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‘Rescue archaeologists’ head to Iraq

First group of Iraqis trained by British Museum staff return home

As archaeologists and experts wrestle with how to respond to attacks on cultural heritage, the first six Iraqis trained in “rescue archaeology” by the British Museum have returned home.

They will now complete three more months of training, including instruction at two archaeological sites in the south and north of Iraq, which are not being identified for security reasons. They are the first of around 50 people expected to be trained under the UK’s Iraq Emergency Heritage Management scheme, in techniques such as data retrieval and digitisation.

Speaking at a forum on protecting cultural heritage, Jonathan Tubb, the keeper of the British Museum’s Middle East department, said: “We can’t stand in front of monuments and protect them. But what we can do is make sure that when our Iraq colleagues can get back into hideously disrupted sites like Nineveh or Nimrud, they will…be ready on the ground.”

Tubb said it was “nonsense” to think that only people in the West cared about cultural sites. He cited the “poor guards” at Nineveh, “who literally stood in front of those remains, those reliefs, and tried to protect them against Isil. They were beheaded, and family who went to the funeral were rounded up and have not been seen since.”

He added: “To deprive people of their heritage is one of the most inhuman things you can actually do. And that’s why it’s right it should be a war crime.”

The UK has yet to sign up to the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict but there was hope that this might happen before the end of the year, Tubb said.