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