LONDON—The military campaign in Iraq against Islamic State, better known as Da’esh, is still in progress, but in the parts of the country reclaimed by the national government, archaeologists have already begun work on assessing the damage the radical group caused to important ancient sites.
Iraqi and international researchers are deciding an agenda for the future of archaeological work in the parts of Iraq held by Da’esh, who deliberately demolished remains of the non-Islamic past.
Earlier this month, a team from the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage began work on a comprehensive damage assessment report at the site of Nimrud, an ancient Assyrian city. The site is only 30 kilometers south of Mosul, where fighting against Da’esh is still raging.
After capturing Nimrud in July 2014, Da’esh used bulldozers to destroy buildings and smashed figurative sculptures, notably carved stone reliefs and a lamassu, a monumental sculpture of a winged bull with a king’s head that stood at the gates of a palace. (See related article, “Iraqis Watch Antiquities Take Hit After Hit”)
In London, the British Museum began training a group of Iraqi archaeologists in emergency heritage management in early March. With £2.9 million of UK government funding (about $3.6 million), the program teaches cutting-edge techniques for documenting and stabilizing damaged sites. (The five-year program is in its second year.) The new group will be trained at the British Museum and at archaeological sites in Iraq, at Tello in southern Iraq and Darband-i Rania in Iraqi Kurdistan.
In Paris, UNESCO held an international conference in February on safeguarding cultural heritage in liberated areas of Iraq. The conference’s official report concluded that the response to the destruction should be international cooperation on defending Iraq’s cultural heritage. In the short term, it advised that antiquities sites be protected by guards.
Roger Matthews, professor of archaeology at Reading University in the United Kingdom and president of Rashid International, which provides archaeological expertise in Iraq, sees the present moment as an opportunity for the revival of archaeology in Iraq after years of war and the effects of the period of economic sanctions that preceded it.
“Iraqi archaeologists have fallen behind in modern techniques,” he said. “They are 20 or 30 years out of date.”
Matthews said a national policy for archaeology in Iraq should include the promotion of archaeological tourism to enable local people to benefit economically from their cultural heritage.
The work at Nimrud is led by Layla Salih, former director of the Mosul Museum (the country’s second largest museum, severely damaged and looted by Da’esh). Her immediate priority, she said, is to secure the site with fencing to protect it from looters. After that, a damage assessment will be conducted with a view to reconstructing what can be reconstructed. “We should reconstruct as much as possible,” she said. She estimated the work would take ten years to complete.
Before she began work at Nimrud, Salih worked with colleague Faisal Jaber on a report on the destruction by Da’esh of ancient Christian sites in Nineveh province. Salih said that in the near future archaeological work in Iraq will need the support of foreign partners, while the Iraqi government deals with immediate humanitarian priorities.
In the eastern part of Mosul, now under Iraqi government control, archaeologists surveyed the mosque of Nabi Yunus, a popular Islamic shrine built on the site of the palace of the Assyrian ruler Esarhaddon. Da’esh destroyed the shrine and dug tunnels under the site. In doing so they uncovered previously unknown Assyrian remains dating to the time of Esarhaddon. The tunnels were crudely dug, but Layla Salih is against closing them. “There may be amazing objects inside,” she said.