LONDON.- The British Museum
welcomed His Excellency Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, the Prime Minister of the Republic of Iraq, to the British Museum yesterday morning (23rd October 2020). Mr Al-Kadhimi toured the ancient Mesopotamia galleries with British Museum Director Hartwig Fischer and Minister of State for Media and Data John Whittingdale. He also saw the display of a Sumerian plaque which had been illegally removed from Iraq and offered for sale on a UK auction site in 2019. It was brought to the attention of the Metropolitan Police Service (Art and Antiques Unit) who seized the plaque and brought it for closer examination to the British Museum as part of their role as the expert advisory body to UK law enforcement on potentially stolen or illicitly trafficked antiquities. The limestone plaque, dating to around 2400BC was taken from an ancient Sumerian temple and depicts a large seated male figure. The Minister of Culture in Baghdad has generously permitted it to go on display at the Museum for a short time before it is repatriated to Iraq.
The visit also coincided with the conclusion of an important 100-year research project on the results and finds from Ur. The ancient city in southern Iraq was excavated by Leonard Woolley on behalf of the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania Museum (Philadelphia) from 1922 to 1934. It was the first archaeological site to be excavated with a permit issued by the Government of Iraq. The cuneiform tablets uncovered during the excavations required careful study before publication so it was agreed with Baghdad that conservation, research and translation should take place in London and Philadelphia before the tablets were returned to Iraq.
The conservation and publication of the tablets has taken many years, as many were in small fragments and needed to be physically joined, and this has involved many scholars from across the world. Tablets have been returned in instalments as the research work was published over the past decades. The more complicated literary and religious texts have taken many years to publish in detail, the final part was published in 2006, with four further volumes on tablets of the Ur III and Old Babylonian periods published between 2003 and 2016, bringing the total to 16 volumes on the texts, as well as 10 on the excavations themselves. The texts from Ur give unparalleled insights into all aspects of life in this great ancient city over three millennia, from the beginning of writing in about 3,000 BC to about 400 BC when the city was finally abandoned. Most are economic and administrative documents, and these record the prices of land, houses and livestock. Others are personal letters written between private individuals. There are also royal inscriptions commemorating the foundation of temples and palaces and complex literary texts which include myths and epic tales, hymns, lamentations over the destruction of cities. Some of these were religious and used in temple rituals but proverbs such as friendship lasts a day; kinship lasts forever are almost timeless sayings recorded by the scribes as part of their learning at school.
An audit has recently been completed of the remaining group of tablets, both complete and fragmentary, and totalling almost 5000 in all. This followed additional recording carried out as part of the Ur Digitisation Project supported by the Leon Levy Foundation and supplemented with a generous grant from the Gerda Henkel Stiftung. The tablets will be condition checked and packed for safe travel and, when that is completed, they will be sent to the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage of the Republic of Iraq, where they will be transferred for safekeeping to the Iraq Museum in Baghdad for the next generations of Iraqi students and scholars to study them.
This enduring research project is witness to the long-standing relationship between the British Museum and the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage in Baghdad which began during the period when the Iraq Museum was founded and the Antiquities Law of Iraq was composed, and continued during the 1980s when the British Museum was actively involved in rescue and research excavations following an international appeal by Baghdad. Since then it has regularly brought Iraqi curators to be part of the International Training Programme and, more recently, this collaboration has included the Iraq Emergency Heritage Management Training Scheme, or the Iraq Scheme. This began in 2015 in response to the appalling destruction by Daesh (also known as so-called Islamic State) of heritage sites in Iraq and Syria. The five-year project aimed to train archaeologists from across the whole of Iraq in cultural heritage management and practical fieldwork skills. The practical training takes place at the two field projects, in the south of Iraq at the site of Tello, and in the north at the Darband-i Rania. The Iraq Scheme received support from the UK government, and the Museum was granted £2.9m of Official Development Assistance (ODA) through the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS). 50 participants have benefited from the training in the first phase, which is due to conclude in 2021: we very much hope that further funding will enable this project to be extended into the future.
The Museum has developed a close and excellent relationship with the Embassy of the Republic of Iraq over many years through our care for our collections and our research and work in Iraq. We are very grateful to the Embassy and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for their regular assistance, and it is through them that the plaque and the Ur tablets will be returned to Baghdad.