World War I and Archaeology in Iraq

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By: Lamia Al Gailani Werr

It is ironic that I am writing this article on the centenary of the First World War, while Iraq today is suffering from turbulence that is partly the consequence of that war. Iraq was created by Britain out of the remains of three Ottoman provinces. But the British occupation and British dominated nation-state launched a new age of scientific archaeology whose legacy we continue today.

Austen Henry Layard

Austen Henry Layard

Iraq in the middle of the nineteenth century was a remote province of the Ottoman Empire rarely accessible to outsiders. Excavations by British and French archaeologists were encouraged and supported by their respective governments and societies, who were eager to enhance their national collections with new and spectacular antiquities. The great collections of the British Museum and the Louvre were formed during this era, with the complicity of the Ottoman authorities.

The Biblical connection to ancient sites in Iraq was a primary objective of many pioneer archaeologists; it was the massive Assyrian reliefs of Nimrud (ancient Calhu) and Nineveh’s biblical reputation that attracted the first excavators. American excavators also dug at the Sumerian city of Nippur in the 1890s again because of its biblical reputation, while the Germans came late to the Mesopotamian scene in 1899 at Babylon.

The advent of the twentieth century saw only the Germans working in Iraq, at a time when Germany had special and cordial relations with Istanbul. A secret treaty had also been signed giving the Germans freedom to take all the antiquities they would unearth. This was in contravention of Turkish antiquities law of Turkey that stated antiquities were to be divided into three shares; one for the excavator, another for the Istanbul museum, and the final third for the landowner. Three German expeditions worked in Iraq prior to the First World War, at Babylon, at Assur, the ancient capital of the Assyrians, and later at Samarra, the Abbasid capital built by the Caliph al-Musta’sim in AD 836. Samarra was the first Islamic site to be excavated in Iraq.

General Sir Stanley Maude entering Baghdad, 1917

General Sir Stanley Maude entering Baghdad, 1917

Winston Churchill and T.E. Lawrence, 1921

Winston Churchill and T.E. Lawrence, 1921

With war looming on the horizon, German scholars packed the antiquities they had unearthed into boxes to be shipped to Hamburg. The first shipment to leave Basra were 448 boxes of Assur’s antiquities. But the War broke out when the ship was near Portugal, and took refuge in Lisbon. Portugal thus claimed the antiquities as a war prize.

The British army occupied Iraq in 1917. Once in Baghdad, commanding General Stanley Maude declared the country liberated, and in his declaration he prohibiting unauthorized archaeological excavations, the selling of antiquities, or the defacing of ancient monuments. The British therefore, as the authority over Iraq, claimed that the Assur antiquities in Lisbon should be given to them.

Robert Koldewey, German excavator of Babylon, in his storerooms at the site.

Robert Koldewey, German excavator of Babylon, in his storerooms at the site.

But the three British authorities in charge of Iraq during the occupation, the War Office, the Foreign Office, and the India Office, had different opinions of how to deal with Iraqi antiquities, particularly the issue of who was the rightful owner of the items held in Portugal. The War and Colonial Offices regarded them as spoils of war that should be sent to London. This viewpoint was encouraged by the British Museum, which argued that the finds were valuable research materials and that, in any case, Iraq itself lacked any archaeological expertise. The Foreign and India Offices preferred that antiquities be returned to Iraq, citing General Maude’s declaration.

Another argument presented by the latter was the possibility of Iraq becoming an independent country and that a museum would be established. After much debate, claims and counter-claims, and despite all the pressure from Britain and Germany, Portugal insisted on keeping the Assur finds. Most were eventually returned to Germany, where, ironically, they were damaged in the bombing of Berlin during the Second World War.

Sati al-Husri

Sati al-Husri

In Iraq in 1917, the British also found hundreds of boxes containing antiquities from the German excavations at Babylon and Samarra. Once again the fate of these antiquities occupied much of the British administration’s time. Samarra’s 93 boxes, containing stucco reliefs, and stone and wood objects as well as glass and ceramics, were of great importance and were probably the first collection of Abbasid antiquities to come from Iraq. These attracted the attention of both the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museums, who argued that if the collection were left in Baghdad it would not be accessible to European scholars. They lobbied the British administration, particularly the War and Colonial Offices, to have them allocated to Britain.

This time the Samarra material was still in Iraq and the India Office was reluctant to let the collection leave the country, arguing again that the finds could not be regarded as spoil of war, as the War Office had proposed. By then the idea had also been raised that a museum should be established in Baghdad and that the Samarra antiquities would be part of its collection.

Aerial view of Ur excavations, 1927

Aerial view of Ur excavations, 1927

Eventually in 1921 then Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill ordered their shipment to London. The Foreign Office strongly protested, for the shipment was made without its permission. Meanwhile, great interest in the Samarra collection arose among international museums and they were divided among seventeen museums in Europe, the United States and Canada; only small samples were reserved for the future Iraq Museum. These objects were only returned to Iraq in 1936, after pressure from the Iraqi press, and Sati Husri, the Arab nationalist and the first Iraqi Director of Antiquity. Today projects are underway at the Freer-Sackler Galleries (Washington), at the Museum für Islamische Kunst (Berlin) and at the Victoria and Albert Museum (London) to research, catalogue, photograph, and conserve their Samarra collections.

With the stabilization of political conditions at the end of the War, foreign archaeologists were eager to excavate in Iraq. This was particularly because there were still no restrictions or regulations on the export of antiquities, making it very desirable to archaeologists and museums. Assyriologist Reginald Campbell Thompson and later Egyptologist H.R. Hall conducted short seasons at both Ur and Eridu on behalf of the British Museum. Many important finds were unearthed and sent to London, over the objections of the administration in Baghdad. The British Museum argued that objects were in bad condition and Iraq did not have the facilities to preserve and conserve them.

Gertrude Bell

Gertrude Bell

By 1922 two combined British/American expeditions started working in Iraq: at Kish and Ur. The latter project, under Leonard Woolley, would become renowned for the discovery of elaborately equipped third millennium tombs and, in Woolley’s view, evidence of a flood that inspired the biblical accounts. But the newly formed Iraq government was facing an increased interest in antiquities, from applications to excavate, to the looting of ancient sites, and the illegal trade in antiquities. The situation necessitated the establishment of an antiquities department. Gertrude Bell, who was already in Baghdad as assistant to the British High Commissioner and known for her great knowledge of ancient Mesopotamia, was appointed as honorary Director General of the Department of Antiquities.

Within a year, in 1923, the Iraq Museum was established in a small room in the Sarai, (the Ottoman administrative complex that became the seat of the British administration). In its first year the museum received six thousands objects as its share from excavations and acquisitions. And in 1924 Iraq legislated its first Antiquities Law, which regulated the activities of the Department of Antiquities and the Iraq Museum.

The Great War that created Iraq set archaeology on a firm footing. It would be a tragic irony if the conflict raging now undoes that legacy.

For Further Reading:

Magnus T. Bernhardsson, Reclaiming a Plundered Past, Archaeology and Nation Building in Modern Iraq.  2005.

Brian M. Fagan, Return to Babylon, Travelers, Archaeologists and Monuments in Mesopotamia.  2007.

Seton Lloyd, Foundations in the Dust, the Story of Mesopotamian Exploration. 1980.

Lamia al-Gailani Werr is Research Associate in the Department of the Languages and Cultures of the Near and Middle East at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. 

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