Friday, 6 May 2016

Investigations at Alexandria-on-the-Tigris, aka Charax Spasinou 

Robert Killick was awarded a BISI Research Grant to conduct preliminary investigations at Charax Spasinou. You can find out about the first season of survey in the report below.

Few names from the ancient world resonate quite so loudly in the modern era as that of Alexander the Great. When in spring 2015 we were invited by the State Board for Antiquities and Heritage to work at a city founded by Alexander, we could scarcely refuse. One year on, we have just completed our first season of survey at Alexandria-on-the-Tigris, known later as Charax Spasinou. That we were able to respond so swiftly to the request is entirely due to the generous support of, among others, Baron Lorne Thyssen-Bornemisza at the Augustus Foundation, the State Board for Antiquities and Heritage, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and, of course, BISI itself.

Along the ramparts at Charax Spasinou

Alexander sailed down the Eulaeus River from Susa in 324BC, and came to its confluence with the Tigris. At that time, access to open water and the Gulf was also close by. The strategic advantage of the place was obvious, and so Alexandria-on-the-Tigris was founded. Unfortunately, Alexander didn’t realise just how prone to flooding the entire region was (and in fact remained so until the construction of the Hindiya Barrage in the 1950s). After devastating floods, the city was twice re-founded, once as Antiochia in 166BC and again in 141BC as Charax Spasinou. As the latter, it became the capital of the Kingdom of Characene and a major trading emporium, exchanging goods with India, Palmyra, Petra, and onwards to Rome.

The remains of Charax Spasinou (modern Khayaber) lie some 40 km north of Basra. The ramparts rise to four metres above the plain, complete with bastions at regular intervals. To the south, the old course of the Eulaeus River is clearly visible and we estimate that the remains of the city are spread over an area of about five square kilometres. Debris from the Iraq-Iran war still litters the archaeological site and some areas have been badly disturbed by old military installations. Erosion, agricultural activity and looting continue to be threats.

Working at such a large site presents some interesting challenges. How do you survey and map such a large area, for example? Even with our modern surveying instruments, this would be a lengthy and arduous task. Fortunately, the use of a drone combined with mapping software provided a solution. Flying at a height of 100 metres, our drone took 5,000 photographs over nine days, covering an area of some eight square kilometres. These images are now being compiled into a digital elevation model which will be used to generate topographical maps, including a contour map and shaded relief maps.

Finding out how much archaeology is left at Charax after two thousand years of repeated flooding was another challenge. Here geophysics came to our rescue: armed with a caesium magnetometer, one of the world’s leading experts, Dr Joerg Fassbinder, with his team from the University of Munich, surveyed over eight hectares in ten days. The results were beyond expectations: entire districts of the city were revealed below the surface, including substantial public buildings and residential houses. The orthogonal plan produced by the survey clearly reflects the original lay-out of the Hellenistic city, one which was retained in succeeding periods.

The Hellenistic town grid and large buildings are clearly visible on this geophysics plot

An evaluation trench placed across one of the district boundaries found a ditch with mud-brick walls running parallel on both sides. A puzzling feature was a row of Parthian torpedo jars set upside-down in a solid layer of clay. The tips of the bases had been deliberately and neatly cut away, leaving entry holes at the top. Two further evaluation trenches found walls belonging to two of the large buildings that showed most clearly in the magnetometer survey.

A row of Parthian torpedo jars lining a ditch 

The logistical challenges of working at Charax are substantial, but these preliminary results have more than repaid the effort. Our mission for the future will be to implement a comprehensive research and excavation strategy that will do justice to this important Alexandrian city.

Robert Killick
Honorary Fellow,  Manchester University

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Cultural Protection Fund: a positive ministerial response

I'm happy to report that we've received a reply to the collective letter sent last November, which outlined BISI's, and others' views on how the government's proposed Cultural Protection Fund should work, in support of the UK's promised ratification of Hague 1954.

The letter, written by Ed Vaizey, Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy, reads in full:

Thank you for letter of 24 November 2015 to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sports, The Rt Hon John Whittingdale MP. I am responding as the Minister responsible for this policy area and I apologise for the delay in replying.

We are delighted to receive you and your colleagues’ support for our plans to ratify the 1954 Hague Convention and its two protocols, and for the Cultural Protection Fund.

The Department is firmly committed to introducing new legislation to enable the UK to ratify the 1954 Hague Convention and its two Protocols at the earliest opportunity. We believe that doing so will ensure the UK and its cultural experts and practitioners in the field are seen to be not only serious about cultural protection, but world leaders in this area.

On 25 November 2015, as part of the Spending Review, we were delighted that the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced £30million in Official Development Assistance funding for the establishment of our Cultural Protection Fund. Planning is currently underway towards implementing the Fund with the expectation of accepting grant applications in the spring.

