Wednesday, 9 December 2015

BISI Student Poster Competition 2015
Interview with the Winner – Daniel Calderbank

BISI held its first Student Poster Competition in autumn 2015 for UK undergraduate and postgraduate students, engaged in the study of the lands and peoples of Iraq. First prize went to Daniel Calderbank, a PhD student at Manchester University, for his poster on ‘Everyday Life in the Babylonian ‘Dark Age’: new ceramic evidence from Tell Khaiber, southern Iraq.’

A bit about you first, Daniel! Where are you studying, and what stage are you at in your research?
I’m a PhD student with the Archaeology department at The University of Manchester, and am currently part way through my second year of a three and a half year project. My research is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

How did you become interested in studying ancient Iraq?
My first encounter with the archaeology of ancient Iraq came in an undergraduate seminar titled The Origins of Urbanism, led by my now supervisor Prof. Stuart Campbell. The focus of the seminar was the site of Uruk, widely held as the world’s first true city. I remember being astonished by the rapid development of the site, reaching an incomprehensible scale by the late 4th millennium BC, almost a whole millennium prior to the construction of the British monuments, such as Stonehenge and Avebury, with which I was at that time most familiar.

At that point, I could hardly have envisaged myself setting foot on the famous mounds of the Eanna Precinct. Having the opportunity to visit Uruk in 2014 was an experience that truly reawakened those early feelings of astonishment and wonder.

View of the Eanna Precinct from the ruins of the Uruk ziggurat Photo: Mary Shepperson

Could you tell us a bit about your research project?
Mesopotamian history can often read like a narrative of grand politics, with one power succeeding another in endless procession. The site of Tell Khaiber, situated 20km southeast of Ur, accordingly occupies a period of widespread political instability, punctuated by the collapse of the First Babylonian Dynasty and the emergence of the elusive Sealand Dynasty (c.1600-1400 BC).

In an archaeological climate traditionally consumed by such top-down accounts, my research looks to interpret the more situated, everyday lives of the Khaiber inhabitants. I contend that a functionally driven analysis of 2nd millennium pottery can provide a unique basis from which to reconstruct the everyday patterns of behaviour that animated Babylonian social life. By identifying episodes of routine and more specialised food and drink consumption, I hope to articulate the ways in which past identities were created, performed, maintained, and manipulated.

Excavating a double-pot burial with Prof Stuart Campbell Photo: Jane Moon

What did you find the most challenging aspect of making your poster?
The trickiest aspect was unquestionably striking the right balance between images and text. As PhD researchers, we are often programmed to communicate in words, especially when explaining our complex methodologies. When designing something eye-catching, however, this tendency must be curbed. Of course, the indirect benefit of this is that it forces one to be concise.

Do you have any tips for people thinking about studying Iraq?
Iraq is a wonderfully diverse country, topographically, demographically, and archaeologically. I would urge any prospective student to talk with as many people familiar with the country as possible, whether that is people who have lived and worked there, or people who simply observe it from afar. By immersing yourself in Iraq’s culture, you will no doubt develop a great appreciation for its past!

BISI’s Student Poster Competition aims to offer UK students the opportunity to present and discuss the innovative and creative research that they are undertaking with both the academic community and the wider public and to raise the profile of their research. We welcome applications from the full range of arts, humanities and social sciences subjects, covering any time period, from prehistory to the present day. To find out more and to sign up to receive updates about future competitions, please contact the BISI Administrator on

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Open letter to the UK Culture Secretary, John Whittingdale

In the latest round of the UK Blue Shield-BISI campaign for the ratification of the 1954 Hague Convention, today I sent the following open letter to UK Culture Secretary John Whittingdale, encouraging him to act on the announcement he made last June.

Rt Hon John Whittingdale
Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport

November 2015

Dear Mr Whittingdale

Ratification of the 1954 Hague Convention
and the UK Cultural Property Protection Fund

As representatives of some of the UK's leading cultural heritage organisations we, the undersigned, were delighted when last June the Government publicly announced its decision to ratify the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and its associated protocols. This legislation will give enormous support to the Armed Forces’ ambitions to support local communities in the areas in which it is militarily engaged.

