Marsa. Abu Tbeirah, A Harbor in the Waters of Sumer

For the first time the excavation of a Sumerian port dating back to the 3rd millennium BC was addressed, thanks to the archaeological campaign conducted in southern Iraq, directed by Licia Romano and Franco D'Agostino

Archaeologists of the Abu Tbeirah team (Nasiriyah, Southern Iraq) have identified and are excavating a port dating back to the 3rd millennium BC, an excavation that will allow to write a new chapter in the oldest history of Mesopotamia and its civilization, arisen from the waters of the rivers Tigris in the East and Euphrates in the West, overcoming the common imaginary that identifies the ancient Mesopotamian cities as surrounded by rich and plenty cereal fields irrigated by artificial canals.
The Italian-Iraqi Archaeological Mission at Abu Tbeirah, directed by Licia Romano and Franco D'Agostino of Sapienza University of Rome, presented the important result of the campaign conducted in southern Iraq on Wednesday, March the 21st at the Rectorate, with an initiative promoted by Sapienza Foundation.

It is not by chance that the Arabic word for port “MARSA (ﻣﺮﺴﻰ)” resumes the Sumerian term MAR.SA, a term which indicated the administrative structure of the port and the technical and commercial activities connected to it: the sumerian cities were all organized around the templar/palatine pole , and connected to each other through channels, equipped for this with a port that would allow the management of economic contacts and marketable businesses. Although sporadically attested in the cuneiform sources, this type of structure was only randomly identified by satellite technology in the sites of southern Mesopotamia, but so far no such structure has been ever excavated on the field: in fact, the Sapienza archaeologists are the first to face the excavation of a Sumerian harbor dating back to the 3rd millennium BC, opening to the possibility of reconsidering the humus on which the great wealth of Mesopotamian civilization was founded.
The archaeologists and specialists of Sapienza have investigated the site of Abu Tbeirah, located near the ancient coast line of the Arabian Gulf, a peculiar position within a marshy environment close to the sea, which strongly influenced the life of the settlement, as evidenced by the large port structure just identified.
“The port located in the North-Western part of the Tell [Ed. a generally elevated area formed by anthropic accumulations] of Abu Tbeirah - Licia Romano and Franco D'Agostino say - is represented by an artificial basin, a more depressed area, surrounded by a massive earthwork with a core of clay bricks with two accesses that put it in communication with the city and that are clearly visible even from Google satellite images today. It is the oldest port excavated so far in Iraq, since the only evidence of harbor structures investigated archaeologically come from Ur, but they are two thousand years later”.

The strong connection of the site with the Sumerian marshes had already been detected thanks to the material culture brought to light during the previous seven excavation campaigns conducted by the Mission since 2012, and is now clearly confirmed by the port of Abu Tbeirah, a larger scale version of some peculiar structures connected to the dams of the villages of the Marshlands of today. Also on the basis of this ethnographic comparison, the researchers do not exclude that the port identified at Abu Tbeirah was not exclusively dedicated to the mooring of boats and the management of trade with other cities, but also served as a reservoir of water and a huge tank compensation for river floods, as well as a fulcrum of various settlement activities related to the use of water resources.

“The investigations - the researchers point out - will continue during several next excavation seasons, given the size of the harbor complex: the oblong basin is about 130x40 m and must have had a capacity probably higher than 20 millions of liters (several Olympic swimming pools) and this will offer to us numerous new lines of research that this discovery brings with it. In particular, the interest will focus not only on the functioning of this structure, but, thanks to the collaboration with the Department of Environmental Biology and the Department of Earth Sciences of Sapienza, also on the area surrounding the site. Recent investigations on the ancient canalization connecting the Mesopotamian sites, carried out by the Iraqi colleague Jaafar Jotheri of the University of Qadisiyah and a member of the mission, have highlighted the peculiarity of the site of Abu Tbeirah, which is clearly surrounded, on the basis of the satellite imagery at our disposal, by paleo-channels that branch off as the rays from the Tell and that remind us very closely of the channels of the marshes presently created by the delta of the rivers Tigris and Euphrates”.

The discovery of the port opens new research scenarios on the life of the southern cities of Mesopotamia, but also probably on the reasons for their abandonment. The strong connection with the delta marshes, that is to say, with an environment extremely sensitive to climate change and precipitation regime, could clarify the reasons for the reduction and then disappearance of the settlement of Abu Tbeirah at the end of the 3rd millennium BC, a moment in which in many parts of the world there is an important climate change, the so-called 4.2 ka BP [Ed. 4200 years from the present] event.The excavation of the archaeological context began in 2017 thanks to the funding of Sapienza and of the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and will continue with the active support of the generous donation of the Bardelli Foundation.


Further Information

Licia Romano -
Franco D’Agostino -




Friday, 16 March 2018

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