Mesopotamia may be long buried in the dust but our understanding of the ancient civilizations that flourished there continues to evolve, shaped in part by refined research methods and by shifting patterns of access because of the recent political history of the region.
At first, Mesopotamia was a remote world with a foreign culture, viewed indirectly through mentions in the Bible and in the writings of classical antiquity. Even the name “Mesopotamia” is not native to the region but comes from an ancient Greek word that means “land between rivers.”
Then the beginnings of archeology in the region during the 19th century and the subsequent decipherment of the cuneiform alphabet opened a direct window onto the ancient cultures of the lower Tigris and Euphrates, including their history, beliefs and literature, including the seminal heroic figure, Gilgamesh.
“Now we can see that Mesopotamia had a huge impact on the sources that we know,” says Sarah Collins, curator of early Mesopotamia at the British Museum.
In the first part of the 20th century, archeology was concentrated in the older, southern region of ancient Mesopotamia, known as Sumer. The fact that so many great relics came from this region may have embedded a lingering bias about the lack of sophistication in cultures further north.
Now things have changed, says Clemens Reichel of the Royal Ontario Museum, because the inability to work in Iran or Iraq since the the 1980s and ready access to Mesopotamian-influenced sites in Syria and Turkey have cast the north in a different light and started to show the fingerprint of a sprawling cultural empire.
With peace returning to Iraq, many researchers are hopeful that it will soon be possible to do major excavations in the south again, this time with modern techniques and disciplines that will include looking not just at human artifacts but plant and animal remains that can reveal reams about what people were eating and how they lived millennia ago. Inevitably our modern sense of Mesopotamia will shift again as the focus of research moves from the great palaces and the kings that lived in them to the lives of common people.
“The more I’m in this field, the more I’ve started to think we really haven’t started to crack the big picture,” Dr. Reichel says. “There’s so much work left to do.”
Editor's Note: This article has been updated to correct an attribution error.