Dissertation Prize Recipients

Every two years, TARII awards the best U.S. doctoral dissertations on Iraq. The Donny George Youkhana Dissertation Prize (named in 2011) recognizes the best dissertation on ancient Iraq. A second award recognizes the best dissertation on modern or medieval Iraq. The competition is open to U.S. citizens at any university worldwide and any student at a U.S. university.


The Donny George Youkhana Dissertation Prize  • 2015

Dr. Kiersten Ashley Neumann, "Resurrected and Reevaluated: The Neo-Assyrian Temple as a Ritualized and Ritualizing Built Environment"

This dissertation concerns the ways in which the ritualized materials and ritualized practice of the Neo-Assyrian temple, through their culturally valued and prioritized visual and experiential characteristics, created and marked the special status and divine aspect of the house of a god, differentiating this built environment within the Neo-Assyrian landscape and making it fit for a god.

In the study ritual is not approached as a distinct entity, but rather as a characteristic of contrasting practice, that is, as a strategic mode of acting that inflects the practice itself and the associated materials, drawing on Catherine Bell's notions of ritualization. Contributing further to the discussion are such concepts as materiality, agency, phenomenology, visuality, and performance. In order to reconstruct ritualized practice and material interaction in the temples, the physical, aesthetic, and sensory features of the architectural, non-portable, and portable works of art stand at the forefront of the discussion. This study also reinserts active agents into the discussion of material culture and practice in Neo-Assyria, and brings the temple itself, as well as the vast collection of materials housed therein, into this discussion. Complementing the material culture is a study of the Neo-Assyrian royal inscriptions and correspondence, administrative records, ritual instructions, and omen collections. These texts were written in Akkadian, the official language of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, on an assortment of material culture, ranging from clay tablets and prisms to stone statues and wall reliefs. 

This comprehensive, analytical, and interdisciplinary approach to the Neo-Assyrian temple built environment offers a means of accessing previously unrecognized and under appreciated characteristics of the Neo-Assyrian imperial elite that produced and used these spaces, reevaluating notions of culturally meaningful practice, the role of material and architecture in such acts, culturally valued sensorial experiences, social relations, and the place of ritualized performance within the larger social network. The experiential dimensions of the raw materials and crafted works of art from the temple manifest a prioritization by the Neo-Assyrian elite for what was seen: the brilliance, texture, and polychromatic qualities of this built environment acted as both sign and substance; yet the stimulation of additional senses, such as touch and smell, was also of import. The material and textual evidence from the temple also demonstrates the ways in which this built environment controlled and isolated spheres of practice that served critical functions in the dynamics of the Neo-Assyrian royal court, in particular in the relationships between the king and the scholarly elite. The temple served as a mediating point between the king and the ummânus—scholarly experts and skilled craftsmen—and both with the gods. The variability of these relationships materialized in the developments of the temple during the Neo-Assyrian period, the attitudes and preferences of particular kings toward scholarly knowledge and the gods finding expression in their temple work and practice. Moreover, the king's relationship with the temple differentiated this space from the Neo-Assyrian royal palace. Though constructed using the same raw materials and personnel as part of royal building projects, the palace's prioritization of the king—in both material culture and practice—illustrates a different inflection of ritualization for a royal dwelling place of Neo-Assyria. 

The outcomes of this study of the Neo-Assyrian temple make an important contribution to the ongoing dialogues in art historical, material culture, post-colonial and globalization studies regarding the role of material worlds and ritualizing activity in social and political arenas. The textual and material evidence from the Neo-Assyrian temple makes an argument for recognizing degrees of ritualization as an element of ritual theory and practice; for acknowledging meaningful variations in the individual's experience; and for appreciating the variability that results from discrete preferences and attitudes, as characteristics of ritualized practice alongside culturally-grounded traditions and rules. The ritualizing power of the materials and practices explored in this study acted to constitute the divine nature of the temple, a sign of its status as the house of a god in Neo-Assyria. The outcomes of this study therefore also lend themselves to the larger discussion of the house-owner relationship—in Neo-Assyria and beyond—and the formative role of the latter in conferring and displaying status.

