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No Map, But Trenches

Hanaa Malallah and Zainab Bahrani – 16 July, 2022

(Fig 1) Map of The Trenches.1 Imaginative map of Iraq by Malallah, 2021 generated from mobile photograph of trenches at the site of Nipper in December, 2018 and the archaeological map of Iraq produced by Iraq Mudīrīyat al-Āthār al-Qadīmah al-ʻĀmmah, 1967.

(Fig 3) shows two maps of Iraq generated from the 1967 antiquities map of Iraq (Fig 2). These three maps are part of the first exhibition of our project: Coexistent Ruins: Exploring Iraq’s Mesopotamian Past Through Contemporary Art shown at SOAS /Brunei Gallery/ London, winter, 2022. This research paper began as part of the exhibition.

The research paper we call No Map, but Trenches is offered here as a work that hovers between artwork and scholarship. The task of research and writing proceeds in tandem with the production of the visual work. Both are forms of visual communication in images and words, visual forms that present concomitant thought. These unified layers of visuality are hypothetical presentations that do not substantiate, but rather propose a thesis. They are theoretical propositions for the testing of the reasonability of assumptions. It is a proposition to be perceived by the senses. Our image-text research is a tool with which we dig deeper into the imperial past. The overlapping and interlacing of visual and textual practice is a double means of communication with viewers/readers of the work, a work which steps towards the reframing of the past.2


This textual/visual work concerns the actions and the processes of digging to acquire ancient artefacts and to bring other resources—especially petroleum—to the surface. By means of both archaeological and artistic imaginative maps (fig. 2 & 3) we visualize the way in which our research addresses the act of digging Iraq/Mesopotamia for treasures. This processes of digging and drilling, for extracting natural and cultural resources, has bulldozed the Iraqi present, and dissociated the present inhabitants from their land. It created a ruination tied to an imaginative geography and the narrative structuring of historical time.3 We point to how this dispossession and dislocation of artefacts and oil has shaped the map of the Iraqi present; it is as if it were a map of a large trench. Ruins and trenches of wars and archaeology form a palimpsest of destruction, both cultural and environmental. As Bernhardsson stated, “From the formative years of the Iraqi state (to date) … Archaeology was but one of the many hats that adorned (the Western) politician’’.4 We see the interest of oil as another and bigger hat. These are the traces of colonial-imperialist violence that we map, both in our art and in our research. It is a distorted map, a map of Imperial ruins (fig. 3). We figuratively “treat [Iraqi ruins, archaeological and oil maps] as symptom and substance of history’s destructive force’’.5


The derelict land of Iraq, the easternmost province of the Ottoman Empire which the British came to call Mesopotamia, became alluring to the West particularly as a land for digging and collecting in the nineteenth century. Archaeologists, diplomats, politicians, and those searching for natural resources all participated. They dug first for its ancient artefacts, and then for its petroleum. In 1811, Claudius James Rich, the Resident of the British East India Company in the Pashalik of Baghdad, travelled to Babylon and began digging there. During his time in the Pashalik, he also picked up numerous ancient artefacts and manuscripts and took them for his own. By the 1840s, Paul Emile Botta, the French Consul in Mosul, and Austen Henry Layard, the British statesman, began large scale excavations near Mosul in the north of Iraq, when the sculpted palaces of the ancient Assyrian kings were dug up, tunnelled through, dismantled, and taken to London and Paris and then to other locations in Europe and North America. These Orientalist adventures became standard procedure for nineteenth century archaeology in Iraq. Mesopotamia became a locus in which the west saw its own origins, the place of the birth of civilization that was then passed to Greece and Rome, and from there to its rightful place in Modern Europe, entirely bypassing the inhabitants of the east. They saw the east as the accidental location of this past. The acquisition of antiquities found in this land, was thus justified as the removal of the remains of their own past. A scramble for the past ensued in which the Louvre and the British Museum competed in a race for the acquisition of Assyrian and Babylonian antiquities.6 As Stratford Canning, the British Ambassador to the Sublime Porte in Istanbul said, “M. Botta’s success at Nineveh has induced me to venture in the same lottery, and my ticket has turned up a prize… there is much reason to think that Montague House [The British Museum] will beat the Louvre hollow”.7 The French and the British wrote explicitly about the need to be the first nation to “discover” ancient sites in Mesopotamia, and to amass the largest amount of antique material and best pieces for their museums. This early era of digging for antiquities resulted in massive disruption and dislocation of antiquities to the imperial museums. 


In our view, three contributing factors shaped Iraq into a map of ruins and rubble: archaeology, natural resources and the violence perpetrated to extract and to own them. This became increasingly the case once petroleum became a major factor during the first world war. As one historian puts it, “When the British occupied Mesopotamia during the war, they were in a position to exploit some of its resources, both natural and cultural.’’8

I (Malallah) create these imaginative maps, which have been distorted by punching and scratching locations of actual archaeological sites, a process resembling digging. I see the residual ruins as maps of the present. As for these illustrated maps, neither of us knows for certain if they might qualify as a work of art. But what we do know is that we visualize our research process, and that visualization of the imaginative geography, is a landscape of violence and ruination. 


In Malallah’s 2007 work (Fig. 5, My Country Map) one can see a map, in canvas on canvas of burnt layers. Deliberately inaccurate, this borderless map explores Malallah’s feeling of being trapped and dislocated by the consequences of the Iraq wars. Cities are positioned randomly, their names burned into canvas, reflecting the destruction and fragmentation caused by the wars. After the 2003 invasion, the occupation forces designated particular areas as safe Green Zones and others as unsafe Red Zones. A red cloth Baghdad city bus map is used to symbolise cities in the west of Iraq, which have seen extreme violence. A fragment of green appears on the upper right. This green is inspired by the colour worn by pilgrims seeking protection. In the drilled map (Fig. 3). Malallah punched each archaeological site, then punched every single location of oil extraction in the map of the modern state of Iraq, a state that was formed by West after the first world war. The result is no map, but trenches, or rather a land that is one large trench that was likewise created by western political and capitalist powers. In short, these persistent diggings and drillings have occurred at the expense of not only the present, but of the future of the people of this land (Iraqis), as well as of the environment and ecosystem.


The maps help us to develop further our earlier work, and to discover a new path in art and research alike. In her scholarship, Bahrani has written extensively about imaginative geography and colonial-imperialist interest in this region, its archaeological ruins and its antiquities.9 Malallah has addressed these issues through art practice. Our joint paper here brings our visual and textual work together, and takes down the boundary between our scholarship and art.


Our approach is also phenomenological in that we consider our physical presence and experience at the archaeological or historical site, and the reality of its tangible existence. This is not just the pleasure of encountering our past physically or experiencing “the material world that carries the traces of (our) past’’ in the words of Colin Renfrew, but keeping our questions about identity alive, the identity and rights of the contemporary inhabitants and Iraqi people that have been largely dismissed. For Malallah, this project is based on her physical, personal experiences and history. She was born in Iraq and had remained there from her birth in 1958 until the end of 2006. She had never left. After the 2003 war and its aftermath, she left, yet continued to visit Iraq frequently. Iraq has never dislodged. Bahrani who was also born in Iraq, continues to work there, and to write about its history from that perspective. 


Here we engage with signifier sites on maps in order to evoke our artistic imagination.10 One question that arises is the following: if our imaginative maps are layered and superimposed with maps of digging for oil and gas (Fig. 4) what would that show us? How much land—or what debris—would be left to represent the present nation in comparison with the presence of western corporations and the decades of archaeologists’ activities and their maps. With this question in mind, Malallah illustrated this situation with the imaginative map of Iraq titled, Map of the Trenches. (Fig. 1). What did these archaeologists and extractors of natural resources leave behind? This is what is described in No Map But Trenches.