We have sent out our consultation document to you and your co-signatories, and would warmly welcome your views on the Cultural Protection Fund. Your expertise would help inform its further development. In addition, we are holding a stakeholder workshop on 11 February which I believe a number of your co-signatories are attending.

I have taken Peter Stone’s points and your support of them into serious consideration - and it is precisely such strategic thinking and expertise which we are seeking with our consultation. I agree entirely with the principles behind the points on combatting duplication of effort; on the need for training; proactive prevention; emergency response; and long term support. These points cohere with the principles of the Fund as outlined in our consultation document, and correspond with the outcomes I announced at the Cultural Protection Summit of 28 October 2015, namely: cultural heritage protection, training, and advocacy and education. Indeed, the British Museum’s Iraqi Rescue Archaeology Programme, a pilot programme of the Fund, is already adhering to these aims, and we will be encouraging grant applications from other programmes and organisations who can provide services pursuant to these outcomes.

We will be providing further information about the Cultural Protection Fund and on the Government’s approach to ratifying the Hague Convention in the spring of this year.

Thank you again for your support and your offer of assistance in this area. I do very much hope that you will respond to our consultation document and am delighted that some of the signatories have made to time to come along to our workshops.

Best wishes,

Ed Vaizey MP
Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

BISI Student Poster Competition 2015
Interview with the Winner – Daniel Calderbank

BISI held its first Student Poster Competition in autumn 2015 for UK undergraduate and postgraduate students, engaged in the study of the lands and peoples of Iraq. First prize went to Daniel Calderbank, a PhD student at Manchester University, for his poster on ‘Everyday Life in the Babylonian ‘Dark Age’: new ceramic evidence from Tell Khaiber, southern Iraq.’

A bit about you first, Daniel! Where are you studying, and what stage are you at in your research?
I’m a PhD student with the Archaeology department at The University of Manchester, and am currently part way through my second year of a three and a half year project. My research is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

How did you become interested in studying ancient Iraq?
My first encounter with the archaeology of ancient Iraq came in an undergraduate seminar titled The Origins of Urbanism, led by my now supervisor Prof. Stuart Campbell. The focus of the seminar was the site of Uruk, widely held as the world’s first true city. I remember being astonished by the rapid development of the site, reaching an incomprehensible scale by the late 4th millennium BC, almost a whole millennium prior to the construction of the British monuments, such as Stonehenge and Avebury, with which I was at that time most familiar.

At that point, I could hardly have envisaged myself setting foot on the famous mounds of the Eanna Precinct. Having the opportunity to visit Uruk in 2014 was an experience that truly reawakened those early feelings of astonishment and wonder.

View of the Eanna Precinct from the ruins of the Uruk ziggurat Photo: Mary Shepperson

Could you tell us a bit about your research project?
Mesopotamian history can often read like a narrative of grand politics, with one power succeeding another in endless procession. The site of Tell Khaiber, situated 20km southeast of Ur, accordingly occupies a period of widespread political instability, punctuated by the collapse of the First Babylonian Dynasty and the emergence of the elusive Sealand Dynasty (c.1600-1400 BC).

In an archaeological climate traditionally consumed by such top-down accounts, my research looks to interpret the more situated, everyday lives of the Khaiber inhabitants. I contend that a functionally driven analysis of 2nd millennium pottery can provide a unique basis from which to reconstruct the everyday patterns of behaviour that animated Babylonian social life. By identifying episodes of routine and more specialised food and drink consumption, I hope to articulate the ways in which past identities were created, performed, maintained, and manipulated.

Excavating a double-pot burial with Prof Stuart Campbell Photo: Jane Moon

What did you find the most challenging aspect of making your poster?
The trickiest aspect was unquestionably striking the right balance between images and text. As PhD researchers, we are often programmed to communicate in words, especially when explaining our complex methodologies. When designing something eye-catching, however, this tendency must be curbed. Of course, the indirect benefit of this is that it forces one to be concise.

Do you have any tips for people thinking about studying Iraq?
Iraq is a wonderfully diverse country, topographically, demographically, and archaeologically. I would urge any prospective student to talk with as many people familiar with the country as possible, whether that is people who have lived and worked there, or people who simply observe it from afar. By immersing yourself in Iraq’s culture, you will no doubt develop a great appreciation for its past!

BISI’s Student Poster Competition aims to offer UK students the opportunity to present and discuss the innovative and creative research that they are undertaking with both the academic community and the wider public and to raise the profile of their research. We welcome applications from the full range of arts, humanities and social sciences subjects, covering any time period, from prehistory to the present day. To find out more and to sign up to receive updates about future competitions, please contact the BISI Administrator on

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Open letter to the UK Culture Secretary, John Whittingdale

In the latest round of the UK Blue Shield-BISI campaign for the ratification of the 1954 Hague Convention, today I sent the following open letter to UK Culture Secretary John Whittingdale, encouraging him to act on the announcement he made last June.

