In the Field: Tell Zurghul

In the Field 2

The excavation of Tell Zurghul, ancient Nigin, has now completed its second season, and already fascinating results have appeared. Davide Nadali from the Sapienza University of Rome and Andrea Polcaro from the University of Perugia give us a glimpse of their findings, and it is clear that their ambitions for the project are high:

It is our hope that the recent resumption of excavations at Tell Zurghul and at Girsu can contribute to the writing of a new history of the land of Sumer and the state of Lagash.

Tell Zurghul, Ancient Nigin: New Results of the Italian Excavations, 2015-2016

By Davide Nadali and Andrea Polcaro

In 2015, the joint Italian expedition of the Università degli Studi di Perugia and the Sapienza Università di Roma started the exploration of the site of Tell Zurghul in the province of Dhi Qar, in southern Iraq. Tell Zurghul, a site of nearly 66 hectares, is located about 7 km south-east of Lagash and corresponds to the ancient Sumerian city of Nigin (or Nina), often mentioned in Early Dynastic and Neo-Sumerian cuneiform sources.

Excavations began to investigate the history of the occupation of Tell Zurghul/Nigin, the third most important city in the ancient state of Lagash during the reign of Gudea: beyond the textual evidence, it is in fact extremely important to have an archaeological knowledge of the region, with completely stratified and contextualized materials, and information about the development and growth of urban centres in the area.

In the Field 1

In 1887, the German archaeologist Robert Koldewey began, on behalf of the Königlich Preussischen Museen, the archaeological exploration of the ancient ruins of Tell Zurghul: for the first time, a general description of the morphology of the site was given, with clear indications of the existence of a high mound near the centre of the ancient city. R. Koldewey’s expedition lasted one month, with a series of limited archaeological operations on the two main mounds that did not result in what R. Koldewey presumably expected (in fact, he briefly noticed that no bricks belonging to architectural buildings had been recovered).

The archaeological work of Koldewey, partially still visible on the ground, resulted in different operations within the city: in particular, he opened long, narrow trenches, reaching a depth of 9 m on the principal mound and 4 m on the smallest hill, that however did not allow him to get any essential and clear information on the stratigraphy chronology, or on the nature of the two mounds. In his report, Koldewey registered the presence of archaeological materials to be dated from the Jemdet Nasr (c. 3100-2900 BC) to the very beginning of Old Babylonian period (c. 2000-1790 BC), but his chronological considerations, because of the limited extent and archaeological knowledge of ancient Mesopotamian history at that time, are scarcely reliable.

In the Field 3

The morphology of the site is still characterized by the presence of the two main mounds (denominated Mound A and Mound B) and a third long elongated elevation on the western and north-western side of the site (about 200 x 150 m). As concerns the general chronological framework of the ancient city of Tell Zurghul, it can be concluded that the settlement was occupied from the Ubaid 4 period and until the very beginning of the second millennium BC (Isin-Larsa period):

  •    results from the excavation campaign in 2015 verified the existence of well stratified and undisturbed levels of Ubaid 4 Period on Mound B;
  •    results from the excavation in Area A in 2015 and 2016 verified that the area was occupied at least from the Late Uruk Period, with subsequent reoccupation of the same building (with transformations and adaptations of the mud-brick walls) in the Jemdet Nasr Period (Early Bronze Age I);
  •    results from the survey of Area C confirmed the analysis of the research made in 2015, with the most extensive presence of pottery sherds (some entire or nearly entire shapes can be recognized) dating from the third millennium (Early Dynastic Period) to the first centuries of the second millennium BC (Isin-Larsa);
  •       results from Area D, on the southern slope of Mound A, verified the existence of occupational layers that can be dated to the end of the third millennium BC, with some typical pottery sherds that can be ascribed to the transitional phase Akkad-Ur III, which in fact fits well with the time of the kingdom of Gudea of Lagash.

Area A

During the 2015-2016 excavation campaigns, an open area of 15 x 10 m was opened at the base of Mound A, on its southern side. The area was chosen for its relevant topographical location in a central area of the settlement, and for the presence of a wall of gypsum bricks, visible on the surface due to the erosion of the rain, falling down from the main mound. The excavation exposed different architectural layers belonging to a large mud-brick building, identified so far for two main historical phases.

In the Field 4

The lower phase (Phase III), dated to the transition from the Late Uruk to the Jemdet Nasr period, consists of a room (L.20) whose western and northern wall is partially preserved, where more than forty conical bowls, bevelled rim bowls and some sherds of spouted jugs were recovered, mostly found in the corner of the room. While the northern wall was made of mud-bricks of the Riemchen type, the upper part of the western one was made of gypsum bricks, which were found partially collapsed on the floor of the building. In the same filling of the room, several clay cones, some painted in black, have been discovered, perhaps part of a decorative architectural motif related to the gypsum bricks.

