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Tank Traces at the Archaeological Sites of Nippur* and Babylon

By Hanaa Malallah and Zainab Bahrani

Figure. 1. Trace of American tanks at archaeological site of Nuffar, December 2018, from Malallah’s site visit. Photos: H. Malallah, mobile camera, 2018.


Following a trip to the archaeological site of Nippur in the south of Iraq in December 2018, Hanaa Malallah produced visual documentation-artworks based on her first-hand observations and experiences, among which are the two photographs presented here that document tracks of military tanks on the archaeological site (Fig 1). The photographs have been selected from a collection of images as tangible evidence, and presented here in order to demonstrate (illustrate) our joint research endeavour in this paper. Through this photographic evidence we are seeking to show how the violation of the archaeological sites of Mesopotamia has a history and long-term consequences. It not only occurred in recent years under the US and Coalition occupation and during periods of warfare, damage to ancient sites continues today for political and financial profits, including in the name of heritage; there is a deep and long history that connects antiquity and political claims to this land. There is a clear history of the conjunction between colonial violence and archaeological practices at the ancient sites of the land known as Mesopotamia.1

An analysis of visual evidence and the tangible, physical traces in the ground, demonstrates the synchronism between colonialism, authority, and archaeology. Our observation is that the controlling of Iraq politically and economically, and the control of archaeological sites and the historical narratives of and about Mesopotamia is clear and manifest in visual traces at the ancient sites themselves. This tangible trace of colonising antiquity itself can be placed among the archaeological scientific facts of archaeology. Using archaeological method and technologies to look for traces of war and violence that others have perpetuated is something that archaeologists have attempted before for periods of violence and destruction. We turn this “Dark Heritage” approach and methodology towards the disciplinary field of Mesopotamian archaeology itself, looking at the past, and at present practices. In our work we try to shed some light on how Iraqis today see and think about these sites, the complicated situation of archaeology in their land, and their use of Mesopotamian heritage as bedrock of their civil identity.

Our utilisation of art to research scientific archaeology, archaeological sites and histories is a turning to art as a means of thinking through archaeology and asking a different set of questions.2 It allows us a free space to think about what we visualize and what we see. We then analyse, turning around the research method, and reinforcing our visual findings with archaeological scientific references to counter the standard history of Mesopotamian archaeology as a heroic story of great discovery and rescue of antiquities. Through our work we collapse the constraints and limits of concepts such as art and archaeology.3 We use the visual documents as artwork-tools for our research, and we depend on our original visual finding and in person, physical experiences and encounters at the site. By ‘’engaging with the ‘thinking- through- doing’ of visual arts practice” our work “will lead to more critical analysis of the ‘thinking –through- doing’ of archaeological fieldwork and the products of that fieldwork.”4 Such things include classifications of what is, or is not an artwork.

The two photographs (Fig 1) show clear traces (lines and indentations) made by military tanks. We visited the site in December 2018, which was fifteen years after the US invasion of 2003. These are clues in the ground, but why are the traces still so clear? Are they new? Were they made since the US troops officially withdrew in 2011? Speaking to the local Iraqi guards, we understood from them that no permission for Iraqi military equipment to enter the site has been given. They also did not know the date of the tank traces; they were there a long time (Fig 2). Both to us and to the guards, these traces are emblematic of violent activities. The tank lines are clean and clear, while all the surrounding ground is full of shards of pottery and fragments of clay inscribed tablets with the ancient cuneiform signs still visible on them. The tanks pushed through these, smashing them and indenting the ground.

Fig. 2. December 2018 at the ancient site of Nippur: Malallah with two Iraqi guards there. Photograph: Malallah, mobile camera.

Impulsively, I (Malallah) photographed the tank traces. When I reviewed them again and again later, they remind me first of: Kilroy Was Here (Fig 3) (, and secondly, of Richard Long’s work titled: Kilroy was here: Aline in Bolivia, 1981 (Fig 4)5

There was no artistic intervention (involvement) made to produce these tracks at Nippur. Rather, it was military action and impact that created them. In this case, the artist just gives a record of the action by photographing the traces, in the same way that an archaeologist would document such things. Furthermore, these lines which signify military action and can be read semiotically as violence, result in emptying the surface of the ground of ancient shards. This is in contrast with the surrounding area, that is naturally covered by ancient artefacts, including those that rise to the top after any rain day. These empty track-lines stand as an indication of the violent changes to the site. At the archaeological site of Nippur then we can see many layers of destruction and traces of colonial control, from the two archaeological dig houses built into and on top of the ruins, one of them using ancient inscribed bricks in the construction, to the tank traces of more recent war.6

Fig. 3. Engraving of Kilroy on the National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Fig. 4. Colin Renfrew, Figuring it out, Thames & Hudson, 2003, p. 32.


Such a thing was to be clearly seen at Babylon. During the spring and summer of 2004, I (Bahrani) made several trips to Babylon while it was being used as a US and Coalition military base. There I photographed the military installations, extensive occupation damage, and the tracks of tanks and heavy military equipment on the ancient city of Babylon. Throughout that spring and summer, making survey walks through the site with two more Iraqi archaeologists who are from Babil, I photographed the encampment in the heart of Babylon. The photographs presented here are a small selection of the images that I have archived for future generations to study. One image presented here is of two Iraqi archaeologists from Babil looking at the tracks of military vehicles at the site (Fig. 5). They were new tracks that had just appeared in July, though these Iraqi archaeologists had pointed out months earlier that military vehicles should not be permitted on the site. By the time of this photograph, they had already spent months carefully observing and surveying the damage across the site.