We are also hugely supportive of the Government's intention to create a Cultural Property Protection Fund, as announced in the same press release. In particular we endorse the proposal that has already been put to you by Peter Stone, UNESCO Professor of Culture Property Protection and Peace at Newcastle University, Chair of the UK Committee of the Blue Shield and cultural property advisor to the UK Government during the Iraq War of 2003. He recommends that the Fund be concentrated on five areas of activity, namely:

  • A co-ordination centre, with a staff of three or four, to act as a practical hub for networking, liaison, and communication for the complex web of academic, NGO professional, governmental, and military expertise in the area, to ensure minimal reduplication of effort. This is, in our opinion, the top priority for funding now.
  • Training for individuals and organisations in the practicalities of Cultural Property Protection, facilitated by the co-ordination centre.
  • Developing and implementing procedures for proactive protection of Cultural Property for countries such as Lebanon, which are at under real risk, where proactive protection could be implemented now and from which international guidelines could be developed.
  • Emergency response protocols to deliver rapid, specialised assessment and initial conservation first aid to countries suffering from conflict or environmental disaster.
  • Long-term support for Cultural Property in post-conflict and post-disaster zones, such as post- earthquake Nepal.

We thank you again for all your efforts to make the UK a leader in international Cultural Property Protection and look forward to concrete news soon of the parliamentary schedule for ratification, and of the budget and remit of the Cultural Property Fund. We would be happy to be of assistance in any way we can.

Yours sincerely,

Professor Eleanor Robson
Chair of Council
British Institute for the Study of Iraq

Dr Mike Heyworth, MBE
Council for British Archaeology

Mr Peter Hinton
Chief Executive
Chartered Institute of Archaeologists

Ms Sharon Heal
Museums Association

Ms Kate Pugh, OBE
Chief Executive
The Heritage Alliance

Mr Julian Radcliffe
The Art Loss Register

Dr Neil Brodie
Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research
University of Glasgow

Professor Sir Barry Cunliffe
Emeritus Professor of European Archaeology
University of Oxford

Mr Philip Deans
Doctoral Research Student
School of Arts and Cultures
Newcastle University

Dr Paul Fox
University of York

Dr Nigel Pollard
Associate Professor of Ancient History
Swansea University

Mr Robert Bevan
Architecture Critic of The Evening Standard

Dr Bijan Rouhani
Vice Chair
ICOMOS Working Group on Syria and Iraq

Mr Peter A. Clayton
Member of the Treasure Valuation Committee
The British Museum

Dr Robert Bewley
Project Director
Endangered Archaeology of the Middle East and North Africa Project
University of Oxford

Professor Graham Philip
Department of Archaeology
Durham University

You'll also find this letter on the Facebook pages and Twitter feeds of UKBS and BISI, for you to like and share. You're equally welcome to redistribute it in any other convenient way, but please let us know, for the record if you so.

As always, I'll post an update as soon as I have news.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Remembering Gertrude Bell

Last month Belinda Lewis, Charge d'Affaires, British Embassy Baghdad paid a visit to Gertrude Bell's grave in Baghdad, leaving a tribute from BISI and the British Embassy.

BISI was founded in memory of Gertrude Bell in 1932. An explorer and archaeologist, Bell was instrumental in the foundation of the Iraq Museum.

BISI joined forces with the British Academy in 2013 to hold a conference examining the many facets of Bell's legacy in Iraq, including her role in the making of the Iraqi state. 

At the Gertrude Bell Archive, Newcastle University, you can read Bell's digitised diaries and letters, and her beautiful photographs from her travels in Iraq and the Middle East. 

Belinda Lewis with the care-taker who has tended the cemetery
where Gertrude Bell is buried since the 1940s

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Looted in Syria - and sold in London:
 the British antiques shops dealing in artefacts smuggled by ISIS 

BISI Trustee, Dr Mark Atlaweel goes under cover with the Guardian to hunt for 'blood antiquities' in London dealerships. Relics from the ruins of Palmyra and Nimrud are now on display in British shops - and so far no-one has worked out how to stop it. 