Digging the surface of ruins and deep into tells in order to reach the great civilizations, and transfer artefacts out the country to western museums dilapidated the land, damaged environments both cultural and natural, and resulted in ruination. Each dig/punch puts Iraqi people into a circle of unsustainable existence. It is unsustainable in terms of living environment, and also in terms of undermining identity by disrupting the ways in which people live with the traces of the past that are all around them. The latter has been a central concern for Bahrani in her fieldwork project, Mapping Mesopotamian Monuments.11


In a letter that Gertrude Bell sent to Lord Cromer in October of 1910, thus before the British invasion of Iraq she wrote: “And you, with your profound experience of the East, have learnt to reckon with the unbroken continuity of its history. Conqueror follows upon the heels of conqueror, nations are overthrown and cities topple down into the dust, but the conditions of existence are unaltered and irresistibly they fashion the new age in the likeness of the old…Where past and present are woven so closely together, the habitual appreciation of the division of time slips insensibly away’’.12


In another letter held in her archive, a private letter that she wrote to her mother, Bell said that she was shocked to see the mess that the British archaeologists had left behind.13 At the same time, it is clear from numerous comments made by Bell, and from remarks made by other British colonial officers in Iraq, that antiquities were regarded as trophies of war.14


The role of archaeology and collecting in this ruination and disregard of the contemporary inhabitants of the land is ongoing. Bahrani has experienced this and seen it occur often. This also became clear to Malallah when a chance occurred in 2018 December that led her to meet a guard who worked at Ur, and to make a video showing a device left at the excavation site. The device was under sheets of white cloth which cover the excavation trenches. It seems to have been installed by the archaeologists before they left, without informing the guards. This decision shocked and surprised the site guards (Fig. 6). It indicated that the archaeologists, seeing Ur as their own site, felt no need to communicate with them. The implication is that the ancient sites of Iraq do not belong to the people of Iraq. Today, the idea that they are global cultural heritage has been turned to mean that they belong to everyone else, but not to the people who live with them, in them and around them.

(Fig. 4) Iraqi oil and gas map

(Fig 5) H. Malallah, My Country Map, 2007/8. Many layers of burnt canvas on canvas. The Park Gallery Collection.

(Fig 6) Hollow map, installation view from our exhibition at Brunei Gallery/ SOAS/ London from January through March 2022.

(Fig. 7) Stills from documentary video, 2018 at Ur, Iraq.


  1. The term trench is used here because it references both war and archaeology.

  2. This paper is one of a series of our co-authored papers; see:

  3. Zainab Bahrani, “Conjuring Mesopotamia: Imaginative Geography and a World Past” in L.M. Meskell ed, Archaeology Under Fire, London: Routledge, 1998, pp. 159-174; and Z. Bahrani, “Iraq: Creative Destruction and Cultural Heritage in the Warscape” in The Routledge Handbook of Art and Heritage Destruction ed A. Gonzáles-Zarandona et al. (London: Routledge, 2022).

  4. M. T. Bernhardsson, Reclaiming a Plundered Past (University of Texas Press, 2006) p. 95.

  5. Paraphrasing Ann Laura Stoler, Imperial Debris (Duke University Press, 2013) p. ix.

  6. Zainab Bahrani, “Untold Tales of Mesopotamian Discovery” in Zainab Bahrani, Zeynep Celik, Edhem Eldem, Scramble for the Past: A Story of Archaeology in the Ottoman Empire, 1753-1914 (Istanbul: Salt, 2011), pp.125-155.

  7. Quoted in Stanley-Lane Poole, The Life of the Right Honourable Stratford Canning, vol. 2, 1888, p.149; F.N. Bohrer, Orientalism and Visual Culture, Cambridge University Press, 2003, p. 56; Z. Bahrani, “Untold Tales of Mesopotamian Discovery” in Bahrani, Çelik and Eldem, Scramble for the Past, Istanbul: Salt, 2011. P. 134.

  8. M.T. Bernhardsson, Reclaiming a Plundered Past (University of Texas Press, 2006) p. 87, our emphasis.

  9. Zainab Bahrani, “Conjuring Mesopotamia: Imaginative Geography and a World Past” in L.M. Meskell ed, Archaeology Under Fire, London: Routledge, 1998, pp. 159-174; “The Aesthetic and the Epistemic: Race, Culture and Antiquity” in The Graven Image, 2003, pp. 13-49; and most recently, Z. Bahrani, “Iraq: Creative Destruction and Cultural Heritage in the Warscape” in The Routledge Handbook of Art and Heritage Destruction ed A. Gonzáles-Zarandona et al. (London: Routledge, 2022).

  10. Colin Renfrew, Figuring it Out (London: Thames and Hudson, 2003) p. 44.

  11. This project was initiated in 2012 is ongoing. It can be accessed in Arabic, Kurdish, Turkish and English.

  12. Gertrude Lowthian Bell, Amurath to Amurath, (London: MacMillan and co, 1911) p. vii-vii.

  13. M.T. Bernhardsson, 2006, p. 63.

  14. For the documentation regarding the classification of antiquities as trophies of war in the first world war see M.T. Bernhardsson, 2006, chapter 2. 

The Last Woman Standing


Mo Throp’s contribution to the exhibition at the Brunei Gallery ‘Co-existent ruins: exploring Iraq’s Mesopotamian past through contemporary art’

The Last Woman Standing. Assyrian statuary. British Museum 124963.

Limestone 11th c BC. Height 93cm.

As a British woman with no access to the ancient Mesopotamian sites, I define my relationship to this ancient history through my visits with Hanaa Malallah (the lead researcher for this exhibition at the Brunei gallery) to the collection of artefacts which have been ‘removed’ by early British Archaeologists (in this instance from ancient Ninevah, modern Nimrud) and deposited in the British Museum. 


The British Museum’s account of this statue is that it was made by King Ashur-bel-kala with several versions sent out around his kingdom. The cuneiform inscription on her back suggests that it was intended as a mocking derision of the women it was referring to. The type of stone chosen, the way she stands, her nakedness (highly unusual at the time to show the female figure unclothed) and the detailing of her pubic hair, seem intended to provoke a reaction, similar intentions – I would suggest - to an ongoing (13 centuaries later) victimization of women with the equivalent ‘revenge porn’, where men shame women by sharing naked images of their “ex’s” on the internet.


As a contemporary British woman artist, I reclaim this “Last Woman Standing” by refashioning her in bright blue plasticine - an even more unstable material for serious sculpture construction than the original limestone – thereby celebrating all women as transcending their time and their location, to become the harbingers of more fluid futures.

Mo Thorp, 2022

The Last Woman Standing. Blue plasticine. H. 36cm, 2020 Mo Throp

Tank Traces at the Archaeological Sites of Nippur* and Babylon


Hanaa Malallah and Zainab Bahrani – 10 November, 2021

Figure. 1. Trace of American tanks at archaeological site of Nuffar, December 2018, from Malallah’s site visit. Photos: H. Malallah, mobile camera, 2018.

Fig. 2. December 2018 at the ancient site of Nippur: Malallah with two Iraqi guards there. Photograph: Malallah, mobile camera.


