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November 2015

Vol. 157 / No. 1352

Destruction in the Middle East

The past two years has seen the destruction of archaeological sites and monuments in the Middle East on an unprecedented scale. In the face of countless human tragedies played out on a daily basis, it may be seen as inappropriate or even callous to express concern over the fate of the region’s cultural heritage. And yet, the cultural heritage of Syria and Iraq, in particular, is of such immense importance to our understanding of human history that it is only right and proper that the international community should be concerned. Its significance is such that it transcends national borders and warring factions and falls into the category of global heritage. In these terms, and without making the sort of fatuous and unhelpful value judgments that have appeared in the press, the pain associated with its damage or destruction is felt as acutely as that relating to the appalling suffering and loss of human life. This may sound like a huge and dramatic exaggeration, but once lost, cultural heritage can never be recovered, and to deprive future generations of the legacy of their past, and in so doing to negate their identity, is an act of unspeakable inhumanity.

This is not a view from the unengaged and relatively safe havens of the West, but one that is felt as keenly within the region itself. Countless stories have emerged of individuals who have given their lives in attempts to protect ancient sites and monuments of all dates and cultures from Assyrian palaces in Iraq to early Christian churches in Syria. The appalling recent murder of Khaled al-Assad, a man whose whole life had been dedicated to the history and archaeology of Palmyra, well illustrates the depth to which cultural heritage has become embedded in Syrian society. And yet we are forced to look on as each new atrocity unfolds. We express outrage and condemn but are powerless to prevent what happens. Meeting after meeting takes place, and while some of these have resulted in positive measures being put in place to clamp down on the trafficking of looted and illicitly exported antiquities, very little can be done to prevent the further destruction and desecration of heritage sites.

It is as a result of this oppressive sense of utter impotence that the British Museum has devised a scheme to offer assistance to the heritage sector in Iraq. It is in this area that the British Museum can make a very positive contribution, as was demonstrated by its response to the previous assault on Iraqi cultural property and heritage during and after the Gulf War. Although the British Museum maintains very close relations with friends and colleagues in the Department of Antiquities and Museums in Syria and ­carefully monitors the situation there, it is with Iraq that it has the closest historical ties, and it is in Iraq where it can currently be most effective.

With the understanding that nothing can be done on the ground to protect those ancient sites that are currently held by the so-called Islamic State, the scheme instead looks forward to the day when the territory is returned to effective and legitimate governmental control. In readiness for this, it is essential that measures are put into place now to ensure that maximum help and support are promptly and freely available to the appropriate authorities to allow them to record and document the scale and extent of the destruction and to begin the processes of reconstruction and preservation. In general terms the British Museum intends to recruit two archaeologists (with experience of working in Iraq) for a period of five years in the first instance. They will institute, twice a year, a six-month training programme (three months at the British Museum and three months in Iraq) to which five heritage sector Iraqi professionals at a time would be invited. The programme will be devoted to museum and site disaster work, including techniques of rescue archaeology, 3D scanning, digitisation of objects and documents, emergency retrieval strategies, forensic collection and documentation methodologies, extensive multi-purpose photographic training, principles of conservation and restoration and various techniques of recording and data representation. Following a three-month training period at the British Museum, the archaeologists will return to Iraq with the trainees in order to set up programmes within their institutions, using appropriate computer and ­photographic equipment, to revive the documentation of existing collections and develop strategies to cope with the very diverse requirements of archaeological site management. The core element within this second three-month period, however, will be the establishment of training excavation projects run jointly with the State Board of Antiquities of Iraq, to teach  detailed techniques of rescue archaeology. The sites selected for investigation will be in ‘safe’ regions of Iraq – to the north (Kurdistan) and to the south (Bosra region) of the areas currently controlled by ISIS.

The effect of this rolling programme will be to create a large and well-trained team of professionals that can cope with the full range of archaeological heritage needs when it becomes ­possible – a team that can see beyond the barrier of despair when confronted with a site like Nineveh, which is known to have sustained extensive damage, and to work systematically and methodically to retrieve the maximum data in preparation for restoration. In a sense the scheme builds on what archaeologists do all the time: excavate ruined and destroyed sites and bring them back to life. The difference is that, rather than leaving the reconstructions as plans and elevations in the pages of technical reports, the recent advances in sophisticated methods of 3D scanning and ‘printing’ will allow for physical reconstruction and restoration.

Amid the depression and sense of helplessness, the British Museum’s scheme offers the possibility of a positive outcome and this has been warmly welcomed by colleagues in Iraq. Nobody can predict at this stage how long the dreadful situation will continue in Iraq and Syria, but preparing for the aftermath can, and should, begin now.

Jonathan Tubb

Keeper, Middle East, British Museum