Research Impact


Ep. 6: Where research transforms how we protect cultural heritage

Hear about UCL Professor Eleanor Robson’s research on the ancient city of Nimrud in Iraq and how it enabled cultural heritage organisations, news media and policymakers to understand the site's importance as the world’s first imperial capital.

Host and Producer

  • Dr Rosie Anderson, Research Fellow, Public Health Policy team, UCL


  • Professor Eleanor Robson, Department of History, UCL
  • Louise Haxthausen, UNESCO Representative to the European Union
  • Maryam Maruf, Journalist, BBC World Service


Rosie Anderson  00:04

Hello and welcome or welcome back to the podcast where research transforms lives. I'm Dr. Rosie Anderson and every Thursday this summer, I'm inviting you to take a deep dive with me into the UCL research that has changed the world around you. Unless you're a certain movie archaeologists training as an ancient historian generally doesn't involve travel tips for conflict zones. But when Professor Eleaanor Robson of UCL's Department of History was asked to go to Northern Iraq in 2017, she was determined to answer her friends and colleagues' pleas for help. Daesh or ISIS had just released dramatic footage of them blowing up 3000 years of buildings and statues at the ruins of Nimrud - once the glittering centre of the mighty Assyrian Empire. Finally, the site had been liberated, and although the war was still going on around Mosul, Iraqi heritage workers were scrambling to protect what was left. Eleanor had been looking at where previous scholars, tourists, looters and empires were taking items from Nimrud, and scattering them all over the world. She had created a map of the shattered pieces of Nimrud. Could she help her friends make sense of the destruction? Louise Haxthausen was the director of UNESCO in Iraq at the time, and with UN support together, the two women set out to find their colleagues and what was left at the ruins. Back in the UK, a BBC producer called Maryam Maruf had also seen those pictures and wanted to tell the listeners of the World Service the story of what they meant to Iraqis. Her series, the Museum of Lost Objects will take her in Louise and Elena's footsteps, and pose difficult questions about documenting old buildings when human lives are being lost. I spoke with them about how destruction, oppression and resistance have always been a part of what built Nimrud and how modern society suffer when our histories are erased. Welcome, Eleanor, Maryam, and Louise. Thank you very much for joining me. I wanted to start with asking each of you about those now, notorious but iconic images back in 2015, about the destruction of these statues and buildings as that was coming out of Nimrud. And how each of you felt when you saw that? How did you respond to that? What went through your heads?


Maryam Maruf  02:24

I guess from my perspective, it was there were two things well, first of all, because at the time, I was partly working in a newsroom. So the first response is, and there is a sort of part of you that does get desensitised to some of these images. Because there were more horrific images of people being destroyed as well, particularly that year. I remember, you know, being shocked, but then also thinking, I don't know what this place is, and you you have a kind of disconnect from it, you know that it's something important, but there's a disconnect so. So from a news level, you immediately kind of strip away any emotion you might feel and think about how you're going to cover the story. And then I suppose the other response that then comes in, is when you start to learn about the place, then it's just absolute kind of horror, sadness. And, and kind of, you know, you worry also about who the people who were there who got caught up in that. So I suppose it's, it's on kind of those levels for me,


Rosie Anderson  03:38

Louise, how about you?


Louise Haxthausen  03:42

Yes, I think for me, it was similar in a way the, you know, feeling of horror, really, also a feeling of disbelief, that something like that could actually happen. In Iraq, I mean, disbelief and profound absence of understanding of why Daesh could enter into this really horrific destructions of large scale distractions of cultural heritage. But then, I think also a feeling of, of support, because of what we witnessed at UNESCO in terms of global outcry and solidarity with the people of Iraq who are seeing basically their precious cultural heritage being destroyed or part of their identity being destroyed. And really, that sense of solidarity of people coming together and trying to do what could be done at that stage to safeguard the heritage and and already begin to think of how Oh, how to protective reconstruct in the future. Eleanor?


