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Diyala Project

News: National Endowment for Humanities (NEH) awards $100,000 in funding to the Diyala Project in its "Recovering Iraq's Past" Initiative (September 15, 2004). See the University of Chicago press release.

Table of Contents

Statement of Significance and Impact

  1. Project Description
    1. Significance of Diyala Excavations
    2. History of Publication
    3. Creation of a Computer Database
  2. Project Activities and Methodology
    1. Revised Publication Plan: A “Virtual Diyala Archive”
    2. The Oracle Backend Database
    3. Current State of Affairs (December 2004
  3. Project Results
    1. Target  Audiences
    2. The Diyala as “Template” for Other Projects
  4. Project Team
  5. Proposed Plan for Completion of Project
  6. Annual Reports and On-line Publications
  7. Bibliography
  8. Object Photos (Selection)

Significance and Impact of the Diyala Project

Statuette of kneeling nude male figure holding vessel, alabaster, from Shara Temple at Tell Agrab (date: ca. 2600 B.C.). Oriental Institute Museum. With the Diyala on-line database, the Oriental Institute will launch an innovative, web-based publication of fundamentally important archaeological data from ancient Mesopotamia (modern Iraq).

During the 1930s the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago conducted excavations on four major sites in the Diyala Region, an area northeast of Baghdad in Iraq. To the present day, these excavations have remained the basis of comparison for all excavations in Mesopotamia. The archeological material recovered from Diyala sites provides the chronological backbone for much of Mesopotamia's early history, making its full publication imperative. An ambitious program of publication resulted in nine monographs of temples, palaces, houses, and classes of artifacts such as pottery and seals, but the great majority of objects, numbering 12,000, have yet to be published. A web-based publication with a relational and expandable database backend will allow fully dynamic data management. A “virtual archive” with previously published and unpublished Diyala records will enable continued research on this material not only in Chicago but literally anywhere in the world therefore providing an important milestone in the introduction of electronic publication for the field of Near Eastern archaeology.  In addition, the website will make this database accessible to multiple user groups, ranging from scholars to the general public and to school children. Having all Diyala material available in electronic format will facilitate a reanalysis of the older publications in light of newly available data; manipulating them in a variety of ways will result in fresh insights, new interpretations of important material, and more nuanced presentations of ancient Mesopotamian culture and society.

The tragic looting of the Iraq Museum in April 2003, resulting in the loss of an as yet uncertain number of objects (at least 15,000 as of February 2004) and the damage and disorganization of Museum records, has given the Diyala Objects Project new importance and an urgency to be completed.  Approximately half of all objects found in the Diyala excavations were retained by the Iraqi authorities for the museum’s collections. It is already known that there are numerous Diyala objects among the stolen artifacts. A speedy completion of our database and website will make available to the Iraq Museum, U.S. Customs, and Interpol and other official bodies, as well as the scholarly community,  essential records and photographic images of thousands of items that may help to recover  stolen artifacts.

I. Project Description

1. Significance of Diyala Excavations

By the early twentieth century sensational archaeological finds had put Iraq onto the archaeological map of the world. Yet early excavations often lacked a systematic approach to digging and recording, paying little attention to stratigraphy (the super-imposed cultural phases of an archaeological site). Objects recovered in those early excavations became prized museum items, but selective sampling and poor record-keeping of archaeological proveniences rendered many of them useless for functional analyses of architectural units, making it difficult to establish a reliable chronological sequence of cultural artifacts. This was the situation when the Oriental Institute launched its Diyala Expedition in 1930, in which four sites (Tell Agrab, Tell Asmar, Ishchali, Khafaje) in the Diyala Region northeast of Baghdad were excavated (Figures 1, 2). Over the following six years a team of archaeologists uncovered temples, palaces, domestic quarters, and workshops dating between 3200 and 1800 B.C., a crucial time span during which large territorial states emerged in Mesopotamia, large urban centers developed, and writing was invented. The data recovered during these excavations exposed a cross-section through most aspects of urban life in ancient Mesopotamia, such as its political organization, religion and cult, social organization, and economic interactions. In spite of the large scale of excavations, exceptional care was taken with the systematic recording of find contexts, using procedures that were uncommon at that time in Near Eastern archaeology. Architectural spaces such as rooms, courtyards, or corridors were divided into loci, clearly defined spatial units that were given unique numbers. This recording system not only helped to establish a sound chronological framework for artifacts based on their archaeological provenience, but also made it possible to identify the functions of distinct spatial units within a building by studying their artifact patterns. Such a precision in data recording has been surpassed only in the past twenty years through use of computers on projects of this scope in Mesopotamian archaeology, a fact that highlights the significance of this data.

