By Neville Agnew and Gaetano Palumbo

The archaeological record found in Iraq is one of the most important, complex, and hitherto complete repositories in the world, stretching back into deep antiquity. A number of the world's early civilizations arose in this land, once known as Mesopotamia, and the remains of those and of later human settlements cover the landscape.

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That heritage is at risk. Donny George, current chairman of Iraq's State Board of Antiquities and Heritage (SBAH), stated in Newsweek in March 2005 that there are around eleven thousand registered sites in the country and that many thousands of objects were removed from those sites between 1991 and 2005 (but especially after the war of March 2003), without any possibility of their being recorded or of anyone's knowing what was illegally exported. Former Coalition Provisional Authority official John Russell, writing in 2005 in Architectural Record, estimated that some 400,000 to 600,000 cultural artifacts have been removed from these sites since spring 2003.

It is safe to assume that many previously unknown or unexplored sites are being looted as well. Destruction of these sites through theft eliminates the archaeological record, making it impossible to know what information and knowledge of early civilizations has been lost. While items stolen from museums can be identified—thanks to existing records and documentation shared with organizations such as Interpol and ICOM—those taken illicitly from sites have no record and are degraded in cultural information. These losses continue.

With so much attention naturally focused on the continuing tragedy of violence in Iraq, it is easy to forget that preceding the wars of 1991 and 2003 was the drawn out Iran-Iraq War (1980–1988). Throughout all of these events, SBAH functioned heroically but with ever-diminishing funding and staffing and, in many cases, without the ability to assess damage to sites or to implement protective measures. With regard to preserving cultural heritage in Iraq, one of the great needs is to rebuild the SBAH's professional capacity, which has been depleted by years of isolation and war.

Graphic images of the looted Iraq Museum in Baghdad prompted the international community to provide support and expertise to the Iraqi authorities, including the SBAH. UNESCO acted quickly after the outbreak of hostilities to convene meetings and to draw up an international coordinating committee for Iraq. While recognizing that protection and rehabilitation are long-term processes in the best of circumstances, since April 2003, UNESCO has endeavored to assess conditions and to develop an overall strategy to protect Iraq's cultural heritage. The UNESCO report on the inspection of sites in Iraq, undertaken in May 2003 under the direction of Mounir Bouchenaki, identified four types of damage to archaeological sites as a result of wars, sanctions, and the collapse of infrastructure: looting, military bases, accelerated decay, and questionable reconstruction methods at sites such as Babylon in the 1980s.

The GCI-WMF Initiative

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The Getty Conservation Institute, in conjunction with the World Monuments Fund (WMF), decided to develop a major initiative to help rebuild the professional expertise and heritage infrastructure in Iraq. The GCI-WMF Iraq Cultural Heritage Conservation Initiative is the first time that the two organizations have formally worked together.

After examining the urgent needs in Iraq and how to best use the two organizations' resources—and considering their in-house staff expertise—the GCI and WMF opted for an effort focused on immovable heritage: archaeological sites and monuments. Because of the continuing security concerns and the impossibility of intervening directly in sites and monuments in Iraq, the decision was made to assist the SBAH in rebuilding its professional capacity and to help the organization procure technical equipment. The GCI-WMF initiative is designed to aid in that rebuilding process by providing training in tools and methodologies that can aid in archaeological site documentation, site assessment, and site management.

One important aspect of rebuilding SBAH's professional capacity is the development of a national database of heritage sites in Iraq. The GCI and WMF are working with the SBAH on the creation of the Iraq Cultural Heritage Sites Geographic Information System (GIS) Database, currently in development through an agreement with Arizona State University. The bilingual Arabic and English GIS database (scheduled for installation in Baghdad in 2006) will be a significant cultural resource management tool. When fully developed, it will provide a national inventory of Iraqi archaeological sites and monuments. With the database, SBAH authorities will be able to monitor development activities in areas of potential impact and to coordinate measures with other governmental agencies to reduce threats to the integrity of sites and buildings. This tool will also provide the SBAH with the capability to conduct various database queries, as well as a number of geographic analysis functions.

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The initiative's first major training program for SBAH staff was conducted in Amman, Jordan (see Conservation, vol. 20, no. 1), in late 2004. This one-month program for sixteen SBAH participants focused on acquiring a methodology for the rapid assessment of archaeological sites and historic buildings and the use of the Iraq Cultural Heritage Sites GIS Database. The rapid site assessment methodology taught to SBAH officials will yield critical information on the current status and condition of sites and monuments in the aftermath of war and continued looting. The course also provided training in the use of documentation recording equipment (some of which was purchased for the SBAH by UNESCO), including Global Positioning System (GPS) units, total survey stations, digital cameras, and laser distance meters.