Moving the trench north and west, two construction phases (II and I) were discovered. In Phase II the area was occupied to the east by a large mud-brick building (L.110, L.131, L.108). Walls were made of Riemchen mud-bricks. No foundation has been detected, but the walls were directly built on the top of the floor. Two modules have been distinguished: W.25 was built with Riemchen mud-bricks of 22 x 8.10 cm, while the other walls were built with Riemchen mud-bricks of 20 x 11 x 10 cm. In Phase II, the building had a small door, less than 1 m wide, connecting L.108 with an open space, L.12. This courtyard was delimited by W.105 to the east and by W.4 to the west. It is composed of a beaten earth floor: due to both the pottery assemblage and the installations recovered, the area can be interpreted as a place for activities such as production or the cooking of food.

In the Field 5

In fact, along the eastern face of W.4 a circular oven (tannur), with a bench (T.109), was recovered, while along the west face of W.105 several conical bowls were collected, some of them with residue of original organic contents. Furthermore, several flint blades and an obsidian blade were found next to them. The conical bowls were probably originally stacked up on wooden shelves that ran along the wall. This is testified both by the location of the bowls in situ and by several holes cut in L.12 running at the same distance along W.105.

Traces of an installation, maybe a small table, were detected immediately south of the tannur. The wall W.4 probably divided the building and the annexed open area from another open area (L.130), probably devoted to production activities, as testified by the recovery of three fire-places (I.132, I.133 and I.134). While I.132 is smaller, I.133 and I.134 have the same diameter (80 cm).

In Phase I the building was still in use. Two of the rooms (L.108 and L.110) were clearly used as storage spaces, as testified by the recovery in situ in L.108 of jars of big and medium size, whose shape, decoration (red and black paint) and surface treatments (red slip and reserved red slip) are typical of the Jemdet Nasr period. The jars were deposited in the western part of L.108, along W.105. The main door of the building was enlarged in Phase I (1.94 m wide), communicating with the open space west of the building.

In the Field 6

Several goblets were recovered along W.101, in L.110. Probably, they were originally placed on wooden shelves, as also testified by two holes along W.101 cut in the earthen floor L.110. West of the building, the open space was reorganized during Phase I, as wall W.4 was obliterated and a large courtyard, L.125, made of a beaten earth floor, was created. Due to the placer mining, both the floor and the installation on it are barely preserved. Nevertheless, a rectangular oven (I.124) has been brought to light in the north-western corner of the area.

It is thus possible to interpret this open space, both in Phase II and in Phase I, as an area probably linked with production and the cooking of food.

In the Field 7

Area B

The operation in Area B concentrated on the western slope of the mound, where a trench of 10 x 5 m was opened. Two main phases of occupation were identified, and both can be dated to the Ubaid 4 period (5300-4500 BC), based on the pottery assemblage recovered so far. It is however interesting to note the existence of earlier Ubaid sherds, which can be ascribed to the phase Ubaid 2, indicating that Mound B probably shows a longer stratified occupation.

In the Field 9

Although the extent of the trench is too limited, two facts are particularly interesting and, in fact, define the nature of the building excavated so far. The western façade of the wall W.32 (belonging to the second oldest phase of the building) is decorated with niches and buttresses, a feature that is usually present in monumental public buildings such as temples. Further, a group of six censers were recovered in the South-Western corner of the trench, partially leaning against the Western façade of the wall W.32. These cultic vessels, one of them painted with geometric and wave motifs of black and white colours, have parallels with the censers discovered in Room 28 of Temple VI in Eridu. This finding, together with the presence of recesses and buttresses on a portion of W.32, suggests that the building so far investigated on Mound B at Tell Zurghul should be interpreted as a temple.

In the Field 12

Area C

Area C was surveyed during the 2015 and 2016 campaigns, aiming to register the archaeological evidence visible on the surface in order to determine the function of this part of the site. The area presents a main elongated relief (Feature C1), about 200 m long, and a small mound (Mound C). A key purpose of the survey was to collect findings useful for understanding the chronological periodization of the western sector of the site, due to the high presence of surface pottery sherds identified in particular along the western side of Feature C1.

The whole Area C is characterized by a sandy-clay soil, with dark red, grey and yellowish lenses probably due to the presence of ash and burnt soil, in particular in its southern sector, close to Mound C. Several drain-pipes were identified in this area. The drain-pipes registered in the survey (57 in all) are distributed in three main groups, running almost parallel north-east/south-west, on the south-western slope of Feature C1. A fourth group can be identified along the whole edge of Feature C1, but the evidence appears more scattered on the ground. Generally, the distance between the drain-pipes is different for each group, but in some cases, the distance between them is less than 1 m. Noteworthy is the fact that the three groups on the slope might be related to the presence of small water flows that eroded the surface.

In the Field 18

Concerning the morphology of the drain-pipes, they are circular in shape, made of coarse fabric pottery, usually yellowish buff in colour, and surrounded by a cladding 30-40 cm thick, made of pottery sherds. There are two ranges of dimensions: one around 50 cm, and the other around 90 cm in diameter. Three drains have an inner diameter of around 1.5 m, with a cladding of 50 cm. A small group of evidence findings to the drain-pipes in the same area is represented by circular pottery elements, without cladding, that can probably be interpreted as small kilns.

