What do Agatha Christie, Lawrence of Arabia, Max von Oppenheim and donors to the Abbey Museum of Art and Archaeology have in common? The packed audience at Vera Windau-Heath’s talk on Saturday 18th March heard the answers to these and many other fascinating facts about archaeological digs in Syria.
Archaeology in Syria
Vera and her husband Ken were part of teams undertaking digs at Tell Halaf in Syria. Vera’s passion for the country and the local inhabitants (they came to befriend) was obvious from the tenor of her description of the numerous cultural issues they confronted. Tell Halaf was a major settlement in the fertile valley of the Khabur River from the Halafian period 6000- 5000 BC through Summerian, Babylonian, Assyrian, Aramean and Persian periods. Max von Oppenheim first undertook excavation at the site during 1911 – 1913 where settlements dating back to the Chalcolithic period were revealed. Vera explained how von Oppenheim had to transport all his tools and equipment from Aleppo to the dig site at Tell Halaf by camel – a journey that took 20 days!
One of the most significant finds is the impressive entrance to the Aramean west palace which included basalt pillars consisting of three sacred animals, each carrying a large standing god on its back. These and many other smaller pieces were transported to Germany for exhibition. Unfortunately, the work at Tell Halaf has been hampered by political issues, including two world wars. Currently the field work (recommenced in 2006) is halted by the civil war now raging in Syria itself.
Much of the material transported to Germany by von Oppenheim was seriously damaged when the museum in which it was stored was destroyed by WWII bombs. On a happier note, Vera told of a program commenced in 2001 where fragments of the material from the destroyed museum are being painstakingly rebuilt over 10 years ready to be put on public view once again.
Archaeology and Agatha Christie
The importance of archaeology in the vicinity of the Cradle of Civilisation (the Tigris/Euphrates rivers fertile crescent) cannot be overstated as there is so much information contained in the archives written on clay tablets found in temple palace libraries; this is where most of our current knowledge comes from.
And what about Agatha Christie? She spent time in Syria with her husband archaeologist Max Mallowan and wrote a book about his work entitled Tell Me How You Live – just another interesting titbit of information gathered from a most interesting and well appreciated talk.