Giorgio Buccellati and Marilyn Kelly-Buccellati rose early that Friday in 1982, their day off from work at the Terqa excavation in Syria. As they had done so many other Fridays, the married archaeologists jumped in the car and headed to northern Syria, where they would visit other sites in search of their next potential expedition. After a few hours, they came upon a large tell, or mound, that had briefly been explored in the 1930s by the archaeologist Max Mallowan (and written about by Mallowan’s wife, the mystery novelist Agatha Christie). It was almost lunchtime, so the couple stopped to share a picnic under the trees.
What they didn’t realize at the time was that their impromptu picnic at Tell Mozan would change their lives — as well as the lives of countless Syrians, young students from across the globe and the practice of archaeology itself.
Because on that day, the Buccellatis would find evidence of the ancient Hurrian city of Urkesh, long dismissed by Mallowan as a late Roman city. As they wandered the site, they found bits of broken pottery on the surface that offered clues to what would eventually become a monumental archaeological discovery.
“We looked at the pottery, and it was clearly not Roman. It was all third-millennium [B.C.],” says Giorgio, professor emeritus of history and Near Eastern languages and director of the Mesopotamian Lab at UCLA. “Marilyn was the pottery expert, but even an unexpert like myself could immediately tell that it was third millennium and not—”
“— Roman,” continues Marilyn, professor emerita of archaeology and art history at Cal State Los Angeles. “A Roman city. That’s what Max Mallowan had thought.”
Based on those pottery sherds and other archaeological evidence, the couple looked back across the ages and began to piece together the outlines of a fallen civilization. The legendary city of Urkesh.
“Urkesh is important for a number of reasons. It’s extraordinary to have a site connected with the Hurrians, which was a very important culture,” says Sarah Graff, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “It also has important connections with the Akkadian period in Iraq. Any time you find something that connects to the Akkadian period, that’s always a topic of great interest. It was such a formative period.”
Over the next four decades, the Buccellatis would unearth the remains of a temple, a palace and an abbey, all within a site that is nearly the size of the UCLA campus. Along the way, Giorgio would invent a breakthrough method of preserving the delicate mudbrick walls using inexpensive, locally sourced materials. The couple also would be the first archaeologists to use computers in Syria to record their findings. And back home in Los Angeles, Giorgio would create and serve as founding director of the Institute of Archaeology at UCLA, now the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology.
“We had never planned on going,” Giorgio says. “We wanted to have a picnic, and we did. That discovery was by chance.”
It was chance that brought the Buccellatis together.
The two met while both were students at the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute, a research center and museum devoted to the study of the ancient Near East. Marilyn, a New Jersey native, had decided to become an archaeologist at the age of 12 after reading a book about the Dead Sea Scrolls. She arrived at Chicago two years after Giorgio.
“He was one of the stars at the institute, so I never talked to him. I wouldn’t have had the courage to talk to him,” she says, turning to her husband of 56 years, who smiles back at her. “We were both in a Hebrew class, and one of his Ph.D. exams was in Hebrew, so he came to my desk and said, ‘What is it that you did in class the last couple of weeks?’ because he hadn’t been able to attend. Then I started talking to him.”
Giorgio began his studies in the classics in Milan, Italy, where he was born, grew up and went to university. Initially focused on Greek and Latin, he started studying Hebrew, turning his interest to the Mesopotamian background of the Bible. That led him to Chicago — and Marilyn.
Just as they were getting to know each other, Giorgio was sent to an expedition in Iraq as the lead epigraphist, reading cuneiform texts. That sparked his interest in the excavation process. “When I came back, I started courting Marilyn, who was an archaeologist,” he says. “So I became even more interested in archaeology.”
“And I became even more interested in Mesopotamia,” she says.
After Giorgio completed his doctorate, he was recruited by UCLA, joining the Department of Near Eastern Languages in 1965. In the following year, Marilyn completed her master’s degree and the couple were married; a few months later, they traveled to participate in the survey of Palmyra, the ancient Syrian city that would be nearly destroyed by ISIS attacks in 2015 and 2017. The couple went on to sites in Iraq and to other expeditions in the region. Marilyn completed her doctorate in 1974 and co-directed the expedition at Terqa with her husband.
But since 1982, their focus has been on Urkesh.
The Buccellatis would be familiar to any fan of Indiana Jones or Lara Croft — the dashing Italian expert in ancient languages and the brilliant archaeologist specializing in ceramics who fall in love and travel to foreign lands, piecing together clues of ancient civilizations. Their son, Federico, would grow up to be an archaeologist and work with them at Tell Mozan.
