The Nahrein Network


The Kish Project

In 2021 the Nahrein Network began to help the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage (SBAH) to recover lost archaeological and historical knowledge of the great Babylonian city of Kish, and render it useful to Iraq with open-access, online editions in English, Arabic and other Middle Eastern scripts and languages. In collaboration with Oracc.org and UCL’s Advanced Research Computing Centre (ARC), Professor Eleanor Robson and Dr Parsa Daneshmand, with the assistance of Ms Wessam Youssef, have started to create an open-access multilingual catalogue and edition of the 600 cuneiform tablets from Kish now housed in the Ashmolean Museum, using ARC’s new cuneiform editor, Nisaba.

The archaeological site of Kish at sunset, with palm trees in the foreground

The large archaeological site of Kish, 15 km northeast of Babylon, comprises the ruins of the greatest cities of ancient Babylonia. Since the mid 19th century, several international antiquarian and archaeological expeditions have worked there. Most of their finds were taken to museums in Paris, Istanbul, Oxford, and Chicago so it is now impossible to study them together, and few artefacts are in Iraq itself. The few archaeological and historical studies of Kish are in French and English, not Arabic. Visitors to the site today see only filled-in traces of long-ago excavation pits and the collapsing remains of mud-brick buildings, which SBAH are working hard to conserve. The Nahrein Network has begun to help SBAH to recover lost and dispersed knowledge of Kish, and render it useful to Iraq.

Reparative history: decolonizing Kish

The mandated occupation and administration of Iraq by the British Empire between 1920 and 1932 witnessed two major excavations sponsored by joint UK/US institutions: Ur (British Museum/University of Pennsylvania Museum) and Kish (University of Oxford/Field Museum, Chicago = OFME). Although these excavations were widely covered by the press in both countries, Kish failed to enter popular reception, overshadowed by Leonard Woolley’s accessible accounts of the spectacular discoveries at Ur, as well as the reconstruction and display of these objects at the two sponsoring museums. At the Ashmolean, Dr Paul Collins began to explore the impact of the Kish excavations (and by association, the University of Oxford and Field Museum) in contemporary popular reception as well as on the attitudes and decisions of the UK and Iraqi administrations during the mandate period. He identified relevant archival materials in Oxford, London and Chicago.

Knowledge repatriation: the cuneiform record of Kish

Fortunately, new technologies make it possible to reverse this long-term dispersal of knowledge from Iraq. Oracc, the Open, Richly Annotated Cuneiform Corpus, houses millions of words of historical resources, edited and translated by researchers all over the world — except, ironically, the Middle East.  So, for the past few years, Professor Eleanor Robson has worked with UCL’s Research Software Development Group (now UCL Advanced Research Computing Centre, ARC) to design simple software that Assyriologists can use to edit cuneiform texts and translate them into any modern European or Middle Eastern language.

A freely available cuneiform editor, called Nisaba after the Sumerian goddess of writing, was launched in January 2022 (replacing an earlier app called Nammu). ARC are also updating the Oracc website, to make the whole corpus fully searchable, and to display the results nicely on small screens running on 3G or 4G phone signals. It has been available for beta-testing at https://build-oracc.museum.upenn.edu/new since spring 2022. A stable, public release is due very soon.

In November 2021, Dr Parsa Daneshmand joined the Kish project as postdoctoral researcher. In London and Oxford, he is using Nisaba to create an online, open-access multilingual catalogue and edition of the 2000 cuneiform tablets from Kish, focusing on the 600 tablets now housed in the Ashmolean Museum. They include official and personal letters, administrative documents, literary works and school exercises, from the third to the first millennia BC, translated into English, Arabic and Farsi. By the end of his two-year contract, the draft corpus contained some 250 entries, with translations in Arabic, English and Farsi. In summer 2023, Ms Wesam Youssef joined the team, to provide editorial assistance and to add translations in Kurdish too.

At the same time, the Field Museum in Chicago is resurrecting and updating the online catalogue of non-epigraphic finds from Kish, created by an NEH-funded project undertaken by the Ashmolean and Field Museums in 2004–06. We hope that the two resources will be complementary.

In the field: site visit to Kish

In May 2022, Eleanor and Mehiyar visited the site of Kish with SBAH employee and former Nahrein Network grant-holder Mr Ammar Al-Taee, who is responsible for its upkeep. Together we walked the southeastern mounds of Ingharra (Hursagkalama) and Tell Bandar. Ammar showed us the dire state of the standing remains, excavated a century ago by OFME and exposed to increasingly harsh climatic conditions ever since. The Neo-Babylonian façade of the goddess Ishtar’s temple is in particularly bad condition and needs urgent intervention, which ALIPH has offered to support.

We hope that within the next few years visitors to Kish will be able to read or hear the words and listen to the stories of its ancient inhabitants, in Arabic, English, Farsi or Kurdish, as they walk around the better-managed site, using the resources and software created by this project.