The Nahrein Network


Transcript: A Conversation with Mark Altaweel

New Technologies and Knowledge Production In Iraq - a conversation with Graeme Barker

Mehiyar Kathem 0:00 Welcome to the Nahrein Network we are today with Professor Mark Altaweel at University College London. How are you Mark?

Mark Altaweel 0:07 Good thank you for having me. It's a pleasure to be here.

Mehiyar Kathem 0:09 You're a professor on Near East archeology and archaeological data science. What does that mean?

Mark Altaweel 0:15 Yes. So what I do is I cover two areas. I teach and do research in areas such as Near Eastern archaeology so the wider Middle East or ancient Middle East. But I also have interests and do research in areas such as our political data science, it's relatively new area that we here at UCL actually founded about six, seven years ago now. I think we're the first academic institution to teach data science as it relates to heritage and archaeolgy.

Mehiyar Kathem 0:41 What made you interested in archaeology?

Mark Altaweel 0:44 Archaeology has been something in my family for really generations, I had a well known archaeologist in my family, who was involved in Iraq's early history with archaeology when the nation state of Iraq was developed in the 1940s. Some of the earliest professional archaeologists were being trained. He was one of the first and eventually rose the ranks his name was Fouad Safar. So I had stories from that generation that time, and certainly just general knowledge and history about the country. As I grew up, being curious about the country in its history, led me to kind of want to pursue this as a professional endeavor.

Mehiyar Kathem 1:19 And you completed your PhD at the University of Chicago. What was that in?

Mark Altaweel 1:23 Yes, I completed in 2004. My PhD was Mesopotamian archaeology. So focusing on ancient Iraq, effectively looking at Neo-Assyrian period, looking at the countryside and region of Ashur and Nineveh, my BA was an anthropology so in the United States it's very typical to study anthropology, as archaeology is part of anthropology, the study of human behavior. So whether it's more recent or past behavior, and my MA and PhD, we're in what was called the New Eastern Languages and Civilizations program, which focused specifically on the ancient Near East using languages but also archaeology as part of the curriculum.

Mehiyar Kathem 1:47 And if we can just focus a bit on the component in your title, archaeological data science. Could you tell us about about how that's applied in your workplace?

Mark Altaweel 2:09 Yeah. So this is kind of more broad, it goes well, beyond the Near East, certainly, it's more applicable to using so things like machine learning data science, blockchain, all kinds of computational methods to understand social science kind of questions, oftentimes related to the past, although I also have done lots of research on heritage related areas, so how our heritage is used, for instance, in things like social media, how it's used in understanding how people perceive heritage and use it for propaganda and or conflict or even political endeavors.

Mehiyar Kathem 2:42 Recently you have become the Vice Dean Innovation Enterprise and Knowledge Exchange at UCL, that involves archaeology or is that something to do more with the broader development and progress of UCL?

Mark Altaweel 2:54 No, that's that's definitely focus more faculty level at UCL. So, my department is in the faculty of social and historical sciences. And so I've had an interest in developing everything from startups, to working with different kinds of nonprofit for profit, as well as public institutions throughout my career. And I've done this in a variety of capacities. So I've taken these interests and skills and hopefully find them now as Vice Dean in this area to benefit my faculty in creating external kinds of connections to such bodies.

Mehiyar Kathem 3:28 And, does that involve archaeology or cultural heritage in heart?

Mark Altaweel 3:32 Yes, it does. Actually, we do for instance, here at UCL Institute of Archaeology, we have a company within department of Institute of Archaeology. So we have archaeology, South East as an example, which has relationships to public, private and other kinds of institutions as well. So we develop that as part of that, but it's certainly much more broad than archaeology or even heritage.

Mehiyar Kathem 3:52 And if we just go back to your work in Iraq, what are you working on at the moment?

