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The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East What is This? Provides comprehensive coverage of the history and scope of archaeology in the Near East.


ancient Mesopotamian city and cult center located at the center of the southern Mesopotamian floodplain (32°10′ N, 45°11′ E), just north of Afak, about 180 km (112 mi.) southwest of Baghdad. Nippur stands nearly 20 m above the immediately surrounding plain and measures more than 1.5 km across, northeast-southwest. It is divided into an eastern and a western portion by the dried bed of a canal, the Shatt en-Nil. The southern tip of the eastern mound, known as Tablet Hill or the Scribal Quarter because of the large number of tablets found there, is separated from the northern part by a shallow gully. The northern part of the eastern mound is commonly termed the Religious Quarter because of the ziggurat complex located there. [See Ziggurat.] Austen Henry Layard reported that local Arabs referred to the ziggurat area as Bint il-Amir, “daughter of the emir,” and had a tradition that a golden boat lay buried in the mound (Discoveries in the Ruins of Nineveh and Babylon, New York, 1985, p. 473). Chains of low mounds, the remains of the city's fortification wall, are visible on the far northeast and southwest. [See the biography of Layard.]

Hermann V. Hilprecht (Die Ausgrabungen in Bel-Tempel zu Nippur, Leipzig, 1903, p. 11) noted that Oppert first identified Nuffar as ancient Nippur. Henry C. Rawlinson had already linked Nuffar with ancient Nippur and biblical Calneh (Gn. 10:10) In 1861 (Cuneiform Inscriptions of Western Asia, vol. 1, London, 1861, pl. 1) and Hilprecht also noted the link (Explorations in Bible Lands during the 19th Century, Philadelphia, 1903, p. 294). The identification of Calneh with Nippur is based on a Talmudic tradition (Seder Mo῾ed 3 (Yoma'). Genesis 10:10 reads “And his kingdom began at Babel and Erech and Accad and Calneh (wkhalneh) in the land of Shinar.” In large part because there was no record of a southern Mesopotamian Calneh, William Foxwell Albright suggested that the Masoretic text was corrupt and should be emended to read wkhullanah. Genesis 10:10 would then read “And his kingdom began at Babel and Erech and Accad, and all of them were in the land of Shinar” (Albright, “The End of Calneh in Shinar,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 3 [1944]: 254–255). Albright's suggestion obviates any link between Nuffar/Nippur and a city mentioned in the Bible. [See the biographies of Hilprecht, Rawlinson, and Albright.]

Settlement History.

Nippur was already occupied in the early sixth millennium. Sherds from the second (Hajji Muhammad) phase of the Ubaid period have been found on the surface of the mound and recovered from excavated contexts. The main mound continued to be occupied until 800 CE. Small mounds west of the site date to roughly 900–1200 BCE, however, and recent work has uncovered traces of an occupation dating to the fourteenth century BCE just northeast of the mound. McGuire Gibson has provided a concise summary of the history of settlement at Nippur (Gibson, 1992, pp. 33–54).

Throughout its early history, Nippur occupied a preeminent, if not unique, position among the cities of Mesopotamia. Not only was it equidistant between Sippar in the north and Ur in the south—in effect on the border between Sumer and Akkad—but Nippur was also the site of Ekur, the temple of Enlil, the paramount deity of the pantheon, and the city served as the major religious center of Mesopotamia. [See Sippar; Ur; Sumerians; Akkade.] Probably because of its geographically strategic position and religious character, it was early on made a “neutral” city. There exists no trace in Mesopotamian historical tradition of any king or dynasty centered on Nippur holding political dominance, but nearly all of the kings of Sumer and Akkad sought legitimacy for their rule through recognition there. The city was large—by the end of the third millennium, 135–150 ha (334 acres) inside its walls—and prosperous, the object of continuous royal/state investments in the form of construction projects such as its fortification wall and temple buildings (and, concomitantly, pious donations to temples).