modern/medieval dissertation prize • 2015

Dr. Hilary Falb Kalisman, "Schooling the State: Educators in Iraq, Palestine and Transjordan, c. 1890-c. 1960"

This dissertation examines the links between education and political culture by analyzing government-employed educators during the formative period of nation-state creation in the Middle East. It argues that a dearth of qualified personnel, coupled with local support of education, allowed educators in the government schools of Iraq, Palestine and Transjordan, to act as privileged intermediaries, backed by both the states that employed them, and by their societies. Educators’ status as popular and scarce civil servants encouraged them to participate in anti-government protests while remaining government employees. The aggregate consequences of educators’ ability to protest without losing their posts included ideological flexibility, the sidelining of educated groups from armed rebellions and the maintenance of non-representative regimes. Their stories articulate how local civil servants, frequently at the lowest levels of colonial bureaucracies, shape administration and governance. 

During the late Ottoman period, educated individuals participated in a culture of petitions and negotiation, which connected civil servants and the Ottoman state. The British military and Mandate administrations incorporated Ottoman laws regarding education, as well as Ottoman-founded institutions and Ottoman-trained personnel into the educational systems of the Mandates. This continuity between British and Ottoman policies, institutions and personnel perpetuated Ottoman-era modes of interaction between educators and the governments that employed them. 

British policy makers feared anti-colonial rebellions on the part of an educated unemployed, like uprisings that had taken place in both India and Egypt during periods of British control. Therefore, British officials in Iraq, Palestine and Transjordan restricted government schooling, particularly at upper levels, to a select few. Meanwhile, the inhabitants of the region, and the League of Nations’ requirements to prepare the Mandates for eventual independence, resulted in local and international demand for government-sponsored education. This situation of scarcity and need granted educators a privileged position vis-à-vis their employers. Educators used their rare status to manipulate and petition their governments, while rising through the ranks of the civil service. In so doing, they evinced a broader notion of agency than simple resistance to colonial domination. 

Educators also theorized and articulated a variety of political ideologies, particularly during the interwar period. Educators’ experiences as students and their relationships to their governments as well as their birthplaces and families shaped their concepts of political affiliation. The American University of Beirut (AUB) in particular functioned as a hub of pan-Arabism for educators; students from throughout the region met, studied, and learned to protest while at AUB. Their academic credentials permitted AUB graduates to put their philosophies into practice, as teachers, authors, administrators and later ministers throughout the Mandates. However, self-avowedly nationalist educators, even at their most extreme, overwhelmingly remained employed by their governments in some capacity despite their rebellious reputations. Educators’ need to work within the government, to keep their present jobs, and the desire of local communities to preserve education and to safeguard their children’s futures reinforced teachers and administrators’ incorporation into government service. 

In the late 1950s, three factors threatened educators’ intermediary role. These factors denigrated teachers’ social and economic status, and pushed them towards collective rather than individual action. Mass education reduced the scarcity of teachers; their formerly rare educational qualifications became more common, and less valuable. Standardization, through rigid modes of inspection and national examinations that dictated children’s future careers, reduced educators’ ability to teach beyond the prescribed curriculum. Repressive measures on the part of each government also limited the intermediary position teachers had previously enjoyed. The concurrent hardening of national borders reduced the fluidity of political affiliations once open to the Mandates’ inhabitants. 

From the late 1890s through the late 1950s, educators and former educators leveraged their scarcity. As both teachers and government ministers, they influenced the young minds of the region within and beyond the classroom. Their favored status lasted until colonial restrictions on education lessened, and mass education eroded their capacity for bargaining with their governments. The stories of these teachers and administrators underscore the importance of local civil servants to the functioning of imperial, colonial and independent governments. Their rebellions from within the government bureaucracy demonstrate how government education as an institution can simultaneously shore up and impair the authority of its state.

