Archaeologists in Iraq defy militants

By Sean Coughlan
Education correspondent

Image source, Other
Image caption,
Jane Moon addressed a protest meeting against the smashing of historic sites in Iraq

Archaeologists from the University of Manchester have been working in Iraq and making "significant discoveries", while Islamic State militants have been bulldozing historic Assyrian sites.

"If the militants think they can erase history we are helping to make sure that can't happen," said archaeologist Jane Moon.

They have been excavating a Babylonian administrative centre from 1500BC.

It has provided more than 300 artefacts for the Iraq Museum in Baghdad.

The Manchester archaeologists, believed to be on one of only two international teams operating in non-Kurdish Iraq, have returned to the UK after three months of fieldwork, near to the ancient city of Ur.

Destroying museums

While the Manchester team were working with Iraqi archaeologists to recover their finds, the Islamic State were attacking and bulldozing ancient sites in Nineveh, Nimrod and Hatra.

They are also believed to have smashed objects in museums in Mosul.

Image source, Other
Image caption,
The University of Manchester team has been excavating a Babylonian site

Stuart Campbell, a director of the project with Dr Moon, said local people were "appalled" by the attacks on their own heritage and the UK archaeologists attended a protest meeting.

There was "widespread dismay" at the deliberate wrecking of historic sites, said Prof Campbell, in a country that is very aware of its significance as a cradle of civilisation.

"There was a very real feeling of pride that ideas such as writing and cities started in Iraq."

'Symbolic importance'

The ancient city of Ur, near to where the archaeologists have been working, has "huge symbolic importance", said Prof Campbell. "It's a very important part of human history."

They have been examining the site of an administrative centre for the Babylonian empire, finding documents and evidence for a "scribal school" where civil servants from 3,500 years ago would have been trained.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
The alleged smashing of ancient statues in a museum in Mosul

There are clay tablets with "practice texts" of lists of animals and precious stones.

"Everyone is quite rightly expressing outrage at the destruction in and around Mosul. The sad fact is, there is very little one can do to prevent deliberate vandalism by well-armed fanatics," said Dr Moon.

But even if objects were destroyed, Dr Moon said, it was still important to be able to gather and retain information for the future.