first response to what has been observed at the site regarding the expedition house on the top of the ziggurat was artistic, mixed with an archaeological imagination, with 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; our use of the drone is a repurposing of a technology that current western archaeologists use in Iraq, and which is directly tied to military technologies especially in the recent wars in Iraq.

The video work Sound of Mesopotamia Sedimentation (SMS) (Fig 7), is a collaborative work between Malallah and Jawdat. A drone had been used purposely to film and observe the house from the highest point as possible. Also, the drone circumambulation around the house was controlled in order to show as many details as possible to help our research.

FIG 7 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 (Fig8); 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 8 Sound of Mesopotamia Sedimentation (SMS). Still from drone video: Malallah & Jawdet, 2019

Another detail from our physical observation 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’.

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 9 & 10)

FIG 10

Art works related to the second Dig House

From first visit to the second 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 11).

FIG 11 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. (Fig12)

FIG 12 Video still from ‘’Inside the US Archaeological Room/ Power of Operation’’, Malallah & Jawdet, 2019

This building, constructed in 1964 as living space (5), contains several rooms. Malallah and Jawdet produce a documentary video Still from ‘’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 in relation to the site. The fireplace had been constructed using ancient bricks incised with cuneiform writing (Fig13). 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 13 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 reception room. Our attention now is to question who is depicted here and by whom this painting has been done. We now have details provided by Augusta McMahon (7); the mural, in what was the dining room, depicts portraits of archaeologists from the team working at the site in the late 1980’s. Set within the Nuffar landscape, animals and plants are painted in the style of cylinder seals or wall reliefs from 3rd through 1st millennia and is mainly painted by the expedition artist/illustrator Peggy Sanders with some additions by team members. We learn from McMahon that the figure in the top right-hand corner is a self-portrait as a stork, by Nuha al-Radi, an Iraqi artist. (Fig 14)

FIG 14 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 15 & 16). 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 15 Putting Myself in the Picture I, Photograph. Fatimah Jawdet, January 2019

FIG 16 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

Augusta McMahon provided the following clues to the mural details:

The Nippur Excavation House and Dining Room Mural.

The Nippur Excavation House was built by American archaeologists in the 1960’s (by the excavation director, Jim Knudstad). … another room shows a mural which depicts portraits of archaeologists from the team working at the site in the late 1980s, set within the Nuffar landscape. The plants and animals are in the style of cylinder seals or wall reliefs from the 3rd through 1st millennia BCE. The mural was mainly painted by Peggy Sanders, the Nippur artist/illustrator, with some additions by team members.

West Wall: Upper centre: Cook (Abu [ ]) and Mohammad [ ], sacrificing a turkey. Lower right: Unknown couple as the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal and his wife Libbali-Sharrat, as a palace wall relief from Nineveh. Lower left: Unknown (possibly Margaret Brandt, geoarchaeologist) in front of a temple façade in Uruk/early ED Period style.

Main South Wall: Upper right: Nuha al-Radi, Iraqi artist, as a stork (painted by herself). Lower right: Jennifer Arntz? PhD student, University of Chicago, as terracotta figurine. Centre: McGuire Gibson, excavation director, as the god Enlil, driving a small dump-truck. Centre left: Augusta McMahon, then PhD student, University of Chicago, as the goddess Ishtar. Centre bottom: Krzysztof Ciuk, University of Toronto (?), on horse as Parthian rider figurine. Centre top: The two figures on right are representatives of the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, Abbas Fadhil and Ahmad Hamud Abdullah, as Neo-Assyrian scribes. On left, Abu Sadoun (Khalaf Bedawi), Iraqi colleague and foreman of workers, as an Assyrian general. Left: Lorraine Brochu, then PhD student, University of Chicago, as Akkadian Period snake goddess. Upper left: James Armstrong, PhD student and then Fulbright scholar to Iraq, as Early Dynastic votive statue, and Beverley Armstrong as an Ur III foundation deposit. Left: John Sanders and Peggy Sanders, excavation architect and artist, as an Early Dynastic votive statue from Nippur. Lower left: Unknown, possibly Richard Zettler (previous member of Nippur team, then Professor, University of Pennsylvania), as Ur III king.

East Wall: Lower left: Erica Hunter, scholar of incantation bowls, SOAS, as fantasy animal incorporating Australian elements. Upper corner: Unknown (possibly Bob Biggs or Miguel Civil, excavation epigraphers), as Assyrian genie


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

330 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page