Following a trip to the archaeological site of Nippur in the south of Iraq in December 2018, Hanaa Malallah produced visual documentation-artworks based on her first-hand observations and experiences, among which are the two photographs presented here that document tracks of military tanks on the archaeological site (Fig 1). The photographs have been selected from a collection of images as tangible evidence, and presented here in order to demonstrate (illustrate) our joint research endeavour in this paper. Through this photographic evidence we are seeking to show how the violation of the archaeological sites of Mesopotamia has a history and long-term consequences. It not only occurred in recent years under the US and Coalition occupation and during periods of warfare, damage to ancient sites continues today for political and financial profits, including in the name of heritage; there is a deep and long history that connects antiquity and political claims to this land. There is a clear history of the conjunction between colonial violence and archaeological practices at the ancient sites of the land known as Mesopotamia.1


An analysis of visual evidence and the tangible, physical traces in the ground, demonstrates the synchronism between colonialism, authority, and archaeology. Our observation is that the controlling of Iraq politically and economically, and the control of archaeological sites and the historical narratives of and about Mesopotamia is clear and manifest in visual traces at the ancient sites themselves. This tangible trace of colonising antiquity itself can be placed among the archaeological scientific facts of archaeology. Using archaeological method and technologies to look for traces of war and violence that others have perpetuated is something that archaeologists have attempted before for periods of violence and destruction. We turn this “Dark Heritage” approach and methodology towards the disciplinary field of Mesopotamian archaeology itself, looking at the past, and at present practices. In our work we try to shed some light on how Iraqis today see and think about these sites, the complicated situation of archaeology in their land, and their use of Mesopotamian heritage as bedrock of their civil identity. 


Our utilisation of art to research scientific archaeology, archaeological sites and histories is a turning to art as a means of thinking through archaeology and asking a different set of questions.2 It allows us a free space to think about what we visualize and what we see. We then analyse, turning around the research method, and reinforcing our visual findings with archaeological scientific references to counter the standard history of Mesopotamian archaeology as a heroic story of great discovery and rescue of antiquities. Through our work we collapse the constraints and limits of concepts such as art and archaeology.3 We use the visual documents as artwork-tools for our research, and we depend on our original visual finding and in person, physical experiences and encounters at the site. By ‘’engaging with the ‘thinking- through- doing’ of visual arts practice” our work “will lead to more critical analysis of the ‘thinking –through- doing’ of archaeological fieldwork and the products of that fieldwork.”4 Such things include classifications of what is, or is not an artwork. 


The two photographs (Fig 1) show clear traces (lines and indentations) made by military tanks. We visited the site in December 2018, which was fifteen years after the US invasion of 2003. These are clues in the ground, but why are the traces still so clear? Are they new? Were they made since the US troops officially withdrew in 2011? Speaking to the local Iraqi guards, we understood from them that no permission for Iraqi military equipment to enter the site has been given. They also did not know the date of the tank traces; they were there a long time (Fig 2). Both to us and to the guards, these traces are emblematic of violent activities. The tank lines are clean and clear, while all the surrounding ground is full of shards of pottery and fragments of clay inscribed tablets with the ancient cuneiform signs still visible on them. The tanks pushed through these, smashing them and indenting the ground.


Impulsively, I (Malallah) photographed the tank traces. When I reviewed them again and again later, they remind me first of: Kilroy Was Here (Fig 3) (, and secondly, of Richard Long’s work titled: Kilroy was here: Aline in Bolivia, 1981 (Fig 4)5


There was no artistic intervention (involvement) made to produce these tracks at Nippur. Rather, it was military action and impact that created them. In this case, the artist just gives a record of the action by photographing the traces, in the same way that an archaeologist would document such things. Furthermore, these lines which signify military action and can be read semiotically as violence, result in emptying the surface of the ground of ancient shards. This is in contrast with the surrounding area, that is naturally covered by ancient artefacts, including those that rise to the top after any rain day. These empty track-lines stand as an indication of the violent changes to the site. At the archaeological site of Nippur then we can see many layers of destruction and traces of colonial control, from the two archaeological dig houses built into and on top of the ruins, one of them using ancient inscribed bricks in the construction, to the tank traces of more recent war.6



Such a thing was to be clearly seen at Babylon. During the spring and summer of 2004, I (Bahrani) made several trips to Babylon while it was being used as a US and Coalition military base. There I photographed the military installations, extensive occupation damage, and the tracks of tanks and heavy military equipment on the ancient city of Babylon. Throughout that spring and summer, making survey walks through the site with two more Iraqi archaeologists who are from Babil, I photographed the encampment in the heart of Babylon. The photographs presented here are a small selection of the images that I have archived for future generations to study. One image presented here is of two Iraqi archaeologists from Babil looking at the tracks of military vehicles at the site (Fig. 5). They were new tracks that had just appeared in July, though these Iraqi archaeologists had pointed out months earlier that military vehicles should not be permitted on the site. By the time of this photograph, they had already spent months carefully observing and surveying the damage across the site. 


The second and third images document the damage to the ancient pavement of the ritual processional way that was smashed by tanks rolling over it (Fig. 6, 7). The processional way, leading from outside the monumental Ishtar Gate to the Temple of the Great God Marduk, was used for the New Year, Akitu festival. This processional way dates to the 6th century BC. 


Another photograph shows military vehicles parked next to the Temple of the goddess Ninmah in Babylon (Fig. 8). These images of military presence, of tracks and traces in the historical material of the ancient city, their damage to the site of Babylon, are part of an archive of historical destruction.7


The official and media reports of what happened at Babylon during the war and occupation excluded Iraqis. They provided an efficient account in which the Iraqi people were set aside; they were irrelevant to the hierarchies of power that stake their claim in ancient sites. Thus, what happened at Babylon has been presented as an episode between Western archaeologists and military authorities.8 In a similar way to the history of archaeology itself, which left out or skipped over so much from its accounts of excavations in Mesopotamia, so too this story of the traces and layers of military destruction visible in the ground has many untold tales that are yet to be heard. 


The final photograph is of the ancient processional way of Babylon. (Fig. 9) Breakage and damage can be seen. A metal spike is inserted into the paving, and barbed wire crosses the ground. A shadow holding a camera appears below.

Fig. 3. Engraving of Kilroy on the National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Fig. 4. Colin Renfrew, Figuring it out, Thames & Hudson, 2003, p. 32.

Fig.5. Iraqi archaeologists from Babil: Maryam Umran Moussa and Haider Oraibi Al Mamori, looking at the tracks of military vehicles in Babylon. Photograph: Zainab Bahrani, July 2004.
Fig. 6, 7: The paved processional way with military vehicle tracks and breakage visible in both images. Photographs: Zainab Bahrani, May, 2004.
Fig. 8. The Temple of Ninmah. Photograph: Zainab Bahrani, May, 2004.
Fig. 9 Processional way damage. Photograph: Zainab Bahrani, May, 2004.
* “Nippur, modern Niffer, or Nuffar, is ancient city of Mesopotamia, now in Southeastern Iraq. It lies northeast of the town of Ad-Dīwānīyah. Although never a political capital, Nippur played a dominant role in the religious life of Mesopotamia.’’

