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Gertrude Bell and the Law of Excavation

Gertrude Bell is known for her part in the First World War as a diplomat and spy, and in the creation of Iraq, but she was also an important figure in preserving the country’s history and for founding a Museum before the end of her life.

When the First World War came to an end the Ottoman Empire collapsed, and the new country of Iraq was created, with Faisal bin Hussein crowned as the King. Gertrude Bell had been an important figure in this, as she had successfully argued for the Arab’s right to rule independently, drawn up the southern boundaries of Iraq and personally recommended Faisal as the new King.

With her duties as country and King maker completed, Bell’s influence and sense of purpose began to diminish. However she wrote to her father in 1922 with some extraordinary news – King Faisal had appointed her to be the country’s Director of Archaeology, and with it granted her a new responsibility to excavate the country’s ruins and open a museum in Baghdad.

Upon her appointment, she began writing up the new Law of Excavation, and for the last four years of her life dedicated herself to opening the Museum of Baghdad.

The Law of Excavation

Around the 1910s and 1920s, Western historians and archaeologists had been keen to excavate the ruins of Mesopotamia. It was an area of historical importance, being made up of a series of Tells, or mounds formed from the built-up refuse of generations of people living and rebuilding on the same site for hundreds of years.

The southern area of Mesopotamia had become known as the ‘Cradle of Civilization’, meaning this had been where the world’s earliest people had originated, and was pinpointed as the traditional site of the Garden of Eden. For these reasons alone it was an area of great interest to archaeologists and historians.

Old Ottoman laws for excavating these ruins had not allowed most Western archaeologists to dig there. This in turn had inspired illegal looting of ruins and monuments and resulted in damage being caused to them.

Bell’s new law made it so that any excavations were closely monitored by the Iraqi government and that she and future Directors of Antiquities selected any objects they wanted to keep in Baghdad. The law however was very lenient towards archaeologists from outside the country and allowed them access to most of the artefacts they uncovered and to have them exported more easily than any Ottoman law before it.

Bell’s Law of Excavation was a way of saving the ruins for both Iraq and the wider world. It allowed cooperation between the East and the West.

Excavating Ur and Kish

The first archaeological excavations Bell became involved in under the new law were at two of Mesopotamia’s Tells, Ur and Kish. She worked closely alongside the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania, and she was put back in contact with an old friend, Sir Leonard Woolley, from her days in the Arab Bureau.

Bell’s letters written between 1922 and 1925 highlight a series of events in which she and Woolley divided the finds of the excavations, often simply by the toss of a coin. But Bell also knew which artefacts had to stay in Iraq – in her letters she demanded that an artefact depicting a ‘milking scene’ had to remain and become a part of the Museum of Baghdad’s collection. As a representative of the Iraqi Government, she felt great responsibility for Iraq’s antiquities.

In the end Bell had most of the antiquities stay in Iraq. Some of the artefacts were sent to Britain, and many bronze artefacts were sent to the British Museum simply because they had the technology to preserve them.

She mentioned in a letter in 1926 that she hoped other wealthy institutions from Britain and America would request to excavate other Tells in the Southern Mesopotamian area.

The Iraq Museum

A building in Baghdad was eventually found in which the Museum could be founded. In opening the Museum, Bell undertook most of the tasks of cataloguing, labelling and displaying, often with very little help. She was known to have worked between 5am and noon before the temperature became too warm to work in.

In June 1926 she convinced King Faisal to open one room in the Museum while the rest was still being organised. Bell died the following month without seeing the rest of the Museum opened to the public, but she had still managed to set in motion the preservation of ancient Iraqi culture which may have otherwise been forgotten.

The Museum of Baghdad, otherwise known as the Iraq Museum, still exists today, although it is now in another building after the collections were moved in 1966. The Museum’s own history has been turbulent, as it was among the museums in the country to be looted in 2003 during the Iraq War. Between 2003 and 2010 some of the stolen collections were returned, and the Museum officially reopened in 2015.

The Museum of Baghdad and the collections of the British Museum stand as testament to Gertrude Bell’s dedication to preserving an ancient history and her part in the founding of modern museums.