Iraq’s archaeological sites face looting, urbanisation threats
LONDON - Anarchic development and looting in war-torn Iraq are the greatest threats to its treasure trove of archaeological heritage, warned Iraqi archaeologist Lamia al-Gailani.
Gailani, an associate researcher at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies, said more than one-third of the site of the ancient Assyrian city of Nineveh, on the outskirts of Mosul, has been covered with houses.
“Archaeology is never a priority for any government,” Gailani said. “It has always been like that and now, with Iraq’s financial difficulties, the last place they want to put money is into archaeology.”
“However, there are a lot of rescue excavations. If a plot of land where archaeological objects can be found has been designated for new buildings, there are rescue excavations. I have been to the store rooms in the [National Museum of Iraq] where a lot of the rescued objects are stored.”
Gailani, who left Iraq to live in Britain in the 1970s, has returned to her homeland for a few months every year to continue her work. She said she was particularly concerned about the looting and sale of artefacts, illicit trade among militiamen and Islamic State militants who destroyed many of Iraq’s archaeological riches.
“One way to stop the looters is for the Iraq State Board of Antiquities and Heritage (SBAH) to start digging for the objects looters are after,” she said. “The board has a large excavations and survey department but it has to cover the whole of Iraq. We have thousands of archaeological sites and the department does not have enough staff. They can’t stop the looting and much of the development on archaeological sites.”
Another major problem is the lack of well-trained local archaeologists, Gailani said.
“During the time of the monarchy (1932-58) archaeologists were sent to the West for higher education and 17 graduates from overseas were employed by the SBAH,” she said. “Training abroad continued during the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s but after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 and sanctions were imposed, the brain drain started and the foreign trained archaeologists left the country. In 2002, there was only one graduate with a PhD from Europe in Iraq.”
Gailani said Iraq has a lot of catching up to do after years of conflict and the dark period of the Saddam Hussein era when the country was closed to the outside world. However, she said she was hopeful that the “future is bright.” Iraqi Minister of Culture Abdulamir Hamdani is an archaeologist and training programmes inside and outside Iraq have resumed.
Gailani noted that the British Museum organised a training excavation in southern Iraq at Tello, the modern Arabic name for the ancient Sumerian city of Girsu. It represents one of the earliest known cities of the world, revered in the third millennium BC as the sanctuary of the Sumerian heroic god Ningirsu.
The training is part of capacity building in SBAH. Approximately 50 staff members are being trained in a variety of sophisticated techniques of retrieval and rescue archaeology.
Security problems have had a negative effect on foreign excavations but increasing numbers of foreigners are returning to Iraq, Gailani said. Italians are working on several sites, including Ur and Kut. The British discovered a grand port city founded by Alexander the Great in 324BC near Basra and the Germans are working in Uruk, one of the world’s oldest cities.
The Americans are also active. To help revitalise Mosul, the US State Department awarded the University of Pennsylvania $2 million for a 3-year, two-phase stabilisation project.
In phase one, already under way, a team led by archaeologists Richard L. Zettler and Michael Danti are conducting assessments and implementing small-scale repairs at 15-20 sites, mainly mosques and churches. The second phase will involve prioritisation of sites for conservation. The Al Nuri Mosque was destroyed by the Islamic State as the army closed in. The Church of Saint Ephraim was used as a flea market for household goods.
The Smithsonian Institution in Washington is trying to secure endangered artefacts from the ancient imperial city of Nimrud, 30km south of Mosul, and the British have almost completed setting up a museum in Basra.
Gailani is helping train Iraqi curators, a programme sponsored by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. She is working on two books: a history of the National Museum of Iraq from 1923-58 and a picture book of the Iraqi royal family.
The history book will be based on museum archives that no one has looked at and will include accounts of excavations. “It will be a popular book with a chapter on how some of the objects ended up in the museum,” Gailani said.