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Iraq's Marsh Arabs in the Garden of Eden

Iraq's Marsh Arabs in the Garden of Eden

Edward L. Ochsenschlager
Copyright Date: 2004
Pages: 264
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  • Book Info
    Iraq's Marsh Arabs in the Garden of Eden
    Book Description:

    What can the present tell us about the past? From 1968 to 1990, Edward Ochsenschlager conducted ethnoarchaeological fieldwork near a mound called al-Hiba, in the marshes of southern Iraq. In examining the material culture of three tribes-their use of mud, reed, wood, and bitumen, and their husbandry of cattle, water buffalo, and sheep-he chronicles what is now a lost way of life. He helps us understand ancient manufacturing processes, an artifact's significance and the skill of those who create and use it, and the substantial moral authority wielded by village craftspeople. He reveals the complexities involved in the process of change, both natural and enforced.Al-Hiba contains the remains of Sumerian people who lived in the marshes more than 5,000 years ago in a similar ecological setting, using similar material resources. The archaeological evidence provides insights into everyday life in antiquity. Ochsenschlager enhances the comparisons of past and present by extensive illustrations from his fieldwork and also from the University Museum's rare archival photographs taken in the late nineteenth century by John Henry Haynes. This was long before Saddam Hussein drove one of the tribes from the marshes, forced the Bedouin to live elsewhere, and irrevocably changed the lives of those who tried to stay.

    eISBN: 978-1-934536-75-9
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface and Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. 1 In the Garden of Eden
    (pp. 1-12)

    In 1968 a discovery that would change my research focus from ancient pottery to ethnoarchaeology occurred during my second week as part of a team excavating at al-Hiba, an eroded mound on the edge of the marshes of southern Iraq. The mound contained the remains of the ancient Sumerian city of Lagash which reached its greatest size in the Early Dynastic III (ED III) period, ca. 2600–2300 BC. At the end of Early Dynastic IIIB (2400–2300 BC), or sometime during that period, the city’s occupation declined rapidly and the Sumerian capital was apparently transferred to ancient Girsu, now...

  5. 2 The People of al-Hiba
    (pp. 13-33)

    The people of al-Hiba lived far removed from the outside world. The trip to Shatra, the nearest town, was at its shortest when there was sufficient water in the main canal to float the large motorized boats which carried passengers, animals, and produce from the outlying areas to market. It still required a 2.5 hour trip aboard a motorized boat to a mud bank docking place and from there a taxi ride of 15 to 20 minutes. From January through March, during the rainy season, it took much longer since it was necessary to walk through deep mud from the...

  6. 3 Ways and Means
    (pp. 34-44)

    The research plan for this study had to be simple and flexible, for no set time period could be allotted to these studies, and the excavations at al-Hiba had to be the first concern. Holidays, days when rain or mud made the site unworkable, and evenings were available. At other times I participated in the daily digging and dealt with the ancient pottery recovered from the excavations. From time to time two or three consecutive days could be arranged, especially when staff members made group visits to other sites. It was also possible to set aside a few days before...

  7. 4 Mud Household Utensils and Storage Containers
    (pp. 45-73)

    Brought up on a farm in Illinois where mud was considered a serious impediment to plowing, planting, harvesting, and any kind of transportation, I was totally unprepared to discover the many important uses of mud in the villages around al-Hiba, where it was seemingly incorporated into every aspect of village life and domestic architecture. Its household uses ranged from pots and pans to containers for storing food to grinders for grinding grain. Drums and whistles were made of sun-dried mud as were toys and jewelry, and many houses were made out of mud laid up as walls in either sun-dried...

  8. 5 Mud Musical Instruments, Toys, Jewelry, and Ammunition
    (pp. 74-94)

    In addition to household utensils and storage containers, other objects made of mud played important roles in village life. At the beginning of our research, no one in the area could imagine life without them.

    Men and boys inevitably temper mud for making a drum with coma, the hairlike appendages attached to the seeds of the reed which function in their dispersal when a seed pod ripens and opens. The maker carefully works the coma into the mud by kneading and thumping. He builds up the shape with short, flattened strips of mud 4 to 16 cm in height. He...

  9. 6 Mud Architecture and Ancillary Structures
    (pp. 95-110)

    Modern houses built of mud brick in the area of al-Hiba are very scarce because they are more expensive in time and labor thanpiséhouses, which in turn are more expensive than structures made from reeds. They also require the services of a professional brickmaker from one of the nearby towns, for there are no brick makers living in the villages. Usually the brickmaker is engaged to make the bricks and supervise the building of the structure. Each expert has one or more apprentices who assist him with his work, and in the three cases known to me they...