The Donny George Youkhana Dissertation Prize • 2013

Dr. Kim Benzel, “Puabi's Adornment for the Afterlife: Materials and Technologies of Jewelry at Ur in Mesopotamia"

This dissertation investigates one of the most important archaeological discoveries of the 20th century – the jewelry belonging to a female named Pu-abi buried in the so-called Royal Cemetery at the site of Ur in southern Mesopotamia, modern Iraq. The mid-third millennium B.C. assemblage represents one of the earliest and richest extant collections of gold and precious stones from antiquity and figures as one of the most renowned and often illustrated aspects of Sumerian culture. With a few notable exceptions most scholars have interpreted these jewels primarily as a reflection in burial of a significant level of power and prestige among the ruling kings and queens of Ur at the time. While the jewelry certainly could, and undoubtedly did, reflect the identity and status of the deceased, I believe that it might have acted as much more than a mere marker and that the identity and status thus signaled might have had a considerably more nuanced meaning, or even a different one, than that of royalty or royalty alone. Based on a thorough examination of the materials and methods used to manufacture these ornaments, I will argue that the jewelry was not simply a rich but passive collection of prestige goods, rather that jewelry that can be read in terms of active ritual, and perhaps cultic, production and display. The particular materials and techniques chosen for the making of Pu-abi’s jewelry entailed methodological operations akin to what Alfred Gell has called the “technology of enchantment and enchantment of technology” and allowed these ornaments to materialize from their creation as a group of magically and ritually charged objects.

The Donny George Youkhana Dissertation Prize • 2013

Dr. Katharyn Hanson, "Considerations of Cultural Heritage: Threats to Mesopotamian Archaeological Sites"

The destruction of Iraq’s cultural heritage gained public attention after the looting of the Iraq National Museum in 2003. However, little has been done to identify and investigate the current threats to Mesopotamian archaeological sites. Given that damage to cultural heritage endangers the very heart of what archaeologists do, it is critical to build a body of work that investigates the type and extent of damage to cultural heritage sites, that examines the context of the threat, and that analyzes the efficacy and availability of tools and tactics to protect endangered cultural heritage.

This dissertation seeks to explore the questions inherent in the destruction of cultural heritage in Iraq and Syria: What type of damage is occurring? How can we measure the extent of destruction? Why are these sites threatened? And ultimately, what can we do to better prevent the continued destruction of cultural heritage at Mesopotamian archaeological sites?

There are three main threats to cultural heritage in Syria and Iraq today: agricultural development, urban growth, and looting. Using a case study approach to investigate each of these threats, the dissertation will provide snapshots of the current status of cultural heritage protection in Syria and Iraq. The first case study focuses on agricultural expansion at Tell Zeidan; the second case study on the modern construction at and around Nineveh investigates damage caused by urban growth; the final case study examines the past and future threat of looting at Umma. Analysis of these case studies is framed within a broader discussion of the legal mechanisms related to cultural heritage preservation in Syria and Iraq, and provides a foundation for future considerations of and solutions to the primary threats to ancient Mesopotamian archaeological sites.

modern/medieval Dissertation Prize • 2013

Dr. Arbella Bet-Shlimon, “Kirkuk, 1918-1968: Oil and the Politics of Identity in an Iraqi City"

In this dissertation, I use methodological approaches from studies of urbanism, oil modernity, nation building, and identity formation to analyze the relationships between urban change, oil, state integration, and the politicization of group identities in the multiethnic Iraqi city of Kirkuk from 1918 to 1968. I argue that, in early to mid-twentieth-century Kirkuk, the oil industry, Baghdad’s policies, and the British neocolonial presence interacted with local conditions to produce the crystallization of ethnic group identities within a nascent domain of local politics. I find that at the time of the formation of the Iraqi state in the early 1920s, group identities in Kirkuk were fluid and local politics did not align clearly with ethnicities or other self-identities. Instead, they were largely subsumed under relations between more powerful external entities. Kirkukis’ political loyalties were based on which entity best served their interests — or, as was often the case, were positioned against a side based on its perceived hostility to their concerns.

