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

Sunday, 21 June 2015

UK government to ratify #Hague1954!

I'm delighted to report that the UK goverment issued a press release today announcing its intention to ratify the 1954 Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict.

So many people have been involved in UK Blue Shield and BISI's campaign to bring this about — not least every single person who has written to their MP expressing their concern. Thank you everyone!

Monday, 18 May 2015

Help us get #Hague1954 ratified in the UK!

Following the UK General Election on 8 May, BISI is supporting UK Blue Shield's new campaign to persuade Parliament to ratify the 1954 Hague Convention as soon as possible.

It's been a long slog: every government agrees in principle but none gets around to putting it into practice. Let's make it happen now!

Please get involved by writing to your recently (re-)elected MP asking them to take up ratification at the earliest possible opportunity.

Here is a draft letter that you can simply send to your MP, or that can be adapted as necessary, and a list of bullet points if you would prefer to write your own letter. They were drafted by Professor Peter Stone, the Chair of UK Blue Shield.

If you do not know the name of your MP or how to contact them, you can find their details on the UK Parliament website. If you would like to write to your local newspaper that would be wonderful as well.

To help us keep track of the campaign, please tell us when you write to your MP, or your local press, by:

  • Leaving a comment below this post;
  • Leaving a comment on the UK Blue Shield's Facebook page
  • Or, if you use Twitter, sending a tweet to @UKBlueShield with hashtag #Hague1954 — and tweet to your followers too!

Please also encourage anyone you know to write to their MP. Use Twitter (#Hague1954), Facebook, email, good old-fashioned letters — whatever it it takes to tell our elected representatives why this matters so much.

Sample letter to your MP

Dear [MP'S NAME]

1954 Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and its two Protocols of 1954 and 1999

May I congratulate you on your recent election and ask that you take action on a very topical and urgent matter.

The Hague Convention is the primary piece of International Humanitarian Law concerning the protection of cultural heritage during conflict. While the world reacts in horror to the appalling destruction of ancient sites, libraries, archives, and museums in the Middle East and Africa the UK remains the only Permanent Member of the United Nations Security Council, and arguably the most significant military power (and the only one with extensive military involvements abroad), not to have ratified the 1954 Hague Convention.

Following the catastrophic damage to libraries, archives, museums, and archaeological sites in Iraq after the 2003 US/UK led invasion the then Minister for Heritage, Andrew McIntosh, announced in 2004 the Government’s intention to ratify the 1954 Hague Convention as soon as Parliamentary business allowed. This claim has been repeated by every relevant Minister since. In November 2011, Rt Hon Jeremy Hunt MP, then Secretary of State at DCMS, made a joint UK Government and British Red Cross Society pledge “to make every effort to facilitate the UK’s ratification… and to promote understanding of the principles and rules of the Convention within the UK”.

Ratification has cross-Party support and the support of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport; the Foreign and Commonwealth Office; the Department for Overseas Development; and the Ministry of Defence.

In order to ratify the Convention national legislation has to be passed. A Draft Cultural Property (Armed Conflicts) Bill was scrutinised by DCMS Select Committee in the summer of 2008. The draft Bill required only minor modifications but no time was found for it in the next session. Despite constant requests, no time has been found since.

I ask you to urge the Government to take prompt and urgent action to ratify the Convention within the first session of this new Parliament.

Yours sincerely,

[Your name and address]