1 Bruce Trigger, “Alternative Archaeologies: Nationalist, Colonialist, Imperialist” Man, 19, 1984: 355-370; Z. Bahrani “Conjuring Mesopotamia: Imaginative Geography and a World Past” in L. Meskell ed, Archaeology Under Fire, London: Routledge, 1998: 159-174; Z. Bahrani, “The Aesthetic and the Epistemic: Race, Culture and Antiquity” in The Graven Image: Representation in Babylonia and Assyria, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003: pp. 13-49; F. N. Bohrer, Orientalism and Visual Culture, Cambridge University Press, 2003; M. Bernhardsson, Reclaiming a Plundered Past: Archaeology and Nation Building in Modern Iraq, University of Texas Press, 2005; Z. Bahrani, Z. Çelik and E. Eldem, Scramble for the Past: The Story of Archaeology in the Ottoman Empire 1853-1914, Istanbul: Salt, 2011; Shawn Malley, From Archaeology to Spectacle in Victorian Britain, Farnham: Ashgate Press, 2012; Zeynep Çelik, About Antiquities, University of Texas, 2016. In addition to these critical assessments of the relationship between imperialism, colonialism and archaeology there are numerous studies that continue to present celebratory accounts of the great hero archaeologists risking their lives for scientific endeavors and rescuing antiquities from savage lands, studies that fit within the genre of Great Man Histories, and thus suitably mask the colonial violence behind the acquisition of antiquities, Magnus T Bernhardsson, Reclaiming A Plundered Past, P3.
2 Ian Alden Russell and Andrew Cochrane, Art and Archaeology (Collaborations, Conversations, Criticisms), Springer, New York 2015, p. 145.
3 Ian Alden Russell and Andrew Cochrane, Art and Archaeology (Collaborations, Conversations, Criticisms), Springer, New York 2015, 146.
4 Antonia Thomas, Art “Contexts: Between the Archaeological Site and Art Gallery” in Ian Alden Russell and Andrew Cochrane, Art and Archaeology (Collaborations, Conversations, Criticisms), Springer, New York 2015, P.142.
Kilroy was here is a meme[1] that became popular during World War II, typically seen in graffiti. Its origin is debated, but the phrase and the distinctive accompanying doodle became associated with GIs in the 1940s: a bald-headed man (sometimes depicted as having a few hairs) with a prominent nose peeking over a wall with his fingers clutching the wall; Colin Renfrew, Figuring it out: What Are We? Where do We Come From? The Parallel Visions of Artists and Archaeologists, London: Thames & Hudson, 2003, p. 32.
6 At the same time, the extraction, removal and appropriation of antiquities continued.
7 Z. Bahrani, “Archaeology and the Strategies of War” in R.W. Baker, S.T. Ismael and T.Y. Ismael eds, Cultural Cleansing in Iraq. Pluto Press, 2010: pp. 67-81; Maryam Umran Moussa, “The Damage Sustained to the Ancient City of Babel as a Consequence of the Military Presence of Coalition Forces” in P. Stone and J. Bajjaly eds, Destruction of Cultural Heritage in Iraq, Boydell & Brewer Press, 2008; and Z. Bahrani “The Battle for Babylon” in the same volume. 
8 No Iraqi archaeologists are mentioned in the UNESCO Final Report on the damage done by the US and Coalition occupation of the ancient site of Babylon in 2003-2004, “Report on Damage Assessments in Babylon” UNESCO, 26/06/2009. 

A Tale of Two Ruins: The Jewellery of Plundering and Violence


Hanaa Malallah, Zainab Bahrani and Annie Webster – 22 October, 2021

Fig. 1. Portrait of Lady Layard painted in 1870 by Vicente Palmaroli González, edited by Hanaa Malallah in 2021 to show Lady Layard wearing the “Bomb Wreck Jewellery” instead of the original Assyrian style jewellery.

This research paper focuses on two collections of jewellery, each created more than a century apart yet both intimately entangled with a history of violence and archaeological plundering in Iraq. The first collection, “Lady Layard’s Jewellery” (Fig.2), was made by the Phillips Brothers in 1869 using antiquities pillaged from the region of Iraq when it was part of the Ottoman Empire. The ancient stones that make up the necklace, bracelet and earrings consist of cylinder and stamp seals that Sir Austen Henry Layard1 (1817-1894) took from Iraq and had made into a wedding gift for his wife, Enid. Layard was a famed traveller, archaeologist and political agent who conducted excavations near Mosul in northern Iraq. During these excavations, he removed a large number of Assyrian antiquities, objects, and parts of buildings which were transported to, and then displayed in, the British Museum.2


The second collection, “Bomb Wreck Jewellery” (Fig. 3), was created from the wreckage of two car bombs which exploded on Al Mutanabbi Street in Baghdad on 5th March 2007. This explosion claimed the lives of thirty-eight people.3 These sets of jewellery each encapsulate two very different processes of ruination; when brought together, they testify to continuing forms of colonial violence and appropriation in the region, whether through archaeological excavations or military occupation. With each set of jewellery, the removal of ruined objects to the West decontextualizes the history of these ruins and reinscribes the discursive violence of colonial archaeological practices. These sets of jewellery, one formed from ancient artefacts and the other moulded from the wreckage of car bombs, have led us to consider how they, and the materials out of which they are formed, stand at once as a form of adornment designed to bring joy to those who wear and admire them, but at the same time reveal a history of violence, human suffering, and imperialism in Iraq.

Fig. 2. Lady Layard's Necklace, bracelet and earrings formed out of cylinder seals.
British Museum number: 105115
Fig. 3. “Bomb Wreck Jewellery’’ 2008, image by Staal, printed by Malallah.

Archaeology and politics have always been linked, as numerous scholars have made clear.4 In Iraq, this link can be seen in the nineteenth century through the endeavours of political agents and diplomats such as Layard and the French consul-cum-archaeologist Paul Emile Botta (1802-1870), who removed antiquities to the British Museum as well as the Louvre in Paris. More recently, the 2003 US-led war and occupation also utilised antiquity for its political ends and public relations operations. In the wake of the disastrous looting of the Iraq Museum in 2003, the Coalition Provisional Authority headed by Paul Bremer, ordered jewellery from the Queens’ tombs at Nimrud to be exhibited for one day at the Iraq Museum in Baghdad in order to demonstrate that the political situation was under control. The exhibition – which was hastily pulled together with a disregard for standard curatorial practices – was open to the press and representatives of foreign missions, but notably not the general Iraqi public (Fig 3).5

Fig.4. Paul Bremer, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Iraq examines the ancient gold crown of an Assyrian queen on July 3rd 2003 as the Iraq Museum in Baghdad briefly re-opened.

“Lady Layard’s Jewellery” (Fig. 2) was made from Assyrian cylinder seals plundered by Layard along with the large-scale architectural works and other objects that he sent to the British Museum. He kept a number of objects for personal use as well as giving gifting some to friends. These and other objects recovered from Mesopotamia fascinated European audiences and Layard's account of his discoveries, described in Nineveh and its Remains (1848-1849), became a best-seller. In 1851 he retired from archaeology to take up a life in politics and in 1869 married Enid, the daughter of his cousin. As a wedding present, he had a number of the seals which he had acquired during his travels made up into jewellery in Victorian gold settings.6


The jewellery which Layard gifted to his new wife remains on display at the British Museum today, along with portraits of Layard and his wife (Fig. 5). Notably, while the description of these items in the museum acknowledges the origin of the seals from Iraq, it makes no comment about the colonial history in which they are entangled, nor the politics of repurposing these ancient stones as items of jewellery. As these stones are displayed in a building that was in many ways the epicentre of Britain’s colonial archaeological practices, they stand as a symbol of the continuing colonial, or neo-colonial, entanglement between Britain and Iraq.

Fig. 5a. Layard and lady Layard portraits and jewellery at the British Museum. Photograph: Malallah, 2019.
Fig.5b. Original portrait of Lady Layard by Vicente Palmaroli González (1870); oil on canvas in heavy gilt frame showing Lady Layard wearing her jewellery in the Assyrian style. []
Fig 6. Engraving: Lowering the Great Bull, Frontispiece, From Austen Henry Layard, Nineveh and its Remains. A Narrative of an Expedition to Assyria during the years 1845, 1846, and 1847. London: Johan Murray, 1867.

