We can't safeguard heritage all alone

March 9, 2007

The closure of the British School in Iraq threatens the survival of the country's archaeological treasures, argues Lamia al-Gailani Werr.

In 2000, archaeologists attending a symposium overheard two Iraqis chatting in the lift of a Baghdad hotel. They were remarking how wonderful it was to see the British archaeologist David Oates visiting the city once again. This was a time when sanctions, censorship and anti-Western propaganda made praising or even talking about a foreigner dangerous and could get you into real trouble.

But Iraqis held Abu Dawood, as the former director of the British School of Archaeology in Iraq was known, in particularly high regard. With his wife, Joan, Professor Oates had visited the country for years to work in what has been called the "cradle of civilisation". The imposition of sanctions during the final years of Saddam Hussein's regime made that an impossibility. By that time, Professor Oates was a professor of archaeology at University College London and other respected figures had been in charge of the British School for some time.

But even when prevented from operating in the country, the British School's influence on our archaeologists remained strong, with many having previously studied in Cambridge and London through its scholarship programme. So it was with great dismay that Iraqi archaeologists received the news last month that the school was to close.

It was founded in 1932 with a bequest from Gertrude Bell, who established Iraq's Antiquities Department. The school's long history includes some remarkable excavations. At Nimrud, for example, its archaeologists unearthed palaces and temples. The husband of novelist Agatha Christie, Max Mallowan, who was the head of that expedition, used her face cream to clean many of the thousands of beautifully carved ivories that they found on the site.

Over the years, the British School led and sponsored many other important excavations across Iraq. Many research partnerships were set up between Iraqi archaeologists and their British counterparts, while for decades the distinguished scholars who have been in charge of the school have worked closely with their colleagues in Baghdad. They even helped edit the Iraqi Antiquities Department's academic periodical.

But after the first Gulf War and the imposition of the sanctions in 1990, British archaeologists were forced to stop their activities in Iraq. The 2003 invasion looked as though it might change that. After the looting of the Iraq Museum, the British School promptly sent one of its members to help with the recovery of the antiquities. It also embarked on a programme of training Iraqi scholars. But the ongoing violence and chaos meant the British School was unable to continue its excavations. Like many Iraqis, my family included, as well as most European archaeologists, the British scholars left Baghdad.

Archaeologists suffered enormously under Saddam's regime. Few were allowed to travel, study in the West was forbidden and hardly any new publications reach the Iraq Museum's library. I remember, during a visit to Baghdad in 1990, the first question I was asked by the museum official was whether I had been able to bring them any books.

Iraqis were so isolated and needed outside contact to get on track with the rest of the world.

British archaeologists were very sympathetic and tried their best to help.

In 2005, the British School sponsored one Iraqi scholar from the Iraq Museum to train in the UK with a company that specialises in exhibitions, while another was taught the latest techniques in archaeological photography. The school helped secure funding for the refurbishment of the museum's remarkable cuneiform library and paid for the librarian to spend two months training in London while a colleague worked with curators in Glasgow and Edinburgh.

Three Assyriologists from Baghdad, Mosul and Irbil universities had been hoping that the British School would bring them over to the UK to spend time with colleagues here next summer. Furthermore, its lectures and publications, particularly the journal Iraq, have benefited many of our scholars, so the announcement of the British School's closure has been devastating.

Iraq is now at a crossroads. The country needs all the help it can get.

Life is very difficult for everyone. And while bringing peace and stability back to the country is obviously the priority, Iraq's cultural heritage is being destroyed. We know that the country's archaeological heritage is being looted even as I write this article. Without help we can do little about that.

It is essential that the British School continues to work in Iraq. I really cannot understand why the British Government has not taken the opportunity to help us to protect our antiquities and why it will no longer train our scholars. At the very least it would have been good propaganda for them.

Britain has such a long tradition and relationship with Iraq. It should be in the forefront of helping the Iraqi people. I know the Iraqis are expecting it, so it is time for us to make plans together for the future.

Lamia al-Gailani Werr is an honorary fellow at the Institute of Archaeology at University College London.

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