These political dynamics began to shift with Kirkuk’s incorporation into Baghdad’s domain, the beginnings of the Iraq Petroleum Company’s exploration just northwest of urban Kirkuk, and the end of British mandate rule. The Iraqi central government’s integration efforts exacerbated fault lines between emergent Kurdish, Turkmen, and Arab ethnic communities at a time when the city’s population and its urban fabric were growing rapidly. The oil industry, which provided the livelihood for a substantial percentage of Kirkuk’s population, became the focus of Communist-led labor organization. Consequently, the Iraqi government, the British government, and the oil company attempted to counter Communist influence through urban development schemes. The combination of urban growth and the expansion of discursive activities stimulated the emergence of a distinct civic identity and an accompanying arena of local politics in which Kirkuk’s ethnic communities were deeply invested. After the destabilizing effects of the Iraqi revolution in 1958, a cycle of intercommunal violence began in Kirkuk along increasingly apparent ethnic lines. Escalating conflict between Baghdad and the Kurdish movement for control of Kirkuk after 1958 fueled these tensions further. The reverberations of the revolution’s aftermath are still evident today.

The Donny George Youkhana Dissertation Prize • 2011

Dr. Karen Sonik, "Demon-Haunted Universe: Conception of the Supernatural in Mesopotamia"

This dissertation investigates the monsters and the daimons of ancient Mesopotamia as unique cultural constructions, physical representations of what was feared, what was forbidden, and what was desired. Comprising two distinct classes of Zwischenwesen, beings of intermediate or "in between" nature existing between humans and their gods, monsters are identified as cosmic agents, challenging and interacting primarily with the gods and with the divine world, while daimons primarily function within the human or natural world, afflicting or protecting human beings on the order of the gods or on personal whim. Querying the origins and development of these entities, and the social, religious, and political contexts in which they functioned, this dissertation incorporates both literary and visual analyses and is informed by recent research in the fields of anthropology and the history of religions, as well as by studies on the "Other" as presented in sources from the Classical world, the Middle Ages, and contemporary Western culture. It establishes a consistent taxonomy and terminology of the monsters and the daimons, locating them within the Mesopotamian supernatural landscape, and considers their role as guardians and boundary-keepers, whose transgression of cosmic warning, to human beings of behaviors, qualities, and deeds that are socially, religiously, or otherwise taboo or forbidden. These broadly based discussions are accompanied by targeted case studies treating those monsters and daimons that are exceptional even among their peculiar company, and that specifically elucidate crucial themes such as the conflict between order and chaos, the delineation of socially constructed gender roles, the functions of the rare female Zwischenwesen, and the circumstances under which cosmic borders or bodily integrity may be compromised. The monsters and daimons of Mesopotamia are, ultimately, read as glyphs, encoding specific aspects of their originating culture's belief system, and offering a rare and invaluable insight into the contemporary social, political, and religious mores of the world within which they were constructed.

Ancient Dissertation Prize • 2009

Dr. Jonathan Tenney, “Life at the Bottom of Babylonian Society: Servile Laborers at Nippur in the late 14th and 13th Centuries BC"

The public servile labor force at Nippur can be identified by standard Middle Babylonian markers of sex-age class and physical condition as well as by other distinctive designations (e.g., qinnuamîlûtu) in a corpus of more than five hundred tablets and fragments dating between 1359 and 1224 B.C. This collection of administrative texts, legal documents, and letters partially illuminates for us several key features of this group, including aspects of its demographic composition, its family and household organization, its occupations, and the administrative structure concerned with maintaining, tracking, and controlling the laborers.

This servile population, numbering in the thousands, has been investigated with traditional philological analysis of the texts as well as with the application of quantitative methods, historical demography, and historical-ethnographic comparisons. Descriptive statistics and sex ratio indicate that the environment of the laboring population favored males over females and that, although its adult sex ratio is close to that of other premodern societies, its all-age sex ratio is consonant with that of a recently established slave population. Likewise, patterns of family and household differ notably from those of other premodern populations. The high percentage of single mothers and female heads of household shows that women played an unusually prominent role in these servile families.