This colonial history is vividly illustrated in the frontispiece of Layard’s Nineveh and its Remains (Fig. 6). Here we see Layard standing as a lone figure above the palace at Nimrud, the local labourers, portrayed with darker skin, and differing dress, positioned below him while he gives orders with hand gestures. His position, towering above, is one of colonial control and authority in contrast to the degradation of local labourers. Archaeology in Iraq became an area of interest for western explorers and diplomats as Mesopotamia was considered to be the cradle of civilization and Mesopotamian antiquities, including those discovered by Layard’s excavations, were understood as evidence of the origins of Western civilization.7


In a very different way, the “Bomb Wreck Jewellery” testifies to the continued presence of colonial attitudes and forces in twenty-first century Iraq. This jewellery was made by Dutch jewellers in collaboration with Dutch visual artist Jonas Staal (b. 1981) as part of a larger project that sought to repurpose wreckage from the car bombs used in Al Mutanabbi street to “broaden the perspective of the Iraq War in the West” and “bring about a different vision of the Iraq issue to replace the apathy amongst the public toward the vacuous death count”.8 In the first stage of the project, titled “Anatomy of a Car Bomb Wreckage”, remains of the cars were displayed in Rotterdam in front of Museum Boijmans van Beuningen. A symposium was held, inviting journalists, artists and academics to respond to this display. The “Bomb Wreck Jewellery” was then developed as a follow-up project, as Staal describes:


“In March 2008, I met with visual artists and jewellery makers Jiska Hartog and Michiel Henneman to discuss a subsequent presentation of the wrecks. The primary matter at hand was how, after the exhibition and symposium, the process of displaying the objects could be further developed. How could the meaning of the bomb wrecks be further explicated in a Dutch, Western context? The project “Bomb Wreck Jewellery” is the result of this.


[…] we have developed a jewellery collection made up of scrap pieces from the bomb wrecks on Al Mutanabbi Street, consisting of glass melted by the heat of the blast, metal shards, wire and motor parts. Only minimal additions have been made to these ‘shards’ to allow them to be worn as jewellery. Processed black silver was the material used to put the segments together so they could be worn and so they would be recognisable as jewellery.’’9


Jewellery is often viewed as a form of adornment and in many areas of the world, including Iraq, is often understood to have a talismanic function by protecting its wearer from dangers. Yet in the case of these items crafted out of the debris from al-Mutanabbi street, this jewellery holds a distinctly commemorative function. It stands for the suffering and pain of the lives lost, and those injured, in this attack. The repurposed material provokes uncomfortable questions: if the first project highlights the “anatomy” of the car wreckage, what is the “anatomy” of this jewellery? Might there be human remains contained within this wreckage which has been transformed into decorative objects? Even if these remains are not materially enmeshed, how do these decorative objects symbolise the lives lost in this attack? What relationship would the wearer of this jewellery – or even an observer – have with the attack on Al Mutanabbi Street? Staal acknowledges some of these tensions in his discussion of the project when he describes how:


“The main focus of the collection is the value of the scrap pieces from the bob wrecks. The melted, coagulated pieces of glass, the rusted, twisted pieces of steel salvaged from the wrecks are of course, in terms of the material itself, worthless. It is the history of the material, the incomprehensible suffering hidden within, which determines the value of the objects. […] The selected form of the jewellery forces the bomb wreck remains into a Western, capitalistic system, while its actual value cannot be determined by this system in its entirety: here the observer is faced with an individual, ethical conflict.10


While there may be a “value” in constructing this form of display, and confronting western observers with such disturbing items of jewellery, the project reproduces a long history of ruined objects being removed from Iraq and displayed far from their place of origin. It also overlooks the fact that this debris is already inherently embedded in capitalist systems as the attack was in many ways a consequence of the 2003 US-led invasion and its attempts to “reconstruct” Iraq in the mould of a western liberal democracy. This wreckage does not have to be re-crafted as jewellery to be forced into this context: it stands as a form of “imperial debris”, to use Ann Laura Stoler’s term, intimately entangled with systems of capitalism and their legacies.11


This jewellery signifies the ongoing violence permeating Iraq, with the explosion on Al Mutanabbi street only one of many resulting from the continued oppression and occupation of the country in the wake of the 2003 US-led invasion. The explosion was an attack on the historical and contemporary culture of Baghdad, destroying many of the bookstalls and literary cafes that lined this street famed for its booksellers. While the “Bomb Wreck Jewellery” commemorates this violence, it also reproduces a long history of colonial violence enacted against the country through archaeology as contemporary ruins are extracted from the country and decontextualized.


This curatorial process provokes further uncomfortable questions. Where are the voices of Iraqi artists or researchers in this project? How does this artistic experiment take into consideration the trauma of this historical event? And why is it necessary for these objects to be displayed in western countries rather than Iraq? The removal of this car wreckage and its display in western countries might shed light on the tragedies of Iraq, but also underlines the ongoing subaltern position of Iraqis. There is an urgent need to consider the ways in which these contemporary ruins are entangled with, and speak to, the ancient ruins plundered from Iraq in the nineteenth century by those such as Layard.


The wreckage of the second car bomb exploded on Al Mutanabbi street was exhibited in various locations as an installation-sculpture (Fig.7). British artist Jeremy Deller travelled with it as a “mobile museum” across the US before it ultimately ended up on display at the Imperial War Museum, where it remains today.12 The Guardian described this exhibit as “A piece by Turner prize winner Jeremy Deller entitled Baghdad, 5 March 2007”.13 The wreckage of this car bomb is attributed to a British artist while the date of the attack on Al Mutanabbi street is abstracted as a title for the display. Reflecting on this installation, Deller himself remarked: “I couldn’t think of a better home for it in this country”.14 This comment inevitably begs the question: where else, beyond Britain’s borders, might there be a better home for this display? The installation encapsulates colonial attitudes that continue to surround Iraq, and its ruins, in the twenty-first century; rather than allow these remains to be a testimony to the violence catalysed by a period of neo-colonial intervention and occupation, they have been exported to a country that is in many ways responsible for, or at least entangled in, modes of historical and contemporary violence in Iraq. Deller’s comments echo the remarks of scholar Magnus Bernhardsson when describing how Western archaeologists exploring the ruins of Mesopotamia in the nineteenth century were “returning to their infancy – to their “cradle” – and as they started to dig into the earth to find traces of those roots, they somehow naturally felt the need to relocate those artefacts to their current home.”15


When brought together, the tales of these two sets of jewellery crafted out of ruins reveal the ways in which the remains of Iraq’s modern and ancient history “co-exist” in a decontextualized state of colonial control. In the image with which this research paper opened, Hanaa Malallah has edited the original portrait of Lady Layard wearing her jewellery formed from Assyrian seals to show her instead wearing the twenty-first century “Bomb Wreck Jewellery.” This small act of editing performs its own subversive form of decontextualization, drawing a direct line between these two sets of jewellery and exposing their shared colonial history across centuries. The process of excavating the intricate histories behind their creation, and tracing the ways in which they have been displayed, allows these ruins to speak for themselves – and to each other – after a long period of enforced silence.

Fig 6. Engraving: Lowering the Great Bull, Frontispiece, From Austen Henry Layard, Nineveh and its Remains. A Narrative of an Expedition to Assyria during the years 1845, 1846, and 1847. London: Johan Murray, 1867.

1 John Curtis and Julian Reade, Art and Empire: Treasures from Assyria in the British Museum, London: 1995, p. 220; British Museum. The necklace was bequeathed to the British Museum by Lady Layard. See:


2 For the career and role of Layard in the appropriation of Assyrian antiquities see F.N. Bohrer, Orientalism and Visual Culture, Cambridge University Press, 2003 and Shawn Malley, From Archaeology to Spectacle in Victorian Britain: the case of Assyria, 1845-1854. Farnham: Ashgate Press, 2011; and Z. Bahrani, Z. Celik and Edhem Eldem eds, Scramble for the Past: A Story of Archaeology in the Ottoman Empire, 1753-1914, Istanbul: Salt, 2011.


3 Hartog, Jiska and Henneman, Michiel and Staal, Jonas, Bomb Wreck Jewellery, The Edge & Publisher, Hofstraat, 2009, 2009, p. 2


4 On the historical entanglement of archaeology and politics in Iraq, see M. Bernhardsson, Reclaiming a Plundered Past, Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005; on more recent entanglements during the 2003 US-led invasion see Lawrence Rothfield, The Rape of Mesopotamia: Behind the Looting of the Iraq Museum, Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2009.


