A 5,000-year-old fish restaurant: the details of the find at an archaeological site that promises many more

What is considered the world’s oldest bridge, some 4,000 years old, is seen from the ancient city-state of Lagash, near Nasiriyah, Iraq, Thursday, February 23, 2023. (AP Photo/Nabil al- Jourani)

An international archaeological mission has discovered 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 ancient dining room, complete with a rudimentary refrigeration system, hundreds of roughly-crafted clay bowls, and the fossilized remains of an overcooked fishannounced in late January by a team led by the University of Pennsylvania, created a stir beyond Iraq’s borders.

It came against the backdrop of a resurgence in archeology in a country often referred to as the “cradle of civilization” but where archaeological exploration has been stunted by decades of conflict before and after the US invasion. of 2003. Those events they exposed the country’s wealth, sites and collections to looting of tens of thousands of artifacts.

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

Former restaurant highlights renaissance of Iraq's archeology
Excavations of a 5,000-year-old city-state of Lagash, near Nasiriyah, Iraq, are seen Thursday, February 23, 2023. (AP Photo/Nabil al-Jourani)

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

“’Enhance’ is a good term to describe it, or ‘cure’ or ‘recover,’” said Jaafar Jotheri, a professor of archeology at Al-Qadisiyah University, 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, the site of several ancient empires under rulers such as Hammurabi and Nebuchadnezzar.

In the years leading up to the 2003 US invasion, a limited number of international teams came to excavate sites in Iraq. During Saddam Hussein’s rule, Jotheri said, the foreign archaeologists who attended were under tight control by a distrustful government in Baghdad, limiting their contacts with locals. He said there were few opportunities to transfer skills or technology to local archaeologists, which means the international presence “did not bring any benefit to Iraq.”

Former restaurant highlights renaissance of Iraq's archeology
What is considered the world’s oldest bridge, some 4,000 years old, is seen from the ancient city-state of Lagash, near Nasiriyah, Iraq, Thursday, February 23, 2023. (AP Photo/Nabil al-Jourani)

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 “found artifacts and looted as a way of income” and the second in 2003 after the US Invasion, when “everything collapsed”.

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

The first international teams to return to southern Iraq arrived in 2014, but their numbers grew falteringly after that.

The excavations in lagashwhich were first excavated in 1968, were closed after 1990, and the site remained inactive until 2019.

Former restaurant highlights renaissance of Iraq's archeology
Pottery shards are seen at the site of a 5,000-year-old ancient city-state of Lagash. (AP Photo/Nabil al-Jourani)

Unlike many others, the site it was not lootedlargely due to the efforts of the tribes living in the area, said Zaid Alrawi, an Iraqi archaeologist who is the project manager at the site.

Would-be looters who came to the area were driven out 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, Alrawi said, they focused on areas that would yield clues about the lives of ordinary people. They started with what turned out to be a pottery workshop containing several kilns, complete with disposable figurines apparently made by bored workers and date pits from their snack on shift.

Digging further into the area surrounding the workshop found a large room containing a fireplace used for cooking. The area also had benches to sit on and a refrigeration system made from layers of clay pots driven into the ground with shards of clay in between.

Former restaurant highlights renaissance of Iraq's archeology
People visit the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad, Iraq, Friday, February 24, 2023, which reopened to the public after months of maintenance work. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)

The site is believed to date from around 2700 BC, as beer drinking was widespread among the ancient Sumerians inhabiting Lagash at the time, many envisioned the space as some sort of ancient gastropub.

But Alrawi said he thinks it was more likely it was a cafeteria to feed the workers of the pottery workshop next door.

“I think it was a place to serve anyone who was working in the big 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 across the country. Today, he is happy to see “a lot of digging” coming back to Iraq.

Former restaurant highlights renaissance of Iraq's archeology
Iraq’s national museum was looted and vandalized by a frenzied mob during the US-led invasion in April 2003 to overthrow Saddam Hussein. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)

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

As archaeological exploration expanded, international dollars flowed into restoring damaged heritage sites like the al-Nouri Mosque in Mosul, and Iraqi authorities pushed to repatriate stolen artifacts from countries as near as Lebanon and as far away as the United States. USA.

Last month, the national museum of Iraq began opening its doors to the public for free on Fridays, for the first time in recent history. Families wandered hallways lined with Assyrian tablets and got an up-close look at the crown jewel of artifacts repatriated from Iraq: a small clay tablet dating back 3,500 years and containing a looted portion of the Epic of Gilgamesh. from an Iraqi museum 30 years ago. ago and returned from the US two years ago. The tablet is among 17,000 looted artifacts returned to Iraq from the US.

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

Before, he said, his students “could only see these antiquities in books. But now we can see these beautiful artifacts for real.”

(with information from AP)

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