Archaeological Work at Samarra

Following a survey and sondages by the French architect, Henri Viollet in 1907-9, the first large-scale fieldwork at Samarra was undertaken by the expedition of the Deutsche Morgenlandische Gesellschaft organised by Friedrich Sarre, and under the field directorship of Ernst Herzfeld.  The fieldwork took place in two seasons in 1911 and 1913.

The publications of the expedition (Herzfeld, ed., Ausgrabungen von Samarra, 6 vols. Berlin & Hamburg 1923-48) describe the finds and decoration, and include a history of the  city, but lack a volume describing the site, or the results of the excavations.  The architecture is best known from K. A. C. Creswell, Early Muslim Architecture, vol. II, Oxford 1940 (6 buildings are described).

The Iraq Directorate of Antiquities began excavations in 1936, and in 1981-3 a large project was undertaken, called the "Project for developing the two archaeological cities of Samarra and Mutawakkiliyya", and work continues at a slower pace today.

House no. 5 excavated in 1983

The Archaeological Survey of Samarra

The origin of the project lay in an awareness that in spite of the work of the expedition of Herzfeld and Sarre in 1911-13, and extensive Iraqi work since then, that there was much in the ruin-field that had never been fully investigated.  In particular the fast pace of modern development meant that many of the remains would disappear without ever having been recorded, and in the period since the beginning of the project this fear has proved well-founded.

Nevertheless the size of the ruin-field at Samarra (57 kmē) meant that the usual strategies of archaeological research - that is, survey of the site from the ground, and excavation of a substantial sample - were impracticable, if the aim of assessing the whole ruin-field were to be successfully achieved. We decided to use the air photographs available of the archaeological site for making a photogrammetric map.

In 1983 the ground survey necessary for the air photography was made, and in 1984 the photographs were plotted into a plan at 1: 4000 of the areas of ruins at University College, London. The work in the field was supported by the British Academy, the British School of Archaeology in Iraq, and a number of other institutions.

In a second survey season in 1986-7, a second approach was also sampled, that of the collection of surface pottery.  18 significant sites were chosen, based upon the principal that such an area of land was not only occupied in the 55 years of the Abbasid Caliphate there.

In 1989 a scheme was begun to recover a limited sample of the archaeological detail by excavation.  The concession area agreed with the Iraq Directorate of Antiquities was situated in the area of Qadisiyya in the south of the ruin-field.  This area included the small town of Qadisiyya of Samarra, occupied from the Sasanian period up to the 14th century, the Octagon of Qadisiyya, to be identified with the unfinished city on the Qatul built by Harun al-Rashid before 796 (180 H), and the site of al-Mu`tasim's city on the Qatul (835-6 (220 H)).

In 1989 we dug a number of sondages into the tell at Qadisiyya, recovering a sequence from the Umayyad period up to the 13th-14th centuries, with well-preserved mud-brick houses in the final stages.  There is also a widespread glass-making industry there, with positive evidence so far dating activity in the Sasanian period, and in the 13th century.

Between 1991 and 1998, following the war in Kuwait, we have worked on the publication of the work of the 1980s. This work was mainly supported by the Fondation Max van Berchem of Geneva, the British Academy, and the British School of Archaeology in Iraq.

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