5 Zainab Bahrani was present during the lead up to the event and at the exhibition itself. These remarks are based on her personal diary from that time.




7 Zainab Bahrani, “Conjuring Mesopotamia. Imaginative Geography and a World Past” in Archaeology Under Fire, London: Routledge, 1998: 159-174.


8 Hartog, Jiska and Henneman, Michiel and Staal, Jonas, Bomb Wreck Jewellery, The Edge & Publisher, Hofstraat, 2009, p.3.


9 Hartog, Jiska and Henneman, Michiel and Staal, Jonas, Bomb Wreck Jewellery, The Edge & Publisher, Hofstraat, 2009, p.3.


10 Hartog, Jiska and Henneman, Michiel and Staal, Jonas, Bomb Wreck Jewellery, The Edge & Publisher, Hofstraat, 2009.


11 Ann Laura Stoler (Ed.), Imperial Debris: On Ruins and Ruination, Durham, Duke University Press, 2013.








15 M. Bernhardsson, Reclaiming a Plundered Past, Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005, p. 34.

Dig Houses and Archaeological Supremacy: the case at Nuffar


Hanaa Malallah & Mo Throp 

In December 2018, Hanaa Malallah and Fatimah Jawdet make a research visit to the ancient site of Nuffar, ancient Nippur, (1) with local Iraqi archaeologists and academics, all of whom have witnessed the destruction of their cultural heritage, the looting of their ancient sites, and disintegration of their country.

Team of our project in Al-Qadisiyah (Al Diwaniyah) the outskirt of Nuffar site in December 2018. Photo:Hanaa Malallah

The party are immediately struck by the conspicuous remains of two ‘Dig Houses’ (Figures 1 and 2) still standing in relatively good condition amongst many amorphous mounds at the site. The two Dig Houses had been constructed on the site by the American archaeological expedition which started to excavate in Nuffar in 1889 (2). They not only attracted artistic responses and attention but raised many questions for Malallah and Jawdet beyond those of traditional archaeology intent on revealing the truths of the past; here was an opportunity for an encounter where their own desires and experiences as ‘insiders’ might be made possible. Here is an opportunity to ask questions of this past – in the present; to re-own and take back this history from the colonisers, to transcend time and cultures by negotiating one’s own place within it to create new stories.

These two houses now formed the basis of their research at this site inspiring the production of video works, photographs, illustrated images, and this research paper in order to share their responses. The construction of these Dig Houses on this ancient site now raises the immediate question us of how ‘’… archaeology and politics are often interconnected in Iraq, especially in relation to foreign intervention or interference. Ultimately, the demolition of much of Iraqi archaeological heritage was emblematic of the ruinous and violent politics of recent Iraqi history’’ (Bernhardsson, 2005, p3). Our encounter with these two Dig Houses now raises the problematic question of how they came to denote an ownership of the ancient sites by those western archaeologists. This paper seeks to address not only the ongoing battle for ownership of these sites but how these houses come to exemplify the impact of past (and more recent) colonial intrusions into the identity of the inhabitants of this region. Who owns this history and how have such colonial occupations and plunderings impacted the country, or the people who actually live here?

FIG 1 First Dig House, the structure built by USA archaeologists in 1890’s on the top of the original ancient Ziggurat of Nuffar. Photo: Hanaa Malallah, Dec 2018
FIG 2 Second Dig House, the USA archaeologists residential house, built 1964. Video still from ‘’Inside the USA Archaeological Room/ Power of Operation’’, Fatimah Jawdet, January 2019.
FIG 3. Inside the second dig house. Video still from ‘’Inside the USA Archaeological Room/ Power of Operation’’, Fatimah Jawdet, January 2019.

First Dig House (expedition house): investigation, documents, artwork and illustrated images.

The most conspicuous construction at the Nuffar site was the ancient ziggurat, grotesquely topped by the expedition house constructed in the 1890s (FIG 1) during the excavation seasons that included John Henry Haynes (b. 1849, d.1910) ‘’ the business manager and photographer for the University of Pennsylvania-affiliated dig at Nippur’’ (3). The original structure (FIG 4) was dedicated to the city god Enlil and is now grossly disfigured by the addition of the expedition house by US archaeologists (FIG 5). The image of the constructed ziggurat now denoting two distinct histories and two distinct nations.

FIG 4 Original Ziggurat of temple of Enlil. “Our ruins”, Hanaa Malallah, digital print, 2018.
FIG 5 The expedition house was built by American archaeologist between 1890-1900 on top of the ancient ziggurat. “The Room of The USA archaeologists at ancient Site of Nuffar”, Hanaa Malallah, digital print, 2018.

The original Ziggurat ‘’was the temple E-kure (Mountain House) at Nippur, at the northern edge of Sumer, and Enlil is often called (Great Mountain)’’ (Bienkowski & Millard, 2000, p105), built around 2700BC, is now crudely ‘claimed’ by the US archaeologist’s expedition house. And that changed not just this ancient mountain house’s structure but its history. The ancient (Iraqi) sacred monument now becomes physically and visually ‘dominated’ by this construction by the American plundering expeditions; it becomes an additional type of plundering, not only the transfer of physical artefacts abroad, but also denotes the transfer (change) of identity and changing ownership of the site from the local to the American. It enacts a physical manifestation of a power relation: a dominant nation (US) atop an ancient (Sumerian/Iraqi), one which was enabled under a complicated political situation in the 19th century, one which still has repercussions in contemporary events in this land. It also reflects the belief of Western archaeologists at that time: ‘’The historic treasures, with their indisputable links to biblical history, challenged, however, the reigning Classical aesthetic norms and values. Archaeologists found strange objects and unreadable scripts. Yet somehow these scholars and later the public sensed some affinity because they believed these artefacts were integral elements of their own heritage. This sense of belonging is evident in the fact that it was popularly considered necessary to bring the objects ‘back home’ ’’ (Bernhardsson, 2005, p29-30).  

For contemporary Iraqis this ancient past is a sort of identity that gives them legitimacy and the right to exist as an urban society with deep roots in an ancient civilisation, and not just as “wandering nomads” (Bedouins) (Fig 6), as considered by the Western excavators during the earliest excavations in Mesopotamia. Conversely, ‘’the antiquities were one of the primary reason Westerners were interested in the region. The local people were perceived as unfortunate and irritating occupiers of sacred space who could only hinder or obstruct any major activity” (Bernhardsson, 2005, p33).

FIG 6 From Archaeology to Spectacle in Victorian Britain, P55

Like many Iraqis, those who live in this land, Malallah and the Iraqi team of this project including Fatimah Jawdat, consider their past to be the concrete base from which they might imagine a possible future for their identity which has been throughout recent history continuously plundered by dominant Western nations. They therefore approach the site from a personal basis; this allows an encounter with their own desires and histories – as insiders -, to ask questions of this past within the present by identifying with this site in the now. What is more, this tangible past: the actual artefacts and remaining ruins at these archaeological sites, work as actual evidence. ‘This positive stance reaffirms or redefines the Iraqis against themselves. Instead of proposing that ‘‘we are who we are by what we are not’’ the position asserts that Iraqis are ‘’who we are because of who we were.’’ The nation has been presented as a commemorative group of past achievements of people living on Iraqi soil’ (Bernhardsson, 2005, p7). So, as we now look at the identity of the ziggurat, it is not an ancient ziggurat any more, it now serves as a base (plinth) for the dominant building (expedition house) for USA archaeologists. This act of changing the structure of this ancient site performs as a plundering and rape of that ancient identity, similar to the smuggling of artefacts from their original sites to a re-location behind glass vitrines in the prestigious museums of Europe and America. The combination of this ancient ruin dominated by this recent expedition building (1890’s) exemplifies the lack power in relation to identity, and ownership of that identity. It also stands as an example of how this land belongs to western histories and identities. Antiquities become ‘international’, as a part of the colonialist enterprise directed at ‘the progress of civilisation’ – as were the aims of a ‘civilising’ imperial mission (Zainab Bahrani, 1998).  Such antiquities were therefore regarded as belonging to those ‘civilised’ cultures who eagerly removed them to sites (National Museums in the West) which were considered as abler to appreciate and preserve these artefacts. Particularly prized by West abler culture, the Mesopotamian region was regarded as ‘the cradle of civilisation’ and the original garden of Eden. Archaeological artefacts were thought to be of universal relevance and better placed in museums rather than belonging to local inhabitants or the lands of their origin (considered at that time, to be disinterested in their heritage). Though this situation has changed since the formation of an Iraqi state, nevertheless the evidence of this imperialist plunder remains starkly present in both of these building at Nuffar. We are considering here what future might be possible for Iraqis to claim through this Mesopotamian heritage and what it is to a be descendants/inheritors of this Mesopotamian civilization. 


