Saving Iraq's Treasures

As archaeologists worldwide help recover looted artifacts, they worry for the safety of the great sites of early civilization.

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Uruk was one of humanity’s first great urban centers—the largest city in Sumer—five millennia ago. It is mentioned in the Bible as Erech, and scholars consider it the place where writing and literacy first flourished. Barges and boats plied human-made canals bordered by boldly decorated palaces, limestone temples and luxuriant gardens, bringing grain and wool from surrounding farmlands, stone from quarries in the north and lapis lazuli from Afghanistan. Tens of thousands of people—priests, merchants, scribes, craftsmen, laborers—crowded into the mudbrick homes of this city built on the EuphratesRiver in southeastern Iraq.


When Uruk’s first inhabitants arrived nearly 7,000 years ago, the sluggish Euphrates emptied its silt into a vast marsh—part of a series of marshes that extended to the Persian Gulf shore. The people constructed mud-and-reed huts, nearly identical to those built by today’s Marsh Arabs. The huts decayed and new ones were built on the sites of the old, a layering that went on more than 1,500 years and left behind deposits some 550 feet thick.


Two millennia later, Uruk was the most impressive city of Sumer, the southern part of the land known as Mesopotamia. Atemple complex celebrated the people’s deities—particularly the life-giving goddess of love, Inana. Craftsmen churned out statuary and silver incense holders. Trade with communities on the Euphrates and the Gulf boomed.


To keep track of all the goods and services, merchants and priests needed a way to record contracts. The old, cumbersome method was to seal clay figures—representing goats, barley and so on—within round clay “envelopes.” Around 3200 B.C., using the ubiquitous marsh reeds and clay tablets, a new class of accountant-scribes began improvising a set of symbols that we now call cuneiform, for its wedge-shaped marks. Only a select few scribes were taught the complicated system, which remained the official form of written communication in Mesopotamia for nearly 3,000 years, when the alphabet of Aramaic and other languages replaced it.


What began as a handy accounting method eventually spawned literature. The first great literary epic, written about 4,500 years ago on clay tablets that are now in the BritishMuseum in London, tells of King Gilgamesh and his fruitless journey to find immortality.


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