A Closer Look, Behind the Scenes

A glimpse of an archaeological excavation in Iraq-Kurdistan

This year, my team and I, the Qara Dagh Regional Archaeological project (QDRAP), has begun the excavation of a Late Chalcolithic 3-5 (3900/3850-3100 B.C.) site in the Qara Dagh Valley, in Iraqi-Kurdistan. In 2015, the QDRAP performed an archaeological survey in Qara Dagh, during which approximately 20 sites were identified. The overall aim of our project is to investigate and document the valley’s history and its archaeological relevance by performing surveys and excavations in the area. Ban Qala, one of the most archaeologically promising sites identified during last year’s survey, was chosen for excavation because of the high content of material culture, in the form of sherds (pieces of ceramic), available on the surface. Ban Qala is manly a Late Chalcolithic mound (also called gird or tell).


The step trench that is being excavated this season will help us reconstruct the chronology of the site and enable us to plan future research.

The prime investigators that comprise our team this season are Terri Tanaka from University of California Berkeley and myself. In addition, two archaeologists from the Antiquities Directorate of Sulaymanyah make up the rest our team.

The preparation for a research season requires much preparation and thought. In particular, the logistics have to be worked out in close collaboration with the Antiquities Department of Iraqi-Kurdistan. More specifically, I work with the Antiquities Department of Sulaymanyah, whose director is Kak (Mr.) Kamal Rasheed Raheem.


My contacts with the director begin months before the beginning of the season because he is the foremost source of information and support for all the teams that work in the Sulaymanyah region. He is well informed on all matters concerning excavations and research and is always available to insure that each team has a trouble-free season. Kak Kamal provides all the paperwork necessary to present to local authorities and to travel through the different areas of the country.

In addition, the Antiquities Department helps the teams that work in this area to find lodgings for the mission, a means of transportation, tools needed on the site and, most importantly, facilitates communication with the locals at the site.

This year, the two representatives from the Antiquities Department that have joined us are Kak Amanj and Kak Rebin. They both have experience in archeological digs and their help is extremely valuable for the smooth running of the season. Their love for archaeology and their country’s history is clearly visible in the enthusiasm with which they tackle their work every day.

When I asked Kak Amanj what archaeology means to him, he answered: “It is my dream, my responsibility; it is my job.” Kak Amanj collaborates throughout the year with several international archaeological teams. He began his career in archaeology in 2005. In 2009 he received his BA from the Department of Archaeology at the University of Salahadin in Erbil and since 2012 he works for the Antiquities Directorate in Sulaymanyah.

Kak Rebin, who also studied archaeology at the University of Erbil, has worked with many archaeological teams and has acquired much experience digging. For him, archaeology is an essential part of his life, or as he put it: “like water.”

When I arrived in Sulaymanyah at the end of June, the director, Kak Kamal, and the representatives, Kak Amanj and Kak Rebin, were ready to provide the support needed with the logistics. As always, they were very welcoming, and, already on the first day, I was able to rent a car. This year, our driver is Kak Aziz, who has become an indispensable member of our mission. The day following my arrival, we embarked on a hunt for a house or apartment in Qara Dagh. Ideally, the house needed to be close to the site of Ban Qala. Unfortunately, the search did not go well as the houses found needed much repair, and did not have stable electricity or water. I opted to stay in an apartment in the city of Sulaymanyah, in spite of the fact that this would require a 40-minute daily drive to the site.

On the third day, Kak Amanj and Kak Aziz, accompanied me to the local bazaar where I could acquire tools needed for the mission in the many specialized stores that can be found this typical marketplace.

Walking through the bazaar is an interesting experience; the many alleys that form the bazaar tend to intimidate those who do not know how to navigate them.

While going through the bazaar, for example, I lost track of the course that we had followed to get to the hardware section and, had I not been accompanied, would have had a difficult time trying to find it. Now, after several days spent exploring this fascinating “shopping center,” I have become acquainted with the different sections and regularly visit the fruit and vegetable section to buy the daily items needed for cooking. For the people of Sulaymanyah, the bazaar is very important. It is alive with merchants hawking their wares and customers bargaining prices. As Kak Amanj happily exclaimed after we had bought what we needed: “The Sulaymanyah bazaar is great because you can find everything you need.”

The preparation for the beginning of the excavation took roughly one week. On the first day of the actual dig, Terri, Kak Amanj, Kak Rebin, Kak Aziz and I started our workday by leaving the house at 4 am to go to the archaeological site of Ban Qala.


Leaving early allows us to avoid the intense heat (45 degrees Centigrade\ 113 Fahrenheit or more) that comes later in the day. For the same reason, we must end our fieldwork around midday. On the field, we take short breaks, starting with breakfast at 8:30.


