Academics have warned that a "short-sighted" decision to withdraw funding from UK archaeology societies working in the Middle East could sever vital links between Britain and the Islamic world.
The British School of Archaeology in Iraq helps Iraqi scholars and assists in the rebuilding of Iraq's heritage. It said its future was "severely threatened" by the British Academy's plans to halt funds. The Academy is also pulling funds out of the Egypt Exploration Society, which fears that it may have to drastically curtail its work and carry out emergency-only "rescue" archaeology at threatened sites.
The Academy gives £59,000 a year to the BSAI and £94,000 to the EES. For the next two years, they will receive £30,000 and £50,000 a year respectively before the funding stops.
Barry Kemp, professor of Egyptology at Cambridge University, said: "The sums involved are not large (but they) buy an enormous amount of goodwill, something that the UK needs to compensate for in the face of the catastrophic policies of the UK Government."
The Academy said that the decision was the outcome of a competitive funding round and that support for Iraq's cultural heritage and scholars was beyond its remit.
The BSAI is the only body in Britain devoted to research into the ancient civilisations and languages of Mesopotamia. It was founded in 1932 as a memorial to the explorer Gertrude Bell.
Since being forced to give up its base in Iraq in 1990, the school has raised more than £100,000 to bring young Iraqi scholars to the UK for two or three-month placements to help upgrade their qualifications, and it makes grants to support research on the archaeology, history and languages of Iraq and its neighbours.
It is using its resources to help rebuild Iraq's heritage, where the war has destroyed ancient monuments and sites and unique libraries and museums.
A statement posted on the BSAI's website says: "The BSAI council, BSAI members and colleagues worldwide are deeply shocked by this decision to cut off future funding... We feel the BSAI's strengths are well worth supporting by the Academy and the Government at large, and that this decision is highly damaging not only to an internationally regarded learned society but also to the larger issue of the UK's relationship with Iraq and the Government's desire to assist in capacity-building in Iraq."
It continues: "In summary, if the Academy's decision is implemented, the UK will lose a unique asset, and many valuable ties with Iraq and the worldwide academic community will be broken. Our Iraqi friends and colleagues, and the whole international scholarly community, will find it difficult to comprehend how the UK Government could allow such a thing to happen at this sensitive time."
Rosalind Wade Haddon, an archaeological art historian who is a member of the BSAI, said: "The BSAI is doing fantastic work in bringing Iraqi scholars over here. It gives them hope. The Iraq School has been a link between Britain and Iraq since the days of Gertrude Bell, and it should be a part of the peace process and the rebuilding."
The EES was founded in 1882 to explore, survey and excavate ancient sites in Egypt and Sudan. Its chairman, Alan Lloyd, said: "We are deeply disappointed. It would have been noble of the Academy to have given us further notice so we could have started looking for alternatives."
Professor Lloyd said the relationships established across the countries through the society were very valuable: "It seems to me extremely short-sighted not to recognise this is an important issue."
In a statement, the Academy says the BSAI and the EES had been unsuccessful against competition from other bodies "that could present plans for broadly based high-quality research programmes", including the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies. The statement says: "The Academy is giving the BSAI and the EES transitional funding over two years to allow them to meet existing obligations and explore other avenues of support. Both will be eligible to reapply for programme funding in future."
Robin Jackson, chief executive and secretary of the British Academy, said:
"This was the outcome of a competitive funding round. The British Academy is sympathetic towards the difficulties faced by Iraqi scholars and, although support for Iraq's cultural heritage and scholarship is substantially beyond its remit, the Academy has indicated that it is happy to enter into discussion about ways in which it can help."
Hugo Swire, Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media, and Sport, has raised the issue in parliament. He told The Times Higher : "Given the catastrophic impact that the war in Iraq has had on some of the most important historic artefacts, this seems an incredibly short-sighted decision. We all witnessed the havoc that was wreaked on the museums and historic sites, and we have a duty to do all we can to help protect them."
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