Read the full article by Rachel Shabi 

Dr Mark Altaweel BISI Trustee and Lecturer in Near Eastern Archaeology at UCL 

Wednesday, 24 June 2015


Richard Dumbrill was awarded a BISI Conference Grant in 2015 to attend the 4th Babylon Festival for International Cultures and Arts. You can read about the event in the report below. 

The New Babylon Festivals (Babylon Foundation) were initiated four years ago by Dr Ali ash-Shallah, MP for the province of Babylon, presently Director of Media for the Republic of Iraq, and an acclaimed poet.

   There is no relation whatsoever between the Babylon Festivals organised by Saddam Hussein and the present occurrences. The new festivals include international cultural exchanges, devoid of any propagandist events, and integrate all forms of the arts and cultures without any political, religious, or other dictates. It is all about peace, human rights, gender equality, reconciliation. One of the objectives of the festivals is the inclusion of the site of Babylon in the UNESCO World Heritage List from which, astonishingly, it has been excluded to this day.

   The Babylon Foundation which organise the Babylon Festival also work actively in the restoration of 'Abbasid, and Ottoman architecture and have just completed the reconstruction of a typical late Ottoman house in Old Baghdad (Abu Nuwas) which is now the site of concerts, exhibitions as well as offering accommodation for international students, scholars and artists.

   The main events of the festival take place in the 'neo-hellenistic' theatre at the site of Babylon where around 1,500 spectators gather for both opening and closing evenings. All other events take place either in the museum courtyard at the site of Babylon, at a school at Hillah and in other local theatres. Participants of the festival are usually hosted in the palatial infrastructures built, in the gardens of Babylon just below Saddam Hussein’s outrageous palace built on top of an artificial tell. The well-worn apartments are still furnished with Husseinian taste.

   The Babylon Festivals are covered by the Iraqi national and other TV channels and by the daily local and national press. The Festivals are highly regarded throughout the country and appease differences through a shared culture.

   One of the main concerns with the Babylon festivals is funding which is a difficult task in a country at war, and where the conservation of culture is felt as a luxury that people cannot afford.

   The BISI grant enabled myself, Ahmed Mukhtar (Oud master) and Dr John Macginnis (Current BISI Council Member) to travel to the festival to give a lecture to students of archaeology of Babylon University, in the museum yard at the site of Babylon and we were invited by the chancellor of the university, Professor al- Baghdadi, to speak at the main lecture theatre of the university which was packed with professors and students. The event was presented on national television.

  The focus of my talk was on the contribution of Akkadian, Babylonian and Assyrian theory of music, to the development of Western music.

    During the Akkadian Period, mathematical cuneiform texts excavated at the Temple Library of Nippur, by Wolfram Hilprecht at the beginning of the twentieth century and dated from about 2300 BC, showed lists of regular numbers* extracted from the sexagesimal mathematical system. These numbers gave values to the nine notes of the Akkadian scale: 36; 40; 45; 48; 54; 60; 64; 72 and 81. Most interestingly these numbers can be taken as units of string lengths or reciprocally as units of frequency. The ratios which they generate between them, that is 40/36, can be converted into musical cents, a method developed in the late nineteenth century by Alexander John Ellis, from an earlier eighteenth century method devised by the French scientist Prosnier. 40/36 = 182 cents which is the minor tone; 45/40 = 204 cents which is the just major tone and 48/45 = 112, which is the semitone. These numbers which were conceptualised over 4,000 years ago give the exact values of the harmonic, or natural scale, a scale which was invented about 1,500 years before Pythagoras was born.