2. History of Publication

Following the end of the excavations in 1937, several printed volumes were prepared for publication, but World War II interrupted this work and dispersed the group of scholars that had worked in the field. Persistent analysis by a few of the collaborators between 1939 and 1988, however, produced monographs on almost all of the architecture and some of the major finds (statuary, cylinder seals, pottery). Over 12,000 objects, however, have so far remained unpublished. According to the excavators’ publication schedule, they would have appeared in a volume called “Miscellaneous Objects from the Diyala Region.”  In the past decades several attempts were started to publish this material, but the large number of objects made data management difficult if not impossible. Perhaps it is fortunate that this book never materialized—its title would have severely understated the significance of this material which, after all, represents the large majority of finds from the Diyala excavations, consisting of objects that touched upon all sections of Mesopotamian life. Among these items are stone vessels, tools, weapons, jewelry, cosmetic sets, weights, figurines, stone and metal vessels, inlays, and stamp seals (Figures 3, 4, 5). Many of these items are truly artworks, while others provide valuable information of everyday life. In addition, some 1,200 clay tablets with cuneiform texts written in the Sumerian and Akkadian languages and over 250 clay sealings with impressions, many of them also bearing inscriptions, have also remained unpublished (Figure 6). In the division of finds undertaken by Iraq Museum authorities during the 1930s, half of the objects had been allocated to the Oriental Institute, the other half to the Iraq Museum. Most of the objects had been photographed and described in the field, resulting in thousands of unpublished photographs, field object registers, and catalogue cards that detail the Diyala holdings of both the Iraq Museum and the Oriental Institute (Figure 7).

3. Creation of a Computer Database

In 1992, with the support of an NEH grant, McGuire Gibson launched the Diyala Project as a computer-based database project. Using DBase 3 and 4, students entered data from field object catalogues and object cards into database files, while volunteers started scanning thousands of object photographs taken during the excavation. The initial data entry was done into flat files, but their limitations soon became apparent. Quite often, several units of information had to be entered in one field. More often than not, for example, archaeological objects were composed of more than one material; some of them may had been assigned to more than one “descriptive” or “functional” category by the excavators; some objects had been photographed once, others many times. The problems with our flat-file data structure grew when information from cuneiform texts was entered. Clay tablets with a single account, receipt, or distribution list can record dozen of manufactured, received, or traded commodities; any such operations would have involved many people whose names also could be listed in the text. Needless to say, many of these information units were only relevant to one particular type of object—personal names, for example, only show up in written texts. The need for a complex relational database layout, which would allow us to store such units of information as distinct entries in searchable and sortable form, became apparent. When we changed our supporting database software in 1995 to Microsoft FoxPro, initial structural changes were implemented. When several project members moved from entering catalogue data to analytical work on artifacts for dissertation and paper research, however, the need for a much more dynamic data layout that went far beyond our initial concept became apparent. Soon after Clemens Reichel started analyzing personal names on cuneiform texts from the governor's palace of Eshnunna (the ancient name of Tell Asmar) for his dissertation, he discovered the existence of genealogical continuity in certain office holdings that extended over four generations. He also noted that the activities of many officials could be correlated with the archaeological findspots of the cuneiform texts, allowing the reconstruction of ancient office locations and even “paper trails.” Reichel quickly learned to appreciate the usefulness of related database files while trying to reconstruct hundreds of family lines. Stored procedures, integrated into the structural layout of the database, allowed him to update his genealogical diagrams automatically each time he entered a new text. In short, what initially had been conceived of as a publication database was expanded rapidly into a sophisticated research database, allowing highly individualized data management for such different object categories as stone vessels, inlays, cylinder seals, sealings, weights, and cuneiform texts. By 2001 our database contained over sixty major tables, managed and navigated by over 2,000 programs, procedures, and screens.

Years of work have shown clear results. In June 2001 Reichel, who has acted as the project’s coordinator and its data architect since 1999, submitted his dissertation "Political Changes and Cultural Continuity at the Palace of the Rulers in Tell Asmar (Eshnunna) from 2070 to 1850 B.C." His ground-breaking synthesis, which depended almost exclusively on the Diyala database as source material, proved that our concept of a publication and research-oriented database worked.