Art Works Related to The First Dig House

The first response to what has been observed at the site regarding the expedition house on the top of the ziggurat was artistic, mixed with an archaeological imagination, with a ‘’desire to loosen the constrains of concepts such art, archaeology… and (forensic research) to explore their respective overlays and intersection’’ (Russell & Cochrane, 2014, p146). 

We seek, in contrast to those early archaeologists, to acknowledges these ruins as symptom and substance of history’s destructive forces, not as capitalist plundering – which is evidenced here in the debris left by these two Dig Houses - but rather to attend to these fragments as traces of the violence done by these plunderings. We approach this site as imperial ruins, and address the processes of ruination to which this project is directed. In so doing we intend to seek new associations, constructing our own histories and differing identifications living alongside this archaeological debris which now overlaps with more recent traumas: further ruins created by the recent wars in Iraq perpetrated by that same imperial imperative (as plunderers) a century later. 

As artists, and as local inhabitants of this land and this culture, our artistic intentions turn not just to the political aesthetics of ruins but to the ongoing lived experience of those sites and their histories lived out in the bodies and psyches of this group of artists as products of such ruination. We intend to re-think and assert those forms of knowledge that inevitably evade and refused those colonial mandates. 

We consider all our documents related to researching the house as artworks because ‘’contemporary art can not only inspire but also transform the interpretive potential of archaeological research. (And call) for liberation of the interpretive realm of archaeology to allow less deterministic and fixed interpretation of things’’ (Russell & Cochrane, 2014, p146). 

We utilize technologies such as a drone, camera and mobile phone to produce artistic responses. But this same technology is an instrument of power; our use of the drone is a repurposing of a technology that current western archaeologists use in Iraq, and which is directly tied to military technologies especially in the recent wars in Iraq.

The video work Sound of Mesopotamia Sedimentation (SMS) (Fig 7), is a collaborative work between Malallah and Jawdat. A drone had been used purposely to film and observe the house from the highest point as possible. Also, the drone circumambulation around the house was controlled in order to show as many details as possible to help our research. 

FIG 7 Sound of Mesopotamia Sedimentation (SMS). Still from drone video: Malallah & Jawdet, 2019.
FIG 8 Sound of Mesopotamia Sedimentation (SMS). Still from drone video: Malallah & Jawdet, 2019

From the video one gets the feeling that the house looks like an unsettled, floating brick tent deposited on top of the fragile corroded ancient ziggurat (Fig7); that was a different feeling than the one when we experienced it physically, as the house looked very solid. The video shows that there is no harmony or dialogue between the materials, times, purposes, and stories represented in and between these two buildings. Rather, it performs a contestation for ownership and supremacy at the site. The metamorphosed Nuffar Ziggurat is evidence that the westerners ‘…  were returning to their infancy – to their ‘’cradle’’- and they started to dig into the earth to find traces of those roots, they somehow naturally felt the need to relocate those artefacts to their current home’ (Bernhardsson, 2005, 34). Failing that, erecting their building atop the ziggurat transforms the site to serve this purpose of ownership. Furthermore, the house looks like a lid or a ceiling to suppress (restrain) the ziggurats natural progress of its history, and in so doing, transforms it.

Another detail from our physical observation was that when we visited the site after two rainy days, we saw that a large number of ancient artefacts had risen naturally to the top of many mounds, but not at the ziggurat; the ziggurat was now dead, its future ‘capped’.

The overlaying of two kind of sounds in this video: the wind and the noise of local people at the nearby market (Al-Qadisiyah/ Al Diwaniyah), is a signifier for the viewer of the artwork to infer the identity of the ancient site. Wind is an aspect of Enlil who was an ancient Mesopotamian god associated with the wind (4). We consider the sound of the ancient landscape as a fundamental factor; here, the wind represents the enduring presence of Enlil at the site, and the ephemeral nature of life. There is a Mesopotamian fable which says: ‘’Mankind’s days are numbered; all their activities will be nothing but wind’’.  To collage together the sound of wind with that of local people in their everyday activities, indicates that these who are there are significant, and this site is their heritage and their identity. The site offers an artistic response for the artist researchers, one of a re-negotiation with such heterogeneous places where memory and history are enduring and embedded in the site itself. 

We also respond with several photographs and illustrated images to elaborate on such instruments of power. (Figs 9 & 10)

FIG 10

Art works related to the second Dig House

From first visit to the second Dig House (the expedition residential house) (Figs 2 & 3) in December 2018, we were amazed, tantalized, and moved by two things inside the second Dig House. Firstly: a fireplace in what looks a first/front reception room (Fig 11).   

FIG 11 Video still from ‘’Inside the US Archaeological Room/ Power of Operation’’, Malallah & Jawdet, 2019

And secondly: a painting on the wall of a second reception room. (Fig12)

FIG 12 Video still from ‘’Inside the US Archaeological Room/ Power of Operation’’, Malallah & Jawdet, 2019

This building, constructed in 1964 as living space (5), contains several rooms. Malallah and Jawdet produce a documentary video Still from ‘’Inside the US Archaeological Room/ Power of Operation’’ as well as several photos to archive that moment of an encounter with these two significant things in the house which represent for them the evidence of power in relation to the site. The fireplace had been constructed using ancient bricks incised with cuneiform writing (Fig13). Many questions arise about these cuneiform incised bricks used to construct this hearth for the fireplace; why would the US archaeologists use such archaeological artefacts for their everyday activities at the site? Who gave them permission to reuse such artefacts? And why? Such a response again indicates how colonial power operates.

FIG 13 Ancient bricks incised in cuneiform constructed the fireplace. Photo: Hanaa Malallah, 2018

We see how this act of creating a hearth for their personal dwelling needs revokes an original history of these bricks. The US archaeologist have diverted the artefacts (the cuneiform bricks) original historical progress for their own interest; their significance as ancient Mesopotamian artefacts is reduced to decorative function on this fireplace. They are metamorphosed in its history, knowledge, functionality and identity; unlike Westerners, Iraqis they do not use fireplaces in their everyday lives; this particular displacement of these ancient artefacts performs another ownership by the Dig House builder (6). Malallah and Jawdet use a hand-held camera to made their artistic response to this extraordinary encounter. The hand-held camera now allows the viewer of the artwork a new perspective - a witness account to such violation - and invites a response which shares the artist’s encounter of fascination, an alternative gaze which might subvert that of abstract objective scientific enquiry.  Intentionally, the sound hadn’t been edited but kept as an indication of abandonment.