Mark Altaweel 3:56 So I have a variety of interests in ancient Iraq, I started my career looking at ancient landscapes. I did a lot of satellite imagery and those kinds of things, analysis imagery for understanding, things like ancient landscape features, like qanats ancient sites. But now more recently, I've taken different interests. I've seen archaeology has really advanced in the last 10 to 15 years at a very rapid pace. So a lot of these advancements will never apply to Iraq. So for instance, I'm interested in things like ancient DNA analysis, so we're beginning to apply this to ancient Iraq, specifically to the Neo-Assyrian period. I'm interested in Paleo climate research. So we've been doing some cave related work in Iraqi Kurdistan recovering what are called speleothems to reconstruct paleoclimate, but I also have interested in things like getting developing better chronologies and historical chronoloies, so we've also done geomagnetic kinds of archaeomagnetic dating. So there's a big publication that's coming out soon, hopefully, about this. And so that's some of my recent work. I've also have heritage interests of course, in protecting Iraq's past and working with colleagues for that developing technologies and tools and Just general, so I continue to do some research on ancient landscapes. I do some computational but also field based research working with colleagues in the Ashur region on excavations and landscape studies. Would it be fair to say that the new technologies that you're employing or have developed in the past years is shaping or reshaping knowledge production when it comes to archaeology? How is it impacting and furthering the cause of knowledge production, particularly in relation to Middle East archaeology? Yeah, I would like to think that we're advancing some of that knowledge production, I think we're advancing things like more greater knowledge about Iraq's past certainly. And that's been part of the goal is to advance both theoretically, but also in terms of knowledge production, to the wider academic bodies out there, and as well as just colleagues around the world. But in particular, my interest is, of course, grown in developing close relationships and collaboration with Iraqi colleagues. So knowledge production can be produced, of course, by our, Iraqi colleagues working in close collaboration with them, to aid them and also to be involved in relatively recent developments in archaeology.

Mehiyar Kathem 6:06 Would you say that new technology is foreseen or compelling us to revisit the history of this region? When it comes to archaeology?

Mark Altaweel 6:16 I'd like to think so I think there's a lot certainly we've learned over decades in studying this region, but this is definitely evolving, we've had a lot of new tools that can allow us to develop a much greater, precise knowledge, not only discovery of things like ancient cities and places. But now we can refine chronologies, we can even determine much more clear understanding of Iraq's, ancient climate, which I think has application from modern day Iraq, given all the challenges the country faces. So there are lots of things that we're beginning to learn that we just didn't know anything about. We were kind of, in many ways I thought we were operating in a void. You see, ancient Iraq as this place that's supposed to be the birthplace of complex societies, yet we knew nothing about its ancient climate and now we have a much better understanding of that picture. So we're beginning to get a lot more data and in some ways answering some most age old questions about the rise of early complex societies, how societies evolved, as well as addressing hopefully, some modern cultural heritage kinds of challenges that Iraq is beginning to face.

Mehiyar Kathem 7:15 And you've mentioned working with colleagues in Iraq. Can you tell us a bit about that? And how can we support our colleagues in Iraq through your work, you have direct exposure to the challenges there?

Mark Altaweel 7:27 Yeah, so over the course of my career, I've done a lot of public joint publications with Iraqi colleagues. So that sort of a lot of it is getting that knowledge production out there, particularly the knowledge created by Iraqi colleagues, so I think that is, I always felt that was part of the tasks I think that's relevant for my career and really, as someone who was involved in this region, this was in particular case during the use of the embargo years, but going into the early sort of post embargo years after the war, 2003 War, when things were still quite difficult, of course, but now it's beginning to shift. I would say, I think that knowledge production is now doing things like joint publications working, applying some of the recent kinds of new technologies and techniques, so for instance, or in our paleo climate research, we're working with colleagues in university settings, who are in geology department there, for instance, what we're trying to use that knowledge not only to benefit them from a theoretical point of view, but also have worked with them to apply some at knowledge and things like areas such as policy. So we have all this climate data for 10,000 years of Iraqi history. What does this mean for Iraq? Can we use this to understand the kinds of climate we can expect going into next 100 years or so in Iraq, where we're facing such challenges, so that that kind of stuff that knowledge production, both from a kind of theoretical academic point of view, but also knowledge production that can be applied in some ways to hopefully benefit society? With Iraqis taking the lead, I would say, in that knowledge production, I think is critical.

Mehiyar Kathem 8:51 With this new body or increases in data you have potentially, it would mean that other fields could actually have interesting conversations with you, because you're collecting data about in this case, Iraq's climate or ancient climate, I guess, perhaps this is new data that could be used by other trusted academics in other fields of academia.

