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  April 8, 2002

Archaeologist Racing to Save Ancient Site
By Brent C. Evans

Many ancient cities are finding themselves up to their necks in water, a leading archaeologist warns.

Middle Eastern nations are building hydroelectric dams, and this endangers many irreplaceable archaeological sites, says John Russell, a professor of art history at the Massachusetts College of Art. Russell, one of a group of archaeologists racing to glean clues from these sites before they end up under water, described his efforts in a lecture at UConn March 28.

The talk, "Racing the Rising Euphrates: Salvage Archaeology in Ancient Til Barsib, Syria," was given at Konover Auditorium, as part of a series on art and archaeology made possible by a gift from Raymond and Beverly Sackler.

Til Barsib, located in modern-day Syria, was an important capital of ancient Syria. Its location at the confluence of two rivers - the Euphrates and the Sajur - made it important in controlling trade coming from and going to the Mediterranean Sea. "If by pivotal you mean the place everything is passing through," said Russell, "then Til Barsib was the most important city in the Syrian empire."

The city, captured by the Syrians in 850 BC, was a thriving, multiethnic capital, and is therefore an important archaeological site.

The site of Til Barsib was threatened when the Syrians announced that they intended to build a dam on the nearby Euphrates. As a result, most of the city would be covered in water. Man-made floods are one of the major problems facing archaeologists, explained Russell. "Since most archaeological sites are along rivers, building dams is tremendously destructive to sites."

Excavations at Til Barsib began in the 1980s, in a race to salvage clues from the site before the dam was completed. Russell became associate director of the excavations in 1995.

Russell's team excavated at the periphery of the city, the part due to be flooded, and focused on two neighboring houses. He pieced together a wall painting from one of the houses that represented one of the two major Syrian deities, and also found what seems to be a stone on which to offer libations to ancestors.

It is unprecedented to find such religious objects in an ancient Syrian residence, said Russell.

"When you go out and dig, you always have a fairly good idea of what you're going to find," he said, "but that's never what you do find."

When the waters rose in 2000, Russell had found some surprises, but had not exhausted the site. He plans to continue excavations on the city's higher ground.

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