Reality, of course, is a bit more complicated. Unlike Indy or Lara, the Buccellatis weren’t able to simply hit a button to reveal cavernous chambers filled with antiquities or treasures from the past. After their picnic discovery, it took the couple another 10 years before they uncovered indisputable evidence of the existence of Urkesh, a long-fabled 4,000-year-old civilization that occupied land just south of the Turkish border.
In fact, their heroic contributions to archaeology extend far beyond the discovery of a lost city. What has brought them international recognition, awards and acclaim is their commitment to the Syrian people and their history, their dedication and scientific contributions to the future of archaeology, and their mentorship of the next generation of archaeologists.
Their path to uncovering the ancient city has been protracted and painstaking.
For Marilyn, it started with mud fragments, some smaller than a thumbnail. These fragile bits of mud once formed ancient seals that were used to enclose objects or bundles. The seals, created by rolling small cylinders engraved with artwork and text atop wet clay, were akin to a signature from the king, the queen or others. Marilyn’s charge was to determine the iconography of these seals — without a hint of what to expect.
“They were so small. They were all broken apart from when they opened the package — it’s like string or Scotch tape that you use for objects today,” she explains. “I had to spend hours — years, practically — trying to figure out the iconography of these seals.”
“There were about 10,000 little pieces,” Giorgio adds. “Out of these, about 1,000 had the impressions. But you don’t know when you excavate whether they have impressions or not —”
“— because they’re pieces of mud and they’re dirty,” Marilyn continues. “I was able to put together the pieces that had inscriptions on them. And then Giorgio would come and read the inscriptions.”
Then, a breakthrough. “One of the seals was of the king of Urkesh — Tupkish was his name — which couldn’t have been clearer evidence for the identification of the city,” he says. “The other glorious day was when Marilyn put together another seal that had belonged to the daughter of Naram-Sin, a great king of the south who had conquered most of the region all the way to the Mediterranean. But he did not conquer our city. He gave his daughter in marriage to the king.”
“It was a political alliance between Urkesh and the most important king in the area,” Marilyn says, “which meant our city was important, too.”
For years, the Buccellatis have divided their time among Urkesh, Los Angeles and their home in the Italian Alps. Because the civil war in Syria, begun in 2011, has prevented them from traveling to Urkesh, the couple have been living mainly in Italy.
“It’s a beautiful day today, because it snowed a couple of days ago in the higher mountains, which we can see from our study,” Marilyn says. “It’s really spectacular.”
The pair had several speaking engagements throughout the summer and traveled to Bern, Switzerland, in July to receive the prestigious Balzan Prize for Art and Archaeology of the Ancient Near East. The prize carries with it a cash award of 750,000 Swiss francs, or about $776,000, half of which must be used to finance research by students.
“We are giving the other half of the prize to the project,” Giorgio says. “We have a staff now of about 12 around the world, young people. They are the core of the project for the Balzan Prize.”
The award is just one of many honors the two have received over their expansive careers. But the Balzan is special, they say, because it validates their life’s work and will also allow them to finish projects that they have started but not yet completed.
Among these projects is a digital record of their expedition, which involves not only collecting data from the field but also building a narrative around it. So rather than simply compiling a log of what is collected as other archaeological sites have done, the Buccellatis’ pioneering approach calls for publishing further context, observations and explanations of their findings.
“It’s a way of being extremely transparent,” says Yasmine Mahmoud, who started working with the Buccellatis at Urkesh in 2008 while still a student at the University of Damascus, and who today supervises activities in Syria as associate director of the Urkesh Extended Project. “It’s really extensive and comprehensive — there is no other method like it,” Mahmoud says.
Ronida, a junior at UCLA, works with the Buccellatis in Los Angeles to help maintain the website. Ronida was born in Qamishli, a town near Tell Mozan, and visited Urkesh as a child before her family moved to Germany when she was 11. “I just took an archaeology class for fun,” says Ronida, a developmental biology major. “There was a unit about Mesopotamia, which is the region that includes Syria. I told my mom we learned about this, and she said my uncle mentioned there’s a professor at a university in the U.S. who works at the site in Urkesh.”
That professor, she later discovered, was Buccellati, whose office she passed weekly. “It was an amazing coincidence,” she says.
Ronida also mentors high school students in Syria as part of the Urkesh One-on-One Project, which allows students in Syria, Italy, Greece and the U.S. to share information about archaeology and culture. This work, fostered by the Buccellatis, has given Ronida a connection to Urkesh and the country she left as a child.
