Hidden depths of Iraq and mankind's majestic past
In 1978, during a bitterly cold winter on Jabal Hamrin, a hilly ridge in central-eastern Iraq, a young British archaeologist was investigating a mystery.
Dr Robert Killick, 23, was part of the British archaeological expedition excavating a 2300BC Bronze Age grave believed to belong to a chieftain.
In the 4 by 5 metre grave, the archaeologists dug up the kind of items one would expect inside most graves of an era that believed in life after death - more than 50 pottery vessels, several spearheads and other weapons. In addition there were the remains of a chariot, for the dead warrior to drive majestically into the other world.
Then there were some surprises.
"We found the skeletons of two donkeys or onagers, but no sign of a human skeleton," recalled Dr Killick. "At first, we joked that this royal chamber was made for the donkeys, but that couldn't be possible, could it?"
He then went into "detective mode" and searched for clues to the missing body, and found a distortion in one of the walls of the grave. It opened up into a separate pit on the side of the grave, with the human skeleton laid out in a tiny bedroom-like chamber.
"But that was nothing. Less than 1 per cent of Iraq has been excavated and studied," said Dr Killick, who worked in Iraq for more than a decade and then in the rest of the region for another two decades.
"Iraq is where it all started, the cradle of civilisation. Imagine the wealth of history, the stories in the ruins that have not yet been read that will give us clues into our past."
And that is why Dr Killick, along with archaeologist Dr Jane Moon, will be heading back to Iraq this winter to start digging with a British and Iraqi team after almost two decades of halted excavations in a country rocked with wars, sanctions and instability.
"Contrary to what people believe about the current state of Iraq, most of the ancient sites have not in fact been destroyed. The majority are, thankfully, intact," he said.
Dr Killick was in Dubai, meeting companies who have branches in Iraq who will be funding some of the project. Scheduled to run over seven years, the Ur Region Archaeology Project will cost about US$2.7 million (Dh10m).
"Priceless information about mankind's past lies concealed beneath Iraq's landscape, especially in the 'tells' - earth mounds - that are the remains of ancient towns, villages and farmsteads," he said.
The target site is "Tell Khaiber", which is about 20 kilometres from the ancient city of Ur, near Nasiriyah, in Thi Qar province. It is here, in southern Iraq, that civilisation began more than 5,000 years ago.
Here the innovative Sumerians lived, who introduced urban living and invented writing using "Cuneiform" to cope with all the administrative and practical needs of the time. Then came the Babylonians, whose trading and military skills forged a mighty empire.
It is also said to be the birthplace of Prophet Abraham.
"We picked Tell Khaiber as the archaeological remains seem intact and have not been disturbed by looters," said Dr Killick.
From the pottery collected on the surface, the researchers believe that people lived at Tell Khaiber for more than three thousand years, from about 5,000 to 2,000BC. It is predicted that the town enjoyed such a long period of prosperity due to its location on what was the westernmost branch of the Euphrates River.
"Satellite images show the presence of large rectangular public buildings on the two main mounds of the settlement, perhaps royal palaces or the administrative buildings of the town," said Dr Killick. "Their presence confirms the importance of Tell Khaiber in antiquity."
The archaeologists hope that the contents of the rooms inside the structures will explain how the building functioned, and so will help reconstruct economic and political conditions in the settlement and its area of influence. Other likely finds include the distinctive seals of the period, used as signatures on documents and as marks of ownership on goods.
The location of the site is also important for the actual teams involved. First it is a "safe place" to work, away from conflict zones, and it is close to Nasiriyah to facilitate full collaboration with staff of the local Antiquities Department.
Iraqi archaeologists and researchers welcomed the return of excavations, saying it is a step towards "recovery" of their country.
"The Tell Khaiber excavation near Ur in southern Iraq is a breath of air to archaeological research in Iraq," said Dr Lamia Al Gailani, an eminent Iraqi archaeologist, who worked in the Iraq Museum in the 1960s, and again in 2003 after the looting.
"Iraq used to have the best of archaeologists in the 1960s and 1970s, when archaeological excavations and research of major significance was taking place, with many international universities excavating in Iraq. Some had permanent institutes in Baghdad, such as the British School of Archaeology, the German Institute and the Italian Cultural Centre," she said.
"All these activities came to an end after the first Gulf War in 1991, international excavations stopped, and no new books were purchased by the Iraq Museum Library because of the sanctions," she explained. After 2003, with the fall of Saddam Hussein regime, Iraq remained unstable, and unsafe for excavations or any kind of field research. "As a result of all this, the continuing development of Iraqi archaeologists and the study of the history of ancient Iraq have come to a halt, with disastrous results. Iraqi archaeologists became completely isolated from progress in the new developments in archaeological research," said Dr Al Gailani.
"But this is changing now, and the presence of international archaeologists in Iraq is essential to familiarise and train young Iraqi archaeologists and to enhance the study of Iraq's history and heritage, particularly in its role as the cradle of civilisation," she said.
The project is a collaboration with Iraq's State Board for Antiquities and Heritage, the British Institute for the Study of Iraq and the University of Manchester. The plan is to work with a team of international and Iraqi archaeologists, numbering between ten and sixteen, spending three months excavating at Tell Khaiber, supported by local workmen. The international team will include specialists in areas such as animal bone and plant remains, as well as conservators and, if ancient written materials are found, language experts.
Work on analysis and publication will continue throughout the year at the project's academic base in the University of Manchester.
However, as Dr Killick reminds us, "Archaeology is unpredictable. You never know exactly what you might find - that is what is so exciting. We trust that this project will be just the beginning for a new era in the exploration of Iraq's magnificent heritage and its new generation of Iraqi archaeologists."