Mark Altaweel 9:14 Yeah, absolutely I think ancient Iraq, of course, has had for a long time, broad interests in theoretical kinds of lots of different kinds of research, really, I mean, given a Iraq's early history and how it developed and it's certainly knowing some about its climate will shape quite broadly, discussions on things like the rise of complex societies, what triggers these kinds of events, how climate has played a role in things like the evolution of urbanism, those kinds of big questions, which we still don't know enough to be honest about in my opinion. So I think we're beginning to hopefully address some of these issues that are much more broader, even though they are Iraq specific, they're actually quite broad because of the implications that ancient Iraq has on World History.

Mehiyar Kathem 9:53 And if you can just go back to your interest in Asshur or Assyria, what was interesting about Ashur or Assyria that made you focus. I mean, you did a PhD on that and you're continuing to work on Assyria in northern Iraq. What sort of triggered the your first interest in Ashur or Assyria?

Mark Altaweel 10:11 Yeah, I think my family is from from Mosul, so I suppose there's a kind of regional bias, I suppose, being from that region. And you know, I've heard stories about my father growing up, having to walk cross Mosul and picking up the sherds and sometimes telling me he basically looted sherds from the site, but basically, you know, he grew up in a village that was literally next to Nineveh Jeda, as it was called, which is now part of Mosul, one of the neighborhoods in the eastern part of Mosul. In any case, those kinds of stories, of course, inspired me, and then, as I mentioned, I have a relative who was well known in archaeology in Iraq. And all those stories created me I think, led me to have an interest in Assyria specifically. And it was something I felt I can contribute to I began to do some research on it when I was a graduate student that realized, there's quite a lot of interesting questions we can ask. And I was hoping to do a survey around Ashur prior to the 2003 War, which never happened because of the war.

Mehiyar Kathem 11:07 And of course this is a personal story as much as it is about your career. Do you have any existing work in Northern Iraq, in Ashur or Assyria at the moment? What type of work does that involve?

Mark Altaweel 11:17 I'm working with colleagues from Germany LMU Munich Dr. Karen Radner Radner professor there in history, she's leading the effort. But I'm working with her we're kind of investigating some of these old questions we've had, but also new ones about Ashur specifically, and hopefully once we get a chance, maybe even areas around Ashur. So there's a lot of questions about the ancient city, it's one of these places, that was, you know, you wouldn't expect to rise as an important city, given its location. It's a very marginal place. In many ways, it's vulnerable to climate kinds of variability for instance, it has a nice location, on the river, but it was one of the cities that became very successful and perhaps this kind of being on the edge of what is productive and what is capable for early city in many ways may have pushed it to become a successful city in the past. So that's something that I'm interested in learning about why Ashur became such an important place and continue to be so of course, in later periods, in later Neo-Assyrian period, for instance, and even beyond. So this is something that I hope to continue to do research on taking some of that old research that I did, and that never happened because of the war 2003. And maybe we can actually apply it to some of the things we're studying now.

Mehiyar Kathem 12:13 And if we can just go back to supporting our colleagues in Iraq, what would you hope would change? Or what can we do being here in, in UK or in Europe and US? What can we do better? What can we develop, you know, thinking about the near future, for Iraq, to strengthen our collaboration, and our partnerships with Iraqi colleagues in this field.

Mark Altaweel 12:51 I think just having more efforts, really led by our colleagues, I mean, it's very typical for us to get grants and funding in the UK and then we take that research abroad effectively, which is good, and many times our colleagues support that, certainly, but I think having more open dialogue with our colleagues seeing that the kinds of needs that they have, what we can do to help them and having those kinds of endeavors, perhaps lead some of those efforts would be good. So we could also that incorporate our colleagues in training and research, so they're involved every step of the way, being co-decision makers, co-directors, a lot of people are doing this already. So I certainly want to give credit to a lot of my colleagues who have been quite active in this area. But I think more of this, and making sure that perhaps taking that information to our funding bodies, so that they see foreign research as something that has to kind of reflect perhaps previous inequalities, and how we can now begin to address that, through collaborative research are some of the kinds of things that I'd like to see going forward. I've been quite positive recently, in some ways about research in Iraq, I think it's as a bright future, despite the challenges in the region. Of course, there are challenges and there are very a lot of problems both internally externally that affect the country, but I think we are in a better position today than we were say at least 10 years ago. So in some ways, I see some positives going forward.

Mehiyar Kathem 14:10 On that note, Professor Mark Altaweel, thank you very much.

Mark Altaweel 14:13 Thank you for your time and thank you.

Mehiyar Kathem 14:14 Thank you.