This video also documents the wall painting in the second reception room. Our attention now is to question who is depicted here and by whom this painting has been done. We now have details provided by Augusta McMahon (7); the mural, in what was the dining room, depicts portraits of archaeologists from the team working at the site in the late 1980’s. Set within the Nuffar landscape, animals and plants are painted in the style of cylinder seals or wall reliefs from 3rd through 1st millennia and is mainly painted by the expedition artist/illustrator Peggy Sanders with some additions by team members. We learn from McMahon that the figure in the top right-hand corner is a self-portrait as a stork, by Nuha al-Radi, an Iraqi artist. (Fig 14)

FIG 14 Detail of mural on Dig House wall. Photo: Hanaa Malallah, 2018.

The local artist Fatimah Jawdet responds by inserting herself and a picture frame onto the scene depicted on the wall (Figs 15 & 16). Her artistic response allows a possibility for a negotiation of one’s own place in that history; a re-owning of this site – a taking back from this history of the colonisers. It allows the possibility of going beyond the ravages of the chauvinistic structures of knowledge of these 19th and 20th century colonisers. Past and present are now put in flux, allowing new approaches to the legacy of this past. The photos now destabilize those attempts by the archaeologists to claim and fix the history of this ancient cultural site, to propose new and different engagements which might promote a dialogism, a tension between the past and the present. A different excavation is made evident here through this negotiation; Jawdet assimilates her own identity, her own embodied experience as a local inhabitant into this complex history. 

Fig 15 Putting Myself in the Picture I, Photograph. Fatimah Jawdet, January 2019
Fig 16 Putting Myself in the Picture II, Photograph. Fatimah Jawdet, January 2019
Nippur, Temple of Bel excavation, 1896 / (6)


1 ‘Nippur. The site of the *temple of Enlil, one of the most important * Mesopotamian * god, Nippur was a major religious centre which benefited from construction projects and donation from *kings who wished to demonstrate their piety. Its ruins lie c.180km south –west of Baghdad, measuring 1.5 km across and 20m high. It was excavated by *Layard (1851), the University of Pennsylvania (1888-1900), and intermittently between 1948 and 1990 under various directors by Oriental Institute, Chicago (until 1952) jointly with Pennsylvania.’ Piotr Bienkowski & Alan Millard. Dictionary of the Ancient Near East, British Museum Press. UK. p214

2 “The Americans started to excavate in Nuffar 1888/95 and then in 1948.’’ According to Prof. Zainab Bahrani, Zoom meeting with Malallah on 30/03/2021.

3 In 1887, Haynes was appointed as the business manager and photographer for the University of Pennsylvania-affiliated dig at Nippur… During the first excavation season, he was accompanied by John Punnett Peters, who led the expedition, Perez Hastings Field, an architect, Daniel Noorian, who had worked with Haynes on the Wolfe Expedition, and two Assyriologists named Frank Harper and Herman V. Hilprecht. The first campaign ended in April 1889, mere months after the group arrived in Nippur, due to conflicts with local tribesman as well as clashes between Hilprecht and Peters.

In January 1890, Haynes returned to Nippur with Peters and Noorian, this time remaining for five months. Following this campaign, he returned to the site alone, acting as the director and for three years. In early 1899, Haynes returned to Nippur for one final season accompanied by his wife, Cassandra Artella Smith, and two young architects, Clarence S. Fisher and H. Valentine Geere. During this time Haynes also served as the first American consul to Baghdad from 1889-92.

4 ‘’an ancient Mesopotamian god associated with wind, air, earth, and storms.’’

5 ‘This has been a season of beginnings. The new field house will permit the building-up of study collections and a reference library which has been impossible heretofore. A larger staff can be housed and still leave guest rooms for visitors. The feeling of optimism and permanence, reflected in the building of an expedition house, allowed the choice of the Ekur, the most sacred area in this holy city, as a site to be excavated. It is the most extensive program that the Oriental Institute has yet undertaken at Nippur’. Richard C. Haine, THE NIPPUR EXPEDITION,, P14.

6 ‘This sense of ownership was evident in that until World War I most sites that were excavated were ones somehow directly related to biblical history – a history perceived by the Europeans as their own, along with its artefacts, and a history of which they were the representatives.’ Magnus T. Bernhardsson, Reclaiming A Plundered Past, University of Texas Press, 2005, P34. 

7 ‘Last November the Nippur Expedition returned to central Iraq for its ninth season of work at the large city-mound of Nippur. The staff consisted of Mr. James Knudstad as director and architect, Dr. Robert Biggs as epigrapher, McGuire Gibson as archaeologist and photographer, and Miss Diane Taylor as archaeological and epigraphic assistant. Tarik al-Janabi was the Iraq government representative; when he was called to do his term of army service, Miss Selma al-Radi was appointed in his place. The expedition had two objectives: the beginning of a systematic and complete excavation of the Ekur, a complex of buildings and courtyards dedicated to the city god Enlil, and the construction of a permanent headquarters’. Richard C. Haines, THE NIPPUR EXPEDITION,, P12


Augusta McMahon provided the following clues to the mural details:

The Nippur Excavation House and Dining Room Mural

The Nippur Excavation House was built by American archaeologists in the 1960’s (by the excavation director, Jim Knudstad). … another room shows a mural which depicts portraits of archaeologists from the team working at the site in the late 1980s, set within the Nuffar landscape. The plants and animals are in the style of cylinder seals or wall reliefs from the 3rd through 1st millennia BCE. The mural was mainly painted by Peggy Sanders, the Nippur artist/illustrator, with some additions by team members.

West Wall: Upper centre: Cook (Abu [ ]) and Mohammad [ ], sacrificing a turkey. Lower right: Unknown couple as the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal and his wife Libbali-Sharrat, as a palace wall relief from Nineveh. Lower left: Unknown (possibly Margaret Brandt, geoarchaeologist) in front of a temple façade in Uruk/early ED Period style

Main South Wall: Upper right: Nuha al-Radi, Iraqi artist, as a stork (painted by herself). Lower right: Jennifer Arntz? PhD student, University of Chicago, as terracotta figurine. Centre: McGuire Gibson, excavation director, as the god Enlil, driving a small dump-truck. Centre left: Augusta McMahon, then PhD student, University of Chicago, as the goddess Ishtar. Centre bottom: Krzysztof Ciuk, University of Toronto (?), on horse as Parthian rider figurine. Centre top: The two figures on right are representatives of the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, Abbas Fadhil and Ahmad Hamud Abdullah, as Neo-Assyrian scribes. On left, Abu Sadoun (Khalaf Bedawi), Iraqi colleague and foreman of workers, as an Assyrian general. Left: Lorraine Brochu, then PhD student, University of Chicago, as Akkadian Period snake goddess. Upper left: James Armstrong, PhD student and then Fulbright scholar to Iraq, as Early Dynastic votive statue, and Beverley Armstrong as an Ur III foundation deposit. Left: John Sanders and Peggy Sanders, excavation architect and artist, as an Early Dynastic votive statue from Nippur. Lower left: Unknown, possibly Richard Zettler (previous member of Nippur team, then Professor, University of Pennsylvania), as Ur III king.

East Wall: Lower left: Erica Hunter, scholar of incantation bowls, SOAS, as fantasy animal incorporating Australian elements. Upper corner: Unknown (possibly Bob Biggs or Miguel Civil, excavation epigraphers), as Assyrian genie



Bahrani, Zainab,“Conjuring Mesopotamia: Imaginative Geography and a World Past” in Archaeology Under Fire, London: Routledge, 1998

Bernhardsson, Magnus T. Reclaiming A Plundered Past, University of Texas Press, 2005

Bienkowski, Piotr, & Millard, Alan. Dictionary of the Ancient Near East, British Museum Press. UK. 2000.

Russell, Ian Alden, & Cochrane, Andrew. Art and Archaeology, Springer, New York, 2014



© 2021 Hanaa Malallah

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