In the late eighteenth century BCE, however, Nippur's fortunes began to fluctuate. Perhaps because of a combination of politicoeconomic and environmental factors, including drought and the instability of the branch of the Euphrates River on which it was located, Nippur experienced periodic “abandonments” and, conversely, resurgences as a result of or accompanied by royal/state investments. The archaeological and written evidence suggests, for example, that the city was largely abandoned for three hundred years from the late eighteenth through the end of the fifteenth centuries BCE, but was revitalized under the Kassite kings in the fourteenth and thirteenth centuries. [See Kassites.] So, too, Nippur also appears to have been largely abandoned in the first century and a half of the Parthian era—the last 150 years BCE, but was reinvigorated by Vologases II as part of a deliberate strategy to control international trade by curbing the expansionist policies of Characene. [See Parthians.]


Excavations have been carried out at Nippur since the beginning of archaeological work in Iraq, almost 140 years ago. Layard excavated for roughly two weeks in January and February 1851 and seems to have been disheartened by the results of his work, wondering whether extensive excavations would produce any important results (Discoveries, 1985, p. 477). An American expedition affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania carried out work at Nippur in the late nineteenth century. From 1888 to 1900 the expedition undertook four major campaigns at the site. Accounts of their work appeared in popular works by two of the excavators, John Punnett Peters and Hermann V. Hilprecht, but only one volume in the planned series of final reports was ever published.

In 1948 The University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania and the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago reopened excavations at Nippur. This Joint Expedition, under the direction of Donald E. McCown, focused its work on the ziggurat complex, in particular on the so-called kitchen temple, and began two soundings (TA, TB) on Tablet Hill, to the southeast. The expedition continued to work in those areas in its second (1949–1950) and third (1951–1952) seasons. The results were published in Nippur I (McCown and Haines, 1967).

In the course of the third season, with work on the ziggurat complex and TA and TB nearing completion, the Joint Expedition undertook a number of soundings on the east mound designed to locate promising areas for future excavations. One of the soundings (E) was laid out about 325 m to the northwest of the ziggurat. The sequence of Early Dynastic and Akkadian temples—the so-called North Temple—encountered there became the primary focus of the fourth season's (1953–1954) work. The University Museum withdrew from the excavations at the end of the third season and the Baghdad School of the American Schools of Oriental Research joined the Oriental Institute in the fourth season in sponsoring the excavations. A final report was published in Nippur II (McCown et al., 1978).

A second of the third season's soundings (B) was on the northwest slope of a low rise just southwest of the ziggurat. There the excavators came down into the Temple of Inanna. Sounding B was expanded in the fourth season, and the Temple of Inanna was the major focus of work in the fifth–seventh seasons, although small-scale excavations were also carried out in the ziggurat complex in the fifth and sixth seasons. In the eighth season (1962–1963) the expedition continued work on the lower levels of the Inanna temple and undertook test soundings on the east mound. Richard C. Haines, who had earlier been the expedition's architect, acted as field director during the work on the temple. Only preliminary reports on the temple excavations have appeared to date.

After a break of two years and the near termination of the program of excavations begun In 1948, the Oriental Institute reopened the Nippur excavations in November 1964. In both the ninth and tenth seasons, the expedition, under James Knudstad's direction, turned its attention to delimiting the large Parthian fortress that overlay the ziggurat complex as a first step to excavating earlier levels of Ekur. However, it was not possible, largely for political reasons, and work at Nippur had to be halted after two seasons. The results of the excavations of the Parthian fortress have been published only in preliminary reports.

The Oriental Institute's expedition resumed work at Nippur in the early 1970s. In the eleventh (1972–1973) and twelfth (1973) seasons, the excavators, led by Gibson, worked in two areas on the west mound: area WA (and a sounding called WA 50c near the main opertion) and area WB. The excavators continued work in those areas in the thirteenth season (1975), but also began a program of excavations at the far southwestern end of the site (area WC). The stated purpose of the work in area WC was to uncover the remains of the city's wall, but a large Kassite building (area WC-1) and a series of private houses dating to the seventh century BCE (area WC-2) were also uncovered. The expedition continued work in area WC in the fourteenth (1976) and fifteenth seasons (1981–1982), undertaking extensive excavations of the city wall (WC-3), in addition to work in WC-1 and WC-2. The final report on the excavations in area WC-1 was published in Nippur III (Zettler, 1993).

