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The Archaeology of Mesopotamia

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The Archaeology of Mesopotamia: Theories and Approaches
By Roger Matthews. London & New York, Routledge: 2003. Pg. 253. Illustrated.) ISBN: 0-415-25317-9.

Reviewed by Leo Johnston - August 6, 2003

The ancient land of Mesopotamia encompassed an area centered in the fertile region between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in what is now the modern nation of Iraq. Mesopotamia is often called the Cradle of Civilization due to the civilization formed by the Sumerians which was thought to be the first 'real' civilization to have formed in the world. This region was also home to the Akkadians, Babylonians, and Assyrians. From the prehistoric times to the rise of modern Iraq, Mesopotamia has witnessed the rise and fall of several civilizations, each of which has left behind remnants of their formal glory. Much of the work of uncovering the history and artifacts of these former civilizations has fallen to modern archaeologists.

In The Archaeology of Mesopotamia: Theories and Approaches, Roger Matthews offers readers a concise overview of the history of Mesopotamian archaeology, including reviewing distant sites in modern Syria, Iran, and Turkey that were once populated by cultures that governed the Mesopotamian region. Matthews presupposes that the reader has a basic grounding in the history and cultures of the region, and he provides brief overviews of the various cultures that developed in the area primarily for contextual purposes. Throughout, the main focus is on the actual craft of archaeology, and how it has been applied to the Mesoptomian region.

Matthews is a respected expert on the history and archaeology of Western Asia. He served as the Director of the British School of Archaeology in Iraq, and as the Director of the British Institute of Archaeology at Ankara, Turkey. Currently, he is a lecturer in the archaeology of Western Asia at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London. His expertise and intimate knowledge of this field radiates throughout this text.

In this peerless discourse, Matthews provides a detailed survey of the theories that have arisen regarding Mesopotamian history based on the archaeological evidence, as well at the methodologies applied to Mesopotamian archaeology from the 19th century to the present day. During this discussion, Matthews touches upon the lack of current field excavations and research in the region due to the untenable working conditions that have existed in Iraq since 1990 and the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

Matthews has interwoven compelling case studies throughout his discourse on the course and fruitfulness of Mesopotamian archaeology. These case studies serve to illustrate not only the methodology used to excavate various sites, but also the methodologies used to interpret the finds and how they were applied to our understanding of the cultures to which the artifacts pertain. Thirty-nine sites are mentioned in this text, including Nimrud, Nineveh, Abu Salabikh, Nippur, Babylon, Gawra, Godin Tepe, Khorsabad, Jemdet Nasr, and Arslantepe.

This text is well illustrated, and it includes an indispensable bibliography on Mesopotamian archaeology and history. The text is ideal for students interested in Ancient Near East / Western Asia archaeology and history. It would also make an intriguing text to use in an introductory archaeology course as it details what an archaeologist does on a theoretical level, and it explores how material uncovered in the field is integrated into the historical record - and how such finds sometimes change our notions about the past.

Related Reviews:

Mesopotamia: Assyrians, Sumerians, Babylonians, by Enrico Ascalone.
Volume I in the Dictionaries of Civilization series, this volume provides a detailed overview of Mesopotamian history and culture.

Reclaiming a Plundered Past, by Magnus T. Bernhardsson.
Archaeology and Nation Building in Modern Iraq.

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