Diary of Abu Tbeirah excavation

Tell Abu Tbeirah – Dhi Qar – Iraq

V excavation campaign – September/November 2015

Day XX

Time: 4:30 AM


Site: Licia Romano, Franco D’Agostino, Desiré Bragalone, Stefano Caruso, Ludovica Bertolini, Maddalena Diaco, Salvatore Milli, Dr. Qais Hussein Rasheed, Dr. Abdulamir al Hamdani, Dr. Ahmed Kamil, Dr. Haider al Mamori, Akbar K. Ajel, Wasan Abdul Sahib Esa, Wusal Naim Jassim, Ahlam J. Ali, Amjad Neama, Tahir K. Aneid, Ali Kadhem Ghanim, Hussein Sultan Sadoon, Ghazwan M. Shaalan, Haider M. Nassir, Firas A. Farhan, Jamal Abdul’al, Takleef, Ngamesh, Haider, Amir, Bessam, Abdallah, Meithem, Jihad, Allawi, Ahmed, Nabil, Aqeel

House: Davide D’Errico, Flavia Pacelli, Edoardo Zanetti, Daniele Moscone, Marta Zingale, Mary Anne Tafuri, Alessandra Celant, Donatella Magri, Vanessa Forte, Stella Nunziante, Giulia Barella, Susanna Cereda

Excavation diary compiler: Ludovica Bertolini

5:00 am: we get to the site on our indispensable Iveco van, sleepy and accompanied by our workers, sitting at the back, trying to warm up by singing. The early morning here is very cold and damp, perfect for a sudden wake up. As every morning, Ghani came to pick us up and we all waited for the police at Ur entrance, in order to be escorted to Abu Tbeirah Site.
Oh here we are, backpacks ready and down we go, through the muddy land…I know I’m an archaeologist so “clayey land” would be more appropriate, but at this point I should provide you with the Munsell colour too!
Today I’m scheduled to work on site but I will have to scatter between digging work and scribal practice, as I will not be writing just a simple diary but I will explain you the essence of being an archaeologist. Please, do not tell me that you do know already what it means, I am pretty sure you have watched Indiana Jones, but, I regret to inform you, that unfortunately no massive diamonds or cursed golden artefacts are found or either arks of covenant etc. Here we do true science, you don’t believe me? I will then prove it to you…
Our director’s safety shoes are already filled with mud and she is holding the total station in one hand and at least two buckets full of trowels in the other hand. What’s a trowel? Oh well, nothing to do with whips, guns, or escaping routes from secret societies trying to conquer the world thanks to some spooky, weird and ancient powerful object. And even if that was a real scenario…you have no idea how hard it is to run on safety boots! We don’t need guns or whips as Tom Raider does, we only need a trowel (our best friend!), a bucket, a dust pan and brush and, last but not least, lots of patience and lots and lots of brain. I’m aware that it might sounds strange, but our job not only gives us an embarrassing suntan, wrist inflammation, sore eyes and everlasting articular pain, it also blesses us with an infinite series of irresolvable questions and headaches to whom is not always easy to give answer. I know, it sounds like we are doing the best job in the world, and it is for us, but it comes with a price…our mental health!

Let’s move on, what does this job actually consist of? So far we have only introduced our “armory”, but that’s nothing, we are only “scraping the surface” and this what we would actually say.
This morning we’ll have to work on specific areas, during our journey here we had a “brief briefing”: the group will select two “captains”, each captain will then select the team members one by one so that two teams are formed and we can go on our separate ways, so far nothing too difficult. For ease of understanding the two teams are called Team Sargon (TS) and Team NaramSin (TN), we are orientalists after all! Well…to be honest we are not only orientalists, within our team there are archaeologists (specialized both in Ancient Near East and in Prehistory), philologists, pottery experts, Archaeo-botanists, anthropologists, geologists, chemists, conservators and the list could go on forever! We would do anything for our Abu Tbeirah! You are very lucky today, most of the team is here in Iraq and we are all very excited! Team Sargon is about to go and check some pottery heaps highlighted yesterday before closing the site. What am I talking about? Yesterday we found some pottery concentrations in situ and today we are going to do an accurate scaled field drawing of them, thanks to the total station (oh yes it’s an instrument that allows you to identify an object on a 3d plane and then translate it on a computer software so to be re-elaborated and…well it’s complicated…). After having done so, we’ll have to photograph, dismantle and bag the pottery concentrations, assign them with a tag showing the stratigraphic unit number. Each concentratrion will then be brushed, washed, dried and entered into our database. The most relevant fragments will have to be hand drawn very carefully by one of our team member. What do we do with them? For what concerns the fragments, our Conservator will reassemble them, while the drawings will have to be processed at the computer in order to be entered into the database. So many things to do right?! And we are just at the beginning!!