The UK and the Hague Convention – key points

  • Following the appalling destruction of cultural property during the Second World War the international community came together in 1954 and produced The Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. As the result of concerns raised by the USA and other countries some parts of the Convention were removed and published as a 1954 Protocol to the Convention.
  • Mainly as the result of the fighting in the former Yugoslavia a 2nd Protocol was produced in 1999. It identified the Blue Shield as an international NGO Advisory Body to the UNESCO Committee for the Protection of Cultural Property In the event of Armed Conflict.
  • In 2003, when they led the Coalition that invaded Iraq, neither the USA nor the UK had ratified the Convention or its Protocols. The USA ratified the Convention, but not the Protocols, in 2009. The UK is now arguably the most significant military power (and the only one with extensive military involvements abroad) not to have ratified the 1954 Hague Convention.
  • In 2004 the then Minister for Heritage, Andrew McIntosh, announced the Government’s intention to ratify the 1954 Hague Convention as soon as Parliamentary business allowed.
  • In the summer of 2008 a Draft Cultural Property (Armed Conflicts) Bill was scrutinised by DCMS Select Committee. There were very few changes required but the Draft Bill was not given a slot in the next session.
  • In 2009 Barbara Follett MP, then Minister of Heritage, reiterated that HMG was committed to “ratification at the earliest possible opportunity”.
  • In 2010, written evidence was submitted to the Iraq Inquiry by the UK National Commission for UNESCO (UKNC) and twelve other cultural organisations. It is understood that the Inquiry will recommend immediate ratification when, and if, it reports.
  • In 2011 Ed Vaizey MP, Minister for Culture, Communications & Creative Industries at DCMS, reconfirmed that HMG was committed to ratification “at the earliest possible opportunity”.
  • In November 2011, Rt Hon Jeremy Hunt MP, then Secretary of State at DCMS, made a joint UK Government and British Red Cross Society pledge “to make every effort to facilitate the UK’s ratification… and to promote understanding of the principles and rules of the Convention within the UK”.
  • Ratification has the support of the Conservative, Liberal Democrat, and Labour parties; it is supported by DCMS, MoD, DFID, and FCO. The Armed Forces have acknowledged the value of trying to protect cultural property during deployment as a ‘force multiplier’ – something that makes their job easier. They attempt to work within the ‘spirit of the Convention’ and relations between the Armed Forces and the UK National Committee for the Blue Shield (UKBS) are becoming clearer and more helpful.
  • On 20 Jan 2014 Ed Vaizey MP wrote to the UKNC and UKBS reiterating that ratification is a Government “priority” and that HMG “remains committed” to ratification “as soon as Parliamentary time allows”.
  • On 21 Jan 2014, DCMS wrote to UKNC/UKBS stating that “the Cabinet Committee has not been able to grant drafting authority for the Cultural Property (Armed Conflicts) Bill to be offered as a Government hand-out bill in the 2014-15 Parliamentary session. My understanding is that this means it will now unfortunately not be possible to take forward a Government-initiated measure to ratify the Hague Convention in the remaining time available to this Parliament.”

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Teaching Geoarchaeology in Erbil

Teaching Geoarchaeology in Erbil 

From 15-17 February 2015, BISI Trustee Dr Mark Altaweel was invited by World Monuments Fund to guest teach a short course on the use of geoarchaeology in Erbil to a group of 12 Iraqis from southern Iraq and the Kurdish region. The participants were Iraqis who are working in archaeology, such as the Kurdish Regional Government of the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, or have some experience. The intent of the class was to cover how geoarchaeology can be used for site conservation as well as for making new discoveries. The course consisted of 15 hours of talks, discussion, a practical site visit at a site near Erbil, and presentations by the participants.

Dr Mark Altaweel has been a trustee of BISI since 2012. He is a Lecturer in Near Eastern Archaeology at UCL 

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Tracing the Emergence of Social Complexity in Southern Mesopotamia


Photo: Dr Claudia Glatz

In 2014 Dr Claudia Glatz received BISI's annual Pilot Project Grant. Here you can read Dr Glatz's report on her research, exploring the emergence of social complexity in southern Mesopotamia during the period c.7000-3000BC. 

BISI's Pilot Project Grant scheme is designed to support a short period of preliminary research - up to one year - that has the potential to grown into a longer-term, larger-scale project supported by a Research Council or other large funding body. Amount £8,000, annual deadline 1 February. 

The second field-season of the Sirwan Regional Project (SRP) took place in late May/early June 2014 with a team composed of Dr Claudia Glatz (University of Glasgow), Dr Jesse Casana (University of Arkansas), Dr Kathleen Nicholl (University of Utah) as well as Glasgow and Arkansas postgraduate students. Partly funded by a BISI Pilot Project Grant, one of the main objectives for this season was to investigate the Sirwan/Upper Diyala River Valley’s prehistoric landscapes and settlements in order to begin to address questions about the development and expansion of early complex societies in the Mesopotamian-Zagros interface. 

