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LETTERS FROM THE FIELD, 1950-1951

EXCAVATIONS AT JARMO

By Robert J. Braidwood, Professor Emeritus
The Oriental Institute and the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations
The University of Chicago

(This article originally appeared in The Oriental Institute News and Notes, No. 156, Winter 1998, and is made available electronically with the permission of the editor.)


As part of our celebration of Robert J. Braidwood's 90th birthday, the Oriental Institute is proud to present selections from some of the earliest Archaeological Newsletters (a privately-circulated predecessor of News & Notes). These selections are from four letters that Professor Braidwood sent back from the famed dig at Jarmo during the 1950/51 season.

Chemchemal, Kirkuk Liwa, Iraq
15 October 1950

Dear Friends:

We reached camp at Jarmo on the afternoon of 15 September. The house was far enough along so that we could move right in - Abdullah, the Reverend Glessner, and Bob Adams for the ten days he had been here, had all done a remarkably good job. Felt downright smug about it - almost feel I could earn a living being an architect by overseas correspondence. You remember I drew the plans in Chicago and sent them on to Glessner for transmission to Abdullah, and then simply held my breath. Of course a few minor details went wrong - like windows hung upside down, door-hardware reversed, etc. - but on the whole it was unbelievably successful. We moved in immediately, but in sort of chaos too, as we still had a great deal to do, finishing carpentry, laying the wiring and plumbing, and unpacking all the mess of gear all at once. We stayed in this chaos for about a week ...; Anyway, things got themselves into sufficient order within two weeks so we could begin to dig, which we did on 30 September. The shipment from the States arrived about a week ago, also a plumber with some pipe for the line from the well to the tanks. By tonight we will at least be able to get a shower. In the meantime, we have been bathing (somewhat irregularly) in a folding rubber tub, filled with blitz cans (plenty of hot water by night if you set them out full in the sun in the morning). The well, incidentally, was a great success, and it is really a great luxury to have fine and adequate water. Jeff Glessner blasted down only fourteen feet, and we get something over 200 gallons an hour ...

We took on twelve of the trained Shargati workmen and about forty locals, a few from Matarrah village (where we worked in 1948), as they're bilinguals and the locals here are only Kurdish-speaking, and Abdullah's Kurdish is weak, and ours non-existent. We opened a 20 x 10 m cut on the top of the north center of the Jarmo site and have been working down in it slowly ever since then, with spells of work in the old 1948 operation and in another new 5 x 5 m cut, whenever we needed more time and less crowding for cleaning up delicate stuff in the big new cut. Most of the features in it are of stone - there is no mud walling, but this isn't surprising since we're still only about 30 cm down and just below the plow line. Save for the fact that our tents in 1948 were right where the new cut lies, and that a few broken tent stakes and bits of glass turned up on the surface, the area is remarkably uncontaminated. All of the stuff it has yielded has been of the Jarmo assemblage; just as in 1948, in the uppermost layer, there is also broken pottery here - of a very coarse and primitive-looking variety. No very remarkable antiquities yet, mainly milling stones, pestles, stone axes, and lots of flint and obsidian blades. Also enough grain to fill about half a dozen match boxes - and much more than we got during the whole of the 1948 campaign. The area looks extremely promising, and if it develops as well architecturally as seems possible now, we'll really get good stuff from it.

As a kind of reservoir to throw workmen into when we wanted more time and space in the new cut, I had the cut-faces and old walls of the 1948 operation on the northwest corner cleaned out. When we got the area down into pay dirt again, we began to encounter more of those reed-floored areas. In the last couple of days, we've had to work at a very slow and painstaking rate here too (so I had to open a third small cut to put excess workmen into), and now it's beginning to look as if all the reed impressions may be of fallen-in roofing. We shied off this idea at first, since we get the impressions over the whole area of a room, with its walls, and essentially unbroken, and it didn't seem very reasonable that a roof would break in and whoosh down on the floor in one piece like that. As a matter of fact, we've had to leave our minds open on several other things, as well as this.

