Death of celebrated Iraqi archaeologist marks end of an era

Iraq’s veteran archaeologist, Lamia al Gailani, died in Amman, Jordan on January 18 at the age of 80 while on her way to her homeland to continue work on a number of projects, including training museum curators. One of Iraq’s first women to excavate the country’s archaeological heritage, al-Gailani helped rebuild the Baghdad museum after it was looted following the 2003 US-led invasion to oust Saddam Hussein.

Lamia al Gailani

“Lamia al-Gailani played a great role in the field of archaeology and teaching in Iraq,” noted Raya al Mohsen, former director of Mosul museum. “Though I did not have the chance to collaborate with her, I was aware of her works that enriched the country’s archaeology, as well as her great relations with important archaeology organisations in Europe. It is a big loss for Iraq. Her role was vital in recovering much of Iraq’s looted artefacts through collaboration with international organisations and mobilising the international community.”

In one of her last interviews, the London-based archaeologist had told The Arab Weekly that archaic development and looting were the greatest threats to Iraq’s archaeological heritage amid official indifference. “Archaeology is never a priority for any government. It has always been like that. And now with Iraq’s financial difficulties, the last place they want to put money is into archaeology,” al-Gailani observed.

However, she added on a more positive note: “If a plot of land where archaeological objects can be found has been designated for new buildings ,there are rescue excavations. I have been to the storerooms in the Iraq Museum where a lot of the rescued objects are stored.”

Born in Baghdad in 1938, al-Gailani studied at the University of Cambridge in Britain before finding work as a curator at the country’s National Museum in 1960. It was her first job in archaeology. She left Iraq to live in Britain in the 1970s but returned to her homeland for a few months every year to continue her work. She was particularly concerned about the looting and sale of artefacts, an illicit trade exercised by militiamen and jihadists of the Islamic State (ISIS) who destroyed so many of Iraq’s archaeological riches.

Al-Gailani lent her expertise to restore relics stolen from the museum for its reopening in 2015. She also championed a new antiquities museum for the city of Basra, which opened in 2016. The restored collection at the National Museum included hundreds of cylinder seals, the subject of al-Gailani’s 1977 dissertation at the University of London. These were engraved surfaces used to print cuneiform impressions and pictographic lore onto documents and surfaces in ancient Mesopotamia (see Left).

At the time of her death, she was training Iraqi curators in a programme sponsored by the Metropolitan Museum in New York and working with the Basra Museum to curate a new exhibit set to open in March. She was also working on two books, one on the history of the Iraq Museum from 1923 to 1958 and the second a picture book of the Iraqi royal family. In 1999, she published “The First Arabs,” in Arabic, with the Iraqi archaeologist Salim al-Alusi, on the earliest traces of Arab culture in Mesopotamia in the 6th through 9th centuries.

Officials, colleagues and cultural figures paid their respects at Baghdad’s National Museum from where her remains were moved to the Qadiriyyah mosque for prayers and later interment.

This edited article first appeared in The Arab Weekly

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