The Iraqi archaeologists saving their heritage

The British Museum has run the Iraq Emergency Heritage Management Training Scheme since 2015, in collaboration with the Iraq State Board of Antiquities and Heritage. Made possible through a £2.9 million grant from the UK’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the Scheme provides Iraqi archaeologists with the expertise and skills they need to face the challenges of documenting and stabilising severely disrupted and damaged heritage sites in their country.

The Iraq Training Scheme provides a long-term sustainable solution that will train a total of 50 archaeologists over five years. The idea is that they will then go on to share their skills in retrieval and rescue archaeology across Iraq. This is already happening at Nimrud and other sites in Ninawa (Nineveh) Province.

‘We wanted to do something positive and constructive in the face of the most appalling destruction that had been going on.’ Iraq Scheme Director, Jonathan Tubb, British Museum

The six-month training scheme sees Iraqi archaeologists spend three months in London and three months in Iraq. The UK-based part of the programme is largely undertaken at the British Museum. It introduces participants to the challenges facing cultural heritage, the legal aspects of cultural heritage protection, and the value of heritage conventions in combating illicit trade of antiquities. Participants are also trained in the use of satellite imagery and digital mapping, as well as tools for documenting buildings and monuments.

The three months in Iraq are spent on fieldwork, where the participants can put what they have learned in theory into practice. The British Museum has secured excavation permits for two sites in Iraq: Tello (ancient Girsu), a well-known and 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 provide the fieldwork venues for the duration of the Scheme.

Assessment of the site at Tello.

Assessment of the site at Tello.

As a result of the training and the Scheme’s profile, one of the trainees has now been appointed by the Iraqi State Board to lead the archaeological assessment of the Late Assyrian capital at Nimrud, and other sites in the area recently released from the control of Daesh*. The trainee was undertaking archaeological work at Tello when Nimrud was liberated by the Iraqi army in 2016. He and a team of 10 archaeologists, including other participants from the Scheme, travelled to Nimrud in November 2016. They began assessing and documenting the damage done to the site and its world-class Assyrian reliefs. This work is ongoing, and another trainee is working to assess other damage done at the later Assyrian capital of Khorsabad.

These early success stories from the British Museum’s Iraq Training Scheme demonstrate the value of hands-on training for colleagues. The Scheme provides them with the skills required to conserve, restore and preserve sites and objects that are both part of Iraq’s rich archaeological heritage and of global significance.


*Please note that throughout this article we have used the Arabic acronym Daesh to refer to the group often referred to in the media as IS, ISIS, ISIL or ‘so-called Islamic State’.