Czech archaeologists are best-known for their work in Egypt, spanning five decades, but some specialists have begun making headlines for excavation work in a different part of the world: Mesopotamia – the cradle of ancient civilisation that is now present-day Iraq. Recently an eight-member team headed by Karel Nováček of the University of West Bohemia, returned from northern Iraq after having uncovered Stone Age tools that were used by either our ancestors or our distant relatives (Homo neanderthalensis). The tools date back some 150,000 years, to the Middle Palaeolithic, the oldest find of its kind in the city of Arbil in Kurdistan.
Archaeologist Karel Nováček told me more about the Czech project:
“Historically, this is the first time that Czechs have been involved in northern Mesopotamia. But we didn’t choose Arbil – it more or less chose us. A private Czech firm specialising in historic preservation had been involved there since 2004 and consequently we were able to build on their activities. We got the idea that Arbil – a city whose history goes back some 6,000 years BC – would be ideal for a Czech expedition.”
The project, however, presented a number of restrictions that had to be worked with, namely that – unlike more famous archaeological sites, only Arbil survived to the present day; with a population of 1 million, it is the third largest city in Iraq (after Mosul and Baghdad).
“Unlike the Assyrian cities of Nimrud or Ninime, which lasted only into the Dark Ages or the Middle Ages, Arbil survived. The former sites were consequently far easier to excavate. In Arbil, by comparison, it is much more difficult to get below the surface.”
Because they were working in a living city Czech researchers relied on different methods to narrow down promising locations, archaeologist Karel Nováček explains:
“In Arbil, it’s impossible to excavate just anywhere, to cut out a chunk of area like archaeologists did in the 19th century. So we chose a combination of methods to piece together a mosaic –taking geo-physical measurements that are non-invasive, studying existing buildings and terrain, and analysing old aerial and satellite photographs. We looked at material going back fifty years, before many of the city’s ancient sites were altered or destroyed.”
According to the Czech specialist, the team was able to piece together ‘slivers’ of information that built up a better understanding of Arbil as a whole – a city whose ancient centre, known as The Citadel, rises almost 30 metres above the rest of the town. It – and its surrounding wall - is built on layer upon layer of ancient settlements and buildings going back to 6000 BC. A veritable gem for future research.
“The Citadel in all likelihood has an uninterrupted history going back 6,000, maybe even 7,000 years Before Christ. Within its layers it retains remnants of the original monumental architecture of the Assyrian city: temples and royal palaces and the Temple of Ishtar and so on. When it comes to the rest of the town, we are on more hypothetical ground but our research suggests that there was a wider area that was also part of the older Assyrian city.”
As such, the Czechs operated outside of the plateau, benefiting from the planned construction of an enormous hotel and commercial centre in the newer part of town. They were able to scope to site nine metres into the ground and it is there that they eventually uncovered tools dating back to the Middle Palaeolithic, roughly 150,000 years old: sharp-edged chipped flint tools used by our ancestors or Homo sapiens’ distant relative, Homo neanderthalensis. Both lived side by side in the region of Mesoptamia at the time.
“We will probably never know who really made the tools - not without concrete anthropological evidence: the remains of one of the prehistoric people who inhabitted the area. That is not very likely at all at a site like Arbil; in an inhabitted area that kind of find would be practically unique. So who used the tools – which were used to cut meat or to skin animals – will probably always remain a mystery.”
The tools uncovered in Arbil could be the oldest ever found in the area.
“We aren’t certain of the exact age – yet - and whether the items are older than an American find dating back 50 years. But theirs was some 150 kilometres away, so this is most defintely the oldest find in Arbil itself.”
The Czech team’s work in northern Iraq began in 2006 and will wrap up with several publications of their findings later in 2010. But archaeologist Karel Nováček says Czech researchers hope to continue their involvement in there well into the future.
“Regarding the Palaeolithic, there is still plenty of research we could do to follow up, although that would require some heavier equipment. But there are also other possibilities: in 2007 original buildings on the Citadel dating back to century Ottoman Empire – probably the only remaining intact examples in all of Iraq – were emptied of inhabitants in return for newer property. Careful renovation of the historic buildings was set to begin. But the plan hit a hurdle along the way. The buildings have been empty for some two years – which is not good – but the project should begin soon. It is our hope that we will also be able to conduct research there when things get underway.”
The buildings’ inhabitants, the archaeologist points out, were not original owners with ties to the city but Kurdish families from mountain regions that Saddam Hussein’s regime forcibly tried to assimilate.