Iraq: Archaeologists discover an ancient restaurant in Lagash Pipa News


Iraq: Archaeologists discover an ancient restaurant in Lagash


An international archaeological mission has uncovered the remains of what is believed to be a 5,000-year-old restaurant or tavern in the ancient city of Lagash in southern Iraq.

The discovery of the ancient dining room — complete with a rudimentary refrigeration system, hundreds of crudely crafted clay bowls and the petrified remains of an overcooked fish — announced in late January by a team led by the University of Pennsylvania caused some excitement outside Iraq’s boundaries.

It came against the backdrop of a resurgence of archeology in a country often referred to as the “cradle of civilization,” but where archaeological research has been hampered by decades of conflict before and after the 2003 U.S. invasion. the rich sites and collections to the looting of tens of thousands of artifacts.

“The consequences of looting in the field of archeology were very serious,” Laith Majid Hussein, director of the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage of Iraq, told The Associated Press. “Unfortunately, the wars and periods of instability have greatly affected the situation in the country in general.”

With the relative calm that has prevailed in recent years, the excavations have returned. At the same time, thousands of stolen artifacts have been repatriated, offering hope for an archaeological renaissance.

“‘Improve’ is a good term to describe it, or ‘cure’ or ‘restore,'” said Jaafar Jotheri, an archeology professor at the University of Al-Qadisiyah, describing the current state of the field in his country.

Iraq is home to six UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including the ancient city of Babylon, site of several ancient empires under rulers such as Hammurabi and Nebuchadnezzar.

In the years before the 2003 U.S. invasion, a limited number of international teams came to dig at sites in Iraq. During Saddam Hussein’s rule, Jotheri said, the foreign archaeologists who did come were closely monitored by a distrustful Baghdad government, limiting their contacts with the local population. There was little opportunity to transfer skills or technology to local archaeologists, he said, meaning the international presence “conferred no benefit to Iraq.”

The country’s ancient sites faced “two waves of destruction,” Jotheri said, the first after harsh international sanctions were imposed following Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait and desperate Iraqis “find artifacts and loot as a form of income” and the second in 2003 after the US invasion, when “everything came crashing down.”

Amid the resulting security vacuum and the rise of the Islamic State militant group, excavations were halted in southern Iraq for nearly a decade while continuing in the more stable northern Kurdish-controlled area. Ancient sites were looted and artifacts smuggled abroad.

The first international teams to return to southern Iraq came in 2014, but their numbers grew steadily thereafter.

The excavations at Lagash, first excavated in 1968, were closed after 1990 and the site remained dormant until 2019.

Unlike many others, the site has not been looted in the meantime, thanks in large part to the efforts of tribes living in the area, said Zaid Alrawi, an Iraqi archaeologist who is the site’s project manager.

Potential looters who came to the area were chased away by “local villagers who basically consider these sites their property,” he said.

Previous excavations had uncovered a temple complex and the remains of institutional buildings, so when archaeologists returned in 2019, they focused, Alrawi said, on areas that would provide clues to the lives of ordinary people. They started what turned out to be a pottery workshop with several kilns, complete with disposable figurines apparently made by bored workers and date stones from their snacks.

Digging further in the area around the workshop found a large room with a fireplace that was used for cooking. The area also contained benches and a cooling system made with layers of clay jars stuck into the earth with clay shards in between.

The site is believed to date from about 2700 BC. Since beer drinking was rife among the ancient Sumerians who lived in Lagash at the time, many saw the space as something of an ancient gastropub.

But Alrawi said he believes a cafeteria was more likely to feed the workers at the pottery next door.

“I think it was a place to serve everyone who worked in the large pottery production next door, right next to where people work hard, and they had to have lunch,” he said.

Alrawi, whose father was also an archaeologist, grew up visiting sites all over the country. Today he is happy to see “a full throttle of excavations” returning to Iraq.

“It’s very good for the country and for the archaeologists, for the international universities and academia,” he said.

As archaeological research has expanded, international dollars have flowed into the restoration of damaged heritage sites such as the al-Nouri Mosque in Mosul, and Iraqi authorities have pushed for the repatriation of stolen artifacts from countries as close as Lebanon and even the United States.

Last month, Iraq’s National Museum began opening its doors to the public for free on Fridays — a first in recent memory. Families wandered through corridors lined with Assyrian tablets and got an up close look at the crown jewel of Iraq’s repatriated artifacts: a small clay tablet dating back 3,500 years containing part of the Epic of Gilgamesh that was looted from an Iraqi museum 30 years ago and returned from the US two years ago. The tablet is one of 17,000 looted artifacts returned to Iraq from the US

Ebtisam Khalaf, a history teacher who was one of the museum’s visitors on the first day off, said: “This is a wonderful initiative because we can see the things that we used to only hear about.”

Before, she said, her students “could only see these antiquities in books. But now we can see these beautiful artifacts in real life.”


Associated Press writers Nabil al-Jurani in Lagash and Ali Abdul Hassan in Baghdad contributed to this report.