II. Project Activities and Methodology

1. Revised Publication Plan: A “Virtual Diyala Archive”

Over the years, the changes in data management mentioned above also had modified our outlook on publication. The dynamic nature of our data structure allows us to accept new collaborators, add new tables, and revise existing entries at any given time, but it also changed our notion of a “final” version as a print publication. We therefore dispensed with the idea of a printed book version and instead opted for a web-based publication. Making data available over the web has many advantages—it is free for users and will reach a much larger audience within, as well as outside, the field of archaeology; it can be queried for specific data, and it is possible to correct and update the data when needed. Publication, which had seemed so remote in the distant future, suddenly became imminent.

While the publication of the objects remains our primary goal, we also began to see another potential of a web-based publication: the creation of a “Virtual Diyala Archive.”  Since these artifacts were recovered in controlled excavation they offer research potentials that go far beyond that of most museum collections. The function of an architectural unit, for example, can be identified by studying the nature and distribution pattern of the artifacts found in it. Conversely, the function and significance of many objects only become clear when studying their provenience and their spatial association with other artifacts. This work is possible thanks to extensive documentation made during the recovery of the objects; these records were kept in notebooks, on plans, section drawings, excavation photographs, locus cards, sketches, in unpublished manuscripts, and generally contain a level of detail that surpasses any published excavation account (Figure 8). In the past decades several scholars have shown the promise and potential of “re-excavating” old excavations on paper by re-examining excavation records, and Reichel's dissertation has shown an unusually high level of potential for the Diyala sites. At present, however,  scholars from outside the Oriental Institute would know little if anything about the Diyala field recording system. Even if they came to Chicago to examine the records, they would not even know what to ask for. We decided therefore to scan ALL archival material, published and unpublished, to include it in our database, and to make it available to the scholarly community worldwide via the World Wide Web. This will not only stimulate more research on the Diyala material, but also create an important virtual backup of this data. The very real danger of losing irreplaceable documentation can not be overstated. Some of the plans and notebooks at the Oriental Institute have already deteriorated significantly and will soon be too fragile to be handled. Gradual decay, however, is only one of the perils that paper records face. The ransacking of the Iraq Museum’s archives in April not only made it a slow process for museum officials to provide an exact tally of stolen objects, but will also make it significantly more difficult for scholars to study archaeological corpora such as the Diyala material in Baghdad. Having all of our records available on the web will not only be of invaluable help in scholarly research but also in the reconstruction of the museum’s collection.

2. An Oracle Backend Database

Since Microsoft's FoxPro does not support many of the functions required for this new concept, we decided to switch to OracleTM as supporting software for the database backend, for which the University of Chicago has held a site license since 2002. We were fortunate that George Sundell, a retired data architect from SBC / Ameritech, joined our project as a volunteer in November 2000. Under his guidance the structural layout of the Diyala database was revised substantially and expanded in its capabilities.

Figure 9 shows Sundell’s present fundamental model, which shows many but not all of the tables. Structurally this layout can be divided into six "zones" (Zones I - VI):

  • Zone I contains the final, "revised," information on each artifact; this is the nodal point of the layout to which every table is linked directly or indirectly.
  • Zone II contains tables with information relating to the material composition of an object, allowing the listing of all composites as well as the ranking of primary and secondary materials.
  • Zone III contains “dynamic data” specific to particular classes of objects, reflecting preliminary results as well as ongoing research undertaken by individual scholars. Personalized log-ins will allow authorized scholars [i.e., team members from the University of Chicago] to add or modify data and be credited for it. Varying interpretations from different scholars will be stored and displayed separately, a feature that we believe to be vital in ongoing research. The tables shown in Figure 9 reflect Clemens Reichel's work on cuneiform tablets and clay sealings; tables for other object categories, however, will be added as required.
  • Zones IV and V contain information on the objects’ archaeological provenience. While physical descriptions of an object always can be updated, corrected, and improved as long as the object itself is available for analysis, we cannot add to an excavator's observations for archaeological provenience made in the field; retaining data integrity in this section is therefore of vital importance. Zone IV contains our own master layout of areas, levels, and loci of each site in a revised and standardized form. Original field notes as well as published archaeological summaries given by the excavators are provided in the tables of Zone V, giving the user the possibility to examine, evaluate, and even question our reconstruction of the archaeological sequence.
  • Zone VI contains the "reference" items necessary for analysis, which include publication references, maps, plans, site and object photos, drawings and sketches of objects, as well as metadata.

3. Current State of Affairs (December  2004)

The data entry on some 15,000 objects is essentially complete; some editing remains to be done. All available object photos taken in the field (2,240) and almost all excavation photos (1,600) have been scanned from either positives or negatives.  In addition, 6,500 new object photographs were taken. The transfer of data from the FoxPro to the OracleTM database is presently ongoing and about halfway completed. One of the major tasks remaining to be done is the scanning of the field notes, catalogues, and plans. Descriptions of archaeological contexts mostly remains to be done. Most of the object photos have been scanned.