The whole thing is being very provocative - I must say it's exciting to be back at it again, and to have it act this way from the very start. It sure is a swell site. Bob Adams and Vivian Broman are both jewels and are already in the routine like old hands. Nevertheless, the yield in small stuff was so great that I laid off about twenty of the locals for a week, so we can get ourselves caught up. This will only be a temporary situation, as there has still been quite a bit of settling down to do in the house. Also, we have sent for Elizabeth West to come on as a volunteer - she's the lass who finished chemistry at Vassar and went back to work in the museum in the American University of Beirut, where her father is a professor. We met her in Beirut, and like her very much, and we can certainly use her.

Linda and I simply haven't had time yet to go scouting for caves. The children and I went to Suleimaniyah a week ago, to shop for Linda's birthday, which was on the 9th. Sul is really a nice town - completely Kurdish, and with one of the most unspoiled bazaars I've seen - not as large as Aleppo, but pretty un-Westernized. The children thrive; the Khaimakhan of Chemchemal, who is a very nice fellow, gave them a gazelle which has tamed down beautifully, but I'm afraid the blighted beast is going to eat my garden. We gave the workmen a fantasia, killed two fat sheep, and got a drummer and piper from Chemchemal on the day work started. Think I got some good movies of the dances. We all thrive.


6 January 1951

Dear Friends:

By the time this reaches you, the holidays will be long gone and news of them will seem stale, so I'll say little more of them than that we had a very Merry Christmas. The girls baked all the proper Christmas cookies, Ali powdered the sugar on mortars we excavated in the site, and I carved the Springerli molds from old crating. We ended up with three Christmas trees, one from the American mission in Kirkuk, and two from the Government Experimental Farm. The last two came complete with roots and have been planted down by our well. This year, Christmas was coincident with Mohammed's birthday (which is calculated by the moon), so the men took a holiday too.

Since Christmas, we have had only two and a half days of digging, as the rainy season has now set in with a vengeance. Fortunately, we got the truck back from its overhauling beforehand, so that with the jeeps we have remained reasonably mobile and able to supply ourselves. These four-wheel drive vehicles will move through a remarkable amount of mud when they have chains on all four wheels; our greatest danger is side-slipping off the hills down into the wadis (gullies), some of which are pretty steep-sided and a hundred or more feet deep. Hence, on very soupy days, we simply don't move at all. The situation will grow increasingly worse as the ground soaks up more and more rain. We've a lot of work to do in the house, however, and are pretty well stocked with absolute essentials, so we're not worried, and I rather gather the great outside world is not so overwhelmingly attractive at the moment that one minds being cut off from it.

Professor Herbert Wright, the University of Minnesota geologist for the American Schools of Oriental Research project on the Pleistocene survey, arrived day before yesterday, and is already out on survey on one of the coldest, bleakest and grayest days we've had yet. Herb is good - we went over the mound with him yesterday, and all kinds of interesting hints about ways the soil profile can be made to yield climatic information came out of our talks. It is going to be extremely useful to have him here with us, and this sort of information will increase when Fred Barth, the young Norwegian paleontologist arrives, and we can begin wringing information out of the animal bones and shell. I have a very positive feeling that all kinds of useful and hitherto undreamed of types of information are going to come out as a result of having people like Wright, Barth, and Howe here - not only for the American School's project but for Jarmo as well. Bruce Howe, the Pleistocene archaeologist from the Peabody Museum at Harvard, is due to arrive in a week or so, and if the weather isn't too bad, we'll doubtless soon begin to do what digging we planned for the American School's project. We've located several promising sites, which look as if they'd show what the level of culture was at the end of "stone age" times, just before the great burst came with the appearance of agriculture and domestic animals and the appearance of sites such as Jarmo itself. It's really tremendously exciting to have the whole thing coming out of the works at once, especially when one feels there is (I believe for the first time on such a job) this group of specialists of such varied competence at hand to make the job we do a complete one ...

