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Decolonising the Excavation Licence in Iraq

Zainab Mahdi8 December 2021

Written by Dr Jaafar Jotheri

The heritage law in Iraq was written in 1936 and then rewritten in 2002, but in these two versions, the Iraqi heritage authority was incapable of issuing a heritage law that can serve the nation’s needs. In 1936 Iraq was still a young independent state with little experience managing its heritage sector; fast forward to 2002, with Iraq under international sanctions, heritage was not foremost among the state’s priorities. After that, Iraq endured the civil war and the ISIS invasion. In the last few years, the Iraqi academics and the heritage authority have held several meetings to reform and explore a new version of the excavation licence.

As a result of these meetings, several proposals were suggested to the excavation licence such as:

  1. Selecting sites for excavation based on Iraqi opinion and considerations: Iraqi academics and heritage authorities should maintain a list of the sites that excavations are allowed in. This list should be prepared by Iraqis based on their priorities such as critical condition of the site or knowledge. Currently, Iraqis have little contribution in selecting sites for survey or excavation.
  2. Involving the local Iraqi experts in excavations: Iraqi academics and members of heritage authority should be fully involved in all the steps and in each phase of the excavation process. At present, there is limited or no involvement of Iraqis in excavation work. Some investigators from the heritage authority might take part  but they are likely to be inexperienced and  are not experts.
  3. Training Iraqi staff and students: Students from Iraqi universities and members of the Iraqi heritage authority should receive proper training in each excavation phase. Currently, there is no stipulation in place to train Iraqis.
  4. Using advanced techniques in surveying and excavation: Excavation teams should conduct some environmental, geoarchaeological, bioarchaeological and geophysical work on site and train Iraqis in the process. Outdated excavations methods should not be applied anymore; for example, some teams are using cheaper, outdated methods and ignoring new technologies.
  5. Utilise social media for projects: To increase the engagement of the local people with the projects, the excavation teams should make use of social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, website etc) to share news, events, progress – basically anything related to the project or the team.
  6. Conservation after excavations: After each phase of excavation, sites should be preserved, and conservation should be applied for the structures that have been dug and subjected to weathering and erosion. As it stands, there are no obligations on the excavation team to preserve the sites. It is not unusual for buildings and artefacts to be left abandoned and/or subjected to destruction.
  7. Hosting conferences and exhibitions in Iraq: After or during each excavation phase, the team should host conferences and workshops, and publicise their work, findings, and results. Presently, most excavation teams keep the results confidential.
  8. Publishing results in Arabic in Iraqi journals: At the present, teams are publishing results in international journals which Iraqis have limited access to and leaving Iraqis with few or no idea about the sites. Instead, some results of each phase of excavations or the new findings, artefacts and objects should be published in Arabic in the local Iraqi journals.
  9. Developing Iraqi museums: The excavation team should also contribute to helping Iraqi museums to have the required space and capacity to restore the artefacts properly and present them to the public. The situation currently is unfortunate as Iraqi museums are facing a lack of space to store the artefacts and discovering more artefacts are exasperating the problem of storage – and possibly subjecting them to damage or destruction.
  10. Cooperation with other excavation teams: To better understand the whole picture and narrative, the excavation teams that working in the same region, province, or occupation periods should have a way of cooperation and their plans should be integrated. Now, each team works separately without any coordination.

Jaafar Jotheri holds a PhD Geoarchaeology from Durham University. He has over 15 years of experience in conducting archaeological excavations and surveys about the landscape of ancient Iraq and the ancient paths that rivers and canals that followed in the past. He has published more than 15 articles in some of the world’s most prestigious journals.

He is currently an Assistant Professor and Vice-Dean in the Faculty of Archeology, University of Al-Qadissiyah, Iraq where he teaches and supervises both undergraduate and postgraduate students.

He has been involved in many international archaeological and heritage projects carried out in Iraq, with partners including Manchester University, Durham University,  Sapienza University of Rome, and Tokushima University. He has been awarded research funding from international organizations such as the British Institute for the Study of Iraq (London), the Academic Research Institute in Iraq (USA), and the British Academy, as well as the Nahrein Network.