“Because of the Buccellatis, I have a more mature understanding of the site and what it means, not just for me but for the Syrian people and for archaeologists all over the world,” she says. “Every time I meet with them, I feel a connection to my homeland, my history.”
From day one, the Buccellatis saw conservation, preservation and education as a matter of sensitivity and respect for the area and its people, with whom they have remained in contact despite their absence from the country. By contrast, archaeologists from Western countries have typically excavated Mesopotamian sites and then, having recorded the evidence, abandoned them.
“We employed a lot of workmen, sometimes up to 200, and we felt they should understand what we were doing,” Giorgio says. “Every week, we would have a lecture for them, explaining what we were doing. It turned out that mattered to them almost as much as the pay because they felt really proud. We were never trained to do any of that, but we thought it was the right thing to do.”
Mahmoud accompanied the Buccellatis on their lectures to assist with translations, “but the fact that they speak Arabic very well shows their great respect for the local community,” she says. “For them, it was important to make the workmen feel that they’re not just hired help. In the end, the site belongs to the Syrians.”
Lothar von Falkenhausen, a UCLA professor of Chinese archaeology and art history, says that this deep engagement with the local community is what sets the Buccellatis apart from other archaeologists. “Taking care of the site, participating in the fieldwork, helping to process the finds and, most specifically, preserving the site during the horrible war that is still raging in Syria — they’ve done this in a culturally sensitive way,” says von Falkenhausen, a 2019 Guggenheim fellow and a colleague of the Buccellatis for more than 30 years. “[And] in such a way that they’ve become truly beloved by the local community.”
Since the start of the war in Syria, more than 100 foreign expeditions have shut down. Although Urkesh excavation has halted, the Buccellatis continue to guide maintenance, research and educational activities through a network of researchers and students in Syria and other parts of the world. A handful of workers remains on site, primarily to guard the grounds.
“Most excavations in circumstances of unrest normally close down. The Buccellatis’ site didn’t close down. This is remarkable,” says Neville Agnew, senior principal project specialist at the Getty Conservation Institute. “And I don’t think there’s been any looting.”
“Being able to have the local people maintain the site, keep an eye on it, is really an extraordinary example of sustained efforts at an archaeological site,” adds Martha Demas, senior project specialist at the Getty Conservation Institute, who visited Urkesh with Agnew in 2004.
Archaeologist Amer Ahmad, a member of the Urkesh expedition, is committed to educating visitors about the site’s history. “I remember that ISIS was only about 35 kilometers from Tell Mozan while we were working on maintenance and cleaning the Urkesh temple,” he says. The site survived.
The Buccellatis’ work, Ahmad says, reinvigorated his interest in the past and in his country. “I saw the Buccellatis’ love for Tell Mozan and for the region. They taught me how to love my heritage and even sacrifice for it,” he says. “They taught me that archaeology is not only bringing the antiquities up, but how to protect the antiquities and how to be proud of my heritage.”
For the Buccellatis, appreciating the future begins with valuing the past.
“There is really a great sense of identity if you can identify with your past or your territory,” Giorgio says. “But how do you engender a sense of pride in a population that is not your ancestry? Our site precedes all of them, because it stopped being inhabited about 3,000 years ago.”
As conflict tears Syria apart, the shared custodianship of Urkesh has united the region’s five ethnic groups — Arabs, Kurds, Armenians, Syrians and Yazidis — through their common bond to an ancient city. “They are all working as one heart and one body, one person, to protect their heritage, their site,” Ahmad says. “They all work and protect it, regardless of the ethnicities or anything else.”
Before the war erupted, the Buccellatis were looking to the future care and preservation of the site through the creation of the Urkesh Eco-Archaeological Park. The proposed 54-square-kilometer eco-park, encompassing the excavation site as well as 21 surrounding villages, was intended to offer an educational experience for tourists as well as to provide an economic boost for the villages. It remains the couple’s fervent dream, one they are determined to turn into reality.
“The main thrust was to have the excavations as the center and each village would offer two things: a small museum and an activity. For instance, one village would emphasize ceramics,” Marilyn explains. “We’re not going to build any high-rise hotels or fancy motels. Visitors would live in a local villager’s house and participate in the village life.”
Those plans are on hold until the war ends. Until then, the Buccellatis will continue fostering unity through archaeology.
“The people have developed a sense of pride in this heritage of which they have no memory. We’ve given them a sort of reconstructed memory,” Giorgio says. “It’s a big task. But it’s beautiful.”
Read more from UCLA Magazine’s Fall 2022 issue.