insight - Dr. Elizabeth Stone

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Occupation - Archeologist

Leading the first American archaeology team into Iraq in 20 years, Dr. Elizabeth Stone is slowly scraping away the layers of the country’s history.


After exchanging pleasantries and introductory discussion about her background, I waste little time in levying what is a fair softball of a question – What has been your greatest find? Dr. Stone’s answer is a surprising one, but it tells in short order all you need to know about her.

“I’m not really interested in finds,” Stone says. “I’ve always been more interested in people than the kings and priests, or the upper echelons of society; much more so [in] everybody else, because I think that’s much more fundamental to how societies work.”

The Hollywood take on archaeology makes for great theatre, and as such it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that archaeology isn’t so much the study of relics, but of people, of human activity. The shrine is grand, but the people surrounding the shrine are the story.

“I knew I wanted to be an archaeologist when I was six,” says Stone, whose father Lawrence Stone was a renowned social historian of early-modern England and founding director of the Shelby Cullom Davis Center for Historical Studies at Princeton University.

“They needed somebody small enough to go down the hole,” she says of accompanying her father on a rescue dig in Oxford. “I spent many vacations doing that.”

During her time at the University of Pennsylvania, Stone met a professor of the Near East who took her into the field one summer. “So that’s where I went,” Stone says, before noting with a laugh, “I think if I had talked to the Mayanist and he’d taken me to Mesoamerica, I’d have been a Mesoamericanist.”

Making it happen

It had been more than 20 years since an American archaeology team had been permitted in Iraq when Dr. Stone and her team ventured there last December.

“I had an Iraqi graduate student right after the war in 2003, who was the person in charge of the Ur area when I went to visit with a National Geographic group,” she says. “I brought him here [to the US to study] and so he was the one who said this was possible.”

The turnaround from application to travel was surprisingly fast, thanks to expedited funding approval by National Geographic, which put second millennium Mesopotamia in the palm of Dr. Stone’s hands.

The chosen site was about four miles outside Ur – the fabled birthplace of Abraham in the Old Testament and at one time Mesopotamian capital – at a site called Tell Sakhariya, near the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah.

“As the last US convoy was leaving we were heading into Iraq, which was a fitting moment,” says Stone. “The soldiers were leaving and the archaeologists were returning.”

On Location

“We wanted a small site close to a major city,” Stone explains about the destination.

‘Small’ was a rectangular football-field sized mound, or tell. A cursory visit of the site last summer, combined with satellite imagery, led Dr. Stone and her colleagues to believe that the simple, small site may not be so simple after all.

“Our site is complicated,” Stone notes. “We found some ceramics and a piece of royal inscription, which shows there was a royal building there dating to the early second millennium; and some of the surface pottery dated to the late second millennium or Cassite period. Well, between those two periods, the cities in the south had been thought to be abandoned in the area known as the Sealands.

“When we started excavating, what we came into was not what we expected…which were either earlier Cassite buildings or old Babylonian buildings. Instead, we found a bunch of pits, evidence of the Sealand people, people living in the marshes in antiquity just as they do today. We knew they existed, but nobody had ever excavated them. And so now we have, which is kind of cool.”

Lack of water birds suggest a summer settlement, while the proportion of sheep to cattle – expected to be hugely in favour of sheep – was completely reversed.

“The other thing we found, which I never had found before,” Stone says, “was gold,” albeit only three bits in what was an impoverished collection of artefacts.

Also found was a large platform, which Stone speculates was probably holding up a temple. The current thinking is the site is actually Ga’esh, a place where Stone says “kings would go for an annual festival”.

One thing is certainly clear. There’s a lot more to see.

“We continued to find more royal inscriptions,” Stone says. “So the place was certainly important in that earlier period, and I think we were almost down to that point.”

Sights to See

As for seeing artefacts while in Iraq, while Ur itself is open, there regrettably isn’t much else at present, a situation Stone hopes will change sooner rather than later.

“The Iraq Museum is inching toward being open,” she says of the Baghdad museum from which Iraqi officials say some 15,000 pieces were looted. Though the museum officially reopened in 2009, many of its galleries remain closed and in disrepair, with present openings largely limited to VIP tours and school groups.

Some of that is due to funding, but some is due to fear of further looting or attack. A thought demonstrating that in Iraq, much like in the quest to reclaim its history, there’s much work left to be done.

Baghdad, Iraq
Distance: 1,126 km
Flight Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes
Frequency: 4 flights a week

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