Archaeology and Empire: The Role of The Great Powers

As a volunteer working on the Ur Digitization Project, I spent time examining and scanning a series of original letters pertaining to the 1922-1934 Ur excavation. As a whole, these historical documents are fascinating; they provide insight into not only Ur, but the political history of the 1920s in the Middle East. One particular letter dealing with the British Empire caught my attention.

Click to see the letter.  Underlining is added by the blogger.

It was not merely serendipitous that the British Empire, the contemporary world’s hegemon, was intimately involved in the excavation of Ur. In the midst of the First World War, Great Britain captured Mesopotamia in 1917 and wrestled control from the Ottoman Empire, incorporating the territory as a British Mandate under the League of Nations. While the British Empire also incorporated Palestine as a Mandate, the history of the Ur expedition seamlessly combines the themes of Archaeology and Imperialism.

One letter in particular from Penn’s archives helps place the Ur expedition in a broad and fascinating historical context. After World War I, both the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania Museum showed great eagerness to excavate in Mesopotamia. However, in the March 4th, 1921 letter from British Museum director Sir Frederic Kenyon to George Byron Gordon, the British director clearly describes to his American counterpart the various former impediments to field work in Mesopotamia.

Kenyon continues by informing Gordon that an expedition is now possible because the Colonial Office, whose bureaucrats are sympathetic to archaeology, has taken over administration of Mesopotamia from the India Office. However, Dr. Gordon must wait because the lead archaeologist, Col. Lawrence (one T.E. Lawrence, “Of Arabia”), is currently attending a “conference on the affairs of the East” with the then Colonial Secretary, Winston Churchill. This vaguely-worded phrase reveals a much deeper historical event; this is a reference to the Cairo Conference of March 12th, 1921.

A gathering of statesmen, diplomats, and various dignitaries, the Cairo Conference decided that the British mandate of Iraq would end, and that the young Faisal would become the monarch of a sovereign Iraq. This conference, which created the modern state of Iraq, would have consequences throughout the 20th century. By determining the specific borders of Iraq, the Cairo Conference created an oil-rich state, and redefined the Middle East overall.

That Britain continued to hold sway over Iraq is without question. However, there were also many people who truly believed in Iraqi independence and the importance of preserving Iraq’s national history. One of the most fascinating attendees of the Cairo Conference, Gertrude Bell, was an advocate dedicated to celebrating the rich culture of Iraq. Bell was as involved in creating Iraq’s borders as she was in creating Iraq’s Cultural Ministry and was instrumental in founding the National Museum in Baghdad. Once again, the excavation of Ur is tied deeply into world events; the first permit for excavation issued by the new government of Iraq was granted to the joint expedition of the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania Museum, and was personally signed by Gertrude Bell herself.

The first official permit for excavation in Iraq. The original is in the British Museum’s archives. This replaced a temporary public works permit from 1922.

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  • Trpedrick

    Fascinating, well researched here.

  • Ellen Hoover-mcgee

    very interesting
    emh