Breakfast for the locals of Kurdistan is generally a simple meal. Ours consists of tomatoes from Aziz’s garden, cucumbers, onions, bread, and fruit bought at the bazaar and the sweet tea for which the Middle East is famous. Kak Aziz prepares a very savory tea. As it turns out, his secret is to mix different types of teas. This practice, as I came to learn, is common in this area. The infusion of different types of tea to achieve the intensity and flavor desired makes the experience of drinking tea unique because the taste will depend on the expertise of whom prepares it.

Our mornings are always busy. Opening the step trench is heavy work and the heat sometimes slows down the shoveling, picking and sifting of the material recovered.

To provide some shade from the sun, we have installed a tent that covers the excavation area. Even so, it is impossible to spend too much time exposed to the heat and we try to protect ourselves as much as we can.


In spite of the heat, Kak Amanj, Kak Aziz and Kak Rebin are always in a good mood and chat about different things as we work. They speak Sorani and, although Terri and I are still learning the language, we can understand some parts and others are translated for us. Listening to them and laughing with them makes our workday much more pleasant and distracts us from the heat and fatigue.

Around noon, as we leave Ban Qala, we are tired but have a sense of purpose and fulfillment.


As we travel and leave behind the beautiful landscape of the valley, we encounter Kak Salam, the guard for the site whose job is to keep an eye on the excavation so that it is not damaged or disturbed. His son sleeps overnight in a little house that they built in only a few hours at the beginning of the dig.


They perform an important duty, as goats, cows and sheep that pasture on the land near the excavation often “visit” the site. This area is the animals’ home but, because of the importance of our study, we have to prevent their presence on the mound.

When Terri and I arrive at the apartment in the afternoon, there is still much work to do. After spending our mornings excavating, we spend our afternoons processing our findings and organizing our excavation logs. Most of the time is spent washing pottery and stone tools covered with dirt and it is during this time that we are filled with excitement as we find painted pottery, scrapers made of colorful stones and other items.

Finally, after washing and processing documents, we head towards the bazaar, mainly to buy fruit, bread and vegetables. The bazaar is always busy and, as we make our way through the tight alleys and streets, there is always something different and interesting to observe. In the few days that we have been here, we have already established our favorite fruit vendors and bread shops. Sometimes, when the day has been particularly tiring, we decide to splurge and have dinner out, mostly trying some of the local food. The street food is particularly delicious!

Nighttime finds us getting ready for bed and, unwinding from the day’s stress, we begin to laugh as we talk about the funny aspects of our daily life here. Terri, for example, noticed one evening when she pulled up her sleeve that the contrast in color between her hand and her arm was extreme and, for some reason, this struck us as quite hilarious. We could not stop laughing! Another time, we forgot our canteens for the cold water in the freezer and the next day we found them broken, with icicles protruding from the openings. When we finally turn the lights out, we are so tired that we literally drop on our beds and are dead to the world until the alarm clock rings again at three in the morning!

The 2017 excavation season of Ban Qala was generously supported by donations through the Rust Family Foundation.

Antonietta Catanzariti

Antonietta Catanzariti

Antonietta Catanzariti is the Freer|Sackler Curatorial Fellow for the Ancient Near Eastern Art. She received her Ph.D. at the Department of Ancient Near Eastern Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. She has collaborated in several archaeological missions in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. She is presently the director of the Qara Dagh Regional Archaeological Project (QDRAP), which aims to investigate and document the history of Qara Dagh Valley in Iraqi-Kurdistan. At the Freer|Sackler, she is conducting research on the ancient ceramic vessels and seals contained in the museum’s Near Eastern collection. She is interested in the study of past economies as understood from ancient material culture.
About Antonietta Catanzariti

Antonietta Catanzariti is the Freer|Sackler Curatorial Fellow for the Ancient Near Eastern Art. She received her Ph.D. at the Department of Ancient Near Eastern Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. She has collaborated in several archaeological missions in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. She is presently the director of the Qara Dagh Regional Archaeological Project (QDRAP), which aims to investigate and document the history of Qara Dagh Valley in Iraqi-Kurdistan. At the Freer|Sackler, she is conducting research on the ancient ceramic vessels and seals contained in the museum’s Near Eastern collection. She is interested in the study of past economies as understood from ancient material culture.

4 thoughts on “A glimpse of an archaeological excavation in Iraq-Kurdistan

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    I appreciate beautiful writing and evocative photos by Antonietta about her experience in Iraq. She brings human touch to life of so many Iraqis .

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