Where’s the NaramSin team gone? They are dealing with the walls boundary, a very hard task! Let’s just imagine for a second how hard it could be to recognise a thin clay wall within a 1000 years old clayey ground! Not easy at all! Here in Abu Tbeirah we are not dealing with stone walls; the palace we are digging out is made out of adobe clay bricks, meaning that these bricks are made of the same material of what has been covering them for the past 4000 years and more! Therefore you need a very good eye in order to be able to distinguish the brick from the soil! Luckily for us our director is very patient, she has taught us how to discern the differences in composition between the stratigraphical units. But she is not the only one helping us, we have an unexpected ally. Are you curious? Well I’m talking about salt! Yes salt, you’ve heard well! And I’ll tell you why: salt plays an extremely important role within our mission in Abu Tbeirah, thanks to salt and morning humidity we are able to read the outline of walls like if they were imprinted on an x-ray imagery. The walls will then need to be highlighted and dug out so that points can be taken by the total station and a 3d model can be generated.

You know what, let’s leave the guys to their job so we can move on and talk about the rest. What rest? I hope you do not think that our job takes place exclusively on site! Let’s go home, the other half of the team is already awake, and after an abundant breakfast, each of them has started their tasks, there’s lots to do indeed.

Casa Missione_1

First of all, all the objects and pottery found on site have to be stock taken, washed, drawn down and have pictures taken.


Our conservator must be already waiting for them, we better hurry up!

Restoration work

Someone should also deal with the floatation machine….What is it?

analysis of heavy residues

Well let’s start from the beginning: when we arrive on site, for example at a specific stratigraphic unit, such as a floor or any ground-surface, we usually divide the area into squares so to form a grid which will then have the x and y axes assigned with letters and numbers. What do we need this for? The grid allows us to gather soil samples which will have to be studied for a series of simple but important reasons. Knowing what sediments on a earth beaten ground-surface can be fundamental in order to recognise the specific function of a room, for example fragments of stone tools can indicate a handcraft production zone, food remains could be an indicator of an area devoted to food consumption, just to make a couple of simple deductions, but here starts the headaches! Anyway, let’s move on. All these samples are taken to our base, a portion of each of them will be sent to Italy for further chemical analysis, while the rest will go through the floatation machine process which consists in placing the sample soils in a mesh that is posed in the water in order to dissolve the soil, ejected in the form of mud, and withhold any heavy residue. These residues, within the mesh, will need to be dried out, stock taken and sent to Italy for further analysis.

Work and study at La Sapienza University of Rome

But it’s not over yet! We have so many other things to do! For example? Using a special paste called Provil (yes, the paste used by your dentist to take a a negative mold of your mouth!)we record the fingerprints that were impressed on the fresh clay and preserved till our days, and we do so not in order to check if the artisan has any criminal records! But it would be interesting to be able to tell if any of the vessels come from the same workshop. How cool would that be!?


Well we are almost at the end of the day but there still a couple of things that need to be done before we can all sit down around the narghile’ and play the guitar. One of us will have to go to the hospital in Nasiriyah, which kindly has allowed us to x-ray some of the better preserved vessels. X-rays allow us to determine the way the piece of pottery was made, if wheel thrown, coiled or shaped by pinching. This can tell us a lot about the Sumerian, their material culture and their crafting skills.

X-Ray on pottery

In extremis, we only miss the RTI, what is it? Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) is a new imaging technique that creates hyper-realistic digital surrogates that are interactively controlled by the viewer. This means that making lots of picture of a particular object from different position we are then able to generate a sort of image that can be rotate and manipulate by us in ordere to better distinguish the carachteristics of the object.

Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI)

Oh well, what do you think? Do we deserve some rest? I’m going to join the team around the water-pipe now, drink some hot tea, have a muffin and then straight to bed, otherwise I won’t be able to wake up in a few hours!