Eleanor Robson  05:07

Oh gosh, yes, I'm having flashbacks as you talk. So I first visited Nimrud in 2001. A long, long time ago shown around by its excavator was Muhammad Hussain, who are both Maryam and Louise have met. And then I had been working on a research project, initially, just on its ancient history, I've been leading research projects, it's 2007. And that had morphed into a project on the history of its history and how we had in modernity had come to come to know it. So I've been thinking a lot about it and was asked and actively been working on it for a long time. And at the same time, since the summer of 2014, with Daesh, his invasion of most of them the area, had lost contact with all my friends and colleagues, and most of them, including this are him. And we but yet we've been hearing rumours things were creeping out through social media of various sorts of cultural heritage destruction in the city and around. And there had been rumours already that terrible damage had been done in a name rude. So when the videos finally broke, I can remember really clearly I was sitting at the same desk I'm sitting at now it was in the middle of a working day, and I was about to run off to teach. I'm trying to assimilate all of this worrying desperately about MS and him and other colleagues. And also just my heart thinking, I think, Oh, my goodness, this is going to be so much sort of work. Emerging from all of this. And I'm thinking about the inevitable ways in which the international media, we're going to deal with this, trying to dissent my own personal feelings about the site, which I'm which I'm very, very fond of trying to think more about. Yeah, the people whose life's work had been destroyed, both in Iraq and in the UK and thinking about how I could best represent their needs and voices and, and what was going to come next.


Rosie Anderson  07:15

And we'll, we'll talk about what, what did come next in just a moment. But before we go on to that, Elena, could you explain why you shifted from looking at the the ancient history of the site, perhaps to the history of the history? What does that even mean for our listeners?


Eleanor Robson  07:31

That's a really good question. So I am an ancient historian by training, and I'm really interested in the way people produced scientific and intellectual knowledge in the past, and how it was used politically and socially. And the moon was a great place for that, because there was been a an archaeological excavation in the 1940s 60s, carried out by a British team that did on Earth, a whole library of clay tablets. And part of the project I've been working on was originally trying to publish that and make sense of that. But then the more I realised how difficult it was because there was the British excavation in the 40s to 60s, on top of a much earlier archaeological exploration in the mid to late 19th century, and all sorts of informal engagements of the site that had dispersed archaeological artefacts all over the place. And then there had been Iraqi reconstructions of the site to make it usable as a as a tourist site. And then a couple of other polish and Italian project since then. So there was this just collecting the evidence I needed to research knowledge. And the actual past required me to think about how how artefacts were identified, collected, dispersed on the site all over the world, and how knowledge of the site therefore was really dispersed and fragmented as a result. So the project was originally just to try and bring all this back together, virtually, you can't physically reassemble the whole in order to make sense of it. So then I had to start really writing that the history of knowledge about the site and try to understand it. So this was all going on perfectly. Happily, we started to do this history of say, the history of the site in 2011, long before the invasion of Daesh. So it was all ticking along quite happily. And we were thinking about our how to help little museums in the UK who had artefacts and their mood, make better sense of them without specialists curators. And that was going to be the main outcome of the project. And then ISIS happened and the whole thing had to change. We were nearly at the end of the project at that point, but suddenly, having to kind of radically rethink what the function on the project was. First of all, I had to add an extra chapter They're kind of the history of the history of the site, because all of this stuff is happening right now. But thinking about how I can use all this knowledge, to help people understand what they were seeing on the site, both as journalists when they were first visiting, but then yes, sort of people like Maryam, who were making programmes about it a bit later. And of course, experts like Louise, who were on the ground trying, trying to help archaeologists on the ground, think about what happened next.


Rosie Anderson  10:33

And so Louise and Eleanor, what did the next steps what did that help, that support that you wanted to provide end up looking like?


