What is considered a world's oldest bridge, some 4,000 years old, is seen by the ancient city-state of Lagash. AP
An international archeological mission has uncovered the remnants 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 hall - complete with a rudimentary refrigeration system, hundreds of roughly made clay bowls and the fossilized remains of an overcooked fish - announced in late January by a University of Pennsylvania-led team, generated some buzz beyond Iraq’s borders.
It came against the backdrop of a resurgence of archeology in a country often referred to as the "cradle of civilization,” but where archeological exploration has been stunted by decades of conflict before and after the U.S. invasion of 2003. Those events exposed the country's rich sites and collections to the looting of tens of thousands of artifacts.
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"The impacts of looting on the field of archeology were very severe,” 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.”
Excavations of a 5,000-year-old city-state of Lagash, near Nasiriyah, Iraq.
With relative calm prevailing over the past few years, the digs have returned. At the same time, thousands of stolen artifacts have been repatriated, offering hope of an archeological renaissance.
Iraq is home to six UNESCO-listed World Heritage Sites, among them the ancient city of Babylon, the site of several ancient empires under rulers like Hammurabi and Nebuchadnezzar.
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 looting as a form of income” and the second in 2003 following the U.S. invasion, when "everything collapsed.”
The first international teams to return to southern Iraq came in 2014 but their numbers grew haltingly after that.
The digs at Lagash, which was first excavated in 1968, had shut down after 1990, and the site remained dormant until 2019.
People visit the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad. AP
Unlike many others, the site was not plundered in the interim, largely due to the efforts of tribes living in the area, said Zaid Alrawi, an Iraqi archeologist who is the project manager at the site.
Would-be looters who came to the area were run off by "local villagers who consider these sites basically their own property,” he said.
Further digging in the area surrounding the workshop found a large room containing a fireplace used for cooking. The area also held seating benches and a refrigeration system made with layers of clay jars thrust into the earth with clay shards in between.
The site is believed to date to around 2,700 BC. Given that beer drinking was widespread among the ancient Sumerians inhabiting Lagash at the time, many envisioned the space as a sort of ancient gastropub.
But Alrawi said he believes it was more likely a cafeteria to feed workers from the pottery workshop next door.
"I think it was a place to serve whoever was working at the big pottery production next door, right next to the place where people work hard, and they had to eat lunch,” he said.
Alrawi, whose father was also an archeologist, grew up visiting sites around 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 archeologists, for the international universities and academia,” he said.