Fig.5. Iraqi archaeologists from Babil: Maryam Umran Moussa and Haider Oraibi Al Mamori, looking at the tracks of military vehicles in Babylon. Photograph: Zainab Bahrani, July 2004.

The second and third images document the damage to the ancient pavement of the ritual processional way that was smashed by tanks rolling over it (Fig. 6, 7). The processional way, leading from outside the monumental Ishtar Gate to the Temple of the Great God Marduk, was used for the New Year, Akitu festival. This processional way dates to the 6th century BC.

Fig. 6, 7: The paved processional way with military vehicle tracks and breakage visible in both images. Photographs: Zainab Bahrani, May, 2004.

Another photograph shows military vehicles parked next to the Temple of the goddess Ninmah in Babylon (Fig. 8). These images of military presence, of tracks and traces in the historical material of the ancient city, their damage to the site of Babylon, are part of an archive of historical destruction.7

The official and media reports of what happened at Babylon during the war and occupation excluded Iraqis. They provided an efficient account in which the Iraqi people were set aside; they were irrelevant to the hierarchies of power that stake their claim in ancient sites. Thus, what happened at Babylon has been presented as an episode between Western archaeologists and military authorities.8 In a similar way to the history of archaeology itself, which left out or skipped over so much from its accounts of excavations in Mesopotamia, so too this story of the traces and layers of military destruction visible in the ground has many untold tales that are yet to be heard.

Fig. 8. The Temple of Ninmah. Photograph: Zainab Bahrani, May, 2004.

The final photograph is of the ancient processional way of Babylon. (Fig. 9) Breakage and damage can be seen. A metal spike is inserted into the paving, and barbed wire crosses the ground. A shadow holding a camera appears below.

Fig. 9 Processional way damage. Photograph: Zainab Bahrani, May, 2004.

* “Nippur, modern Niffer, or Nuffar, is ancient city of Mesopotamia, now in Southeastern Iraq. It lies northeast of the town of Ad-Dīwānīyah. Although never a political capital, Nippur played a dominant role in the religious life of Mesopotamia.’’

1 Bruce Trigger, “Alternative Archaeologies: Nationalist, Colonialist, Imperialist” Man, 19, 1984: 355-370; Z. Bahrani “Conjuring Mesopotamia: Imaginative Geography and a World Past” in L. Meskell ed, Archaeology Under Fire, London: Routledge, 1998: 159-174; Z. Bahrani, “The Aesthetic and the Epistemic: Race, Culture and Antiquity” in The Graven Image: Representation in Babylonia and Assyria, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003: pp. 13-49; F. N. Bohrer, Orientalism and Visual Culture, Cambridge University Press, 2003; M. Bernhardsson, Reclaiming a Plundered Past: Archaeology and Nation Building in Modern Iraq, University of Texas Press, 2005; Z. Bahrani, Z. Çelik and E. Eldem, Scramble for the Past: The Story of Archaeology in the Ottoman Empire 1853-1914, Istanbul: Salt, 2011; Shawn Malley, From Archaeology to Spectacle in Victorian Britain, Farnham: Ashgate Press, 2012; Zeynep Çelik, About Antiquities, University of Texas, 2016. In addition to these critical assessments of the relationship between imperialism, colonialism and archaeology there are numerous studies that continue to present celebratory accounts of the great hero archaeologists risking their lives for scientific endeavors and rescuing antiquities from savage lands, studies that fit within the genre of Great Man Histories, and thus suitably mask the colonial violence behind the acquisition of antiquities, Magnus T Bernhardsson, Reclaiming A Plundered Past, P3.

2 Ian Alden Russell and Andrew Cochrane, Art and Archaeology (Collaborations, Conversations, Criticisms), Springer, New York 2015, p. 145.

3 Ian Alden Russell and Andrew Cochrane, Art and Archaeology (Collaborations, Conversations, Criticisms), Springer, New York 2015, 146.

4 Antonia Thomas, Art “Contexts: Between the Archaeological Site and Art Gallery” in Ian Alden Russell and Andrew Cochrane, Art and Archaeology (Collaborations, Conversations, Criticisms), Springer, New York 2015, P.142.

Kilroy was here is a meme[1] that became popular during World War II, typically seen in graffiti. Its origin is debated, but the phrase and the distinctive accompanying doodle became associated with GIs in the 1940s: a bald-headed man (sometimes depicted as having a few hairs) with a prominent nose peeking over a wall with his fingers clutching the wall; Colin Renfrew, Figuring it out: What Are We? Where do We Come From? The Parallel Visions of Artists and Archaeologists, London: Thames & Hudson, 2003, p. 32.

6 At the same time, the extraction, removal and appropriation of antiquities continued.

7 Z. Bahrani, “Archaeology and the Strategies of War” in R.W. Baker, S.T. Ismael and T.Y. Ismael eds, Cultural Cleansing in Iraq. Pluto Press, 2010: pp. 67-81; Maryam Umran Moussa, “The Damage Sustained to the Ancient City of Babel as a Consequence of the Military Presence of Coalition Forces” in P. Stone and J. Bajjaly eds, Destruction of Cultural Heritage in Iraq, Boydell & Brewer Press, 2008; and Z. Bahrani “The Battle for Babylon” in the same volume.

8 No Iraqi archaeologists are mentioned in the UNESCO Final Report on the damage done by the US and Coalition occupation of the ancient site of Babylon in 2003-2004, “Report on Damage Assessments in Babylon” UNESCO, 26/06/2009.

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