By Prarthana Mitra
The British Museum will train two groups of Iraqi women archaeologists at the world’s earliest known bridge at Girsu from April onwards in a bid to help restore Iraq’s war-ravaged heritage.
The eight women chosen to participate in the programme have been refugees for most of their lives. They will work out of two bases, one in London and the other near the city of Nasiriyah, which houses the ancient Sumerian bridge and also serves as an entrance to the ancient city of Girsu.
The vast reservoir of archaeological gems in the Mesopotamian region is in great danger due to ISIS’s constant attempts at destroying them to make political statements. Although the site is one the few in Iraq that has been spared from terrorist attacks, the structure has suffered considerably due to erosion and neglect.
A symbol of Iraqi heritage
This iconic construction, built in the third millennium and excavated before the Second World War, is a unique monument of Sumerian architecture that has been left exposed and open for eight years without any restoration or stabilization.
This stresses upon the urgency of carrying out a more ambitious conservation project involving photographs from the 1930s, usage of recently declassified satellite imagery, reinforced by new fieldwork and surveys to reconstruct and rehabilitate the structure to a pristine condition.
The bridge at Girsu has also been the centre of attention of the State Board of Antiquities and the Iraqi media over the last decade or so.
Roadmap for restoration
The Canadian Association for Conservation defines archaeological restoration as the “actions taken to modify the existing materials and structure of a cultural property to represent a known earlier state.”
British Museum’s lead archaeologist Sebastien Rey said the experience gained in restoration and research at the bridge site will serve as a safe pilot for restoring Iraq’s archaeological sites. He added, involving locals in every step of the process is as important as the project itself. This project, he believes, will also enable the local audience to engage with their cultural heritage and train Iraqi archaeologists with modern methods of site conservation.
Importance of archaeological restoration in Iraq
ISIS has engaged in the widespread destruction of ancient sites and in particular the sites of Nimrud and Nineveh, which were founded 3,300 years ago. The sites have been ransacked by looters. In fact, according to The Atlantic, there has been an increase in the number of ancient Mesopotamian artefacts available through online retailers since the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
“Fifteen years after U.S. forces toppled Saddam Hussein, ushering in a period of instability that led to the plunder of the museum while ignoring pleas to secure the building, some 7,000 looted items have been returned, but about 8,000 are still out there,” reports The Atlantic, referring to the looting of the Iraq National Museum in Baghdad.
Irina Bokova, erstwhile director-general of UNESCO, said the deliberate destruction of heritage was a war crime and amounts to cultural cleansing. In light of such a powerful statement, the mass destruction of cultural heritage sites in war-torn Iraq suggests how obliterating collective history of a nation’s people demands the same treatment as the destruction of personal life and property.
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