Louise Haxthausen  10:42

the first priority was really, to get a sense of the magnitude of the damage. And for that, it was absolutely key to have the sort of knowledge about the site that Eleanor with her programme had collected, and and therefore to begin to plan on the future, you know, what would you like to do? Would you like to, to reconstruct would you like to just safeguard, what can be safeguarded to preserve, to have all these elements, all these options open that, of course, we're not decisions for, for UNESCO to make, but really for the Iraqi authorities, because it's their heritage. It's the Iraqi authorities, but also the Iraqi people's heritage. And in in this moment, where, where there is such a strong and obvious disruption in the transmission of heritage, you can say, to the future generation to the young generations. For them, that there is somewhere available this knowledge so that you can also be used in you know, in teaching formal and informal learning for the younger generations for them to gain that gain back that ownership of their own culture, because of course, Daesh will be playing on that. They were really manipulating people and kind of rewriting history. They wanted, in fact, not only to rewrite, but to erase that part of the ancient history of Iraq, because it was not aligned, so to say with with their ideology, and so basically to cut the Iraqis from from their own history.


Rosie Anderson  12:53

Eleanor, how did you go about reaching out to your colleagues in Iraq?


Eleanor Robson  12:59

Well, what happened, in fact was they reached out to me, my dear friend and colleague, Leila Saleh, who had been put in charge of doing Site Reports on the heritage that had been liberated for them. Daesh, she got in touch with me this lovely selfie photo of her and Musahim. Musahim was very old now. But it was just so I was so delighted to see that he was okay. Leila had been in Erbil. And so I knew she was alright. And then she contacted me in the spring to ask if I would come come out and help her look at two Syrian sites. And that'd be Unison, an Nineveh, and Nimrud. And Louise, you'll remember this well, you remember me contacting you and and working out how we could how we could do this. And yeah, and how we could persuade my dearly beloved other half that it was it was safe, and there was nothing to worry about. We assembled in a bill. And thanks to Louise and UNESCO and my personal security staff. And we met Leila and then drove first to deliver units and then Musahim bless him, was so seriously traumatised, still, by the by the occupation, that he really wasn't ready to set foot on site yet. And I think in fact, it was Maryam, you were the first to take him there. Weren't you after that


Maryam Maruf  14:29

To Nimrud? Yeah, actually, idea just occurred to me, I think that was the first time possibly that he went there.


Eleanor Robson  14:36

Yeah, because I remember telling to you, you know, I didn't think he'd be ready. But now you gave him the courage to do that.


Maryam Maruf  14:42

I drove with Leila from Erbil to the site. And we met Musahim there. Yeah, he was. But I think yeah, yeah, he was still very shocked.


Rosie Anderson  14:56

Yeah, what was it like, for you? Well, for you, for all of you, Eleanor and Louise, you went together, but Maryam as well, when you visited the sites, what was it like to visit this place?


Maryam Maruf  15:08

You have this sense of fear because the the war was still happening. And and I remember when we were driving, there was this horse that was suddenly just from nowhere was just racing down the road. And then you're just like, oh my god, where where's that horse coming from what's happening? And and then slowly going through all these checkpoints. And so when I got there, I didn't really know what to expect, because it was just desolate. Yeah. So there's there's a surrealness of that. I think


Louise Haxthausen  15:43

I've been working before in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban, but it was I arrived in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban at the time. What was very different here was that the war was still going on. And I felt that particularly strongly when we visited Nabi Unis because as we were standing over the site on the site of Nabi Unis, we could see the shelling and bombing going on in the Old City. At that stage. The Harper minaret was still standing and so on. But you were basically seeing an old city progressively being destroyed from a distance but not so far distance. That was very impressive. I felt what was also very impressive and very sad was to see so many people from the area on the move. IDPs the first time when I begin to go to the liberated areas, it was still winter and quite cold. And you would see these families you know, on the road on the move with nothing.


