A valley surrounded by hills with an archaeological site on the plains next to a river

The Iraq Emergency Heritage Management Training Scheme: an update

Publication date: 24 November 2017

The Museum's Iraq Emergency Heritage Management Training Scheme began in 2015 to help combat the many threats to the country's archaeology. Now, learn about some of the project's important new discoveries.

The Iraq Emergency Heritage Management Training Scheme: an update

The Iraq Emergency Heritage Management Training Scheme is a programme funded by the UK government, through the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport, and delivered through the British Museum. Its aim is to train archaeologists from across the whole of Iraq in cultural heritage management and practical fieldwork skills. The training consists of two months based in London at the British Museum, followed by two months of hands-on training on site in Iraq. This practical training takes place at two field projects – in the south of Iraq at the site of Tello, and in the north at the Darband-i Rania.

This short film gives a brief introduction to some of the Scheme's work so far:

Tello – ancient Girsu

Tello, the modern Arabic name of the ancient Sumerian city of Girsu, is one of the earliest known cities of the world. It is a mega-site, with a similar topographical layout to the recently liberated Assyrian capitals of northern Iraq – Nimrud and Nineveh. During the 3rd millennium BC Girsu was considered the sanctuary of the Sumerian heroic god Ningirsu.

The site was first and extensively investigated between 1877 and 1933. This brought to light some of the most important monuments of Sumerian art and architecture, including the statuary of the ruler Gudea and the Bridge of Girsu – the oldest bridge to be discovered in the world. Tello is therefore ideal for delivering the training for the Iraqi archaeologists.

Excavations in the autumn of 2016 and spring and autumn of 2017 were carried out as part of the training of the archaeologists in the heart of the sacred district of Girsu, at Tell A, known as the Mound of the Palace. Under the guidance of Lead Archaeologist Sebastien Rey, British Museum archaeologists and the Iraqi trainees used declassified 1960s satellite images and modern drones to create digital elevation models of the whole temple site. Using these as a guide to this battered landscape, the archaeologists were able to unearth extensive mudbrick walls – some ornamented with pilasters and inscribed magical cones – belonging to the Ningirsu temple. This 4,000-year-old temple dedicated to the storm god was considered as one of the most important sacred places of Mesopotamia, praised for its magnificence in many contemporary literary compositions.

The temple of the Sumerian god Ningirsu with desert plains behind
The temple of the Sumerian god Ningirsu at Tello.

Inscribed cones are among the most iconic objects of ancient Mesopotamia and museums across the world hold hundreds of them in their collections. They are votive artefacts made in clay bearing dedicatory texts from Mesopotamian rulers to the gods of the Sumerians. More than 15 cones were found in the temple to the mighty god Ningirsu. This is a very important discovery, as until now, none has been found in their original context. This meant the archaeologists had the opportunity to examine them in situ for the first time. Research has shown they were placed to follow a particular pattern. The team is in the process of deciphering this pattern which may unlock some of the mysteries surrounding ancient religious practices.

An archaeologist carefully removes a magical cone which is embedded in a wall
Excavating magical cones from the walls of the temple at Tello.

Among the other unique finds was a foundation box below one of the principal gates of the complex. It contained a white ritual stone tablet belonging to the ruler Gudea. Excavations under the temple also led to the discovery of two superimposed monumental platforms. The oldest one could be dated to the beginning of the third millennium and predates the previous earliest known Mesopotamian stepped-terrace by a few hundred years.

The tablet and other important finds will be displayed in the Iraq Museum in Baghdad and a column base from the Ningirsu temple will be displayed in the in the local museum of Nassiriya, the closest to the site of Tello.

Darband-i Rania

The Darband-i Rania, located 100km from the Kurdish capital of Erbil and 100km north of Sulaimaniya, is a pass at the western edge of the Zagros mountains on a historic route from Mesopotamia to Iran. It is the route through which Alexander the Great passed in 331 BC in pursuit of the Persian king Darius III. Earlier, in the 8th and 7th centuries BC, it was at the eastern edge of the Assyrian empire.

The principal work of the Iraq Scheme has been at Qalatga Darband, a site overlooking the Lower Zab river at the western end of the pass. The site was originally discovered from the analysis of declassified spy satellite imagery from the 1960s. One of the first achievements of the Iraq Scheme has been to map the large number of carved limestone blocks which lie scattered across the site and indicate the presence of substantial remains. New analysis of imagery captured by drone survey shows that numerous other major buildings also lie buried at the site.

The view of the site from above
An example of the imagery captured by the drone survey.

Excavations have been conducted at Qalatga Darband in multiple areas under the guidance of Lead Archaeologist John MacGinnis. The presence of a large fortified structure at the north end of the site has been confirmed, while numerous stone presses hint at facilities for wine production. The strong Hellenistic influence is evident in two different buildings which are built in the Greco-Roman architectural tradition, particularly the use of terracotta roof tiles.

Investigation of the huge stone mound at the southern end of the site is uncovering remains of a monumental building which, based on the presence of the smashed remains of Hellenistic statuary, would appear to be a temple for the worship of Greco-Roman deities. These include a seated female figure, possibly the queen of the underworld Persephone, and a half life-size nude male figure, perhaps the Greek god of beauty and desire Adonis.

Nude figure of a man, with head, right hand, left arm and feet missing
Half life-size nude male figure, perhaps the Greek god of beauty and desire Adonis, found during one of the digs.

From site to museum

The significant finds being made across both sites by the British Museum's Iraq Scheme pass into the care of museums in Iraq. At Tello, the magical cones, a fragment of a marble foundation tablet of the Sumerian ruler Ur-Bau and other important finds will be displayed in the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, and a column base from the temple will be displayed in the local museum to Tello at Nassiriya. The work of the Darband-i Rania Archaeological Project is adding a new chapter to the history of Iraqi Kurdistan, a region which in archaeological terms has previously been almost completely unexplored. The discovery of a fort dating to the time of the Assyrian period will generate information on a corner of the empire which is currently virtually unknown.

These new discoveries are proving that there is still much more to learn from Iraq's many heritage sites. The vital skills that the trainees are learning are saving the country's unique historic archaeology for the future.

Find out more about the Iraq Scheme.