On Jarmo itself, before the rains set in, we had taken the old Number I Operation down into the 8th level, which seems to be its lowest, as the virgin decomposing rock is now just below us. The architecture doesn't amount to much, apparently, but some walls are appearing so that the place evidently had buildings in the area of Operation I right back to its beginnings. In Number II, the larger newer operation, we have cleared down through the second level and have also begun to expand toward the west, where Bob Adams had plotted the largest concentration of potsherds. We've now begun the treatment of these broken pottery bits in bulk, and have found that a great proportion of them is literally half-baked: they pretty well disintegrate if left in water, and the original intact pots and jars could hardly have held liquid. Hence we're expanding in the area of greatest yield to increase our bulk for study purposes. You'll recall that pottery - as proper portable vessels - only appears in the uppermost (latest) levels of Jarmo. And since pottery, as a craft product was one of the very first in which men actually learned to alter the properties of a material in nature, we're interested in learning as much as we can about how this technical development came about. I would certainly not be so bold as to say that the potter's craft was discovered on Jarmo itself, but we are able to observe, in the Jarmo levels, an example of how it evolved from the baked-in-place basin in a floor to a proper portable jar. In other words, we are getting a look at a single case, at its very beginning, of the whole great sequence of technologies which depend on the heat-treatment of materials.

Along in December, we hit the highest daily yield of flint and obsidian - 2,119 pieces in one day. Pottery figurines, stone vessels, beads, and other odd utilitarian objects in bone and stone have continued to come out, and we're well over the requisite amount of charcoal necessary for the radioactive carbon dating method ...

Just before Christmas, I lectured to a mixed British-Iraqi audience of about 250 of the Iraq Petroleum Company's staff on the general subject of why strange Americans come all the way to a country so archaeologically rich as Iraq and are happy on a site which yields no gold! The thing must have been very successful, as the Company kept us overnight in the presidential suite in its big guest house, with treatment number 1 (i.e., seven course dinner, liqueurs, Havana cigars, et alia). As usual, Linda slept through the lecture!


18 February 1951

Dear Friends:

When I last wrote, Christmas was just over, and the winter rains had just begun to spit at us. Since then, it has been raining almost half of the time. It rains in three or four day spells every third or fourth day, so that the dig practically never gets dry enough to work, even in the short spells of fine weather in between. In the good days the effects of the rain begin to show up clearly, as all the hills with soil cover are turning a brilliant green with new grass. This, against the contrast of the deep red-browns of the exposed shales and sandstones makes for an extremely handsome landscape. But for the last three days, it has rained again, and what we see out our windows is gray foggy drizzle.

We've kept busy, rain or no rain, on the processing of the excavated materials, and all sorts of people have been arriving. First, a couple of guests turned up - completely out of the blue, in a little Hillman station-wagon - and identified themselves as Mrs. Helen Joy Lee of Stonington, Connecticut, and Mr. H. de Meiss-Teuffen of Zurich, Switzerland, and announced that they were the Bourne Brook Educational Films Company and wanted to take our pictures at work. Mrs. Lee, who insisted on being called Gran'ma was one of the Detroit Joys with an undimmed wanderlust; she did some photography, but more in the way of journalistic writing. Hans Meiss-Teuffen, who was the professional photographer of the team, turned out to be an incredible and charming guy who had knocked about from Alaska to Africa, sailed the Atlantic single-handed, been in the British commandos, and half a dozen other things I have forgotten. He was on a free-lance commission from NBC television, and for this reason, as well as for their general educational films business, they had come up to see if they could "do" us. It was almost dark when they arrived - how they found their way in through our wild road in that little car was a feat in itself - and they proposed that if we could take Gran'ma in overnight, Hans would sleep in the car, and they could "do" us the next day and be off. Besides, they offered some old egg sandwiches and a bottle of Cinzano as keep. We took them in.

That night the heavy rains set in. To make a long story short, it was ten days before Hans could get the car back out to the main road. As one has to, with guests here, we suggested, and they willingly went to work - Hans on photography with Vivian and Liz, and Gran'ma on labeling objects. Besides, they insisted on paying their keep, and when Hans could finally get the car out, it was decided that we would keep Gran'ma on for a month or more while Hans went off to Kuwait to do a piece out in the desert on falcon hunting. Gran'ma actually stayed until last Sunday, labeled I would hate to say how many thousand microliths, taught the cook how turkeys are slaughtered, drawn, cleaned, and cooked in Connecticut - and how to sass the director. The night before she left, we gave her a final oral examination, and then presented her with a diploma (with cum laude in director sassing). Anyway, so much for our paying, working guests ...

