Iraq Scheme



More about the Iraq Scheme

Scheme introduction 
Training in the UK 
Training in Iraq: Darband-i Rania Project 


Iraq Scheme Team

Director: Jonathan Tubb
Deputy Director: St John Simpson
Executive Project Support: Angela Grimshaw
Project Manager: Megan Bristow
Project Coordinator: Ruth Stone
Lead Archaeologist: John MacGinnis
Lead Archaeologist: Sebastien Rey

Tello - ancient Girsu

Tello, the modern Arabic name for the ancient Sumerian city of Girsu, is the southern site of the Iraq Scheme on-site training. It represents one of the earliest known cities of the world, revered in the 3rd millennium BC as the sanctuary of the Sumerian heroic god Ningirsu. Girsu was the sacred metropolis and centre of a city-state that lay in the south-easternmost part of the Mesopotamian alluvium.

Tello is a mega-site extensively investigated between 1877 and 1933, with a similar topographical layout to the other great Mesopotamian sites of Nimrud and Nineveh, shaped by huge excavation pits and spoil heaps. These excavations brought to light some of the most important monuments of Sumerian art and architecture, including both statuary of the ruler Gudea and a bridge built of baked brick which is the oldest bridge discovered in the world to date. The size and complexity of the site make Tello an ideal location for delivering the practical fieldwork training of the Iraq Scheme.

The focus of the new excavations is on the sacred district of Girsu at Tell A, the Mound of the Palace. Declassified 1960s Corona satellite images and modern drones are used to create digital elevation models of the temple site. This helped us to identify and then unearth extensive mudbrick walls, some ornamented with pilasters and inscribed cones, belonging to the four-thousand-year-old temple dedicated to Ningirsu. This temple was considered one of the most important sacred places of Mesopotamia, praised for its magnificence in many contemporary literary compositions.

More than fifteen inscribed cones were found in situ in the walls of the temple. The recording of the exact location of each cone reveals that they were laid in a complex pattern; we are currently analysing this pattern to establish whether it encodes information of magical/religious significance.

Among the unique finds was a foundation box inserted below one of the principal gates of the Eninnu sacred complex which still contained a white stone ritual tablet belonging to the ruler Gudea. Excavations under the temple also led to the discovery of two superimposed monumental platforms, the oldest of which, made of red mudbricks and built in two steps, may be dated to the beginning of the third millennium BC. This is an important discovery since this proto-ziggurat, a precursor to the legendary Tower of Babel, would therefore pre-date the earliest-known Mesopotamian stepped-terrace by a few hundred years.

In the autumn 2017 season conservation work was initiated on the Bridge of Girsu, first excavated in the 1920s, as part of the training for the Iraq Scheme participants. Excavations to establish the condition and stability of this unique monument of Sumerian architecture led to the discovery of exceptionally well-preserved deposits of the prehistoric Ubaid period, including painted pottery and uninscribed cones, which will yield a wealth of information on the origins of Girsu and consequently the birth of urban centres in Mesopotamia.

The important finds from the Iraq Scheme excavations at Tello are delivered to the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, while a column base from the Ningirsu temple will be displayed in the nearby local museum of Nasiriya.

On-site Training of Iraq Scheme Participants

Early Dynastic Bracelet

Following an interruption of around 80 years, we were able to miraculously unearth extensive mudbrick walls – some ornamented with pilasters and inscribed magical cones – belonging to the well-known Ningirsu temple. This had been constructed and then renovated several times by the Sumerian rulers Ur-Bau, Ur-Ningirsu and Gudea. This temple dedicated to the storm-god was considered in antiquity to be one of the most important sacred places of Mesopotamia, praised for its magnificence in many contemporary literary compositions.

Of this 4,000-year-old religious complex, we have exposed what appears to be the central part of the sanctuary – a decorated entrance featuring buttresses, a peripheral corridor with inscribed cones, the inner sanctuary composed of an offering altar facing the podium for the divine cult statue, passageways marked by colossal inscribed stones, and a chamber with a stairway leading to a high-terrace.

Collapsed layers of the superstructure have yielded a hundred cones, most of which commemorate the reconstruction of the temple by Sumerian rulers. Among the truly unique finds were a fragment of a marble foundation tablet of Ur-Bau, a cylinder-seal belonging to a deity, a terracotta plaque with a Sumerian couple, a cylinder-seal featuring a presentation scene of deities in front of the sun-god, and a unique impression of a Sumerian demon. These finds and other important artefacts have already been safely delivered to the Iraq Museum in Baghdad.

Multistation Training of Iraq Scheme Participants

Ceramics Training of Iraq Scheme Participants