The sixteenth's season's work at Nippur (1985) was an outgrowth of excavations in area WC-2. The remains from the WC-2 houses were difficult to date, and so a sounding (area TC) was made at the southern end of area TA to provide a well-stratified sequence for the range of time in question and to provide a check on the published stratigraphy of area TA. In addition to work in area TC, two excavation areas (WD, WE) were established at the southern tip of the western mound as alternate excavation sites for those days when work in TC had to be halted because of sandstorms.

In recent years, the excavators undertook a series of operations in various areas, intended, in some cases, to check and expand on the results of earlier work and, in others, to provide a sequence through poorly known periods. In the seventeenth season (1987), for example, in addition to continuing work on the western city wall (area WC-3), the excavators focused their efforts on the eastern city wall (areas EA, EB, EC), previously excavated by the University of Pennsylvania, and on a low Islamic mound to the northeast of site (area M). In the eighteenth season (1989), the excavators located a 10-X-10-meter sounding (area WF) north of WA-50c. The sounding was undertaken there because excavations in area WA-50c in the early 1970s had shown readily accessible mid- to late third-millennium occupation levels. In addition, the excavators worked on the top of the west mound just west of area WA (area WG). Area WG was intended to check the transition from the pre-Islamic to the Islamic periods at the site. In the nineteenth season (1990), in addition to continuing work in Area WF, the excavators resumed work on the WA sequence of temples that had been the focus of excavations in the early 1970s. Successive campaigns of work that began with the eleventh season In 1972 have included environmental and landscape studies. (Brandt, 1990, pp. 67–73).

Excavation Results.

The University of Pennsylvania's expeditions worked largely on the ziggurat complex and Tablet Hill, leaving only the far western end of the mound untouched. Aside from the ziggurat, perhaps the best-known architectural remains excavated by the expedition was the Court of Columns uncovered on the western mound in the vicinity of area WA. The Court of Columns features a megaron hall with prodomos opening off a columned court. The plan led the excavators to identify the building as a Mycenaean palace, but recent excavations have shown that it could not have been built before the end of the third century BCE (Gibson, 1978, p. 19).

In addition to architecture, the nineteenth-century Nippur expeditions recovered tens of thousands of tablets and fragments, which, along with economic documents, include lexical tablets and exemplars of almost all important Sumerian literary works, most of which probably came from private houses on Tablet Hill (for a bibliography of publications of Nippur tablets, see Bregstein and Schneider, 1992). On Tablet Hill, the area TA sounding (20 × 40 m) was located roughly in the center of the mound. Area TB was located approximately 30 m northeast of area TA at the bottom of a large cut made by the Pennsylvania expedition. The remains uncovered in areas TA and TB span a period of nearly two thousand years, from the time of the dynasty of Akkad through the Achaemenid era. Private houses were uncovered in both areas. The character of the excavated remains in area TB, however, changed over time. The buildings uncovered in the earliest, or lowest, levels (XIII–X) were probably private houses. They were replaced by a large “public” building that was rebuilt four times (levels IX–IV). That public building was, in turn, replaced in the latest area TB levels by private houses. The area TB public building was a private house and “office” of a high state official concerned with the administration of agricultural lands (Zettler, 1991, pp. 251–281).

The Inanna temple represents the longest continuous archaeological sequence available for Mesopotamia: twenty-two building levels spanning the Middle Uruk through Late Parthian periods. The Early Dynastic temples (levels IX–VII) have a unique building plan with two sanctuaries. The temples yielded important relief-carved plaques, sculpture in the round, and clay sealings (Hansen, 1963, pp. 145–166; 1971, pp. 47–54). The sequence of buildings and associated artifacts has provided the basis for Donald P. Hansen's redefinition of the phases of the Early Dynastic period. Where the Diyala sequence provided for a threefold division of the period (Early Dynastic I–III), the Inanna temple sequence suggested a twofold division (Hansen, 1965, pp. 201–213; Porada et al., 1992, pp. 103–113). The Parthian temples are particularly interesting in that they demonstrate the continuation of ancient Mesopotamian cults and traditional temple architecture into late periods (Keall, 1970).