During the first half of 2005, the GCI-WMF initiative held three short-term training activities for SBAH personnel. These included a one-week GPS course in April in Amman, a two-week program on the rapid assessment methodology and recording tools for SBAH personnel from Babylon, held at the British Museum (with support from UNESCO and the involvement of University College London), and a ten-day metric survey course in June in Amman, taught by specialists from English Heritage and Leica Geosystems.

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In August and September 2005, the GCI-WMF initiative conducted an additional monthlong training program in Jordan for twenty-one SBAH personnel, including the directors of the SBAH offices from the governorates of Babylon, Basra, Kirkuk, and Nineveh. The course included modules on the rapid site assessment methodology and the use of site recording tools; it also focused on site condition assessment and recording, international heritage conventions, charters and organizations, and site management planning.

In addition to this training, since fall 2004, the GCI-WMF initiative has been supporting English-language classes in Iraq for SBAH personnel who are participating in the initiative's courses.

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The training activities have been conducted with SBAH staff—with various professional backgrounds from most regions of the country—who have displayed an eagerness for information on equipment and techniques to which they have not previously had access. And as often happens in these kinds of circumstances, teaching has not been one sided. SBAH staff have had much to share with their instructors. At the same time, in the process of identifying needs, preparing course contents, and fine-tuning the database, the assistance of SBAH directors—from its chairman to the directors of the excavation, conservation, and architectural heritage sections—has been essential to the program's success.

The support of the organizations and individuals joining with the GCI-WMF initiative has also been considerable (see sidebar). Among them are the Jordanian Department of Antiquities. When its director general, Fawwaz al-Khraysheh, was asked whether the resources of the department could be used to support the training initiatives, his reply was, "We must help our Iraqi brothers." Not only have facilities been made available but there have also been generous contributions from Jordan in staff, lectures, logistical support, and access to sites as training venues.

While it would be desirable to conduct training initiatives in Baghdad or elsewhere in Iraq, the security situation remains dangerous. With easy access to Amman and with good facilities available at the American Center of Oriental Research, the training has been efficient and effective and is fully backed by SBAH's chairman Donny George and his staff. The initiative is also fortunate in having the participation of several expatriate Iraqi professionals who are working closely with GCI-WMF staff and consultants.

Priorities in Iraq

The seriousness of conditions in Iraq prompted the World Monuments Fund, for the first time, to put an entire country on its biannual list of the One Hundred Most Endangered Sites. In Heritage at Risk, ICOMOS World Report for 2004/2005 on Monuments and Sites in Danger, Ihsan Fethi—one of the instructors with the GCI-WMF initiative—wrote that the scale of the loss and destruction of Iraqi cultural heritage has been incomprehensibly large, and that most of it could have been avoided.

Fethi gives priority to a number of measures, including:

  • new policies and strategies with an integrated protective system;
  • new physical planning policies and development plans for all urban centers, towns, and villages, using GIS techniques, to ensure the conservation of the remaining historic fabric;
  • promulgation of new and more stringent laws to halt further losses or encroachment;
  • preparation of a national register of cultural heritage, including the designation of historic areas, areas of outstanding natural beauty, and classification of all buildings and monuments, according to their architectural or historic interest; and
  • initiation of a national program for the protection and restoration, and even reconstruction, of lost monuments.

This is an ambitious checklist, to which might be added a revision of university heritage planning and management curricula, and the integration of archaeology, conservation, and management. Officials at the SBAH, who have had the challenge of protecting a formidable cultural heritage under extreme and dangerous conditions, share many of these concerns.

The GCI-WMF initiative is an effort to assist the Iraqi professionals who would carry out these measures. By helping these professionals identify and address Iraq's archaeological and architectural site conservation needs and priorities and by providing education, training, and capacity-building programs, the initiative hopes that the SBAH will ultimately have available the long-term tools and professional capabilities necessary to regain stewardship of Iraq's archaeological and architectural sites. Other organizations, including the Japanese and Italian cooperation agencies, the Islamic Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (ISESCO), and the Nordic World Heritage Foundation are also implementing assistance and training courses, many of which are taking place in Jordan with the help of Jordanian institutions.

There is still hope that the future of Iraq's past can be secured. At the moment, the urgent need remains to help Iraqi professionals and heritage officials to halt the continuing damage and hemorrhaging of antiquities from looted sites, and to assist them in rejoining the international heritage community.

Neville Agnew is principal project specialist with GCI Field Projects. Gaetano Palumbo is director of archaeological conservation with the World Monuments Fund office in Paris.

Institutions Supporting the GCI-WMF Iraq Cultural Heritage Conservation Initiative

funding for training and equipment

Jordanian Department of Antiquities
hosting and supporting coordinating activities in Jordan; training support

American Center of Oriental Research
hosting and coordinating activities in Jordan

English Heritage
training support

J. M. Kaplan Fund
funding general initiative activities

U.S. National Endowment for the Humanities
funding database development

U.S. National Park Service
training support

Environmental Systems Research Institute
software donations