From the time the first pits were dug at Ur in 1853, to Woolley’s twelve seasons of work in the early twentieth century, the excavations have simultaneously exposed extraordinary structures and left them susceptible to numerous threats. Following Woolley’s last season in 1934, the site was mainly left unattended and unprotected until the 1960s. Since then, excavations and conservation work has been intermittent. The following outlines the risks inherent to the ruins, as well as actions that can be applied to provide protection and conservation.
Ruins are at risk of damage, deterioration, collapse and complete disintegration from both natural phenomena and human activities. Natural phenomena include weather related issues such as rain, wind, sandstorms and temperature fluctuations, as well as fire and the presence of animals and vegetation. Human activities include digging, lack of maintenance and site management, using outdated conservation techniques, construction, tourism, vandalism, events related to conflict, and pollution.
The ruins of Ur have been victim to many of these natural and human caused dangers. According to a 2011 geological report, the greatest natural hazards in the Thi Qar region are flooding, soil erosion, sand dunes, tectonic activity, salt accumulation and pollution.
Mudbrick structures are susceptible to deterioration due to rising damp, which happens when moisture seeps into the masonry via basal erosion. This occurs when water, mainly the result of rain, accumulates at or near the base of a structure and is drawn up into the brickwork through capillary action. The water contains soluble salts that crystallize near the surface as the water evaporates. This in turn causes the bricks to expand, putting them at risk of fracture. In addition, environmental freeze and thaw cycles contribute to expansion and contraction within the mudbrick. These factors result in cracking and swelling, which eventually weakens the base and contributes to the risk of wall collapse. In addition, wind, especially when accompanied by sandstorms, accelerates erosion on the surface of brickwork as well as within the soil surrounding the ruins, as does stagnating water.
Additional hazards include living organisms, such as animal-induced damages and rooting vegetation. Mammals, including mice, rats, rabbits, foxes and feral dogs dig holes and build dens, often at the base or beneath ruins, which undermines walls leading to collapse. Bat colonies roost in darkened rooms, causing an accumulation of guano that can lead to deterioration, while nesting birds such as pigeons cause similar damages. Insect infestations including termites can eat wood and straw embedded in bricks, while plants that have long, or deep roots can uproot walls and cause damage to unexcavated features.
In addition to natural risks, humans often put ruins in danger. This includes the activity of archaeological excavations that expose ruins and objects to hazards. One of these is air pollution, which can accelerate the degree of deterioration on already damaged brickwork. Another is the application of outdated conservation techniques such as the usage of concrete for stabilization and conservation. Concrete contains a high concentration of salt that can lead to deterioration of original materials, while its weight can cause structural damages.
Unmanaged tourism can threaten a site in a number of ways including: uncontrolled pedestrian encroachment onto sensitive areas; vandalism in the form of writing or etching graffiti in the brickwork and the unlawful collection of pottery shards or artifacts; touching, climbing, sitting and walking on ruins; litter; and the construction of buildings for visitor facilities. The lack of regular site maintenance and the absence of a site management plan can prove to be the most detrimental to preserving an archaeological site.
All the ruins at Ur suffer from different degrees of damage caused by erosion due to exposure to weather elements, rising damp, animal habitation, the growth of vegetation, the use of inappropriate conservation materials, a high volume of pedestrian traffic, and a lack of regular maintenance. While some structures are deteriorated beyond repair, the standing ruins that would benefit from added measures of protection include the ziggurat, the E-Dublal-Mah, the Ehursag, the Third Dynasty Tombs, the AH Site and the undocumented ruins.
The conservation of archaeological sites ensures that ruins and artifacts are protected from loss and damage, while also removing or mitigating the causes of deterioration or total destruction. A number of legislative charters related to cultural heritage sites have set-forth recommendations of how to provide protection. These include the 1956 UNESCO ‘Recommendation on International Principles Applicable to Archaeological Excavations’ (UNESCO, 1956), the 1964 ICOMOS charter for the ‘Conservation and Restoration of Monuments and Sites’ (ICOMOS, 1964), the 1990 ICOMOS charter for the ‘Protection and Management of Archaeological Heritage’ (ICOMOS, 1990), and the 2008 ICOMOS charter for the ‘Interpretation and Presentation of Cultural Heritage Sites.
These documents provide the principles and procedures necessary for the protection and preservation of sites through maintenance, conservation, reconstruction, the mitigation of illegal excavations and looting of artifacts, as well as international cooperation and bilateral agreements between different governments. Additionally, the 2002 Iraq Antiquities Laws outline the protection enacted for fixed and movable archaeological material located throughout the country (Ministry of Culture, 2002).
Consulting these documents can assist with implementing the necessary protective measures at Ur. These include addressing erosion from environmental factors and rising damp within brickwork from standing rainwater, correcting past conservation mistakes, providing set parameters for visitor usage, administering a regular maintenance schedule, and creating a site management plan.
Reducing the speed of deterioration processes involves a number of different options. One of these is the reburial of open excavation pits, where the soil can provide a protective barrier between pollution and weathering elements, and the ruins. Another is constructing shelters over exposed ruins that protect them from environmentally caused deterioration. These can either be in the form of large metal structures that entirely enclose a set of ruins, or a simpler shelter composed of a roof stretched over standing poles that can shield brickwork from most elements. It is important however to ensure that the materials used are rustproof and fire resistant so that they do not become an additional hazard to the site.
Employing other proactive measures to delay deterioration includes addressing the hazards caused by overgrown vegetation and animal populations. Eradicating harmful plants, weeds and grasses using appropriate herbicides should be part of a regular maintenance plan. Similarly, pests such as insects need to be managed through extermination. Animal populations need to be controlled, but only while adhering to national and international wildlife protection laws and managed within ethical and humane methods. This may include live trapping for relocation or designating parts of a site as protected species habitats.
In addition to mitigating damages, the conservation of ruins can include the application of waterproof and water resistant coatings on original brickwork. Proactive procedures that can prevent rising damp, one of the main issues at Ur, include the creation of an impermeable barrier between the mudbrick and the ground. This entails actions such as infusing water-repellent compounds into a series of pre-drilled holes within walls that are damaged by water, or susceptible to damage.
As of 2021, conservation plans have been completed for the E-Dublal-Mah and the Third Dynasty tomb complex. The Governorate of Thi Qar has approved budgetary requirements for the plans, and the work is ready to be implemented either through the resources of the SBAH or in collaboration with missions active in Ur and other donors. The project is divided into different phases, the first two consist of a conservation study, and the third involves the physical conservation and maintenance of the ziggurat.
Other projects are in preparation for the Royal Tombs, as well as a study for developing more signage and interpretive panels for installation on the site. This will allow for a more in-depth study of the core of the ziggurat. The management team and other archaeologists will be capacitated.