NIPPUR. Bronze statuette of King Ur-Nammu. Dated to 2100 BCE. Iraq Museum, Baghdad. (Scala/Art Resource, NY)

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While E. J. Keall discusses the Parthian Inanna temple, he focuses largely on the fortress built over the top of the ruined ziggurat. Excavations of the Parthian fortress showed that the fort went through three distinct phases of growth, and none of the plans was completed before being abandoned in favor of more ambitious constructions. In the latest phase (phase III), the north quadrant of the fort had a monumental complex that included a court with four iwans. The three phases of the fortress date to the first and second centuries BCE.

The excavations in area WA yielded a sequence of temples from the end of the Third Dynasty of Ur through the Achaemenid period. Based on inscriptions and figurines recovered from the excavations, Gibson has suggested that the WA temple was dedicated to Gula, a healing goddess and the wife of Ninurta. The WA excavations also provided additional evidence bearing on the so-called Mycenaean palace uncovered by the University of Pennsylvania.

In area WB, the lower levels contained private houses occupied for roughly fifty years from the end of the reign of Rim-Suen (1822–1763 BCE) to the time of Samsuiluna (1749–1712 BCE). A Kassite palace (level II) with a plan similar to the ῾Aqar Quf (Dur Kurigalzu) palace was uncovered above the Old Babylonian houses. The palace, which dates to the thirteenth century BCE is probably the building from which the University of Pennsylvania recovered a large number of Kassite tablets and would appear to have been the governor's residence. The latest occupation phases (levels I, G–F) in area WB were poorly preserved. Level IB contained jar burials. One of the jars had a number of unbaked clay tablets packed into the cut into which it had been set. The tablets date to late eighth and early seventh centuries BCE and represent one of the few sources of information for that poorly documented period (Cole, 1990).


NIPPUR. Statuette of a couple. Iraq Museum, Baghdad. (Art Resource, NY)

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At the southwest end of the site, excavations in area WC-1 yielded remains of the city wall and a large Kassite house whose lower level (level III) had been rebuilt three times; the upper level (level II) provided evidence of two main construction phases. Both levels contained a formal courtyard and reception room, as well as a domestic suite of rooms. The upper level could be assigned to the thirteenth century BCE, based on a dated tablet. Surface remains in area WC-1 contained fragmentary floors and two chronologically discrete groups of burials. The earlier group of jar burials dated to the early first millennium BCE, while the later group of simple inhumations was probably late Parthian. In area WC-2 the excavations yielded two occupational phases of private houses that could be dated to the seventh century BCE. The earlier phase also contained a small chapel (Armstrong, 1989). Work in area WC-3 focused on disentangling the various phases of the western stretch of the city wall. Aside from the work in area WA, the most important recent excavations at the site have been in areas TC and WF. The sounding carried out in area TC provided incontestable evidence for the abandonment of the site between the Old Babylonian and Late Kassite periods (fourteenth and thirteenth centuries BCE) and made possible a reassessment of the stratigraphy of area TA (Armstrong, 1989). The sequence uncovered in area WF has been discussed in the context of the transition from the Early Dynastic to Akkadian periods at Nippur (McMahon, 1993).

[See also Mesopotamia, article on Ancient Mesopotamia; and Temples.]