   The Old Babylonian period produced a tablet excavated from the site of Ur by Sir Leonard Woolley. (Fig. 1) This text is a method by which nine different scales, or sets, can be generated from a fundamental set by simple re-arrangement of some of the pitches in each set. The resulting scales have been wrongly named 'modes' by some scholars, for reasons which are beyond the purpose of this short text. Other texts were written during the Assyrian period, in the first millennium, but would have been copies of much earlier Babylonian originals. These texts give the names of intervals of fifths and thirds which were the forerunners of the Arabian Ajnas of the Maqam system. Another cuneiform text of unknown provenance, hosted at the University Museum of Philadelphia (Fig. 2) has the earliest evidence for the construction of a heptatonic scale system of eight 'modes' in all points similar to the seven liturgical 'modes' of our Western Middle Ages. The tablet has a drawing etched onto it describing a tuning device consisting of two discs rotating one against the other to generate the seven modes based on the heptatonic system. (Fig 3) This tablet is the earliest evidence of the construction of a heptatonic scale by means of alternation of fifths and fourths, much before Euclid.

Fig 3.

    It has become evident that Greek scholars having visited the city of Babylon from the eighth century BC, to study, during what is called the Orientalizing Period, and brought back to Athens the Babylonian system which further spread to the West in the course of time, and ended up in the liturgical systems of Christendom, as well as in the Synagogues.

Richard Dumbrill
Director of the International Conference of Near and Middle Eastern Archaeomusicology &

Advisory Board Member of the Babylon Foundation

Sunday, 21 June 2015

UK government to ratify #Hague1954!

I'm delighted to report that the UK goverment issued a press release today announcing its intention to ratify the 1954 Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict.

So many people have been involved in UK Blue Shield and BISI's campaign to bring this about — not least every single person who has written to their MP expressing their concern. Thank you everyone!

Monday, 18 May 2015

Help us get #Hague1954 ratified in the UK!

Following the UK General Election on 8 May, BISI is supporting UK Blue Shield's new campaign to persuade Parliament to ratify the 1954 Hague Convention as soon as possible.

It's been a long slog: every government agrees in principle but none gets around to putting it into practice. Let's make it happen now!

Please get involved by writing to your recently (re-)elected MP asking them to take up ratification at the earliest possible opportunity.

Here is a draft letter that you can simply send to your MP, or that can be adapted as necessary, and a list of bullet points if you would prefer to write your own letter. They were drafted by Professor Peter Stone, the Chair of UK Blue Shield.

If you do not know the name of your MP or how to contact them, you can find their details on the UK Parliament website. If you would like to write to your local newspaper that would be wonderful as well.

To help us keep track of the campaign, please tell us when you write to your MP, or your local press, by:

  • Leaving a comment below this post;
  • Leaving a comment on the UK Blue Shield's Facebook page
  • Or, if you use Twitter, sending a tweet to @UKBlueShield with hashtag #Hague1954 — and tweet to your followers too!

Please also encourage anyone you know to write to their MP. Use Twitter (#Hague1954), Facebook, email, good old-fashioned letters — whatever it it takes to tell our elected representatives why this matters so much.

Sample letter to your MP

Dear [MP'S NAME]

1954 Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and its two Protocols of 1954 and 1999

May I congratulate you on your recent election and ask that you take action on a very topical and urgent matter.

The Hague Convention is the primary piece of International Humanitarian Law concerning the protection of cultural heritage during conflict. While the world reacts in horror to the appalling destruction of ancient sites, libraries, archives, and museums in the Middle East and Africa the UK remains the only Permanent Member of the United Nations Security Council, and arguably the most significant military power (and the only one with extensive military involvements abroad), not to have ratified the 1954 Hague Convention.

Following the catastrophic damage to libraries, archives, museums, and archaeological sites in Iraq after the 2003 US/UK led invasion the then Minister for Heritage, Andrew McIntosh, announced in 2004 the Government’s intention to ratify the 1954 Hague Convention as soon as Parliamentary business allowed. This claim has been repeated by every relevant Minister since. In November 2011, Rt Hon Jeremy Hunt MP, then Secretary of State at DCMS, made a joint UK Government and British Red Cross Society pledge “to make every effort to facilitate the UK’s ratification… and to promote understanding of the principles and rules of the Convention within the UK”.

Ratification has cross-Party support and the support of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport; the Foreign and Commonwealth Office; the Department for Overseas Development; and the Ministry of Defence.

In order to ratify the Convention national legislation has to be passed. A Draft Cultural Property (Armed Conflicts) Bill was scrutinised by DCMS Select Committee in the summer of 2008. The draft Bill required only minor modifications but no time was found for it in the next session. Despite constant requests, no time has been found since.

