The Nippur Expedition

Nippur from the east


In the desert a hundred miles south of Baghdad, Iraq, lies a great mound of man-made debris sixty feet high and almost a mile across. This is Nippur, for thousands of years the religious center of Mesopotamia, where Enlil, the supreme god of the Sumerian pantheon, created mankind.

Although never a capital city, Nippur had great political importance because royal rule over Mesopotamia was not considered legitimate without recognition in its temples. Thus, Nippur was the focus of pilgrimage and building programs by dozens of kings including Hammurabi of Babylon and Ashurbanipal of Assyria. Despite the history of wars between various parts of Mesopotamia, the religious nature of Nippur prevented it from suffering most of the destructions that befell sites like Ur, Nineveh, and Babylon. The site thus preserves an unparalleled archaeological record spanning more than 6000 years.

Settled around 5000 B.C., Nippur played an important role in the development of the world's earliest civilization. The city, with its many temples, government buildings, and important family businesses, was probably more literate than other towns, and the scribes have left thousands of Sumerian and Akkadian documents written on clay tablets. Included among this extraordinary body of texts are the oldest versions of literary works, such as the Gilgamesh Epic and the Creation Story, as well as administrative, legal, medical and business records, and school texts.

Objects can often tell us things that were not written down. Elaborately designed items made of precious metals, stones, exotic woods, and shell allow us to reconstruct the development of ancient Mesopotamian art, as well as the far-flung trading connections that brought the materials to Babylonia. Egyptian, Persian, Indus Valley, and Greek artifacts also found their way to Nippur.

Even after Babylonian civilization was absorbed into larger empires, such as Alexander the Great's, Nippur flourished. In its final phase, prior to its abandonment around A.D. 800, Nippur was a typical Muslim city, with minority communities of Jews and Christians. At the time of its abandonment, the city was the seat of a Christian bishop, so it was still a religious center, long after Enlil had been forgotten.


Americans have been doing research on Nippur for a hundred years. In 1888 the University of Pennsylvania sponsored the first American expedition ever to work in Mesopotamia. On the staff in that first season was Dr. Robert F. Harper, who a few years later founded Assyriological studies at the University of Chicago. The expedition worked at Nippur until 1900, finding more than 30,000 cuneiform tablets and hundreds of other objects.

The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago began digging at Nippur in 1948; this is the longest-running Oriental Institute excavation in the Near East. Limited funds for the early seasons forced the field director at the time, Richard C. Haines, to carry out each season as if it were the last. Therefore, effort was concentrated on the religious quarter to which Nippur owes its historical importance. The layer-by-layer excavation of three temple areas and private houses resulted in the finding of thousands more tablets. Just as important was the establishment of two archaeological sequences that remained the standard for Mesopotamia until recent work at Nippur showed that they needed changes and additions.


The 1972 season saw a new approach to Nippur. The new field director, McGuire Gibson, committed the expedition to a long-term program of excavation in the whole city. Emphasis was shifted to the West Mound, a predominantly residential and administrative quarter of the city which had not been investigated since 1900. Shifting from the religious area was designed to give a more balanced view of the city. Nippur was sacred, but that was only one aspect of a thriving urban complex.

Several seasons were spent in excavating bakers' houses, a palace, and a sequence of temples on the West Mound. More recently, the expedition has concentrated on the low, flat area at the southern corner of the site, where excavations had never been made. Houses, large public buildings, and city walls dating to different periods have been uncovered there. Among the results of these investigations has been the verification of information given in a unique plan of the city on a clay tablet from about 1250 B.C. Currently, the team is carrying out investigations in a number of locations, including the city wall at the eastern side of the ziggurat and a small Islamic mound outside the city defenses.

In the course of the current program, the site has yielded thousands of artifacts, including bronzes, jewelry, cylinder seals, and tablets. There is, of course, much pottery, and new approaches to the study of this valuable class of artifacts have allowed the team not only to correct errors in sequences but also to suggest functions for specific areas and even rooms of buildings.

In its work, the expedition is treating Nippur as a laboratory in which to answer a variety of questions about ancient life. It combines information from the artifacts and written sources with natural specimens. Samples of bones, seeds, pollen, and soil are being studied as part of a program to reconstruct the ancient environment and its relationship to the city's population. In 1972, the Nippur Expedition was the first to include a soil specialist on its staff and to carry out flotation techniques for seed retrieval in the excavation of a Mesopotamian historical site. The expedition has also pioneered in the use of computers for mapping, drafting, and data recording in Iraq.

Advanced students have been assigned areas to excavate and have used the materials for doctoral dissertations. Sometimes their work has involved the restudying of older dig records in light of new excavations and valuable insights have resulted. In this way, the expedition not only brings more of Nippur to light, but also trains a new generation of Mesopotamian archaeologists.


Annual Reports