   SRP’s research region comprises ca. 4,000km2 and stretches from the Qara Dagh Massif in the north to the plains surrounding the town of Kalar in the south. This landscape, dissected by the course of the Sirwan/Upper Diyala River, presents a transitional cultural and environmental zone that connects the piedmont and uplands of the western Zagros Range to the north and east with the alluvial plains and marshlands of Mesopotamia to the south. The region today is home to a variety of agricultural traditions, including rain-fed dry-farming more common in the north and intensive irrigation more typical in the south. The river also presents an important communication corridor, whose north-south course connects the fertile Sharezor high-plateau with southern Mesopotamia. Branching off from the river valley are two further important routes that lead north to the Upper Mesopotamian plains and east into the Iranian highlands and ultimately into Central Asia. As a result of its strategic location, the Sirwan region offers a unique topographic, environmental and geopolitical laboratory for the investigation of highland-lowland relationships, which underwrite many of the key themes in the region’s occupation history.

   During an initial field season in May 2013, we recorded several promising sites, which have yielded ceramic evidence suggesting they represent a series of relatively short-lived settlements occupied successively in the Hassuna, Halaf, Ubaid and Uruk periods (c. 7000-3000 BC). Each of these sites, all within a 2km radius of one another and situated in the fertile, spring-fed Sozboluq area south-east of the town of Kalar, is an extensive low mound with little occupational overburden from later periods. The aim for 2014 was to explore this rare window into prehistoric settlement using a combination of surface survey, geophysical prospection and test-excavations. 

Photo: Dr Claudia Glatz 
 In 2014, we carried out extensive magnetic gradiometry surveys at three of the four prehistoric sites: SRP 22, 28 and 36. SRP 36 yielded the most promising magnetometry results, which suggested the presence of a multi-roomed building near the top of this ca. 1 ha low-mound. A 1x4m sounding was excavated to investigate a burnt feature at the centre of the structure and in order to collect samples for radiometric dating and stratified artefactual and environmental samples. The trench revealed a circular mud-brick feature, an ashy pit covered with broken pottery and what appear to be several consecutive hearths. The majority of the pottery from the site appears to be proto-Hassuna to Hassuna in date. The analysis of the pottery and lithic assemblages, archaeobotanical, zooarchaeological/isotopic is currently in progress. Several attempts to radiocarbon date charcoal and bone samples as well as two charred pulses were unsuccessful, most likely due to the acidic soil at SRP 36. Further bone samples have been selected and will be submitted to SUERC in due course. 

   At SRP 22 and 28 magnetic surveys revealed small rectilinear buildings, which we plan to investigate through test excavations in future seasons. A multi-period site (SRP 46), whose main occupation appears to date to the mid-late second millennium BC, was also investigated in this manner.  

    In tandem with these site-based invitations, we continued our regional survey, adding ca. 40 new sites, a large number of which range in date between the Neolithic and the Bronze Age. We also recorded a series of large multi-period mounds, Sassanid and later villages as well as special purpose sites such as irrigation and water-management systems. A preliminary geomorphological survey of the area was also carried out and modern environmental samples collected in order to begin to build a geochemical framework for future isotope analyses of archaeological samples. 

   To sum up, we are very pleased with the outcome of the 2014 season, which has yielded important results, both with respect to the development and execution of our multi-scalar field methodology and with regards to the archaeological results this approach has produced. This includes a large number of prehistoric and Bronze Age sites that allow us to begin to address fundamental questions of highland-lowland interaction on the one hand, and investigate the region’s pathway(s) towards social complexity on the other. 

   Encouraged by the 2014 results, we plan to continue and expand our work in the Sirwan River Valley in August 2015. This will include a continued focus on the southern plains and their rich archaeological record as well as a more intensive and systematic investigation of the northern part of our survey region. A short visit on the last day of the 2014 field season revealed several previously undocumented mounds near the Darband-i-Balula rock relief, while numerous caves and rock-shelters also await exploration in this part of the survey area.

   I would like to take this opportunity to thank BISI for supporting this research. 

Dr Claudia Glatz
University of Glasgow