III. Project Results

1. Target Audiences

The size and scope of the Diyala website will be unprecedented not only in the world of Near Eastern archaeology but also related fields, so its impact should be noticed far beyond the limits of this field. Our goal, however, is not only reach audiences in the academic world but also in the educational system as well as in the general public:

  1. School / general education: Our site will feature educational components that could easily be used as teaching tools in schools. By “walking” on the computer screen through the plan of a selected building, for example, students will be able to call up images and descriptions of artifacts found in each room. By showing typical information that archeologists use to date and interpret objects or to explain the function of a building, such highly interactive pages will explain visually the archaeological methods used by scholars in the field. Users will understand the significance of properly recorded archaeological provenience and see the limited scientific “value” of unprovenienced objects from the antiquities market. We hope that these pages will make the general public more aware of the irreversible damage and loss of knowledge caused by the looting of archaeological sites in search for artifacts to supply the illegal antiquities market, as it is presently happening in Iraq.
  2. Academic world (Ancient Near Eastern Studies): With new questions emerging following each new publication, and with new technologies for analysis constantly becoming available, no archaeological corpus in our field can ever be considered “fully” analyzed. For that reason we plan not only to retain our “dynamic data section” (= Zone III in Figure 9) indefinitely but also to expand it continuously to enable scholars to add data and to actively pursue their research through this database. Much of the analyses on Diyala material could be done as research for Ph.D. dissertations on topics addressing political, social, and economic history, and chronology of the ancient Near East. What makes this idea particularly attractive is that, once the Diyala material is up on the web, these dissertations could be written not just in Chicago but literally anywhere in the world, making it possible for students at institutions with very limited funds to work on this material. These studies could be added as narrative extensions to our site and cross-linked with descriptions of object or archaeological contexts in our database.
  3. Academic world (interdisciplinary): On an interdisciplinary level we hope that our project may further the exchange of ideas and conceptual approaches between Near Eastern archaeology and related academic disciplines. Compared to Near Eastern scholars, for example, scholars working in European and Meso-American archaeology have developed much more sophisticated theoretical frameworks for topics such as state formation, political ideology, social complexity, economic interactions, and craft specialization. This is regrettable since ancient Mesopotamia not only provides a wealth of archaeological data but also an abundance of socio-political and socio-economic data in the form of textual records, while many of the European and Meso-American models are actually based on studies of non-literate societies. The surprising absence of interdisciplinary cooperation is largely due to the high degree of specialization found in most publications on ancient Near Eastern archaeology and history, making this data inaccessible not only to lay persons but also interested scholars in other disciplines. The Diyala material could provide a large yet easily accessible data pool to test theories developed in non-Near Eastern context on political, technological, and social mechanisms in a different cultural and geographical setting, allowing scholars to evaluate the universal applicability  of their models. In return, these models could help to develop more refined theoretical frameworks for Near Eastern archaeology.

2. The Diyala as a “Template” for other Projects

Since the database backend and the web face of the Diyala Virtual Archive are based on a very flexible and dynamic layout, they could easily be adapted for other projects willing to follow our approach. At the Oriental Institute alone, several recent and older excavation projects could be put on-line in a similar fashion. This could also include the Oriental Institute Museum itself, which contains one of the largest collections of Mesopotamian artifacts from controlled excavations outside the Iraq Museum and which does not yet have a fully computerized catalogue. We will also encourage projects elsewhere in the world to adapt our model. Since our data entry is unicode based, even projects in languages other than English could adapt our layout. If data is entered using the same or similar standards, search criteria could query a data pool that goes far beyond the Diyala material and therefore open totally new and, until recently, unimaginable venues of data exchange in Near Eastern archaeological research.