  10. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  11. 7 Baked Pottery
    (pp. 111-128)

    The only baked-pottery vessel made in the villages near al-Hiba is thekuzused for water or salt. In each village, one or two women make these jars during the summer and sell or trade them to their neighbors. Prices for these vessels in 1968 varied from 50 to 150 Iraqifills($.13 to $.39) for a small vessel and from 100 to 300fills($.26 to $.78) for a large vessel.

    Unbaked or sun-dried objects are much more numerous and varied in form than are baked-pottery articles. There are several reasons for this. Unbaked objects can be made by...

  12. 8 Mats, Baskets, and Other Objects Made from Reeds and Rushes
    (pp. 129-144)

    The marshes of southern Iraq provide an ideal environment for reeds (gramineae), rushes (juncaceae), sedges (cyperaceae), and other grasses. It is difficult for a botanist to describe or identify the many species of the plants that exist here because of their extraordinary variety and the similarities of their basic structures.

    During the excavations I became quite interested in the ways reeds and rushes were used by people in the surrounding villages. Reeds are calledqasab, rushes are known asbardy,and sedge iskaulan. Although the inhabitants clearly know what kind of growth each plant will produce, the difference between...

  13. 9 Reed Architecture
    (pp. 145-169)

    Because of their size and architectural splendor, the grandmudhifbuilt by sheikhs as guest houses many years ago still dominate the horizon as one approaches a village lucky enough to preserve one. But at least in modern usage, it is neither size nor beauty of construction alone that differentiates it from other arched reed structures such as therabaor thebayt. Themudhifis used solely as a meeting place and guest house and for no other purpose. Theraba, on the other hand, has an entrance at both ends, a partition (bench or screen) in the middle,...

  14. 10 Wood, Boats, and Bitumen
    (pp. 170-189)

    Very few trees of any size exist in the villages around al-Hiba. Most are palm trees or willows, all softwoods. They are usually the property of individual families, and if another wishes to make use of one of them, he must purchase the wood for barter or cash. To buy a whole tree would make the process of small-scale woodworking in the village prohibitively expensive. Luckily there are other ways that one can acquire wood. Dead branches from trees are sometimes available, and the local woodworker can re-use old and broken pieces of wood discarded by householders because they can...

  15. 11 Bovine Husbandry
    (pp. 190-202)

    The Beni Hasan keep cattle. They are gentler, easier to care for than water buffalo and smaller and thinner than Western breeds. Most of them are yellowbrown and slightly humped and they give a much smaller amount of milk than cattle of the same type kept in other parts of the country. This lack of production is generally attributed to the larger amount of more nourishing fodder fed farther north along the course of the river. A story circulates in the village of the government’s providing a magnificent, large, imported bull for the purpose of improving cattle in the region....

  16. 12 Sheep
    (pp. 203-215)

    The following description is based on information collected in the seven Beni Hasan villages closest to al-Hiba during the l970–71 excavations. These villagers did not keep goats. Some had tried in the past but claimed that goats did not do well in this environment on the edge of the marshes and were subject to many diseases, especially in the summer. This account does not include, except in passing, data concerning the large flocks of sheep and goats owned by Bedouin tribes who regularly arrived in the area at the end of September and moved on during the month of...

  17. 13 Village Weavers
    (pp. 216-250)

    Among the modern villagers in this area, only sheep wool is regularly used for spinning and weaving. All of the weaving and related crafts in the village are practiced solely by women except for spinning and twisting thread into yarn for very specific purposes such as making slings, fishnets, and braided or twisted cords.

    If they are especially dirty, the short-wool sheep are washed, usually in the running water of a canal, with a soap made from the ashes of a reed fire mixed with oil and clean mud (mud as uncontaminated as possible with organic debris). This preparation is...

  18. 14 The Photographs of John Henry Haynes
    (pp. 251-269)

    In 1888 John Henry Haynes joined the Babylonian Expedition to Nippur in Iraq sponsored by the University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania (now the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology). At that time Nippur was on the northern boundaries of the great marshes, in a situation similar to that of al-Hiba down in the southwest in 1968.

    I was not aware of the ethnographic content of some of the glass plate photographs of John Henry Haynes until well after my research at al-Hiba was finished. Imagine my delight to discover that these 19thcentury photographs showed many...

  19. 15 Death Under Glass
    (pp. 270-280)

    Many artifacts lie securely under glass in museums, labs or storerooms around the world. How they were made, how they were used, and why they were prized, is only partially understood. The ambiance of human activity that surrounded them is often gone and forgotten. As J.A. Fodor and Z. W. Pylyshyn,* distinguished cognitive scientists, point out, “What you see when you see a thing depends on what the thing you see is. But what you see the thing as depends on what you know about what you are seeing.” Ethnoarchaeology can help us put fragmentary evidence of the past into...

  20. Index
    (pp. 281-285)