I ask you to urge the Government to take prompt and urgent action to ratify the Convention within the first session of this new Parliament.

Yours sincerely,

[Your name and address]

The UK and the Hague Convention – key points

  • Following the appalling destruction of cultural property during the Second World War the international community came together in 1954 and produced The Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. As the result of concerns raised by the USA and other countries some parts of the Convention were removed and published as a 1954 Protocol to the Convention.
  • Mainly as the result of the fighting in the former Yugoslavia a 2nd Protocol was produced in 1999. It identified the Blue Shield as an international NGO Advisory Body to the UNESCO Committee for the Protection of Cultural Property In the event of Armed Conflict.
  • In 2003, when they led the Coalition that invaded Iraq, neither the USA nor the UK had ratified the Convention or its Protocols. The USA ratified the Convention, but not the Protocols, in 2009. The UK is now arguably the most significant military power (and the only one with extensive military involvements abroad) not to have ratified the 1954 Hague Convention.
  • In 2004 the then Minister for Heritage, Andrew McIntosh, announced the Government’s intention to ratify the 1954 Hague Convention as soon as Parliamentary business allowed.
  • In the summer of 2008 a Draft Cultural Property (Armed Conflicts) Bill was scrutinised by DCMS Select Committee. There were very few changes required but the Draft Bill was not given a slot in the next session.
  • In 2009 Barbara Follett MP, then Minister of Heritage, reiterated that HMG was committed to “ratification at the earliest possible opportunity”.
  • In 2010, written evidence was submitted to the Iraq Inquiry by the UK National Commission for UNESCO (UKNC) and twelve other cultural organisations. It is understood that the Inquiry will recommend immediate ratification when, and if, it reports.
  • In 2011 Ed Vaizey MP, Minister for Culture, Communications & Creative Industries at DCMS, reconfirmed that HMG was committed to ratification “at the earliest possible opportunity”.
  • In November 2011, Rt Hon Jeremy Hunt MP, then Secretary of State at DCMS, made a joint UK Government and British Red Cross Society pledge “to make every effort to facilitate the UK’s ratification… and to promote understanding of the principles and rules of the Convention within the UK”.
  • Ratification has the support of the Conservative, Liberal Democrat, and Labour parties; it is supported by DCMS, MoD, DFID, and FCO. The Armed Forces have acknowledged the value of trying to protect cultural property during deployment as a ‘force multiplier’ – something that makes their job easier. They attempt to work within the ‘spirit of the Convention’ and relations between the Armed Forces and the UK National Committee for the Blue Shield (UKBS) are becoming clearer and more helpful.
  • On 20 Jan 2014 Ed Vaizey MP wrote to the UKNC and UKBS reiterating that ratification is a Government “priority” and that HMG “remains committed” to ratification “as soon as Parliamentary time allows”.
  • On 21 Jan 2014, DCMS wrote to UKNC/UKBS stating that “the Cabinet Committee has not been able to grant drafting authority for the Cultural Property (Armed Conflicts) Bill to be offered as a Government hand-out bill in the 2014-15 Parliamentary session. My understanding is that this means it will now unfortunately not be possible to take forward a Government-initiated measure to ratify the Hague Convention in the remaining time available to this Parliament.”

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Teaching Geoarchaeology in Erbil

Teaching Geoarchaeology in Erbil 

From 15-17 February 2015, BISI Trustee Dr Mark Altaweel was invited by World Monuments Fund to guest teach a short course on the use of geoarchaeology in Erbil to a group of 12 Iraqis from southern Iraq and the Kurdish region. The participants were Iraqis who are working in archaeology, such as the Kurdish Regional Government of the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, or have some experience. The intent of the class was to cover how geoarchaeology can be used for site conservation as well as for making new discoveries. The course consisted of 15 hours of talks, discussion, a practical site visit at a site near Erbil, and presentations by the participants.

Dr Mark Altaweel has been a trustee of BISI since 2012. He is a Lecturer in Near Eastern Archaeology at UCL