IV. Project Team

  • Clemens Reichel (principal investigator): Reichel has worked on the the Diyala material since 1996, first as a student assistant, after completion of his dissertation in 2001, as research associate and project coordinator. His dissertation research on the artifact pattern in a palatial complex at one of the Diyala sites (Tell Asmar), and his background in computer database management  make him uniquely qualified to be the project’s coordinator. His analytical work on seals, sealings, and cuneiform tablets from the Diyala and elsewhere have resulted in several published articles and manuscripts. Reichel will instruct and supervise the student assistants, complete  the layout of the database backend  (with Sundell), work on the project’s web interface (with Sundell and an NSIT programmer, see below), and control the integrity of the data entries.
  • McGuire Gibson (senior advisor): Having directed major archaeological excavations in Iraq (Nippur,Üç Tepe, Umm-al Jir, Umm al-Hafriyat) since 1964, Gibson has been well acquainted with the material culture of Mesopotamia (including pottery, seals, sculpture); few people are as familiar with the major questions and problems in the reconstruction of Mesopotamia’s cultural history and chronology as Gibson is. He is very familiar with the Diyala material, having published a critical study on its archaeological chronology. Gibson will advice Reichel and student assistants on issues of chronology, terminology, and archaeological standards.
  • George Sundell (data architect / consultant): A retired data architect for SBC/Ameritech, Sundell has been creating layouts for relational databases for many years. Sundell has taken classes in background in American archaeology, participated in numerous field projects, and retained an active interest in archaeology throughout his professional career.  This combination of professional expertise and personal interest makes Sundell an ideal candidate for database architect, coordinating with the operational database administrator. During 2004/2005, Sundell, in cooperation with Reichel, will complete the layout of the Diyala database backend in Oracle and transfer the data from FoxPro. In 2005/2006, Sundell will serve as database designer, maintaining the database and implementing structural changes to the layout where necessary.
  • Student assistant (name t.b.a.): This student's primary task will be the verification, edition, and standardization of descriptive data entries, based on comparison with available objects, photographs, or drawings, as well as digital work (manipulation of object photograph with Adobe Photoshop; input of scans of locus sheets, field registers, and object cards). His / her work will be supervised by Reichel.
  • Student assistant (name t.b.a.): Principal task will be the supervision of scanning of maps, architectural plans, and field records,  and the digital enhancement (vectorization) of architectural plans and topographical maps. He / She will also be working on the digital enhancement of object photographs. His / her work will be supervised by Reichel.
  • Betsy Kremers (volunteer): a former museum docent, Kremers has been working as the project's photographer since 1998. In the past six years she has taken over 6,000 new photographs of Diyala objects at the Oriental Institute Museum. Kremers is presently working on tablets from Tell Asmar dating to the Ur III-Isin/Larsa period, a project that should be completed by late 2005.
  • Robert Wagner (volunteer): a retired translator from German to English, Wagner joined the Diyala Project as a volunteer in March 2004. One of his first tasks for the Diyala Project was the transcription and translation of those field records that had been kept in German. Since May 2004 he has turned his attention to scanning the Diyala locus and object cards. Beginning in January 2005, Wagner will scan the Diyala Field photographs (both object photos and excavation photos). His work is supervised by Reichel.
  • Karen Terras (volunteer): a former Oriental Institute museum docent and "veteran" of the Oriental Institute's Iraq Museum Database, Terras already has extensive experience in data entering and digital capture of photographs as well as archival material. She joined the Diyala Project in May 2004. During 2004/2005, she will scan the Diyala field notebooks and index them for archaeological contexts (area, level, locus numbers) described in these records. Beginning in 2005, Terras will also participate in the scanning of the original Diyala field photographs. Her work is supervised by Reichel.
  • (Programmer, Network Servicing and Information Technology, University of Chicago, name t.b.a.): upon completion of the Oracle database backend, a programmer will create the browser interface for the Diyala website  in 2005/2006. This work will be done jointly with Reichel and Sundell.

V.  Proposed Plan for Completion of Project

  • July 2004: Completion of data transferal to the Oracle backend database (Reichel, Sundell)
  • July-September 2004: Revision of data layout (Gibson, Reichel, Sundell), creation of stored procedures (Sundell)
  • July 2004-June 2005: Scanning of field notes, plans and remaining photographs (Terras, Wagner)
  • December 2004-December 2005: Indexing of newly scanned data (Terras, student assistants)
  • January 2005-December 2005: Consecutive addition of newly scanned data to database (student assistants)
  • January 2005-December 2005: Creation of the browser front end, screens, XML / Java interface for database (Reichel, Sundell, Network Servicing and Information Technology [University of Chicago])
  • January-April 2006: Editorial work: mark-up and cross-referencing of plans, object cards, site photos, etc. for screen display (Reichel + student assistants)
  • May-June 2006: Final revisions
  • Projected completion / date of launch: July 2006

VI. On-line Publications and Reference Items

The following scholarly publications, summaries, and reports on the Diyala Project  are published on the Oriental Institute’s website and available as either HTML or PDF documents: • Articles on the Diyala Project in the Annual Report of the Oriental Institute:

Publications by Clemens Reichel:

Revised: June 17, 2010

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