Russian archaeologists uncover ancient settlement close to the Iraq-Iran border

Russian archaeologists uncover ancient settlement close to the Iraq-Iran border
Iraqi and Russian researchers discover ancient relics in new archaeological dig on the Iranian border. / bne IntelliNews
By bne Tehran bureau May 15, 2024

Russian archaeologists have conducted their first fieldwork in Iraq’s Maysan Province after several decades, in a sign of growing cooperation between Baghdad and Moscow.

Iraq, Syria and Iran are often referred to as the cradle of civilisation and are among the richest archaeological regions in the world. Their landscape has layers of ancient history, home to the remnants of Mesopotamian, Persian, Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian and Assyrian civilisations. Meanwhile, the area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers saw the birth of writing, the discovery of the wheel and some of the earliest known cities and empires. 

The report on the expedition in April was presented by the Institute of Archaeology of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow on May 14.

Arriving in Iraq as part of the Russian-Iraqi Joint Expedition Programme marked the first foreign expedition in Maysan Province and pointed to a return of academics from abroad to the central provinces of the country after decades of absence due to war and several invasions


On the Iranian border

For the first time, excavations were carried out at the settlement of Tell Wajef, located 5 km from the Iranian border and about 10 km from the low foothills of the Zagros Mountains. The site was also an area of intense fighting in the Iran-Iraq War, which saw hundreds of thousands of people killed.

According to the researchers, the settlement of Tell Wajef is notable for its location "at the border of the non-irrigated farming zone and the alluvial plain of Mesopotamia, where human life is only possible with the use of irrigation or the resources of the wetland ecosystem of the internal delta of the Tigris and Euphrates."

This suggests that the settlement may have emerged during the prehistoric period when the southern Mesopotamian plain was initially being settled by sedentary populations. During the fieldwork Russian archaeologists identified two construction horizons made of mudbrick architecture and several cultural layers.

Numerous fragments of painted ceramics, small plastic objects and several ornaments were unearthed. The decorations on the ancient pottery were applied with bitumen and ochre.

A curious human figurine was also excavated, with its head broken off in antiquity. A bitumen spot was found on the back of the figurine, possibly indicating it was attached to a vertical surface using bitumen.

The discovered artefacts, as the researchers note, have a syncretic appearance, combining elements of the Ubaid culture of Mesopotamia and a culture related to the Hazineh-Mehmeh period of the Zagros zone.

'6th millennium BCE'

Most uncovered deposits date back to the second half of the 6th millennium BCE.

Also, remains of structures made from river stone, attributed by experts to the Old Babylonian period, were also excavated by the joint task force.

The findings suggest that the settlement of Tell Wajef existed in a period preceding the emergence of the Sumerian civilisation, one of the most advanced and influential civilisations of its time.

"Results of the work at Tell Wajef are promising for determining the system of contacts between the plain near the Zagros foothills (Trans-Tigris corridor) and the alluvial plain of Mesopotamia," summarised the leaders of the research, Shahmardan Amirov and Alexei Jankowski-Diakonoff.

"Based on the conducted archaeological research, it can be asserted that to date, Tell Wajef is the oldest known sedentary agricultural settlement in Maysan Province."

Overall, the excavated site represents a tell covering about one hectare. However, its exact parameters have yet to be determined.

The hill on which it is located was used as an artillery park during the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988 and was heavily damaged in the process of fortification.