Eleanor Robson  17:04

I too, Louise have very vivid memories of standing on the top watching the bombs fall and thinking about the people dying and fleeing. Unlike you two, I've known Nimrud before. And as a physical place. I have very happy memories of it though. So it's been 14 No, Gosh, 15-16 years since I've stepped foot in there, my memories were fading. I actually have to say that Leila and I had and I had the best time when we were on site. We were doing lots of really nerdy details, analytical work. And I It was surprisingly reassuring actually, because the media coverage had been apocalyptic. And in fact, the barrel bombs that Maryam described earlier what had been targeted on a very specific part of the palace, which were sculptural remains were still standing and they had bulldozed - there's the earthen cords and ziggurat. But most of the rest of what we saw on the site was aftershock with the secondary effects from the blast with reconstructed panels that had been sort of stuck back on the walls in the 1960s and 70s have fallen off again. And mudbrick reconstructions again from the 60s and 70s have crumbled. But, I can remember standing in the palace of the god Nabu, the god of wisdom, a few 100 metres away from the epicentre of the blast and realising that, actually, it was, it was in surprisingly good nick, and that there hadn't been looting on this site, apart from those two very specific places. And a lot of this most of the site was untouched. And that what what we were seeing was fixable - with a lot of work, but it was fixable. So I felt quite optimistic actually, after the end of that, that visit. And it was helpful then to be able to feed that in not only to Louise's work, but from another programme that was setting up in the Smithsonian as well.


Rosie Anderson  19:16

It's an interesting point you make Louise and Eleanor that obviously there was was conflict going on around the site. Did all of you feel like there was a question to be answered there about why make a programme about Nimrud? Why why prioritise this work at the time? Did Did anybody ever challenge you about that that wave focusing on ruins when there are still, you know, living people who are displaced or there are bombs falling nearby?


Eleanor Robson  19:47

Oh for me that was an easy answer. It's because my Iraqi colleagues wanted me there.


Louise Haxthausen  19:52

When from from my perspective, it was maybe a little bit more complicated because indeed within within the UN family, there are a number of purely humanitarian organisations, the UNHCR, WFP, really focusing on bringing, you know, immediate relief to people affected by the conflict. And I remember we had to struggle with we were struggling a little bit to get access, actually to, to the dividend rated areas, because we wouldn't be facing this question. I mean, why? I mean, is this the right moment to go and visit archaeological sites when we're in the middle of a war? And of course I can, I can understand that question. But the thing is, if we were not able to go there, and to put in place some first immediate measures of protection, for example, we did the fencing around Nimrud to avoid any further looting of the site, things like that. It's quite important to carry out these measures, as as early as possible, then I think there's another element to this. From as much we were faced with that kind of questioning resistance from maybe our own UN colleagues from other agencies and security and so on. As much for the Iraqi people, and particularly the people living in, in the areas which had been occupied or worst, and occupation by Daesh, there was no questioning at all. Because they understood and had had had lived through world living through the fact that this deliberate destruction of cultural heritage by Daesh had profoundly a human dimension. Again, it was an element of terror of the people an element of persecution. So for them, the there was no doubt that taking care of cultural heritage was in fact also taking care of people.


Rosie Anderson  22:08

Yeah, I mean, I guess there's a way of answering that question, which is like, Well, why did Daesh decide that they would prioritise inflicting this destruction on that site? Eleanor? Would you put the 2015 attack on these remains into context, because they are far from the first people who have attacked the fabric of the city.


Eleanor Robson  22:33

So Nimrud, what functioned as an imperial capital of the Assyrian empire from the early 9th century BC, until 612 BC, when it was destroyed by a coalition of the Medes and the Babylonians who were sick of the abuse that the Assyrian occupiers were inflicting on them. So that was its first destruction, and it was more or less abandoned at that point. And there were people squatting in the ruins for several centuries after that British and French explorers from the 1840s onwards digging up and taking artefacts to the west - in to the Louvre and to the British Museum. And that was the point that Iraq didn't yet exist in the area around Mosul belong to the Ottoman Empire, and they had permission from the Ottomans to do that. And the Ottomans weren't terribly interested at that point in collecting artefacts for their own museums. And it was a time before scientific stratigraphic excavation, it was a time of collecting things for Imperial centres. And then after those slightly more formal interventions, there are various more entrepreneurial intervention. So there was a Swiss entrepreneur who went to the site and dug up large artefacts just for sale to museums all over the world. And at this point, the very Christian sensibilities in particularly in North America and Western Europe meant that any artefacts that had anything to do with the Old Testament, so Nineveh, Jonah, Jonah and the Whale, all were very exciting to people. So private and public collections wanted these and there wasn't yet a sense of the ethics of ownership of heritage or at least, as well formulated as we have now. And then the site was really left for several decades until a British archaeologist Max Mallowan, who was married to Agatha Christie chose to revisit the early British explorations of the site, really 100 years later from those first digs. And by this point, Iraq was its own independent state had freed itself from British rule, but not entirely. So the British they'll have the rights to export archaeological artefacts, they weren't allowed to sell them. So Mallowan would give them as gifts to museums in exchange for donations to fund the day. And this continues until the early 60s and Iraqi archaeological laws changed and the export of all antiquities stopped, at which point Mallowan really disengaged from the site because he could no longer share out his his finds. But that led therefore to him giving up particularly small artefacts made of ivory to collections all over the world. And then there were other disperses within Iraq when Iraqi authorities decided that artefacts weren't safe on site, not necessarily from looting, but from weather. So by the time that Daesh arrived on site, an awful lot of stuff had already dispersed, and one of the pieces of work I was doing was just mapping these, these dispersals, both the disappearances from on site, but also where artefacts ended up. So in some ways, my initial reaction to Daesh's destruction was that they were in lots of ways with reverting the site's to the way it had been in 612 BC. But deference from an Iraqi point of view, because of all of these dispersals from the site before Daesh, what remained there, although not very much, in visual terms, was even more precious, because that was all that was left. So this was the kind of really the last or in a whole series of pillagings and destructions.