Rt Hon John Whittingdale
Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport

November 2015

Dear Mr Whittingdale

Ratification of the 1954 Hague Convention
and the UK Cultural Property Protection Fund

As representatives of some of the UK's leading cultural heritage organisations we, the undersigned, were delighted when last June the Government publicly announced its decision to ratify the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and its associated protocols. This legislation will give enormous support to the Armed Forces’ ambitions to support local communities in the areas in which it is militarily engaged.

We are also hugely supportive of the Government's intention to create a Cultural Property Protection Fund, as announced in the same press release. In particular we endorse the proposal that has already been put to you by Peter Stone, UNESCO Professor of Culture Property Protection and Peace at Newcastle University, Chair of the UK Committee of the Blue Shield and cultural property advisor to the UK Government during the Iraq War of 2003. He recommends that the Fund be concentrated on five areas of activity, namely:

  • A co-ordination centre, with a staff of three or four, to act as a practical hub for networking, liaison, and communication for the complex web of academic, NGO professional, governmental, and military expertise in the area, to ensure minimal reduplication of effort. This is, in our opinion, the top priority for funding now.
  • Training for individuals and organisations in the practicalities of Cultural Property Protection, facilitated by the co-ordination centre.
  • Developing and implementing procedures for proactive protection of Cultural Property for countries such as Lebanon, which are at under real risk, where proactive protection could be implemented now and from which international guidelines could be developed.
  • Emergency response protocols to deliver rapid, specialised assessment and initial conservation first aid to countries suffering from conflict or environmental disaster.
  • Long-term support for Cultural Property in post-conflict and post-disaster zones, such as post- earthquake Nepal.

We thank you again for all your efforts to make the UK a leader in international Cultural Property Protection and look forward to concrete news soon of the parliamentary schedule for ratification, and of the budget and remit of the Cultural Property Fund. We would be happy to be of assistance in any way we can.

Yours sincerely,

Professor Eleanor Robson
Chair of Council
British Institute for the Study of Iraq

Dr Mike Heyworth, MBE
Council for British Archaeology

Mr Peter Hinton
Chief Executive
Chartered Institute of Archaeologists

Ms Sharon Heal
Museums Association

Ms Kate Pugh, OBE
Chief Executive
The Heritage Alliance

Mr Julian Radcliffe
The Art Loss Register

Dr Neil Brodie
Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research
University of Glasgow

Professor Sir Barry Cunliffe
Emeritus Professor of European Archaeology
University of Oxford

Mr Philip Deans
Doctoral Research Student
School of Arts and Cultures
Newcastle University

Dr Paul Fox
University of York

Dr Nigel Pollard
Associate Professor of Ancient History
Swansea University

Mr Robert Bevan
Architecture Critic of The Evening Standard

Dr Bijan Rouhani
Vice Chair
ICOMOS Working Group on Syria and Iraq

Mr Peter A. Clayton
Member of the Treasure Valuation Committee
The British Museum

Dr Robert Bewley
Project Director
Endangered Archaeology of the Middle East and North Africa Project
University of Oxford

Professor Graham Philip
Department of Archaeology
Durham University

You'll also find this letter on the Facebook pages and Twitter feeds of UKBS and BISI, for you to like and share. You're equally welcome to redistribute it in any other convenient way, but please let us know, for the record if you so.

As always, I'll post an update as soon as I have news.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Remembering Gertrude Bell

Last month Belinda Lewis, Charge d'Affaires, British Embassy Baghdad paid a visit to Gertrude Bell's grave in Baghdad, leaving a tribute from BISI and the British Embassy.

BISI was founded in memory of Gertrude Bell in 1932. An explorer and archaeologist, Bell was instrumental in the foundation of the Iraq Museum.

BISI joined forces with the British Academy in 2013 to hold a conference examining the many facets of Bell's legacy in Iraq, including her role in the making of the Iraqi state. 

At the Gertrude Bell Archive, Newcastle University, you can read Bell's digitised diaries and letters, and her beautiful photographs from her travels in Iraq and the Middle East. 

Belinda Lewis with the care-taker who has tended the cemetery
where Gertrude Bell is buried since the 1940s

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Looted in Syria - and sold in London:
 the British antiques shops dealing in artefacts smuggled by ISIS 

BISI Trustee, Dr Mark Atlaweel goes under cover with the Guardian to hunt for 'blood antiquities' in London dealerships. Relics from the ruins of Palmyra and Nimrud are now on display in British shops - and so far no-one has worked out how to stop it. 

Read the full article by Rachel Shabi 

Dr Mark Altaweel BISI Trustee and Lecturer in Near Eastern Archaeology at UCL 

Wednesday, 24 June 2015


Richard Dumbrill was awarded a BISI Conference Grant in 2015 to attend the 4th Babylon Festival for International Cultures and Arts. You can read about the event in the report below. 

