Emergency Heritage Management Programme

As Daesh is pushed back, more archaeological sites are returning to government control. The British Museum has set up a new training programme to help Iraqi heritage professionals prepare for the daunting rescue and retrieval operations that will follow. The program involves intensive training both at the British Museum and in the field, at the sites of Darband-i Rania and Tello. These excavations are further yielding intriguing results, which will be presented more fully at the Rencontre next month.

The ‘Iraq Scheme’

By Sebastien Rey and John MacGinnis

Daesh has caused widespread outrage at the human suffering it has inflicted on the people of Syria and Iraq. In the course of its propaganda war, it has also caused appalling damage to heritage sites across the region, striking at the cultural life, identity, and future prosperity of the people. In 2015 the British Museum developed an initiative that could offer something positive and constructive in response to this situation. Our project received the support of the UK Government; last year the Museum was granted £2.9m from the Overseas Development Agency (ODA), through the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). The aim was to help the Iraq State Board of Antiquities and Heritage (SBAH) prepare for the day when areas of the country currently occupied by so-called Islamic State are returned to government control. Fifty SBAH staff would be trained in a wide variety of sophisticated techniques of retrieval and rescue archaeology. This became the pilot project for the Cultural Protection Fund, which is now supporting a range of heritage protection projects, including several in Iraq.

Iraq Emergency Heritage Project - Tello

The four-year programme is undertaken both in the UK and in Iraq. It is intended to provide participants with the expertise and skills they need to face the challenges of documenting and stabilising severely disrupted and damaged heritage sites in preparation for potential reconstruction. Called the ‘Iraq Emergency Heritage Management Training Scheme’, or simply ‘Iraq Scheme’ for short, the programme operates in six-month cycles, with each group of six to eight participants spending three months at the BM, followed by three months in the field in Iraq. The first group of participants arrived at the Museum in May 2016 and completed their field training in Iraq in November: the second group arrived in January this year and completed their field training in May. The third group arrives in June.


The UK-based part of the programme, largely undertaken at the British Museum, incorporates also sessions by invited speakers from World Monuments Fund, Historic England, and UCL Institute of Archaeology. Participants are introduced to the latest methods used in archaeological excavation, ranging from recording and documentation (including photography, photogrammetry, drawing and illustration) to environmental archaeology, geophysical techniques, geomatic recording (GPS and GIS) and the manipulation of satellite imagery. Off-site training in surveying includes the use of state-of-the-art total-stations for recording buildings and monuments. They discuss the challenges facing cultural heritage, legal aspects of cultural heritage protection and the significance and value of heritage conventions in combating illicit trade of antiquities.

Another significant component for participants is the focus on conservation, including sessions on the theory and practice of both preventive and remedial conservation. The final week of the course focuses on post-excavation activities, such as finds processing, packing and transferring objects from the field to the museum. The programme also addresses communication as an essential skill in heritage management, both in the presentation and interpretation of sites and museum objects, as well as wider communication with local communities and media.

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Integral to the overall training programme is the fieldwork component, during which the participants have the opportunity to put into practice what they have learned in theory. The British Museum has secured excavation permits for two sites in Iraq: Tello (ancient Girsu), an important Sumerian site in the south; and Darband-i Rania, a previously unexplored cluster of closely related sites in the Sulaimaniya province of Iraqi Kurdistan. These two sites will provide the fieldwork venues for the duration of the Scheme.

These fieldwork projects are not training excavations as such, but are fully developed, scientific excavations at which the participants gain experience in the detailed techniques of field archaeology. The results of the initial seasons at both sites have been highly encouraging. As a measure of the impact that the Iraq Scheme has already made, it is gratifying to report that one of the 2016 ‘graduates’, on the basis of the training he has received, has been appointed by the SBAH to lead the assessment of the site of Nimrud, recently released from Daesh control.

About the sites

1. Darband-i Rania

The Darband-i Rania Archaeological Project is designed around a cluster of three sites —Qalatga Darband, Usu Aska and Murad Rasu—located at the northeastern corner of Lake Dokan in Sulaimaniya province of Iraqi Kurdistan. The area was flooded in the early 1960 by the construction of the Dokan Dam, and while some rescue work was carried out at that time, these sites have not been previously investigated. All three sites have suffered severe damage from both the lake and other factors, and all three have remaining threats looming over them. There is therefore an imperative to investigate these sites now, an objective fully in accordance with the overall aim of the Iraq Scheme.

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Qalatga Darband is a large open site which can now, with the results of the first season of fieldwork, be understood as a fortified settlement of the Parthian period; Usu Aska is a fort dating to the time of the Assyrian empire, with overlying remains of the Ottoman period; while Murad Rasu is a multi-period mound which appears to include a sequence from the Assyrian through to the Parthian period, as well as earlier remains. The overall aims of the project are to explore and document these sites as thoroughly as possible prior to further destruction, allowing us in the process to investigate the functioning of this strategic pass under the early empires, from Assyrian through to the Parthian control.

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2. Tello

Tello, the ancient Sumerian city of Girsu, is, like Nimrud or Nineveh, a mega-site extensively excavated in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It shares with them a topographical layout shaped by huge excavation pits and spoil heaps. It also includes fragile remains of monumental mudbrick architecture excavated before World War II. Tello is therefore a site of the first order, ideal for delivering the training for our Iraqi colleagues in the context of a fully-fledged research programme.

In the autumn 2016 season we opened a large-scale area excavation in the heart of the sacred complex of the ancient city, at Tell A, also known as the Mound of the Palace. Tell A was first excavated between 1877 and 1933 and yielded some of the most important artefacts of Sumerian art, including the well-known statues of the ruler Gudea.

Tello British Museum

Our new excavations led to the discovery of extensive mud brick walls—some ornamented with pilaster strips and inscribed cones—belonging to a temple constructed in the late third millennium BC. It had been renovated successively by the rulers of the Second Dynasty of Lagash (c. 2200–2100 BC), including Ur-Bau, Ur-Ningirsu and, of course, Gudea. This temple, dedicated to the god Ningirsu, was no other than Eninnu, one of the most important sacred places of ancient Sumer. Every student of the ancient Near East learns about Eninnu, especially through the contemporary literary compositions which describe its construction in great detail. Until now, almost nothing was known about it archaeologically.

Among the finds of the first season were a fragment of a marble foundation tablet of the ruler Ur-Bau, a cylinder-seal belonging to a deity, and an inscribed door socket. A preliminary report on the excavations has been submitted for publication in the SBAH journal, Sumer. A more detailed report combining the first two seasons’ work will be completed by the end of the year.

Tello British Museum

Reports on the first two seasons at each excavation will be given at the Rencontre in Marburg next month.

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