Rosie Anderson  26:40

It's interesting, isn't it? Because once destruction is obviously a bad thing, reconstruction isn't necessarily innocent, either, you know, as in what we choose to retrieve from a site like Nimrud, for example, where we choose to take it who's allowed to see that stuff, where we put it, that's not something which is neutral, is it?


Eleanor Robson  27:02

Oh, absolutely not. And so for starters, Mallowan when was particularly interested in this, this early first millennium BC, period, and told his team just to dig through and ignore all later, archaeological Stratus. And equally, those early first millennium BC remains set on probably 4000 years worth of archaeology underneath. So even on the site, very deliberate choices made about what to render visible and what to raise within Iraq itself. Until the 2003 War, the Antiquities Authority was very tightly controlled by the state. And there were very clear guidelines about the sorts of stories about the past that museums could tell that revolved around histories of empire that led up to, ultimately to Saddam Hussein. So the Assyrian stuff adding very nicely to this, but there wasn't much room for local history within that. And then, of course, there's this vast majority of materials that Iraqis had no access to at all, because they had all left the region long before Iraq was even a state.


Rosie Anderson  28:12

I suppose this is a question for all of you. But what do you think it is about Nimrud itself, that has been such a lightning rod for all of these people?


Eleanor Robson  28:20

It's the first imperial capital in the world. I mean, the Assyrians themselves set up Nimrud as a celebration of the exploitation of the people around them. And for the British, and in the 19th century, it mirrored their own imperial ambitions, it was hugely attractive legitimising site. For peoples who have any association or beliefs connected to Christianity, Judaism or Islam, then Assyria means something too because the Assyrians were the great oppressors of the Jewish people, amongst many others. And the Old Testament is a story of resistance against Imperial oppression. And the fact of its destruction was what was powerful as this exciting thought that even the most brutal and powerful empires will fall in the end.


Louise Haxthausen  29:15

What for Daesh, Nimrod were part of a bigger plan, so to say, of deliberate destruction of cultural heritage, you know, I mean, these are kind of highly symbolic sites for the Iraqi people, even if they may not have all the knowledge about these sites. These are the landmarks. Sites like Nimrud in Iraq and destroying them deliberately is really part of terrorising people.


Maryam Maruf  29:44

There's something that I remember one of the people that I interviewed when I did a programme, but Nabi Unis was the son of an Iraqi archaeologists called Fuad Safar, who I think was in the 30s and 40s. He was a sort of One of the first sort of Iraqi born archaeologists and his sons called Mazin. And he said to me, sometimes you might not know about Iraqis might not know about the histories of these places. But they sometimes would use 'tells' in the distance as a kind of a GPS, like, go take that road and then turn left at the 'tell' or whatever. And so it's like they fundamentally fit into your landscape. And so there's that symbolic destruction, but it's also the levelling what you think you know about your land.