Linda, after the thirteen years of our marriage, still amazes me with all the different things she can get done on time - the kids are taught, the accounts are kept, the great mass of flint and obsidian tools from Jarmo are controlled, a balky husband is kept in some order, and she still has some energy left. She is very taken with her new cameras and is working on a series of sequences on activities in the villages near at hand, mainly in color film. The kids thrive happily without television, radio, or comic books - Gretel genuinely enjoys reading by herself; Douglas bubbles over the edges a bit more, as becomes a six year old boy. The stream and waterfalls which have developed behind the house with the rain runoff have been a delight to both of them. In one clear spell of weather, we started the two of them at that simplification of baseball which as a youngster I knew as "one old cat." Several days later, I saw Douglas trying to organize Ali the house boy, and Sherif and Arif, the two Kurdish guards, into baseball players. I suppose this is a pretty pure case of what the anthropologists call "stimulus diffusion" at its beginning.

Well, so much for a not too dull rainy season. Next time I write, we will be digging again.


7 May 1951

Dear Friends:

I last wrote you a long time ago, more or less at the end of the winter rains. Since then we have been having the spring rains which are more in the fashion of short-term showers, so that they may wet us down but don't really interrupt the work too much. Also, since my last letter, we have had our hands so full - what with work both inside and outside - that there has not really been time to write ...

Jarmo has continued to be a place of surprises - in fact the site is exasperating in a nice way - since we had anticipated it could be adequately tested during this season, but such will not be the case. Our area of exposure in 1948 was far too small to do more than the very broad outlines of the site's development. This year's much larger exposure has only proceeded to about one third of the total depth of the mound in an area of about 250 square meters, against a total for the whole site of somewhere about 10,000 square meters. We will need at the very least to get that area of 250 square meters exposed all the way to virgin soil, and also to cut a long narrow trench across the mound to get some notion of the general concentration of houses and their arrangement in the village plan. Our 250 square meter area would have had to be given up for this year, at the base of the fourth level, had it not been for a special grant from Colonel Edward M. Wentworth, director of Armour's Livestock Bureau, whose interest in the problems of the origins and cultural consequences of animal domestication is as keen as our own. Colonel Wentworth's grant will allow us to clear the fifth level in the 250 square meter area, which we anticipate will be about the lowest level to yield portable pottery, and for which a somewhat simpler type of architectural construction is indicated ...

Fate frowned on us for forty-eight hours - I strained my leg badly (did it cranking the jeep) and had to go to the I.P.C. hospital. The next morning, en route to Kirkuk, Mahmoud turned the jeep over, and Sabri Shukri (the Directorate's representative with us) shot himself in the arm while cleaning house. Fortunately, none of the consequences were serious. I have just about stopped hobbling around like an eighteenth century character with the gout; Mahmoud and the other workman in the jeep got out of the rolling-over with nothing more than a broken collarbone and a skinned shin, and the jeep was insured and is now fixed and running again. The police, however, got mixed up, and thought Mahmoud was running away with our jeep, and put him in the "clink" for two days, and Sabri and I had to go in and "spring" him. Sabri's shooting came from the fact that he had forgotten to take a little automatic pistol out from under his pillow when he was taking his bed out to air it. Sabri believes in bandits and dangerous wild animals, but I think now he will stop playing cowboy.

It has been a good season - we have gotten all we could have asked for and more. Even if the site is not adequately tested, it will take us all of the two intervening years to digest the bulk of materials we have excavated this season. I shall almost hate to leave the place, even with the hot weather coming on; the staff has been so competent and so pleasant, and the countryside is so handsome - the grain is just beginning to ripen, and now it is time for the wild hollyhocks and poppies. It will begin to brown off by 1 June however.

See you in September, I guess.

As ever,
Robert J. Braidwood

P.S. Linda says don't forget about the hoopee bird. I won't - we saw one!

Revised: July 30, 2007

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