The pottery repertoire of Area C points to a chronological range between the Early Dynastic and Ur III period, with some sherds pointing to a slightly later date, probably the Isin-Larsa period. No clear sherds dating to the Old Babylonian period have been found, so the occupation of the area might have been interrupted during the first centuries of the second millennium BCE. Various findings, besides the presence of ash lenses, pottery slags and burnt soil, may suggest that the area was used for different kinds of production activities.

This interpretation is supported by the evidences identified on the small mound in the south-western corner of the area (Mound C), characterized by a dark grey ashy and sandy soil. The concentration of pottery sherds is particularly high at the middle and the bottom of the slope. Along the south-western side of the mound a deep water flow caused heavy erosion of the soil, and here two backed brick, apparently in situ, were visible on the surface, identifying an installation that was named I.64.

In the Field 19

After the cleaning of the surface layer, this feature was clearly identified as a large kiln, 2 m in diameter, delimited by a circular baked-brick wall. On the western side, a grey clay soil with a large presence of charcoal and ash seems to be related to the kiln, which was possibly used for firing pottery or bricks. Unfortunately, no diagnostic pottery sherds were found in connection with the kiln, but the repertoire from the area fits with the chronology of Area C, between the Early Dynastic II-III and Ur III/Isin-Larsa periods.

Area D

A new trench 11 x 10 m was opened on the top and southern slope of Mound A, leading to the discovery of the southern limit of Koldewey’s sounding, which had been excavated across the mound and on its top. The new excavation aimed at analysing the nature of the main mound, so as to explain the stratigraphy.

In the Field 13

In particular, operations in Area D aimed at excavating the place where the temple of the goddess Nanshe (the Sirara of cuneiform sources) was originally erected. In fact, in 2015, 15 bricks and 11 cones, bearing inscriptions of Gudea commemorating the construction of the Temple Sirara for the goddess Nanshe, were collected on the surface at the southern base of the mound. This datum so far suggests that bricks and cones might have collapsed from the higher structure of the temple built on the top of the mound.

The southern slope of Mound A is heavily eroded. Excavation allowed the identification of two phases of terracing and levelling of the mound, showing also its morphology and construction technique. The mound was made by artificial terracing of mud and levelled platforms, which contributed to the shape of the hill; this is in fact confirmed by the words of Gudea who, in in his inscription, calls it a mountain rising above the water and the neighbouring houses.

In the Field 15

The temple, which originally occupied the highest part of the mound, has totally disappeared due of the destruction it suffered, natural erosion, and eventually the cut made by Koldewey. Pottery found on the plaster platform and other materials discovered for the levelling of the second phase can be attributed to the so-called transitional phase, Akkad/Ur III, which fits with the time of Gudea of Lagash. Finally, a fragmentary clay plaque was discovered directly on top of the plaster platform: the moulded clay plaque represents a frontal bull-man with horned headgear holding a ring pole. From its style and iconographical features it can be ascribed to the Neo-Sumerian period.

In the Field 16


Italian researches at Tell Zurghul are bringing to light very interesting and important data for the occupation of the ancient region of Lagash, from at least the mid 6th millennium BC. Up to now, in fact, the entire region of Lagash has been poorly excavated, except for the brief exploration of al-Hiba/Lagash by an American expedition in the seventies and eighties, as well as the intensive French excavation of Girsu from the end of the 19th century and up to the thirties. It is our hope that the recent resumption of excavations at Tell Zurghul and at Girsu can contribute to the writing of a new history of the land of Sumer and the state of Lagash.

In the Field 17


We wish to warmly thank our Iraqi friends and colleagues, who make our work in Iraq possible. The results of our efforts are dedicated to them. Abdulamir al-Hamdani has supported our work at all times and in fact, our archaeological expedition to Iraq depends entirely on him, as he suggested to us that we should undertake work at Tell Zurghul already in 2014! Abbas al-Hussainy helped us during the first season of excavations in 2015, and we can always count on him for his help and advice. Our deepest thanks go to Ali Kadhem, Amjad N. Shebbab, Loay Reissan Humood, Akram Arkan Abd el-‘Aziz, Amear Abd Ressiq, Aqeel Sfeiah Nashoua. A special thank to Ms. Iqbal Kadhim Ajeel and all the members of the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage of Dhi Qar Province and the Archaeological Museum of Nassiriyah.

Our deepest thanks go also to the cultural authorities of the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage in Baghdad: to HE Dr Rasheed H. Qais, Dr Ahmed Kamil, Dr Haider Al-Mamori and the entire staff of the Iraqi Museum in Baghdad.

The Italian Embassy in Baghdad and the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation have firmly supported our work in Iraq. The Iraqi Embassy in Rome actively helped and supported our work in Iraq, following our activities and results.

The Italian Archaeological Expedition to Nigin is supported by the Sapienza University of Rome (through a special grant for archaeological excavations), the University of Perugia and the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation.


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