Rosie Anderson  30:34

With all this in mind, how did you start to think about whose voices do we need to hear when we tell the story of Nimrud?


Maryam Maruf  30:41

So it was about trying to speak to people who were specialists, but then also could talk about a place in a really meaningful way. It was like I didn't want an academic history of these places. And I also didn't want theories as to why Daesh was doing this. I wanted the stories about these places. And initially, it was how you how these, these places change in, across image across generations and across people's imaginations, as well. And that's why I think it was really important for me to speak to him because he's sort of Mr. Nimrud, I guess, in lots of ways, you know, everyone that I spoke to, they all go back to him. And so I wanted, so not only him to be like the kind of top expert, but to kind of understand a place through someone who, you know, it was like kind of like a second home. And then when I went to Nimrud this sort of longer programme, Leila was the other voice, Leila Saleh. And I think that was thinking of the contrast of the two of them. An older man who'd been there kind of at the excitement of discoveries of Nimrud, and then Leila, who is a young woman, how hard is it to be like a woman archaeologist in Iraq right now? I mean, we didn't really go into into those subjects. But those were part of the reasons why I also wanted to speak to her as well, because I wanted to put that voice. You know, on air.


Rosie Anderson  32:12

Louise and Eleanor, I know that you do a lot of thinking about this question and context of interpreting the site in the heritage sector. It seems like there's some similar questions. And maybe just to finish up, you could tell us a little bit about how you've been working on that, both in Iraq and elsewhere.


Eleanor Robson  32:31

I've been saving this is a surprise for everybody. Two weeks ago, today, I was back in Nimrud, wow. It was, it was amazing. And I went with colleagues. So my colleague Mahia from the Nahrein Network, here at UCL, and to really lovely colleagues from the University of Mosul, the new head of the, of the faculty of archaeology, there is this amazing young woman called Dr. Yasmine Abdulkareem and one of her graduate students, Mustafa, who is really picking up the works that Muzahim was doing before and it's really gosh, his knowledge of the site is extraordinary. Louise, you should be really happy to know that the fence is intact. And that really good site guard there who was there to meet us. It's all been cleared of landmines, so we could just walk wherever we wanted. And the work that the Smithsonian the local state board of Antiquities and heritage has put in place to kind of document fallen artefacts and to move into a port, safe Porter cabin and stuff that needed to be moved had all being done. But what was really heartening was the seething engagement as these young academics. And really, I mean, it's not yet a point where the site can be worked on just in terms of funding and what the local priorities are. Because there are still about 180,000 families in IDP camps around Mosul. But there's huge amount of energy there a huge sense of what the research agenda should be and how it should connect to supporting local communities and rebuilding archaeological expertise and the region. And so one of the things I'm well, yeah, my summer projects is to help Yasmine, really. I've got some conversations coming up with colleagues here in the UK later in the summer, and with the head of the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage in Baghdad soon. So yeah, I wanted to end on that. It it lives, it knows and and not least, thanks to the work that that you both have done in supporting Iraqi colleagues and And then on protecting the site,


Louise Haxthausen  35:02

It is really happening, as you say. And I think it's also very, you know, reassuring because what we we as UNESCO are witnessing every time you have heritage at risk, because of conflict is that actually the best protection is when local communities care about the sites, their sites. So you know, when you have highly committed professionals highly committed communities that feed a sense of care of ownership of their heritage, their heritage surrounding them, that's that's really the best way to protect it in the longer term.


Rosie Anderson  35:49

That's all for now. Hope to see you next time where I will be talking to Professor Jessica Ringrose and Dr. Caitlin Regear, about how the research into sexism in the London advertising landscape led to a landmark competition to promote diversity in the women we see. If you can't wait until the end and want to hear more about the impact of UCL's research on society in the world, then why not take a listen to Made at UCL presented and produced by our students. Finally, I want to thank Professor Eleanor Robson, Louise Haxthausen and Maryam Maruf, our guests and of course you, our listeners. This podcast is brought to you by UCL minds, bringing together UCL knowledge, insight and expertise through events, digital content and activities that are open to everyone.

- end -