British army to assist at cultural sites in Iraq
By Martin Bailey | From News | Posted: 26.2.08
The Art Newspaper can reveal that the British Army is to develop a Cultural Heritage Initiative to assist with archaeological sites and museums in southern Iraq. This will be launched with the Iraqi state board of antiquities and heritage, along with the British Museum.
Basra-based Major Tom Holloway told us that the plan is to help at “iconic cultural locations”, and to leave a positive “legacy” after the withdrawal of British forces. The proposal is at an early stage, and is expected to be announced in May.
Major Holloway explained: “The British Army’s role in the cultural project will be to facilitate specialists coming out from the UK to south-east Iraq, to liaise with Iraqi civil contacts, and to assist where possible with contracts for work required, underwritten with a degree of funding.”
The most urgent need is to conduct condition assessments on the major archaeological sites and to determine the extent of damage caused by looters. These places include the ancient Sumerian cities of Warka and Eridu. Satellite images show evidence of considerable illicit digging after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the remains are now badly pockmarked. The project will not involve British troops patrolling archaeological sites.
Museums are the other focus of the project. The region’s most important museum is in Basra, but there are smaller ones in Kut, Amara and Wasit. Their collections were moved to the Baghdad Museum shortly before the 2003 invasion, but it is important to determine whether their buildings are in good enough condition for the return of the antiquities.
Initially it is hoped that the Army will be able to arrange security protection to enable international specialists to undertake site assessments with Iraqi archaeologists. Iraq remains extremely dangerous for western civilians, and it is prudent to travel only with armed guards.
Dr John Curtis, from the British Museum, is behind the proposal, and he hopes to visit Iraq later this spring. Other experts could also become involved. Initially, a small team might go out to Basra for a week or two, staying at an Army base and making day trips to the sites, accompanied by guards.
Once it is determined what is needed to repair damage to sites and ensure their protection, the Army plans to use its contacts with Iraqi private contractors to undertake the necessary work, with some funding from the American and British governments (such as the US Commander’s Emergency Response Program).
The Army’s initiative has the personal support of Major General Barney White-Spunner, who on 12 February took over as commander of the Multi-National Division in the south-east. British forces are continuing to withdraw from Iraq, but around 4,000 troops still remain.
In 1993 Barney White-Spunner helped lead the Chinese-British Cross Taklamakan Expedition, which made the first crossing of the desert and visited many of the sites discovered by archaeologist Sir Aurel Stein on the Silk Route. He later served with the British Army in Macedonia and Afghanistan. While in Kabul in 2002, Major General White-Spunner organised repairs to Stein’s grave.
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