The New Babylon Festivals (Babylon Foundation) were initiated four years ago by Dr Ali ash-Shallah, MP for the province of Babylon, presently Director of Media for the Republic of Iraq, and an acclaimed poet.

   There is no relation whatsoever between the Babylon Festivals organised by Saddam Hussein and the present occurrences. The new festivals include international cultural exchanges, devoid of any propagandist events, and integrate all forms of the arts and cultures without any political, religious, or other dictates. It is all about peace, human rights, gender equality, reconciliation. One of the objectives of the festivals is the inclusion of the site of Babylon in the UNESCO World Heritage List from which, astonishingly, it has been excluded to this day.

   The Babylon Foundation which organise the Babylon Festival also work actively in the restoration of 'Abbasid, and Ottoman architecture and have just completed the reconstruction of a typical late Ottoman house in Old Baghdad (Abu Nuwas) which is now the site of concerts, exhibitions as well as offering accommodation for international students, scholars and artists.

   The main events of the festival take place in the 'neo-hellenistic' theatre at the site of Babylon where around 1,500 spectators gather for both opening and closing evenings. All other events take place either in the museum courtyard at the site of Babylon, at a school at Hillah and in other local theatres. Participants of the festival are usually hosted in the palatial infrastructures built, in the gardens of Babylon just below Saddam Hussein’s outrageous palace built on top of an artificial tell. The well-worn apartments are still furnished with Husseinian taste.

   The Babylon Festivals are covered by the Iraqi national and other TV channels and by the daily local and national press. The Festivals are highly regarded throughout the country and appease differences through a shared culture.

   One of the main concerns with the Babylon festivals is funding which is a difficult task in a country at war, and where the conservation of culture is felt as a luxury that people cannot afford.

   The BISI grant enabled myself, Ahmed Mukhtar (Oud master) and Dr John Macginnis (Current BISI Council Member) to travel to the festival to give a lecture to students of archaeology of Babylon University, in the museum yard at the site of Babylon and we were invited by the chancellor of the university, Professor al- Baghdadi, to speak at the main lecture theatre of the university which was packed with professors and students. The event was presented on national television.

  The focus of my talk was on the contribution of Akkadian, Babylonian and Assyrian theory of music, to the development of Western music.

    During the Akkadian Period, mathematical cuneiform texts excavated at the Temple Library of Nippur, by Wolfram Hilprecht at the beginning of the twentieth century and dated from about 2300 BC, showed lists of regular numbers* extracted from the sexagesimal mathematical system. These numbers gave values to the nine notes of the Akkadian scale: 36; 40; 45; 48; 54; 60; 64; 72 and 81. Most interestingly these numbers can be taken as units of string lengths or reciprocally as units of frequency. The ratios which they generate between them, that is 40/36, can be converted into musical cents, a method developed in the late nineteenth century by Alexander John Ellis, from an earlier eighteenth century method devised by the French scientist Prosnier. 40/36 = 182 cents which is the minor tone; 45/40 = 204 cents which is the just major tone and 48/45 = 112, which is the semitone. These numbers which were conceptualised over 4,000 years ago give the exact values of the harmonic, or natural scale, a scale which was invented about 1,500 years before Pythagoras was born.

   The Old Babylonian period produced a tablet excavated from the site of Ur by Sir Leonard Woolley. (Fig. 1) This text is a method by which nine different scales, or sets, can be generated from a fundamental set by simple re-arrangement of some of the pitches in each set. The resulting scales have been wrongly named 'modes' by some scholars, for reasons which are beyond the purpose of this short text. Other texts were written during the Assyrian period, in the first millennium, but would have been copies of much earlier Babylonian originals. These texts give the names of intervals of fifths and thirds which were the forerunners of the Arabian Ajnas of the Maqam system. Another cuneiform text of unknown provenance, hosted at the University Museum of Philadelphia (Fig. 2) has the earliest evidence for the construction of a heptatonic scale system of eight 'modes' in all points similar to the seven liturgical 'modes' of our Western Middle Ages. The tablet has a drawing etched onto it describing a tuning device consisting of two discs rotating one against the other to generate the seven modes based on the heptatonic system. (Fig 3) This tablet is the earliest evidence of the construction of a heptatonic scale by means of alternation of fifths and fourths, much before Euclid.

Fig 3.

    It has become evident that Greek scholars having visited the city of Babylon from the eighth century BC, to study, during what is called the Orientalizing Period, and brought back to Athens the Babylonian system which further spread to the West in the course of time, and ended up in the liturgical systems of Christendom, as well as in the Synagogues.

Richard Dumbrill
Director of the International Conference of Near and Middle Eastern Archaeomusicology &

Advisory Board Member of the Babylon Foundation