The worlds oldest bridge is to be saved for future generations thanks to a pioneering project as part of the British Museum
s Iraq Emergency Heritage Management Training Scheme. The bridge at Tello, in the south of Iraq, was built in the third millennium BC and will be preserved by British Museum archaeologists and Iraqi heritage professionals who are being trained to protect ancient sites that have suffered damage at the hands of Daesh (or the so-called Islamic State). Working with the Iraq State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, it is hoped that restoring the 4,000-year-old bridge will be a potent symbol of a nation emerging from decades of war and could one day lead to the site welcoming tourists from around the globe to learn about Iraqs rich heritage.
The bridge will be restored in the latest phase of the successful Iraq Emergency Heritage Management Training Scheme, or simply Iraq Scheme, created by the British Museum. The Scheme sees the British Museum provide state of the art training to Iraqi archaeologists, so that they can stabilise, and potentially rebuild, heritage sites that were damaged or destroyed by Daesh as they come back under Government control. The work to conserve the bridge will be part of the fourth phase of the Scheme, with field training of two groups of trainees beginning in the autumn. These latest trainees are the first female archaeologists to be trained as part of the Scheme.
The project will also see the creation of a visitor centre at the site, which it is hoped will lead to the return of international tourists to the region, who stayed away during the war with Daesh. With the new visitor centre, which will explain in both English and Arabic how the bridge has contributed to world history, it is thought tour groups from outside Iraq could begin to visit the site by 2020.
Sebastien Rey, Lead Archaeologist, Iraq Scheme says: This is a hugely important project to ensure the long-term sustainability of the worlds oldest bridge, which is an incredibly clever piece of ancient engineering on a grand scale. The full conservation programme will not only provide access to the site for the local community and tourists, but it is hoped that it could yield unprecedented finds that may lead to a new cultural centre of interest in the region one of the poorest provinces of Iraq. It is also an important emblem of Iraqs heritage and restoring the bridge is a symbol of a brighter future for the Iraqi people.
Built for the ancient Sumerian city of Girsu, the bridge was only rediscovered in 1929. Described at the time as an enigmatic construction, it has been variously interpreted as a temple, dam, and water regulator. Recent studies using 1930s photographs as well as recently declassified satellite imagery from the 1960s, alongside new research at the site, have led to the confirmation that it was a bridge over an ancient waterway and it is, to date, the earliest-known bridge in the world. Since the excavations nearly 90 years ago, the bridge has remained open and exposed, with no identifiable conservation work to address its long-term stability or issues of erosion, and no plans to manage the site or tell its story to the wider world.
The need to protect the bridge arose from preliminary work by the first two Iraq Scheme excavation seasons. The preliminary assessment stressed the urgency of carrying out a larger and more ambitious conservation programme, including emergency excavations. Even during this early phase, two trenches were uncovered, containing well-preserved deposits of the prehistoric Ubaid period dating to the fifth millennium BC. These contain a wealth of information on the origins of Girsu and, consequently, the birth of urban centres in Mesopotamia, one of the earliest known civilisations. This would improve international recognition of the rich and important heritage of Iraq.
The next group of Iraq Scheme participants that will carry out this vital work are eight female heritage professionals from the Mosul region. They will arrive in London in April 2018 to train at the British Museum in all aspects of archaeological fieldwork and emergency archaeology. It is hoped they will go on to continue the success of the Scheme so far, such as one graduate who was appointed by the Iraqi State Board to lead the assessment of the site of Nimrud.