Individual workers could be assigned to a location, to a large institution, to a household, or to a private individual. Occupations listed in the rosters indicate that laborers worked in the care and management of animals, in textile production, and in food preparation, among other tasks. Significant numbers of the workers (mostly males with no family ties) fled the servile system — a problematic situation for officials because the servile population was unable to sustain its size through natural reproduction. Most runaways were successful in their escape attempts; but some were recaptured, placed in prison, and eventually reassigned to a new master.

modern/medieval dissertation prize • 2009

Dr. Juan Romero, “The Iraqi Revolution of 1958 and the Search for Security in the Middle East”

This dissertation contends that a revolutionary situation built up in Iraq during the last decade of the monarchic system. Opposition to constraints on civil rights, close ties with Britain, accession to the Baghdad Pact, the semi-feudal economic system in rural areas, and the plight of the unemployed in the slums of the big cities fanned revolutionary sentiments in Iraq during the monarchic era. The ambitious development program financed with Iraq’s considerable oil revenues did not address these problems, however, since the program focused on large-scale and long-term projects which did not rapidly improve the situation of the poorer strata of the population. Furthermore, external events such as the formation of the Baghdad Pact in 1955 and the Suez Crisis of 1956 directly fueled anti-regime sentiments in Iraq, since students and intellectuals contended that the monarchy’s foreign policy had contributed to these events and isolated Iraq from its Arabs neighbors. The regime managed to remain in power, however, through heavy-handed suppression of any public manifestation of political opposition. This left the army the only force in Iraqi society capable of effectuating change. The regime was convinced of the army’s complete loyalty and therefore made the mistake to dismiss intelligence on coup plans.

This dissertation further argues that the Free Officers coup of July 14, 1958, was the initial phase of a social, economic, political, and psychological revolution. The fact that Baghdadis took to the streets in massive numbers on the morning of July 14 shows strong popular support for and participation in the Free Officers coup. The foreign and economic policies of the new regimes also constituted a revolutionary departure from those of the monarchy. Furthermore, the new government declared that Iraq’s foreign policy would be based on the principle of neutralism, and that its economic policy would eliminate the semi-feudal system in the rural areas to build an equitable society. Iraq’s decision not to withdraw from the Baghdad Pact and not to nationalize the Iraq Petroleum Company was made for security reasons, and did not signify a continuation of the policies of the previous regime.

Ancient Dissertation Prize • 2006

Dr. Michael Kozuh, “The Sacrificial Economy: On the Management of Sacrificial Sheep and Goats at the Neo-Babylonian/Achaemenid Eanna Temple of Uruk (c. 625–550 BC)”

From c. 625 until 520 BC, the Eanna temple of the southern Babylonian city of Uruk had under its control herds totaling tens of thousands of sheep and goats. This dissertation analyzes the management of these herds on the basis of about 550 legal and administrative texts from the temple’s archive.

Production (i.e., the maintenance and growth of the herds) took place through share breeding contracts with temple outsiders. The temple fixed the annual amount due from the contractors (called nāqidus, “herdsmen”) in lambs, kids, wool, and goat hair and then over time calculated its share of each herd’s yearly increase. Yet the temple’s share was not collected every year. The contractors held back animals — mainly ewes — from the temple’s share, running balances that increased with the growth of the herd and decreased when the temple took male lambs for sacrifice. In practice, the temple stored its herds on the hoof with its contractors and periodically drew returns from them.

The Eanna’s regular animal sacrifices consumed 3,000–4,000 male lambs annually. The sacrifices were organized though two internal administrative bureaus whose staffs were supported by rations from the temple. The “Offering Shepherd” (rē̓i sattukki) and a vaguely defined bureau called the bīt urî supplied most of the animals for sacrifice, and the vast majority of these were animals taken in from the contractors.

The records of the transfer of animals between contractors and the temple, and among temple bureaus and administrators, were meticulous but difficult when read apart from a systematic context. They are reanalyzed on the basis of this division of management into an external sphere of herding contractors and an internal sphere of attached administrative bureaus.

The external sphere also intersected with the temple at the “bow obligation,” which required the temple to supply men for royal service. The contractors provided the men for this obligation, but the temple equipped and supplied them. Yet, apart from this obligation, there is little evidence that the crown and provincial governments, which regulated the temple’s herding economy, extracted regular returns from it.