  • Albright, William Foxwell. “The End of ‘Calneh in Shinar.’” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 3 (1944): 254–255.
  • Armstrong, James A. “The Archaeology of Nippur from the Decline of the Kassite Kingdom until the Rise of the Neo-Babylonian Empire.” Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago, 1989. The results of excavation of post-Kasite Nippur, including a discussion of the building levels of area TA.
  • Brandt, Margaret C. “Nippur: Building an Environmental Model.” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 49 (1990): 67–73.
  • Bregstein, Linda B., and Tammi J. Schneider. “Nippur Bibliography.” In Nippur at the Centennial, edited by Maria deJong Ellis, pp. 337–357. Philadelphia, 1992. A comprehensive bibliography of the primary publications of Nippur tablets that includes tablets from the post-World War II seasons of excavations.
  • Cole, Steven. “Nippur in Late Assyrian Times, 750–612 B.C.” Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago, 1990. Discusses the area WB unbaked clay tablets from the jar burials (eighth-seventh centuries BCE).
  • Crawford, Vaughn E. “Nippur, the Holy City.” Archaeology 12 (1959): 74–83.
  • Fisher, Clarence S. Excavations at Nippur. Philadelphia, 1905.
  • Franke, Judith Ann. “Artifact Patterning and Functional Variability in the Urban Dwelling: Old Babylonian Nippur, Iraq.” Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago, 1987. Focuses on the area WB private houses.
  • Gibson, McGuire. Excavations at Nippur: Eleventh Season. Chicago, 1975.
  • Gibson, McGuire. Excavations at Nippur: Twelfth Season. Chicago, 1978a.
  • Gibson, McGuire. “Nippur (1975).” Sumer 34 (1978b): 114–121.
  • Gibson, McGuire, et al. “The Southern Corner of Nippur: Summary of Excavations during the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Seasons.” Sumer 39 (1983): 170–190.
  • Gibson, McGuire. “Patterns of Occupation at Nippur.” In Nippur at the Centennial, edited by Maria deJong Ellis, pp. 33–54. Philadelphia, 1992.
  • Hansen, Donald P., and George F. Dales. “The Temple of Inanna, Queen of Heaven at Nippur.” Archaeology 15 (1962): 75–84.
  • Hansen, Donald P. “New Votive Plaques from Nippur.” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 22 (1963): 145–166.
  • Hansen, Donald P. “The Pottery Sequence at Nippur from Middle Uruk to the End of the Old Babylonian Period, 3400–1600 B.C.” In Chronologies in Old World Archaeology, edited by Robert W. Ehrich, pp. 201–213. Chicago, 1965.
  • Hansen, Donald P. “Some Early Dynastic I Sealings from Nippur.” In Studies Presented to G. M. A. Hanfmann, edited by D. G. Mitten et al., pp. 47–54. Cambridge, 1971.
  • Hilprecht, Hermann V. Die Ausgrabungen in Bel-Tempel zu Nippur. Leipzig, 1903a.
  • Hilprecht, Hermann V. Explorations in Bible Lands during the Nineteenth Century. Philadelphia, 1903b. See pages 289–577.
  • Keall, E. J. “The Significance of Late Parthian Nippur.” Ph.D. diss., University of Michigan, 1970.
  • Knudstad, James E. “Excavations at Nippur.” Sumer 22 (1966): 111–114; 24 (1968): 95–106.
  • Layard, Austen H. Discoveries in the Ruins of Nineveh and Babylon. London, 1853. Reprint, New York, 1985. See page 562.
  • McCown, Donald E., and Richard C. Haines. Nippur I: Temple of Enlil, Scribal Quarter, and Soundings. Chicago, 1967.
  • McCown, Donald E., et al. Nippur II: The North Temple and Sounding E. Chicago, 1978.
  • McMahon, Augusta Madeline. “The Early Dynastic to Akkadian Period Transition in Southern Mesopotamia.” Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago, 1993.
  • Peters, John P. Nippur. 2 vols. New York, 1897.
  • Porada, Edith, et al. “The Chronology of Mesopotamia, ca. 7000–1600 B.C.” In Chronologies in Old World Archaeology, edited by Robert W. Ehrich, vol. 1, pp. 77–121, vol. 2, pp. 90–124. 3d ed. Chicago, 1992.
  • Rawlinson, Henry Creswicke. Cuneiform Inscriptions of Western Asia. Vol. 1 London, 1861.
  • Stone, Elizabeth C. Nippur Neighborhoods. Chicago, 1987. Synthetic study of the buildings, artifacts, and texts from the Isin-Larsa and Old Babylonian levels of areas TA and TB.
  • Zettler, Richard L. “Nippur under the Third Dynasty of Ur: Area TB.” Aula Orientalis 9 (1991): 251–281.
  • Zettler, Richard L. Ur III Temple of Inanna at Nippur. Berlin, 1992. A study of the architecture, artifacts, and tablets from the level IV temple.
  • Zettler, Richard L. Nippur III: Kassite Buildings in Area WC—1. Chicago, 1993.

Richard L. Zettler

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